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Swimming with the Whales: A study in free to play

I spent several months among the high rollers in a free to play game. Here's what I learned from swimming with the whales.

Whales are curious beasts. They are by turns helpful and violent, and they'll go head down into one ocean for ages before resurfacing. I'm talking about free to play whales of course, and for almost two years, I swam among them, a remora clinging to the sides of the biggest whale sharks in the game. What follows is a collection of my learnings during my time at the top.


Epic Heroes is a free to play mobile game, called I am MT in China. It was the top grossing game in China in 2013, and continues on rather successfully in its home country. But on September 12, developer LocoJoy is shutting down the English language servers – where I played – forever.

Epic Heroes is more or less a game about auto-dungeon crawls and stats arrangement, with a cast of battle cows and elves. It's pretty silly, but the compulsion loops were strong, and most of the time you could just wind it up and watch it go.

I played the game for about a year and a half, leveling and optimizing my strategy, in what eventually became the top guild on the server. One day I got a request from one of the guild admin to join their external group. It turned out all the best players had a group in the premier Chinese chatting app, WeChat, where they shared secrets about the game, talked about their lives, and generally reveled in being the best.

When I joined, I immediately recognized all the other participants' usernames, either from top rankings on boss rushes, or wikia entries, or people who beat me soundly in PVP.

It was in this environment that I learned what it was to be a whale, even though I was brought into the inner circle simply by virtue of sticking around, and having played the game for 18 months or so. I was just a couple levels behind the very best when I stopped playing, really just through perseverance. I spent money a couple times just because I was enjoying the game, for a total of $18. But I was in the vast minority. Most people in this group were spending thousands of dollars.

So, with all that preamble, here are some things I learned about whales, at least for this one particular free to play mobile game. Some of this is very specific to mobile free to play, and I can't say whether this extends to every title, but even this anecdotal evidence of whale behavior is more than I had before I joined.


The whale audience skews older. In this game, at least on the Western server, most people were in their 30s or thereabouts. Most of them had jobs, many have kids, and only a few are under the age of 25. This makes sense, since we're talking about the high rollers here – most of the young people in the group were very quick to display status symbols in their avatars – expensive sunglasses, watches, rings.

Whales are buying the big ticket items. You likely know this from other reports, but seeing it in person was striking. In this game, one of the best characters is called the Elder Sister. In order to get her at max level, you have to spend $1,000 USD. No discounts, no way to grind to get her, you've got to lay out a thousand bucks, or you don't get that character. Nearly everyone in the chat but me had her, out of about 160 people.

Elder sister card is in the top middle.

And that's just one character. There are other ways to spend big money in this game, and as it ramps down, more people are talking (read: complaining) about how much they spent. Spends ranged from $5,000 to a whopping $15,000. One guild leader said he was spending $1,000 per month. These numbers are self-reported, so don't take them as pure fact, but still, wow!

Autobattle is great for an older audience. The compulsion loop is strong in this game. Winning always gets you on the cusp of some other success, early in the game. When you combine that with the perception of it being a low demand on your time with auto battle, it feels like you're using your time more efficiently than with other games. A lot of people got more into it than that, but the perception of not being a time waster is what's important.

The audience loves when you do more of what they like. In this game, people got really excited about further efficiencies for the autobattle, leading to fewer clicks. Of course they love new actual content as well, and new ways to do things with what they already have, but when you take the thing that works best about your game and make it work better, people really do appreciate it.

A lot of people didn't play any other kinds of games. Among the whales, I did some sleuthing about platforms owned and games played. A few folks had a PS4. Nobody had heard of the Vita. A few people played on PC. A few folks played other free to play games. But by and large, for these whales, this was the only game they played. How did they get here? What led to this being their first, or at least most dedicated game? I was never able to find out, but it explains the dedication of the audience. You really only have room for one or two free to play games in your life, if you're really spending time there.

If your chat client sucks, their eyes leave your app. There's a chat client in the game which allows you to speak globally, or within the clan, or to specific players (sometimes). But it's slow, buggy, and generally terrible. I've played other games where the in-game chat is the source of all knowledge within the game, but when the chat is bad enough, people turn to external sources. This is why all the best players in the game were using an external group chat to discuss tactics and strategy. If LocoJoy had a good in-game chat, they'd get a lot more minutes of people staying in the game, not exiting to chat, which can be very important depending on the business model.

As a side note, the last free to play game I was near the top of before this one, Princess Pajama, had no chat whatsoever. If it had, the game probably would've lasted longer for everyone. Chat and strategy sharing really does increase the longevity of the game. I probably would've stopped playing Epic Heroes a lot sooner had I not been invited to this group.

Women in positions of power made everyone more civil. I can't say whether it's unique to this game, but having a woman as the leader of one of the guild chats made everyone more civil and less gross. I've been in other chats where as soon as a lady showed up, every guy there turned into a ghoulish parody of themselves. Here, people were reminded to be respectful, and then tended to be. After all, being in the chat among the best players in the game was a privilege that could be revoked. I've seen this work the opposite way, but in this case, there was no denying that she was head of the second-ranked guild on the server.

The Chinese server was a window into the future. This happens with other non-western games as well – big changes to the game come to the local server first, which in this case was in China. This had a few interesting side effects. For one, anyone who could speak Chinese was the Sage of Sages, really. They helped us all prepare for big changes and get ready before the rest of the players in the game, because they could not only read what the developer said was coming, but also read what Chinese players said was really going on.

The second big effect is that people had a lot more time to freak out about balance changes and new cards, rules, and characters, which leads handily to the next point.

Balance changes freak people out. This will come as no surprise, but balance changes make people who pay the most money pretty mad. If something they paid a lot for is tuned to be a bit more fair toward people who don't pay, they get pretty salty. But in spite of this, with all the complaining and threatening to quit, I never saw any of the big players quit over balance changes – only over lack of content.

Devs should communicate clearly when patches are coming. Don't announce that patches are coming without telling people when. This paralyzes the playerbase – how should they be preparing? What should they stock up on? When they don't know the answers to these questions, they wind up hoarding everything to get ready for whatever it is that's going to happen. In other successful games, patches are announced only when they're out and playable. This is much better.

There are lots of ways to lose your audience. This game never had great customer support, and English was the developer's second language, so a lot of features were unclear for some time, until people in the chat broke them down and figured them out. We didn't lose high level players this way, but we lost a lot of mid-level ones, who could have become high level later. The game has a great initial compulsion loop, but once you get to a certain level, you come up against a lot of confusing stuff, and people just stop. By the end, you've pretty much only got the high level players still playing. But for months, they'd all been complaining about the lack of players, and some (like me) quit because of that, in combination with the other frustrations, or lack of things to do. Holding on to only your top audience is not a solution.

Sunsetting a game is really difficult. As the Western version of this game fades away, emotions are mixed, among the whales. Some are happy they got to enjoy the game for so long. Others are not going to play games for a while after this, or so they say. Some are grinding to get as far as possible before the server closes. A few want to sue the developer to get their money back, led by the guy who spent $15k.

The developer, LocoJoy, is offering to let players transition to the Chinese version, which has no English support. A few are considering it, but the Chinese servers are several versions ahead, and anyone joining there will no longer be at the top of the pile. But the game is no longer making enough money, so… what can you do?


You can't support a game forever. At some point you have to take what's left of your winnings and move on. It's a very strange peculiarity of the free to play industry – in most cases players are really renting their time with the game, not buying something they can keep. There's a lot of resentment when the game stops – but at the same time, most premium games don't offer nearly the number of hours that a free to play game does.

Before leaving the game, I told everyone in the chat I'd remember them when I made a free to play game. They either ignored it or laughed, but… I'm not kidding. These were some great players, and any free to play game would be lucky to have them.

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