Last time, I talked about free to play; a phrase I often hear linked with the term “whale”. The prototypical use goes something like this: free-to-play games make most of their money from a small proportion of whales, people who spend thousands of dollars that they can’t afford in order to buy useless items in those games because they’ve gotten addicted to the game through techniques borrowed from the gambling industry.

And yeah, there’s some amount of truth to that. I’ve worked on a game that got some portion of its revenue from items that were intentionally priced in a fashion that makes it hard for people to calculate the price of what they’re trying to buy, and that did so using sporadic reinforcement techniques. That is not a good thing to do; I don’t know if the company I worked at intentionally borrowed those techniques from gambling techniques, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some sort of such borrowing in the lineage somewhere.

But that amount of truth is linked to a lot of other assumptions that I do not agree with, and that I think are misleading and harmful to the discussion.


I think the term “whale” comes with a lot of baggage, so here’s my attempt to define it in a way that avoids that baggage: “whales” are people who spend a disproportionately large proportion of the total money on a product, enough to significantly skew the entire profit structure for that industry away from they average buyer. I’m intentionally not mentioning free to play, gambling, or addiction: whales are simply your best customers, whatever that means.

And I cannot see why the existence of whales is a bad idea. In order to minimize free-to-play game associations, let’s move away from games entirely. There are many people in this country who have played violin at some point in their lives (usually, I suspect, in school orchestras); my daughter is one of them. (As am I, for that matter!) She started taking violin lessons several years ago; she’s one of the better players in her school orchestra, in the top 10% as measured by her seating position.

Lots of people who have played violin have had that experience only through school: their lessons are in the school orchestra, they borrow instruments from the school to play on. (You might call those violinists free-to-play violinists, were you so inclined; I don’t think I ever took violin lessons outside of school, and I played on a hand-me-down violin, so I was one myself.) But many people pay for lessons; we paid around $200/month for our daughter’s lesson, I’m sure there are many teachers who teach for cheaper (especially in places other than the Bay Area), and there are also ways to spend a lot more money on your learning. (Tuition at Juilliard is currently over $36,000 / year, and there are also summer camps where younger students can spend thousands of bucks at a pop.)

As for the instrument, you might start out renting a cheap violin while you’re getting started or buy a violin that costs, say, $200. As you get more interested, you’ll get to where you can appreciate and benefit from better instruments; our daughter’s latest violin cost around $1000, for example. And, having spent some time in violin stores, I can assure you that they would be happy to sell us instruments that cost us tens of thousands of dollars, and professionals might consider spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an instrument.


Who are the whales here? I don’t know for sure if that term applies at all, because I don’t know what the profit structure of the violin industry is like; I don’t even know exactly how to measure profit in a context of individual teachers giving private lessons. (It’s easier to measure it for violin stores, I’m fairly sure, but there too I have no idea what the numbers are.) But there are certainly lots of people who play violin who haven’t spent money on it, or people who have spent a little money on an instrument but haven’t taken years of private lessons.

So I don’t know if that makes my family whales, or if it makes sense to reserve that term for, say, students who end up getting into elite music schools, or even if the price structure is such that the term doesn’t apply. But that’s the lens I’m looking through when I read posts about whales that it’s immoral to allow players to spend thousands of dollars on their game: I really don’t think the violin industry is being immoral by letting us spend thousands of dollars on it.

And, as somebody who loves video games: shouldn’t they be worthy of spending thousands of dollars on? Of course, many of us do that in aggregate: there are people out there who are happy to spend that much money on a gaming PC, or to spend a thousand bucks a year buy buying a couple of $50 games a month. But shouldn’t we seek out individual games that are worthy of that sort of love? (Which I have, I’ve certainly spent thousands of bucks on go in various ways…)


Like I said above: there’s some truth in the complaints about whales. There’s something dirty about intermittent reinforcement combined with obscured pricing, for example. Though maybe there’s something dirty about intermittent reinforcement in general, I’m not sure random item drops are great even if you’re not spending money on them.

And, while I didn’t call it out above, another part of that complaint is about pay to win. This is certainly something I try to actively avoid: I’m sure Magic is a great game, but the last thing I want to do is spend money trying to get good cards. (Which is of course in part about the intermittent rewards.)

But the violin analogy makes me see pay to win in a good light. Some violins are better than others, and that quality has a noticeable correlation with price. And that’s a good thing: if we could magically duplicate the best violins, then that would probably be a better world, but we’re not in that world; in the absence of that, I’m glad that capitalism gives incentives for people to make better violins.

Moving from non-digital art to non-digital games, not all bicycles or sets of golf clubs are made equal, either. Here, though, the rationale for a quality race isn’t as clear: it doesn’t necessarily improve golf as a sport to let players hit the ball farther and farther simply by spending more money. But it also wouldn’t improve golf if pros had to play with a $200 set of clubs. So it’s probably best for the sport to have a quality cap imposed but to have the cap be generous enough to let the best players show as much of their art as possible.

Or then there’s go as an example: you can play go as well on a $20 go board as on a $50,000 one. So there quality is a purely aesthetic question: I’m glad that aesthetic range exists.

Digital games are quite different in this respect, though: in a digital golf game, the best set of clubs and the worst set of clubs cost the same to produce. So yeah, paying more money for a simple stat upgrade isn’t good: it makes the game ecosystem worse. But it misses something important about the golf example: having access to more flexible tools lets better players express more of their art. So I’m a fan of systems like League of Legends or Netrunner where the game developers provide a basic ground level experience to everybody but also go out of their way to expand the possibility space in interesting ways and let you have access to that by paying for it. (And paying for it in a predictable way, unlike Magic.) As a game player, I want games to be as rich as possible; paying money to have access to more options within that space can be a very good tradeoff when executed well.

And hats or skins are the analogue of fancy go boards: that’s not pay to win at all, and I think their existence is great. Or at least great when it’s not linked with random item drops.


Pay to win points in another direction, though: paying to win is spending money to trade an intentionally worse game experience for one that is, at least superficially, intentionally better. And we see this in single-player games as well: it’s the energy gates in Facebook games that you can get past by either waiting, spending money or spamming your friends.

Games asking you to spam your friends is bad. I’m actually fine with the choice between waiting or paying to advance, within limits: that’s a form of paying for value. Still, as a player it’s certainly nice to pay a flat fee for a game and be able to explore it all I want.

But there are also a lot of fixed price games that still have gates! It’s grinding, it’s narrative games that throw wave after wave of enemies at you before letting you go through the story. And while I don’t think having games let you pay $10 to skip the combat in your favorite RPG is the best solution, not having the option to minimize or avoid the combat also isn’t great! I’m not advocating for pay to win in those contexts, but the questions that it raises are important ones: it at least asks what it would mean for a game to be responsive to different players’ different desires.


So yes: I don’t want to spend time in an ecosystem where pay to win is artificial scarcity that actively harms the structure of the game. But not all pay to win is that: if “pay to win” is either a difference that expands the possibility space for better players or that gives better aesthetics, than I like it a lot more. And what I like the most is a focus on the quality of the experience: that’s something that I want all games to care about, no matter their pricing structure.

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