Tobold's Blog
Friday, April 19, 2013
Time whales

I find it interesting that there is a term ("whales") for people who spend a lot of money on a Free2Play game, but nothing equivalent for people who spend a lot of time. People like me, that is older gamers with a good job, a family, and lots of other things to do every day, are more likely to spend more money on games. Younger people with less disposable income, but more disposable time are more likely to grind their way to success. That isn't really a question of changing attitudes, it is simply a consequence of the fact that a unit of money or time changes value with age for most people: $1 gets less valuable over the years, while 1 hour of free time gets more valuable. People simply spend that what they have more of.

One game I am currently playing every day is Anno Online (in German beta, the English closed beta will start next week). You can't possibly play that for hours in one session, as you run out of resources after building a few new buildings, and then need to wait hours to produce those resources again. That makes this a perfect game for me, playing it for under 15 minutes each twice a day and making nice progress. You can play for free, but then the sequence of needs of your population, rarity of space to build on, and limited number of islands you can colonize will much restrict your options. So I spent money on buying three (out of four possible) island slots, which not just increases the speed at which I gain resources and thus progress in the game, but also gives me significantly more freedom, and the option to optimize things by moving production chains from one island to the next. But as those island slots get exponentially more expensive, the third island slot was already very much a luxury that I wouldn't recommend to everybody. Overall I ended up paying twice the price of a full-price game for this browser game, which isn't quite whale territory yet, but nevertheless more than most people would be willing to spend. But me, I don't regret that purchase, and continue having a lot of fun with the game. And I much prefer Free2Play models where you buy something that has a lasting effect on your game to those where what you buy is temporary or outdated after some time.

But I realize that we live in a culture where spending $100 on a game is considered somewhat weird, while spending 100 hours on a game is considered not very much. It reflects a time to money exchange rate which values 1 hour very low in $ terms, and is more in line with how somebody much younger than me would value his time vs. his money. And that makes me wonder whether we aren't heading for some shift in culture in that respect. First of all, games aren't just for young people any more. The average gamer is 30 years old, and the average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 35. And second we need to consider not just the value of games to gamers, but also the value of gamers to the people who make games: It is obvious that a game company would much prefer customers spending a lot of money on their games to customers that only spend a lot of time.

The reason I believe in a possible shift is somewhat Darwinian: There is an oversupply of games and too many game companies trying to survive, at at some point that turns into the survival of the fittest. And the fittest is the game company that at the end of the month can pay its bills, regardless of whether there are some people complaining in the forums about their business model being "Pay2Win". Which is a rather badly defined term anyway. I am pretty certain that in the long run you need to offer players some in-game advantage for their money, selling just hats isn't likely to be a valid survival strategy. Of course there are many different variations of selling advantages for money, some of which are perceived as being more fair than others. But ultimately success is based on using that difference in perceived value of time and money, and offering the same advantage EITHER for time OR for money, which tends to make the largest possible number of people happy, including the game company.

The term "whales" is a casino term, meaning the same as "high-roller".
But I realize that we live in a culture where spending $100 on a game is considered somewhat weird, while spending 100 hours on a game is considered not very much.

That's because we all make some $10 or (much) more money with an hour of work. And spending 1000+ hours on a game is considered (at least) about as weird as spending $100.

One other thing. Nobody a has problem with games for people who like to pay more but play less, the industry sure hasn't.

But many of us have a problem if this happens in the same game. I don't want to compete against your money in a computer game. i want to compete against your skills (first person shooter) or against your character (role playing).
Ouch! My calculation is a bit lacking. I see that ;). You're right with the exchange rate.
I don't want to compete against your money in a computer game. i want to compete against your skills (first person shooter) or against your character (role playing).

I don't want to compete AGAINST you at all. I would like to play WITH you, not AGAINST you. And my round of golf is not at all influenced by the other player having gold-plated golf clubs, even if their carbon fibers give him some advantage. Because I compete against MYSELF, trying to play better, not against somebody else.
It IS weird because games are (supposed to be) fun. So doing something fun for lot of hours is great. Spending lot of money on pixels on the other hand is stupid.
Spending lot of money on pixels on the other hand is stupid.

Why would spending money on entertainment that comes in the form of pixels be any more stupid than spending money on let's say a movie or a theater visit? In any case you only get "the experience", and nothing physical.
Paying for a game is not stupid. However paying IN a game, to buy pixels is stupid. You wrote yourself how buying everything in Diablo 3 hurt the game experience.

Buying things in a game is like paying in a cinema to play the movie in 3x speed to save you time. Would you pay for that?
"Why would spending money on entertainment that comes in the form of pixels be any more stupid than spending money on let's say a movie or a theater visit? In any case you only get "the experience", and nothing physical."

To the average person, spending a couple thousand dollars on a computer game is like spending a couple thousand dollars watching every Harry Potter movie 25 times each in the theater.

Of course, 5 years playing a sub MMO with 2 accounts is a couple thousand dollars, and that's not so uncommon.

At the 'unnamed' company where I work, our biggest whale spent 15,000 US on one F2P iPhone game in 9 months. Would you be pleased if your ( hypothetical) 30-year old son spent that much on a game, of money he earned at a reasonable job? (Avoiding "yes i'm happy because that shows he has that much disposable income to spend response", which doesn't answer the question I'm asking. In this hypothetical situation, he'd been earning that money for years already,which you were quite cognizant of, and is only now spending 20 grand a year of it on iPhone games. Pleased or not?)
I don't want to compete AGAINST you at all. I would like to play WITH you, not AGAINST you

Nice to know ;)
But I think we always compete in some way. If we play together against PvE enemies, the prestige you have in the game is linked to your relative effectiveness. If other players are much more effective you are less effective and enjoy less social prestige.

Means: You can only be really good at killing those NPCs, or healing or whatever your role is, if somebody else is comparatively weaker. And this kind of PvE competition is what drives 90% of the PvE games.

Sure, there are some people who don't care about other players' effectiveness when compareda gainst their own - how many of them who truly don't care have more fun in MMOs than in solo-games ?
p.s. I think on the whole we're in agreement, perhaps. On either scale, time or money, the spectrum is similar: "casual, hardcore, pathological". You can go overboard on either, or both.

I agree with Gevlon to a certain extent, and yet his argument also holds against someone who outcompetes someone else by outinvesting time--he's devalued his own game experience by making the playing field not level. People don't see investing additional time as "unleveling" the playing field in the same way as investing additional money is perceived. I don't think this argument needs to be resolved with a winner--there can be a game produced to suit every viewpoint, and probably will be.
It's definitely shifting; the entire attitude towards ingame shops and purchased services - and about time, too. how we value 1$ vs. time spent vs. fun is a completely individual matter. sooner or later even the slowest naysayers are gonna discover that 'fun' is subjective and that making judgements on how others spend their gametime is pretty boring.

And the cry for "it hurts the market or competition" is hysteria more than anything. most of the time none of that is the case and highly depends on how the game is designed overall and what type of items are being sold.

I've never heard the term whale before. I wonder how people should be called then who spend money on new games every week, as opposed to the person who spends most of his money on the one game he's dedicated to. either way, the money goes into the market.

surely you see the flaw with your last line. when it comes to endgame, what you compete against first and foremost are people with more/same time than you - skill is never a given and has nothing to do with it. it's not 'skill versus money'. progressed players don't need to be skilled - players spending money don't need to be unskilled. doh? :D
Buying things in a game is like paying in a cinema to play the movie in 3x speed to save you time. Would you pay for that?

You obviously have no idea how Free2Play business models work. They let you in the cinema for free, but then either have you pay for watching the second half at normal speed instead of in one-third speed. Or they block certain parts of the movie off completely unless you pay. In the end you still pay and see the whole movie at normal speed, the payment is just not up-front.

Would you be pleased if your ( hypothetical) 30-year old son spent that much on a game, of money he earned at a reasonable job?

As opposed to spending it on what? I'd be opposed to anybody spending money on a game instead of paying his mortgage or feeding his family. But I wouldn't give a damn when the $15,000 was spent on games instead of a VIP lounge at the Super Bowl.
Well Gev, that presupposes that MMOs are fun in a dictionary sense. Or that it's still fun after thousands of hours.

The World of Tanks model of FTP is basically unobjectionable to me. As long as the pvp is weighted to be fair for paying and free customers, I have no objection.
$15,000 on a phone game is astounding....even if that person had a large volume of disposable income I'd have to say that they need some serious help.

My wife has a problem here. I bought her a Nexus (big mistake) and she's been immersed in these "free" games which manage to cost $50-100 a month. She's a homemaker, and lives on my income, so I'm paying for it. The problem is not that we can't afford it, but rather that the games seem to grab at a specific target: people with some money to burn and a lack of foresight on its use. She really wanted to get the $200 Neverwinter founder pack, for example, which I was reluctant to purchase for her....but she's already spent more than that on these F2P tablet games in six weeks. It's hard to say, "I think you're spending your disposable income unwisely" because my assessment of the value of the F2P games is very low....but objectively there has to be a degree of "value" on these things, and the digital ephemera of a game designed specifically to get you to pay more has to be lower than one which at least offers you a more engaging or social experience.

Another problem in evaluating this is probably generational, too. I'm older, and for much of my life the idea of spending 10 hours a week on video games was considered pretty radical. In 1990 while in college, finding a 10 hour time block to play video games was a big deal (RPGs and card games not so much). Within the last two or three years though I found 30-40 hours a week to be normal, and was criticized once when playing WoW for being a casual since I played less than 30 hours a week in that game...and the fact that these games seemed to be replacing social lives in RL rather than supplementing them was a strange notion just a few years ago; now, it seems to be the default norm.

Anyway, I'm back to finding 10 hours a week playing games to be a stretch thanks to fatherhood, but I really do agree that we've got a cultural shift in terms of expected norms on time and dollars spent on video games that is going down a very destructive path.
A lot of the trouble seems to come from people playing games not to have fun, but to show off, to have a brag, for some sort of ephemeral prestige or praise. These are people who pursue an achievement not for the sense of accomplishment and completeness that comes with it, but to have a pretty mount they can sit in Org on all day and beg for adulation.

For these people it matters if someone else spent money instead of time on things, because it lessens their own sense of how prestigious their own accomplishments are.

One of the things I like about GW2 is that I can be sitting in Queensdale waiting for an event or something, and see another player, and almost all the time I have no idea if the other char is higher or lower level than me, if they have better or worse gear, if they are more or less effective in playing. And they are similarly blind to me. There's no sense of competition, the game isn't trying to smush us together to see who pops first, we're just playing, sometimes playing together, sometimes not, and that's fine.

In games like Lotro, where you can actually buy fun times, new questing areas and skirmishes, instead of just cosmetic stuff, I'm just aghast when I see people doing hours and hours of trait grinds to unlock things just with time. I look at that and think that these people are doing it wrong. Horrible fun times efficiency.
Selling "just hats" isn't a viable business model for a free to play game? I guess we should let League of Legends know they're due to go under any day now, huh?
And I'm totally envious that you're already in Anno Online. I'm still playing along in Settlers Online, but lately I've just been going through the motions till Anno comes out. I just can't wait! XD
They don't just sell hats. They sell characters and experience gain packs and whatnot.
There is no in game advantage to be bought in League of Legends. Experience boosts let you save time before you hit the level cap, but they don't give you any power at all. Especially since there's a matchmaking system such that you're always playing people of your level and approximate skill anyway.

More champions gives you more options, but it again doesn't give you more power. Just playing the game unlocks enough champions that you can do whatever you want to do. In any given match you're only using one champion, so having access to 110 instead of to 20 means you have more flexibility in what you play that day, but it doesn't give you power in game. Your version of Teemo is just as powerful as my version of Teemo.

This is significantly different from games that sell actual power boosts. Gold ammo, or item theft protection, or more powerful gear. Tobold claimed in the original post that "Pay2Win" is the only way to go and you "need to offer players some in-game advantage for their money, selling just hats isn't likely to be a valid survival strategy".

Frankly, if League of Legends did sell actual in-game advantages, so that your Teemo did 25% more damage than mine did because you bought a limited time gold damage boost for him, the game would not be the biggest game today. A lot of people would be turned off by such shenanigans. They make plenty of money by selling hats and flexible time replacers while actively avoiding selling anything that grants an in-game power boost.
Experience boosts let you save time

A way to "save time" is considerably more useful and thus sellable than just hats. More options are also more useful than just hats. So you need another game as example that selling just hats is a viable business model.
Neither is an in-game advantage, which is what you were saying is needed in order to survive. There's a huge difference between letting someone spend time more efficiently and making them more powerful while they're spending time, especially in a PvP game.

Letting people spend time more efficiently in a PvP game means they'll be able to play with their friends faster. Giving them more variety means people with a shorter attention span will be able to have as much fun as other people. These situations may level a playing field, but they don't unbalance one. They increase one person's fun by increasing the overall fun pool, which is a very reasonable feature of 'Free2Play'.

Letting people be more powerful while they're spending time means they're more likely to kill their opponents. It means they're more likely to win games. And, by extension, it means their opponents will die more often, and lose more often. Here you're increasing one person's fun not by increasing the fun pool but by directly taking fun away from other people. By keeping the fun pool constant and letting one person buy more than their 'fair share' of the fun you've turned fun into a zero sum game. This is a feature of 'Pay2Win', and it's one with which I strongly disagree.

League of Legends is absolutely 'Free2Play', but it is not 'Pay2Win'. Someone who spends a ton of money will probably have more fun themselves because they spent the money (or they really shouldn't have spent it) but doing so doesn't hurt other people. It doesn't matter to me that I have access to 50 champions, and my friend has access to 20, and my opponent has access to all 110. The champions are all reasonably balanced, I can always make sure my 50 champions include the best ones if I want, or I can use the ban mechanism to get rid of the best ones instead. The game is more about archetypes than specific champions, so you can be flexible and powerful with only 20 champions. You don't need all 110. And since you also get champions by just playing the game there's no unique flexibility available to those spending money.
Neither is an in-game advantage

You appear to have COMPLETELY misunderstood me. Of course faster progress and more options are EXACTLY the kind of in-game advantage that a game has to sell to be a viable business. Just look at what I said about Anno Online, do you really believe the added island slots I bought are Pay2Win items? They just give me faster progress and more options than somebody who hasn't bought them, and that is an advantage. As opposed to being just fluff, like a hat.
To be fair, I've bought a Soraka skin or two, for no in game advantage, just because they're pretty. I didn't feel too much the profligate for my fun-inefficient purchase. If I have the money to spend, I can spend it on the occasional pointless feel-good item without getting too guilty. :P And there can be games/stores that cater to that urge.

You can have a profitable game that makes money just selling fluff. A real life example would be say, jewelry stores, fashion boutiques, beauty salons, etc. Computer cases that have flashy lights or glow in the dark. Anything that sells a cheap ephemeral impulse buy.

And sure, people can use jewelry and a well kept appearance as something that gives them a real-life advantage, but in most situations it's just to make you look better, not for an advantage. People might see my skinned Soraka and be less willing to tower dive me? Maybe? But I got it for pretty, not for an advantage.

I prefer games where you can directly buy more fun, instead of just fluff. But PvP people can getting a little intense about the whole thing. Which means it's actually a pretty good way to find good gaming communities. If a game supports spending money to achieve in game advantages, you'll probably find fewer unpleasant people in it. Money cuts out a large part of the kids. Money for advantage cuts out the hardcore pvp monsters. o.O
Having never played Anno Online or even heard much about it, I can't say. If it's a strictly PvE game then having more islands isn't paying to win. If there's a PvP component and now you'll dominate other people with fewer island slots then it absolutely would be Pay2Win.

It's not just how your purchases impact you. It's how they impact other people relative to you. Single player games with difficulty sliders make sense. I should be able to play Civ V and research twice as fast as normal if I want in a solo game. But if I had the ability to join games against other players and get that advantage it wouldn't be ok. All of us researching at double speed could make an interesting game. One person doing it is gaining an unfair advantage, and cheating.

That's what 'Pay2Win' does. If your Anno island thing is in direct competition with other players who aren't paying $100 to win, and they end up losing as a result, then that's terrible. If your Anno island thing just lets you have more fun for $100 then that's awesome. Awesome, and not 'Pay2Win'.
"Buying things in a game is like paying in a cinema to play the movie in 3x speed to save you time. Would you pay for that?"

If you were to translate that scenario to the way online games currently play, the situation would be that you get into the movie theatre for free, but they play the movie at 3x slower speed than normal, and you can pay to make it go faster.

The general consensus HERE seems to be that 'pay2win' in the perjorative only applies to PVP games, but I can guarantee that there'll still be a sizeable group of players out there who will complain that in-game boosts for cash are still a heinous violation of some moral code because it will allow some players to complete the PVE content sooner than others, and beat them out for precious raid slots or similar equivalent. "No-one will play with me at end-game if I'm not covered in gold weapons!"

I know the big lure of F2P/B2P is the lowered barrier of entry cost, and that there are poverty-stricken students, disabled, and otherwise unemployed who desperately want the 'full experience' without fucking paying for it, but I fail to see how these people are somehow able to claim the moral high ground on that front.

And for some reason EVE keeps seeming to get a free pass on being Pay2Win, too.

As far as the cinema metaphor goes, if you were forced to watch, say, one film you hate to watch a film you wanted to see, I would gladly pay extra to fast forward through the bad movie. And since MMOs generally will want you to watch the good film a hundred times, being able to fast forward even the good bits becomes a valuable service.

I've dropped out of the genre because at the end of the day I don't get playing games with such an awful fun to time ratio that entire black market industries exist to make sure you don't have to play the game that you are playing!

That said, if I were to play, it would have to be a game where I could slice out the boring bits with a bit of cash.
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