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Whale Hunter

This was how I have felt designing "social" games months ago. I have found peace of mind after a while, but it still applies as a testimony of how it is from a designers perspective.

(Originally posted on Gamevo.com (in spanish) many months ago, I feel the urge to translate and post it here after reading the excellent Leigh Alexander's "With the luster of social games gone, what now?", mostly because this was how I felt designing this kind of games, and that article hit a sensible spot about the designers designing games that they would never play or like. My testimony.)

Develop a game. Pack it up. Sell it. It sounds simple and until not long ago, it was. There wasn't much difference between selling a game and a pair of shoes. 
A shoe designer works with in his own art. The product is successful according to how attractive and comfortable it is. And of course, how good the salesman is too. 

Let's pretend shoes become available for all and are so easy to make and distribute that they cost practically nothing. Shoe stores have to lower prices to the point they have to give shoes away to keep competitivity up. So they ask designers for ideas to keep rentability up too.
The result could be that they end up giving away gorgeous shoes that need constant maintenance. The soles wear out extremely fast and after a few blocks they start hurting your feet.

People’s reaction is obvious: if the shoes are free, they just grab another pair when the previous wears out. 
But there’s always someone who comes to love a specific pair of shoes, or worse, that dares to buy new soles and then thinks “I’ve invested in this once, I’m not going to throw it away now”. These, in marketing terms, are called “whales”.

A “whale” is a user that spends a lot of money in a social game, a poor person that falls prey to the impulsive cycles of gaming, made up by the brilliant minds behind today’s games.
Those game designers -whether they’re true designers or mathematical psychologists playing with lab rats in companies like Zynga- have a clear goal: to make shoes that wear out the exact moment people grow fond of them.

Now, let’s take a look at the numbers that “social” gaming companies deal with -the right word should be “viral”- and it becomes very clear that a lot of people spend good dough. Numbers within those companies are seen in absurd ways: If we have 1000 players and the income is $1700, it means each player spent $1.7. Nyet. There isn’t such a community mentality nor a design capable of such deed. It’s just that from a thousand players, two spent $850 each. 

That “$1.7 user”, called “ghost user” by Tim Rogers, is a recent, (not too) well-known fallacy created by modern economic analysis and game monetization. It is there where maths that try to reflect human behaviour become absurd. In this case, they try to even out a handful of huge numbers and an infinity of zeros. 

Let’s focus on what’s concrete. Such a thing is the state of mind game designers are asked for, and we need to emphasize this because this is the reality of most Argentine professionals in the field. Here, have this harpoon. Hunt me some whales.  
Whaling means making games that break down, with mechanics that subdue the player to the game’s will.

This conflict comes with the question: Do they have to be fun? Fun is not the answer, people don’t necessarily play a game because it’s “fun”. Some look for challenges, others escapism, entertainment, something that moves us. My personal analyst -who shares the bed with me- once told me “If someone spent all that money in a game, they might as well have enjoyed the process. Who are you to say they didn’t?”.

Dear conscience rests on its pillow. But it cannot, it knows that the possibility exists -remote or not so- that one of those cetaceans is a player who isn’t looking for anything special but is… disturbed? After all, we’re designing to reap addictive behaviour. Is there a chance that someone somewhere is crying over a credit card statement that informs of a whole month’s salary turned into facebook credits? Worse even: is this person a father, a mother or in charge of someone else? We know for sure about children innocently pushing the “buy” button in Iphone games several times. This doesn’t happen anymore (devices now need passwords) but if it wasn’t for the users’ complaints, companies would have loved to keep it the old way.

Is it valid to say “If it’s not this game, something else will trigger compulsive behaviour in propense players”? At least they’re not drugs, right? No, that doesn’t cut it. Perhaps it’s better to see just the numbers, those don’t have faces. There’s always the hope of finding something better to do. A little pat in the back and the promise “someday people will play your games because they enjoy them”. Until that day, have these shoes. There’s the ocean: hunt me some whales. 

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