The “Whales” that carry the gaming industry on their shoulders
You may have heard of so-called “Whales” in the Free-To-Play (F2P) gaming industry. Even though I am not a fan of this term, it represents hardcore players that spend a sizable amount of money in a game (as opposed to Dolphins, Minnows, and Freeloaders who spend significantly less money). Most gaming companies depend on these “Whales” to stay alive, and they try to design specifically for them.
Some heavy gamers spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on a game. When I was doing research on the game Battle Camp, I was amazed when I saw some players spend $6,000 just on one weekly competition – not for any external reward, but just to win two “Legendary Monsters” that helps them play the game better.
Have you ever wondered who are these heavy spenders and what goes on in their heads? Are they just filthy rich millionaires who don’t care about money? Or are they so into the game that they are willing to lose their livelihood just to obtain more of those 8 Core Drives we so desperately need in our lives? Are they illusional and think that proud achievements in a game are more important than the real world? (Spoiler: in this interview, we will see that this is not the case.) How do they feel about spending so much money on a game?
Big Jim: the “Whale” who spent over $30K on We Heroes
When I started doing research on a mobile game my friend was working on – We Heroes, I also noticed many hardcore players who were not shy of spending real money in the game. On my server, the top player was named Big Jim, and he was setting and breaking all sorts of records in the game.
Seeing how he has accumulated ALL the expensive heroes in the game, I was very curious about what he would be like in real life. After admiring his game status for a while, I had the opportunity to join his Guild, which led to us becoming friends on Facebook. To my surprise, he lives in Pleasanton, California, just twenty minutes away from where I live!
After a few more months of playing and communicating in-game (after all, I was no weak player either – doing some heavy lifting in the Guild too. And yes, I can actually expense my spending in-game as “research budget.”), we finally met at a conference, in which he graciously agreed to an interview.
I then learned that he has spent over $30,000 on We Heroes alone! And this wasn’t spent over many years like some League of Legends players do. Since We Heroes just launched in early 2015, the $30,000 must have been spent within a year’s time.
Below is the exclusive content of what goes through the mind of a “whale” heavy spender, and some lessons he wants the world to learn about.
Interview between Yu-kai Chou and Big Jim, a “Whale Spender” on We Heroes
I. Yu-kai Chou: Thanks so much for being part of this interview. Can you start off with a quick intro of yourself? Who you are, where you are from, and what do you do?
Big Jim: My name is Jim. I am a 55 year old electrical engineer working in Silicon Valley.
II. Yu-kai Chou: How many years have you been playing games for?
Big Jim: I have played games since I was old enough to roll a die. I played my first war game when I was about 12. It was Blitzkrieg by Avalon Hill. My first MMORPG was Asheron’s Call.
III. Yu-kai Chou: What are the games that you have considered yourself a hardcore player for?
Big Jim: Any game I like I play to win, which makes me hardcore to most people. Asheron’s Call. Everquest. World of Warcraft. World in Flames (a boardgame by Australian Design Group). Kingdoms of Camelot and now We Heroes. There may have been others I have forgotten.
IV. Yu-kai Chou: In We Heroes, you are one of the top players in the game. When did you start playing, and how did you achieve the top status?
Big Jim: I saw an advertisement for We Heroes while playing another game so I tried it, and I liked it. It was sometime in early 2015 when server 12 opened. There wasn’t any great strategy involved in becoming a top player. All it takes is spending a lot of money.
V. Yu-kai Chou: I know you have spent over $20k to reach your status. Have you played any other game that you have spent a considerable amount of money?
Big Jim: I spent a lot of money on Kingdoms of Camelot. Before that the games I played cost more time than money. I spent a lot of time in World of Warcraft, Everquest and Asheron’s Call.
VI. Yu-kai Chou: What drove you to become a heavy spender in We Heroes, as opposed to the other games you played.
Big Jim: I got sucked into spending a lot of money because I was competing with other players to reach the top of The Arena. At first I was just trying to get into the top 10. Then I got into the top 10, and I thought it wasn’t that much further to get to #1. Then I got to #1, and I thought “I’ll just get a little cushion to discourage other players from trying to take #1 from me.”
I was never able to get that cushion because Flash never quit spending money to keep up with me. Having already spent a lot of money, I wasn’t going to give up and let him take #1 from me so I just kept spending money.
VII. Yu-kai Chou: Do you consider the game developers unethical for causing you to spend so much money? Why or why not?
Big Jim: Trying to get people to spend money is not necessarily unethical. Businesses have to do it to stay in business. Most of the time I consider it ethical but there are some exceptions. I consider it unethical to try to sell me something and to not tell me what the price is.
Placing an employee mole in the game to compete with the top players would be unethical because the mole would not have to pay to play. I don’t think We Heroes has placed a mole on Server 12 but sometimes I wonder where Flash gets the money to keep up with me.
[Yu-kai’s note: I later pinned my friend about this, and he assures me that Flash is a real player who has actually spent even more money in the game but was not as skillful as Big Jim. Perhaps the game still requires skill over just spending money after all. Even before this interview, my friend would ask me if I have also become friends with Flash on Server 12 since he was very curious about who this other “whale” was.]
Big Jim: We Heroes does try to sell me stuff without telling me the price and I have complained to them about it. In their Wheel of Fortune there are approximately 18 spots on the wheel which appear to be equal sized. That implies that there is an equal chance that the wheel will stop in any one of those spots.
The reality is, one spot has such a small chance to come up that I have never landed on it in over 5000 spins [Yu-kai’s Note: each spin costs $1]. If you advertise that you can win a prize by paying $10 per spin [Yu-kai’s Note: Big Jim uses the “Spin 10” option, which means it is $10 each], and you allow it to appear as if the chance to win that prize is approximately 1 in 20 when the real chance is less than 1 in 1000, then that is unethical in my opinion.
Kabam did the same thing in Kingdoms of Camelot. I don’t think this particular practice is rare. I complained to Kabam about it. I filed a Better Business Bureau complaint against Kabam because of it. I now refuse to play Kabam games because of it.
VIII. Yu-kai Chou: I noticed you spend a lot of time to study what enemy guilds do and how to improve your own and allied teams to win together. How much time do you spend on the game every day?
Big Jim: It probably takes me an hour to do the crusade twice every day. I probably only spend 2 hours actually playing. When I’m not playing, sometimes I will be thinking about strategy. I also play on server 11 because I wanted to see if the game was as fun to play for free (it is) and because I would finish everything I could possibly do too quickly on server 12. I don’t play every day any more on server 11. If I am busy on server 12, I neglect server 11.
IX. Yu-kai Chou: What is your favorite part in We Heroes, and what is your least favorite part.
Big Jim: My current least favorite part is the crusade because, as a VIP player, I can do it twice a day. I always complete it. I feel I need to do it because I need the gold and the occasional rare item, but it takes a lot of time and it is no longer challenging, which makes it a boring hour.
My current favorite part is the guild war because I am not guaranteed to win. I deliberately did not try to form an invincible uber-guild with Flash. It is more fun to spread the power players around and have competition.
X. Yu-kai Chou: What is your proudest achievement in any game?
Big Jim: Being one of the tanks for my raiding guild in World of Warcraft was probably the most difficult thing I ever did. I don’t think of game achievements as something to be proud of. Games are just a way to pass the time and be entertained. Making the world a better place would be something to be proud of. I try to do that when I’m not playing games.
XI. Yu-kai Chou: What was the best money you have spent in a game, and what was the worst?
Big Jim: The best money would be the money that gave me the most fun per dollar. That would probably be money spent on games like Sid Meier’s Civilization because I played that game a lot. World of Warcraft was good value for money when I played it.
The worst money would be when I spend a lot of money for very little fun per dollar. We Heroes, while fun, has cost an insane amount of money. I should not have spent so much money on it. Playing for free on server 11 has been good. (I accidentally spent $5 there once because I thought I was on server 12, but that is the only money I have spent there.) I have played maybe 100-200 hours on server 11 for $5. I have played maybe 500 hours on server 12 for maybe $30,000 (I try not to count how much I have spent.) Server 11 has obviously been better value for me.
XII. Yu-kai Chou: How do you fund your gameplay? Is it through salary, accumulated wealth from past work, family, or?
Big Jim: I pay with salary and accumulated wealth from past work. If I hadn’t spent so much money on We Heroes I would probably be shopping for a new motorcycle. Playing We Heroes means I will have one less motorcycle (at least) in my lifetime.
XIII. Yu-kai Chou: Many family members of my readers feel like my readers spend too much time or resources in games. What does your family and friends think about your dedication to games?
Big Jim: The time I spent in World of Warcraft was a problem for my family. I tend to spend too much time in games. I try to play games now that don’t require as much time. Resources aren’t a problem for me right now.
XIV. Yu-kai Chou: If you could give a piece of advice for readers who also want to be top hardcore players in a game like you, what would that be?
Big Jim: Set a budget (both time and money) and stick to it. Too much of anything can be bad for you. Don’t try to compete with the people that spend too much time or money. It isn’t worth it.
XV. Yu-kai Chou: If the We Heroes team will end up reading this interview, what would you want to tell them? What would you like them to improve in order to make hardcore players like you happier?
Big Jim: Selling people items for outrageous prices by not telling them the true price will make you money in the short run but it will slowly turn your core players against you. Other than that, the game is fun, so just don’t mess it up.
Don’t give the hardcore players too much of an advantage. Keep the game fun for the free players. You need the free players so the hardcore players have somebody to beat up on, but it can’t be too easy for the hardcore players.
Big Jim: [As a lesson to the We Heroes team,] Kabam was much worse with the random prize stuff than the We Heroes developers are. Kabam would sell a chest, for example the “Elite Gawain” chest. I would buy 1000 of them and tell my guild what the odds of each prize were so they could make informed decisions. The next time Kabam would sell the “Elite Gawain” chest the odds would have changed. For example, the odds of getting the best prize might have dropped from 1 in 100 to 1 in 500.
It really made me mad that they would sell the same item and change the odds. There was a valid reason for this. They were depreciating the value of items and creating better items as time went on to make people keep buying. I would still expect that the odds of getting the best prize should stay the same unless they told me they were different.
Another thing Kabam did that upset me was they were constantly offering special deals where for 6 or 8 or 24 hours the odds of winning the best prize were “doubled.” Well, what good is it to tell me the chance is double for the next 24 hours when maybe yesterday you cut the chance by 75%. Maybe compared to the last time I bought that item the chance is only half as good, even though it is “double” for the next 24 hours.
What I want We Heroes to do, is any time they have a gambling game, and the wheel of fortune is gambling, they say what the odds of winning each prize are.
What did you think about this interview?
As you can see from the above interview, Big Jim is not a rich illusional billionaire. He is a normal guy who loves games, worked hard as an engineer for many years, and using that income to buy himself entertainment. Some of us buy entertainment and status via luxurious trips, while others buy super fancy sports cars for over $100K.
Here in Octalysis, we are not here to judge people’s motives, but to understand the psychology that drives peoples’ behavior. Sometimes it is easy to form false perceptions of people who behave differently to what we consider “normal,” but it is those extreme cases where we can best study the 8 Core Drives and how our environment (whether it is in a game or not) can influence us to take on seemingly irrational behaviors.
Big Jim himself admits that he has likely spent too much money on We Heroes (per entertainment derived from the money spent), but his competitive spirit compelled him to WIN at large costs, as long as he could still afford it in his leisure budget. This leads to the next point:
NEXT: Yu-kai’s analysis of the interview through Octalysis Lenses!
Again, our goal is to understand the world and human behavioral through the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis. Next week we will cover some of my comments and analysis on the lessons we can learn from this interview through Octalysis Lenses, and how we can use these lessons to design more compelling experiences that benefit the real world.
COMMENT BELOW: Do you know any heavy spenders in games? I would love to hear about more people who are dedicated to their play experiences. Leave a comment below!