Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games
by Mike Rose
July 9, 2013
This story is being highlighted as one of Gamasutra’s best stories of 2013.
“I’d use birthday money, I’d eat cheaper lunches, I’d ask my wife to pay for dinner so I’d have a spare $10-$20 to spend in the store. Which does mean, I guess, that I was thinking about it even away from the game.”
Chris was in his mid-20s when he began spending a few dollars here and there on Team Fortress 2. All of his friends had recently moved out of town, and his wife was now working a nighttime job, leading him to take solace in an online TF2 community.
At first he’d simply buy some TF2 “keys”, use them to open some item crates, then dish some of the contents out to players online and keep the good stuff for himself. He enjoyed the social interactions that came with these giveaways, and it seemed worth it for the money he was paying.
But soon Chris discovered his first “unusual” item, marked with a purple seal. “I had this unbeatable rush of adulation and excitement,” he says. “For someone who didn’t get out much I was on cloud nine. And at that point things changed — I started chasing that high.”
For around six months following this discovery, Chris found himself draining his bank account until he didn’t have a spare dollar to his name — all for a selection of pixels that would hopefully be wrapped in a purple glow.
“My savings got wiped out pretty quickly — although it should be noted that at the time I didn’t have much put away to begin with,” he explains. “The real trouble wasn’t that it cleaned out my bank account, but that it put me in a really delicate situation. With no savings and every dollar not spent on food, shelter, or utilities going to digital hats, any unexpected expense became a really big deal.”
Chris even had a few health scares along the way, and found that he couldn’t afford to pay the medical bills because his savings account had been stripped for TF2 money.
“It got so bad that at one point Steam actually blocked my credit card, thinking I was some sort of account scammer, and I had to open a support ticket to tell them, ‘No, that really is me spending whatever savings I have on this stupid game with fake hats.’” he says. “And like any addicted user, my social element didn’t help — most of my outside-of-work contacts were people I just played TF2 with. At work I just wanted to be uncrating things, and when I was uncrating things I just wanted to see better results.”
It was when his out-of-control spending began to have an effect on his relationship with his wife, that Chris finally realized that this needed to stop.
“I’ve never really been addicted to anything else, so I can’t say for certain whether a ‘real’ addiction would be stronger,” he notes. “I would say that it felt akin to what I’d expect a compulsive gambling addiction would feel like — social pressures reinforced a behavior that kept me searching for an adrenaline rush I’d never be able to recapture, even as it kept me from making progress in life.”
“There were nights where I’d be up until 3 am drinking beer and playing Team Fortress and chasing those silly hats with purple text, ignoring the gambler’s fallacy and swearing that if I dropped another $50 I’d be sure to win this time,” he adds. “Then I’d wake up the next morning and see that I’d not only spent over a hundred dollars on digital hats, but failed my only objective by uncrating a bunch of junk.”
Those were the mornings that felt the worst — when the reality of what Chris was doing hit home the hardest. He’d feel hugely depressed and worthless, and swear to himself that he wouldn’t be back again… and yet, the moment another paycheck came through, it was gone as quickly as it came.
Chris’ behavior during this time is how people in the video game industry would describe a “whale”– someone who spends large amounts on free-to-play games, and essentially makes the business model viable by balancing out the 99 percent of players who don’t ever fork out a dime.
And while Chris is happy to admit that a portion of his addiction was no doubt down to his own silly mistakes, he reasons, “I have to question whether a business model built on exploiting ‘whales’ like me isn’t somewhat to blame. Free-to-play games aren’t after everyone for a few dollars — they’re after weak people in vulnerable states for hundreds, if not thousands.”
Whales in the woodwork
This exact musing is why I recently began tracking down free-to-play “whales” to hear their stories. I found myself questioning just how many free-to-play game developers are building their games around the concept of pulling vulnerable players in, and rendering them addicted to some banal yet compelling activity that they feel they must spend large portions of their money on.
In particular, I pondered whether these “whale” players are fully consenting to the hundreds and thousands of dollars that they are spending, or whether they are being manipulated and exploited by underhanded design that purposely aims to make the player feel like they simply have no choice.
That’s why I began trawling game forums and social media over the last couple of months, asking players how much they spent on free-to-play games, and why they chose to do so.
It must be noted at this point that a good portion of the “whale” correspondence I received was from players who felt that, despite spending in the thousands, they had got their money’s worth. To many players, they had simply spent a lot of money because they were having lots of fun, and felt that they were happy to throw cash at the developer.
Other players also told me that they loved the free-to-play model, and that if they ever did feel like they were spending too much on these games, they could easily stop any time they wanted. There are plenty of happy free-to-play customers out there, and the aforementioned story from Chris only makes up a very tiny portion of the tales I received.
But it could be argued that to focus on the ratio of exploited to non-exploited customers is to completely miss the point — that a business model where even the smallest portion of players can find themselves losing control and essentially ruining their lives, is a model that must surely face scrutiny, whether on a industry or governmental level.
Although Team Fortress 2 was brought up by many of my “whale” respondents as a real killer, Valve’s team-based shooter was far from the only title named.
Kyle describes PlanetSide 2 as his “danger game,” thanks to the financial situations his obsession with the game put him in.
“I’m in a position where I’m living paycheck to paycheck for the moment as the result of that spending — beyond incurring overdraft for my rent (for a few months in a row starting in January this year and a couple other scattered times),” he says.
“There were a few times I found I ran short for food budget and had to eat ramen for a week instead of something decent,” he adds.
He says that the feeling of instant gratification, allowing him to purchase weapons and cosmetic items with a couple of clicks, is what lead him to spend in the hundreds.
“You know you’re getting your stuff right there on the spot, and you can do whatever you want with it right away,” he says, adding, “I don’t think I ever found myself in a position where I said ‘I really need to have this one thing, even though it will put me over for rent’ — it was more a case of deciding I could ride out the consequences and that a mild amount of hardship might even make me appreciate what I obtained even more.”
Kyle doesn’t regret his PlanetSide 2 spending, however: “I never thought of the items as investments, more like disposable entertainment, like movie tickets or a night at a nice restaurant, because when it comes to free-to-play, who knows if the game is going to be around in six months or a year?”
He adds, “Now that I think about it a bit, it’s almost a way for me personally to feel a bit richer than I really am. I might have an older car and a bit of a run down apartment, but online I’ve got all this nice swag that lots of people aren’t willing to spend on. It’s a nice way to make yourself feel special.”
Heroes of spending
Battlefield Heroes was another free-to-play game brought up on my journey to find big spenders. Unlike Kyle, John hugely regrets his free-to-play spending — he was working a part-time job at the time that he became addicted to Heroes, and he ended up splashing out the majority of his paychecks on the game, spending over $2,000 in total.
“I would call it the creme of the crop in terms of pay-to-win,” he says.
My research didn’t just focus on triple-A PC games either — many of Nexon’s free-to-play titles came up numerous times. One player told me that he has spent around $3,000 on MapleStory, including dropping a whole $500 in an attempt to create a single weapon in the game. But he says that he is easily one of the lower-end players, and that he regularly talks to people who have spent upwards of $10,000 on the game.
“It’s pretty much for more numbers, if I had a gun put to my head,” he says — and he’s not done yet. “The gear grind is pretty much infinite, and the only reason I’m not playing right now isn’t because of the money, but because I’m waiting for the level expansion as well as a raised damage cap, which are out in the Korean server but not the global one.”
Another player I talked to found themselves spending more than $5,000 on a Nexon game called Mabinogi, mainly on cosmetic items. “There were plenty of times when the rent would go unpaid because I had spent the money on the game instead,” he says. “However, I don’t know if I can blame the game for that. If I hadn’t spent the money on Mabinogi, I would have spent it on something else.”
“I can’t say I really regret the spending,” he says. “I loved the game, and I still miss the friends I played with. Five or six grand isn’t too much to pay for the amount of happiness I got out of it.”
However, he admits that it definitely felt like an addiction. “Both buying the points, and gambling those points on random drops would give me a rush,” he says.
I also came across numerous far more outlandish stories. One player, who called himself Gladoscc, told me that he used to play a web-based MMO called eRepublik, in which players waged wars against each other.
In total, Gladoscc spent more than $30,000 on the game. “The geniusly evil part about eRepublik is that you have to spend money in order to neutralize the enemy’s money,” he says. “It’s spreadsheet PVP, though. The social aspect is what kept me in.”
When he managed to finally kick the habit, a random stranger added him veryon Skype weeks later, only to discover that it was the creator of eRepublik. He had hunted down Gladoscc’s details so he could ask him why he had quit, and try to entice him back.
By far the worst story I discovered was that of a mother who became addicted to Mafia Wars on Facebook, and ended up sinking tens of thousands of dollars into it. As her obsession grew, she began to withdraw into the game and care little about the life going on around her.
“The last time I can remember going over, her entire room was filled with just hundreds of pizza boxes and McDonalds bags,” says an old friend of her son. “When you enter the house, the smell just smacks you in the face, even though she basically just stays in her room.”
The friend even alleges that as a direct result of the mother succumbing to the allure of spending more and more on the game, her son ended up dealing drugs simply so he could afford to keep payments up on the house and keep food on the table.
I also received messages from people who claimed to be ex-employees at free-to-play companies, and who told me that their respective employers would often build games purposely to entrap these “whales.”
One such response in particular (for which I was able to verify the respondent as having worked at the company he named) gave a stark picture of what’s going on behind the scenes. I’ve chosen to blank out the name of the company as I see this as being able to apply to multiple game studios, rather than just the one discussed.
“I used to work at [company], and it paid well and advanced my career,” the person told me. “But I recognize that [company]‘s games cause great harm to people’s lives. They are designed for addiction. [company] chooses what to add to their games based on metrics that maximize players’ investments of time and money. [company]‘s games find and exploit the right people, and then suck everything they can out of them, without giving much in return. It’s not hard to see the parallels to the tobacco industry.
This employee chose to leave the company as a direct result of feeling dishonest due to the work being done — feeling like they were making the lives of a select few players worse.（source：gamasutra）