Whales, the lifeblood of free-to-play

A portrait of a free-to-play cash cow:

It was a typical weekday night after work: Lee slipped off his shoes, climbed into bed with his iPad, and booted up Clash of Clans. The free-to-play strategy game, in which he went by the name “Metamorphaz,” had quickly become a favorite stress-reliever for him. In less than a month of playing around two hours a day, he’d spent nearly a thousand dollars.

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Game developers have a word for players like Lee: whales.

“A whale is a player that is willing to invest a significant amount of money in your game,” said Jared Psigoda, CEO of the browser game publisher Reality Squared Games, at Game Developers Conference Europe in August. “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.”

The term “whale” usually applies to high rollers at casinos — the people they can milk for a healthy chunk of cash (think Michael Jordan) — but it has been repurposed for the free-to-play world.

The circumstances surrounding whales are complex for both developers and the gamers who play free-to-play but don’t splurge. Read the Wired article for more on the player perspective.