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Why I’m a Whale: Nothing is Freemium
A few weeks ago, I started playing League of Legends again because I finally had some free time. However, before I actually started playing, I spent 20 dollars on Riot Points, the currency that League of Legends’ development team, Riot, exchanges for cash which lets players buy various things in-game.
I spent the money without much of a second thought. As someone who now works, what’s 20 dollars?
This week, I’m starting to play TERA Online, a once pay-to-play massively multiplayer online roleplaying game that’s gone free-to-play.
For those that don’t know what most of those terms mean: pay-to-play means you pay a monthly fee upfront to play the game for one month, usually around 10-15 dollars, typically in addition to a box price of 60 dollars; massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, or MMORPG, means you play a character in a gigantic and persistent digital universe with countless other players alongside you; and free-to-play means you pay nothing to play a game—all you need to do is download the product and you can play, for free, indefinitely.
To return to TERA, before the game became free-to-play, I spent 20 bucks to buy the box from Amazon, who was having a sale—the game’s box is 40 everywhere else. Buying the box would afford me “Founder” status, which bestowed more character slots, a larger bank, an electrified mare mount, and much more. Plus, because I bought the box, I also acquired the Tawny Huntress pack, a golden lioness mount plus a large chunk of in-game currency. I knew I would play TERA, so for me, the small purchase out of my bank account didn’t seem like much.
I’ve been playing TERA for several days. I’m having fun—it’s exactly the same game I played before, the game I wanted, with no over-bearing monthly payment fee…but for some reason, I wanted to buy the Sleipnir mount, an ice horse mount that leaves a trail of cold mist in its wake. I already owned two other mounts, both just as fast as Sleipnir. It would cost me 20 dollars to buy; while TERA is free-to-play, they generate revenue by selling premium items, such as Sleipnir. This makes TERA a freemium game—it’s free, but you can pay for mounts, performance boosters, and costumes if you want.
Why am I reaching for my wallet for this item? What does it really benefit me? And at what cost?
Why am I spending money on something that is free?
I have a confession to make: I’m a whale.
A whale is an industry insider term for someone who spends lots of money on a freemium game, and I’ve been a whale for some time.
The first time I bought something for a free game was Diablo 2. Now, it’s a misnomer to say Diablo 2 is free, but what I mean is, Diablo 2 had no monthly fee. To me, as a kid, that meant it was free (thanks for buying the game, dad, and thanks for letting me play it, mom). With no monthly fee, I could drop countless hours into the game worry free about any monetary constraints, although as a 12 year old, I didn’t really worry about money—rather, I felt guilty about what I asked my parents to spend and continued to play the game regardless, which is pretty close to being worried.
In Diablo 2, I played a paladin, a holy warrior sent by God to destroy all evil, which I loved. But, after a while, I was struggling to succeed at the game. This made the game less fun. I wanted the game to be fun again. What I needed was something to do that: gear.
Gear is what drives most MMORPG players, by and large. Of course, there are people who play MMORPGs for many other reasons: to be social, to escape daily worries, to explore a world, or to conquer evil or other players. Gear, however, is the large cog that enables most of those pleasures. If I want to see the next dungeon, or defeat the next boss, or to feel like I’m succeeding at something, gear enables for all those goals to be fulfilled and my success readily measured.
The piece of gear I was buying was some chest plate with a huge name, a bunch of effects, and double digit statistical gains all over the place. This would be the thing to take me to the next level. I spoke with my dad, and after countless minutes of presenting my cogent and thoughtful arguments (“PLEASE DAD I NEED THIS.”), he said we could buy the item. This involved some black market pageantry: we first had to buy the item, confirm the purchase, wait to hear back, tell the vendor my character name, meet with the vendor at a specific time and place in game, use a cryptic message to verify I was the buyer, and only then I would own the chest plate. I did all this, and soon the gear was mine.
For the times, they are a-changin’
At some point, I stopped playing Diablo 2…well, no one really ever stops playing Diablo 2, but I stopped playing for a while. We had spent roughly 3-5 bucks on the chest plate, along with one or two other item, and in my head, I now owned that piece and could come back whenever I wanted. This isn’t 100% true, since after a period of inactivity the character is wiped. But in my head, there was nothing to worry about.
After Diablo 2, I played many other games. The next freemium game I remember playing was Gunbound, a competitive game in which players shoot at one another from on top of cute animals with mounted canons. Gunbound didn’t have the universe that Diablo 2 did, but it was still really fun. If you’ve played Worms, the game is basically Worms but the animals’ canons match up with different kinds of weapons.
As someone who played a lot of Worms with friends, I didn’t need to spend money to be good at the game. I knew how to shoot each canon fairly well and had a lot of fun doing so. But, Gunbound had these costumes you could buy to dress your character. With these costume items, you could make your character look like how you wanted, beyond the basic options offered in the game. Since I was playing the game a lot and constantly looking at my character, I felt compelled to personalize him. After a quick meeting with my father (“PLEASE DAD I WANT THIS.”), I was able to buy a few costume items, which made my guy kinda look like Indiana Jones…I like Indiana Jones.
After several months, though, I stopped playing Gunbound. It was fun, but eventually I moved on to other games and to writing. And one game in particular.
Paying to Play
Like a huge chunk of the gaming community, I played World of Warcraft for some time. This was my first experience with asking my dad to pay for a game monthly (“Dad, I’d really like to play it.” …I was 18 or so now). The compromise of playing it would mean I couldn’t ask for other games on occasion, but at the time, World of Warcraft was this otherworldly experience (for those that care, this was The Burning Crusade days). It had this huge world that just seemed to go on forever. You could do heroic quests, visit amazing places, talk to tons of people, fight tons of people, get lots of gear, and it was the perfect difficultly. I finally had a game I didn’t want to spend extra money on.
After 3 months of playing during most of my free time, I reached the top level of the game. It was a truly rewarding experience hitting the top level. It felt like validation for all the hours sunk into the game.
At the time, I was leveling with some online friends whom I had formed a guild with. However, due to disagreements born out of miscommunication, a few of our top officers left the guild, leaving me and the guild leader to run a large, disorganized group of over 100 players, a hodgepodge of max levels, mid-levels, low-levels, some active and some not.
The guild leader and I wanted to tackle the end-game dungeons as soon as possible, despite our guild drama. We couldn’t do this with a bunch of inactive members, most of which who weren’t the top level, the ground floor requirement for the end-game content. An executive decision was made, and we cut anyone who wasn’t top level. The next step: marketing and production.
There’s a Calendar on the Guild Website for a Reason!
Since I was starting college, I had lots of free time on my hands. I spent countless hours in Orgrimmar, the central hub for my faction, spamming the digital air waves with advertisements for our guild. Anyone who was the top level could join, as long as they wanted to adventure into Warcraft’s dungeons.
Marketing the guild was actually a lot of boring work. You sit in town, calling out to the masses over and over, fighting for visibility against prominent and established guilds and Warcraft’s gold vendors (much like the Diablo 2 vendor I bought from). When I finally did catch a fish, I would have to explain where the guild was at the time (at the start of end-game) and what we had done (nothing) and how active we were (there weren’t many people). This was a hard sell for the majority of top level players, but we managed to wrangle a group together large enough and strong enough to take on the first dungeon, Karazhan. I was excited.
To enter Karazhan, we needed 10 people and a pretty specific group make-up. We needed 2 guys to be the meat shields for all the damage, at least one guy to heal the meat shields, and a mixed bag of damage, some magic guys, some melee guys, and some ranged guys. To organize all this, I bought a website and a Ventrilo, which is like a place where everyone could conference call each other for communication during the dungeon. In this case, I didn’t ask for my dad’s help and used some savings I had instead.
During the preparations for the dungeon, however, my guild leader slowly became less and less active, leaving me at the mast as co-guild leader. I did my best to let everyone know WHEN we would be raiding, WHERE we would be, WHO would be raiding, and WHAT everyone could use to help me organize this whole parade: the guild website, which had a calendar. I told people MAKE SURE to sign up for the raid slot they wanted and to PLEASE show up.
Try as I might, I would constantly have someone missing on raid night, someone else complaining about not knowing what was going on, and half the guild not caring. Worse, as a stealthy rogue, people rarely wanted to party with me outside of the guild because rogues were extremely popular.
To get away for my guild responsibilities, I started playing on an alternative character, a powerful warrior capable of defending against waves of enemies. I leveled this character up to the low level dungeons and finally got to be a meat shield myself in small 5 man groups. In one dungeon, I managed to tank almost 5 rooms at once, controlling some 30 odd enemies’ aggression to be on me while my team destroyed the group. It was completely engrossing and totally reinvigorated me. People wanted to play with me, and I did really well at my role.
Meanwhile, on my main rogue character, the guild fell apart. The guild leader hadn’t been around in months. No one listened to me. And many of our once active members had left. In the final days, my guild leader showed up and told me his life outside the game had become busy…but worse, he had been playing on an alternative character himself on another server and was on an active guild there.
…I made the decision to disband the guild, and I cancelled my subscription, promising to never return to Warcraft or a pay-to-play service again. The reason was that Warcraft had become work, work that I paid into every month just to show up. I always felt like I was on a time clock and that I needed to maximize my time all the time. I couldn’t do it, and the guild, any longer. For years, I refused to play any massively multiplayer game, especially anything I had to pay for monthly, no matter how cool it looked (Wraith of the Lich King, I’m talking about you).
I took my character, drowned him in Booty Bay, inside a sunken ship in a shallow cove, and logged out, never to return.
“0 – 13 Rammus”
In mid-2010, I was introduced to League of Legends. LoL is a complicated game to explain, but the quick-and-dirty is this: two armies of equal strength battle each other at a standstill. You, along with 4 other players on your team, are dropped into this battlefield. Your aim is to defeat the opposing sides’ forces and fortifications, protected by 5 other players. It’s like 5 generals who slowly influence a war until one side wins. Each player summons and controls a Champion, a particular character with a unique look and set of moves, to influence the battle in their favor.
Now, League of Legends’ freemium model is much like Gundbound’s: you can buy some vanity items, some performance boosters, and, of course, champions. Buying champions was ultimately my addiction.
What’s interesting about League of Legends is that, by and large, everything could be bought with in-game currency. Performance boosters and vanity items, such as visual overhauls for champions, could only be bought using Riot Points. And on the flipside, certain items, runes which provide small passive bonuses, could only be bought with in-game currency, which confused me as a whale. Why wouldn’t you monetize that?!
In my first game of League of Legends, I played Rammus, “the Armordillo.” He was a beefy meat shield who was half World of Warcraft warrior, half Sonic the Hedgehog. He could roll into a ball, knock the enemy back, and taunt them for attention. I thought, how hard could it be?
I ended the game with 0 enemy kills and 13 deaths to the other team. If you don’t know how bad it is, it’s 0 – 49 in football, 0 – 5 in hockey, 60 – 120 in basketball, and 21 – -4 in mini-golf. This was a horrible performance. But maybe it was that Rammus didn’t gel with me. I looked at the free champions for the next week—every week they rotate a set of free champions, about 10 per week with 60-70 champions total at the time—and out of those champions, one of them looked sorta fun to me, Garen.
Garen was the hero of Demacia, a fictional province in the League of Legends lore. He had a big sword and hefty armor, and every time you used one of his moves, he screamed “DEMACIA!” I finished my first few games around 5 – 5, 4 – 5, and 6 – 4, which was all respectable for a new player. What was more important was that I was having fun, for free. This made me want to play more. I played a bunch of games, gaining in-game currency, and at the first possible chance, I bought Garen, so I could use him whenever I wanted to. I played many games with Garen, but after a short period, I wanted to know about all the champions I was missing out on. Maybe I would be better with someone else?
Luckily for me, Riot had a fast track option, a champion bundle pack that included 20 champions at a massively reduced Riot Point cost (roughly 75% off what it would cost for each individual champion).
I looked at this option with some apprehension. By now, I had realized I had these tendencies to buy into freemium services, especially anything with massive savings, which I would use to justify my purchase. I could feel this tension within myself, this anxiety, like I knew I would buy the pack, but I wanted to fight with myself about it first.
I looked at my bank account…pack would cost like 40 bucks…and then the pack…and I flipped through all the champions making quick passes at their looks, since I didn’t have enough experience to guess how they would play…and then back to my bank account…and then back to the pack…and then I’d talk to my friend…”So what does this guy do? He has a robot arm and yanks people?! What about this guy? He flies a biplane and shoots stuff?!” …I love airplanes.
I bought the pack. I immediately played a bunch of champions. And for the next few months, I was hooked.
There’s a champion sale this weekend
After several months, I would play League of Legends less and less. This was not because I was bored. On the contrary, I did want to play. But, I was really dedicated to my education by this point, and I had the most fun playing LoL with friends. Only one of my friends was actually into the game consistently, my friend Paul, who had originally introduced me to the game, and at the time, we only met up once or twice a month. We didn’t always play LoL either.
I never stopped caring about League of Legends, though. I kept reading about the new champions coming out and the balance changes every month. I read about theorycrafting, looked at the forums for user created ideas, and religiously watched online streams of other people playing.
It wouldn’t be until Season 2 arrived that I would heavily play again, regardless of my friend being over or not. And of course, when I did come back, I instantly spent a bunch of money to buy everything I had missed. Now the reason to play was I wanted a bunch of champions and rather save my in-game currency for runes than spend them on champions; if I bought the champions with money, I could catch up to where I would have been if I had never stopped playing. I eventually afforded all the runes I wanted and played regularly with a group of guys. All was right in the world.
The sooner you leave, the sooner you go/Back to Massachusetts
School took over my life again. I was an honor student the last two years of college and picked an insane workload to finish school relatively on time with advanced honors. Again, while I didn’t play League of Legends, I digested streams at an unprecedented rate. Now, there were pro-players who I was a fan of, who made me laugh, who I could learn from by watching. I memorized their inside jokes, their build patterns, how they did what they did and why. It was a weird period to know so much about LoL without actually playing it.
And around the time I graduated, I met my current girlfriend, my to-be-announced fiancee at some point, who I’m now expecting a child with. She was a childhood friend of my sister who lived in Massachusetts, where I grew up as a child. I had been living in Georgia, attending Georgia State University for Philosophy. To make us work, I would need to move, which again, used up a lot of my time. Then I had to job hunt, another period which I stopped myself from playing games so I could focus on getting a job.
Just before hunkering down for my job hunt process, I played TERA’s early access beta. The fast paced action and picturesque world made me instantly attracted to it, but I knew at launch it would cost money per month, a pay-to-play model. I had not forgotten my promise to myself after World of Warcraft, which I was 4 years clean of. TERA was fun, but not 15 dollars a month fun, especially not during a job hunt.
After several months of searching, I ended up with what could only be described as a dream job, working within the game industry.
As someone who had never worked before, though, I didn’t expect work to take up as much time as it did. Like I had in the past, I poured myself into my job, doing everything I could to be the best that I could, and spent my free time keeping my relationship happy. I had to learn how to be okay with only getting 2 hours a week to play video games as someone who had, at times, played 40 hours or more a week.
It was challenging, but I did the best I could. I kept watching League of Legends streams, but it was next to impossible to dedicate 30 minutes, a typical LoL game length, to anything. If my girlfriend needed something right away, I didn’t want to be the guy saying, “BRB in 2 minutes,” when 4 other people were relying on me to be there. I made what some would call the “adult decision” to push my hobbies aside for work and my significant other.
The Beginning of the End
Work has slowed down now, and my contract will be ending soon. Our baby will be born, knock-on wood, March 1st. My life will be ramping up once again shortly, but while its quiet, I decided to check in on TERA and League of Legends again, now with time I could dedicate to either. In the past months, I had been quietly watching TERA, since it announced it would be free-to-play as of February 5th. And of course, I’m playing an Amani Lancer, a dragon-born being who wields an unbreakable shield and a pointed lance. And as I mentioned earlier, I had bought the box for special benefits and was awarded two mounts but neither looked really cool.
Again, I felt anxious. I stared at Sleipnir, with his ice mane ad glowing eyes. He looked more proportional to other avatars and had these special effects. Why did I want this mount when I had two?
Because it is fun
Looking back at all the games I bought into and inevitably the one I refused to, the connection was these free-to-play experiences were all lots of fun and something I wanted to sink time into. I did some mental calculus with myself, weighing the options and the value of the money, and said, “Yes, I want to spend money.” In contrast, World of Warcraft made me spend.
And that’s huge. When I was obligated to play because I had spent 15 dollars, it felt like the experience could end at any moment because if I ever didn’t have the cash, I couldn’t play. But all these free-to-play experiences, they kept me coming back. For instance, at the start of last year, I played Diablo 2 again, a ten year old game, in anticipation of Diablo 3’s release. I never stopped caring about League of Legends because I knew I could always go back to it, picking up from where I left off. And while I hadn’t gone back to Gunbound, it felt good to support something I wanted to support, rather than paying because I had to, in addition to the cool digs I acquired.
Obligations aren’t fun. They feel constricting. They made me feel anxious for an entire month, rather than for 5 minutes. And every time after I spend my money, I feel good because I’m actively supporting a huge team of people who worked extremely hard to provide me with a powerful and deep experience, and they aren’t forcing me to spend money if I want to keep experiencing it. Instead, they say, “Hey man. Have fun, but support if you can.”
I don’t mind paying 60 bucks up front, but the 15 dollar a month model is something I still don’t want to endorse. Instead, I rather pay the money because the game is fun, not because I have to. While I may spend more than 15 dollars a month for a free experience like TERA, it certainly doesn’t feel the same. It feels like giving to an awesome charity rather than paying my pusher. Freemium isn’t a dirty word for me—when done right, like TERA, it’s liberating.
Currently, I’ve spent at least 10 dollars on Diablo 2, at least 15 on Gunbound, probably 240 on World of Warcraft, and over 300 dollars on League of Legends. Only 40 on TERA…so far.
I am a whale, and I’m proud to support the games I love.
P.S. You get a blue halo costume item for buying from TERA’s store. I plan to wear it.