Mobile Game Cash Shops Designed For Wealthy Whales
At MMOs we make jokes at the expense of innumerable mobile games, asking “who is this designed for?” Oftentimes we’re left flabbergasted that some free to play titles still manage to grace the app store. It’s easy to make remarks that it’s a handful of players with unfathomable wallets supporting doppleganger games that fail to innovate. And while we’re joking our seemingly superficial comments belie the reality of mobile game design.
An anonymous mobile developer recently wrote a lengthy confession elucidating free to play marketing tactics. He begins by saying “I am a senior producer at a free to play games company. I have worked for several of the big name companies. It is almost certain you have or are playing a game I have produced or worked on in a major capacity.”
This isn’t an article about the evils of free to play manipulation to get you to spend money. This is about how we can target you, because we (and our partners) know everything about you. We know where you live, we know your income level, we know your relationships, your favorite sports teams, your political preferences. We know when you go to work, and where you work. We can target an event to start for you when we know you have a long weekend coming up. We own you.
The unnamed whistleblower goes on to list the finer points of targeting consumers. Using Facebook developers learn where players live, who they play with, their language, and whether or not they’re nationalists; “ We use all of this to send you personalized Push Notifications, and show you store specials and items we think you will want.” Using accumulated data they create cash-shop items—i.e. national flags—catering to particular personalities. But casual users aren’t the diamonds. Big-spenders have their own designation: “whales.”
And if you are a whale, we take Facebook stalking to a whole new level. You spend enough money, we will friend you. Not officially, but with a fake account. Maybe it’s a hot girl who shows too much cleavage? That’s us. We learned as much before friending you, but once you let us in, we have the keys to the kingdom. We will use everything to figure out how to sell to you.
Facebook stalker techniques have dripped into development companies like a nefarious ooze, generating carefully plotting tactics to rake in cash. Both terrifying and fascinating, but from a profit-oriented mentality the data accumulation makes perfect sense. If the information is freely available why wouldn’t companies maximize efforts to capitalize? The nameless dev describes entire divisions created solely to sift through the mountains of daily-collected data.
If the confession of one developer wasn't’ fascinating in its own right, a new start-up aims to make targeting whales a simple point-and-click. Designated Whally, the invite-only analytics platform tracks publically-posted scores through social media sites and Game Center. Ethical issues aside (that we’ll examine in a future editorial), Whally aims to recalibrate the way games are benchmarked, by providing new data to “understand player engagement and track user behavior daily,” according to VentureBeat insight analyst Stewart Rogers.
While Whally doesn’t track spending habits, by isolating high scores it will provide data that—perhaps—statistically leans towards big-spenders. While I’m only hypothesizing that the wealthiest players sit on top of the scoreboards it seems an intuitively correct posit based on the advantages typically acquired through cash shops.
In a Wired article discussing whales Jared Psigoda, CEO of Reality Squared Games, is cited as saying, “For most publishers out there … a handful of players make up a significant percentage of revenue, specifically once you get into the mid-hard-core, free-to-play type model.” And VentureBeat found that 50% of mobile in-game revenue is generated by 0.15% of players, according to a survey by analytics and marketing firm Swrve. It's clear why big spenders are catered to. The Wired article goes on to describe one anonymous whale who spends thousands of dollars on mobile games each month.
Mobile games account for roughly one-third of the global market, generating $22.3 billion worldwide. Veteran companies like Konami have abandoned AAA game development (an amorphous description at best) in favor of mobile development, because it's far more lucrative. Why spend $80 million creating a Metal Gear game when a mobile game costs ~$250,000 - ~$2 million (minus marketing expenses), generating $5.15 million daily?
The anonymous developer laments the current state of free to play games, but because free to play monetization is increasingly profitable there’s little incentive to abandon tactics. Focus has shifted from creating games for the sake of being innovative and fun, and moved to rehashing proven formulas laced with demographically targeted cash shop items to keep users and investors happy. The developers only advice is, “You want to put a stop to this? Stop playing free games. Buy a game for 4.99 or 9.99. We don’t want to be making games like this, and we don’t want another meeting about retention, cohorts or churn.” Unfortunately, his cries are lost among the chorus of players worldwide checking “Yes,” exchanging cash for in-game gems.
TouchArcade: "We Own You" - Confessions of an Anonymous Free to Play Producer
VentureBeat: Whally launches new mobile analytics platform that tracks player scores as a sign of engagement
Wired: These Guys’ $5K Spending Sprees Keep Your Games Free to Play
VentureBeat: Only 0.15 percent of mobile gamers account for 50 percent of all in-game revenue (exclusive)
Gamesindustry.biz: Clash of Clans daily revenue at $5.15 million - Hacker