Vote with Your (Whale) Wallet

There was an interesting, albeit depressing, exchange on Reddit concerning the release of Dr. Mario World, Nintendo’s latest foray into mobile nihilism. Basically, it’s Dr. Mario meets Candy Crush (e.g. stamina meters) with a dash of gacha game lootboxes. Which is a little weird, considering Nintendo seems to make a point about not being too greedy with their monetization strategies. What changed?


Five years ago, I made the point that “voting with your wallet” was a losing strategy, in comparison to complaining about things and thereby possibly voting with other peoples’ wallets. That sentiment seems almost quaint these days. The current reality we inhabit is one in which the mere existence of people willing to drop $100 (or $1000) in a sitting dictates how mobile games are developed.

I would like to believe there is some kind of silver lining in all this. And maybe there is. If you are just looking for something to do on your phone, there are tens of thousands of options available for free. Not all of them are even horrible. Hell, go play Dr. Mario World if you want!

As someone who loves the purity of elegant game design though… I’m fucked. I could vow to never play these games again, convince thousands more to join the boycott, and it wouldn’t matter. When 90% of the playerbase is already not paying for anything, and the average lifetime value of paying customers is single digits, one $99 purchase justifies a lot of nonsense. Not just in one game, but every game. There will be exceptions, but they exist as deliberate acts, fighting the ocean current.

When money is speech, the richest speak the loudest.

…er, when did we decide that was a good idea, again?

Posted on July 10, 2019, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Then who should vote if not the rich? The loud? The time rich?

    There once was a good game, vanilla WoW. Then they started to optimized it for the insurmountable raiding minority with TBC/WotlK which killed the game.

    It just got worse after that when they optimized it for a different group of players.


    • One person, one vote, is the ideal. All interests become aligned in that scenario, players AND developers. When you just have box sales, devs only get paid more when they make the box more appealing – it matters not whether it’s you or Bill Gates playing. Every player benefits from a better box, and devs care about the box staying relevant and fresh for the entire lifetime of the game.

      Once you stray into alternative payment models, the interests become unaligned. Whales become what matters, because that’s the source of your revenue. Even in subscription models, you get the WoW scenario in which the raiders get catered to almost exclusively, as they are more stable sources of revenue. Does it matter that they’re only 10% of the playerbase? Clearly not.

      Games are a business, and they always have been, but our current reality is just sad. Whatever legislative victories may be won over lootboxes will be erased by some other means of revenue extraction. Because you only really need one Bill Gates buying shit in your game to be successful, and the whole of your game design will be bent towards that purpose.


      • Except Bill won’t play/pay if he is the only one playing, so the game CAN’T just cater to him. The most successful games out today are the ones that balance this, like LoL, where you can whale out, but said whaling doesn’t drive away everyone else. We have seen a lot of MMOs chase the whale, only to kill the game overall (Archeage, long before that Atlantica Online).

        The ‘just sell the box’ model also has the major flaw of needing just that one point of sale, which is at the beginning. That results in a game that has an awesome initial few hours, and unfinished shit after that. Most reviewers will only get to the initial stuff (AoC, Witcher 3), write a great review, and the first month sales are awesome while the overall game is highly flawed. Once you buy the box, the devs don’t care about you anymore.


  2. Well nobody “decided” it was a good idea, it’s just how the universe works. It’s perfectly logical too. If I’m a game developer, and gamer X is willing to pay me $100 for a certain kind of game while gamer Y is not willing to pay more than $1 for any kind of game, I’m listening to X unless there are many more times as many Ys as Xs. In the mobile game realm there often aren’t.


    • The universe of gaming didn’t work that way until relatively recently, arcades aside.

      The saddest part to me is that it really isn’t about the type of game per se, it’s mechanics within it. Indeed, many times the entire issue is precisely how disconnected the money part is from the rest of the mechanics. For example, stamina bars in games like Candy Crush and Dr Mario World. I can grudgingly accept things like candy hammers (e.g. cash-bought items that give you extra moves/bypass difficult board states) because those at least have a function. What’s a stamina meter for except for revenue extraction?


  3. The argument here is far, far older than gaming. It’s fundementally about commerce versus art. All of the media we consume, nominally, for entertainment rides this divide, from opera to mobile games. You can’t create any of this stuff without creatives and creatives are art-driven. Even if these days you can get algorithms to put the pieces together the pieces have to be created by a person or the code to create them does or the code to create the code that does did, once. And anyway, we aren’t, yet, at the point of having our entertainment automated as standard.

    Creatives have a number of choices; they can be outsiders, working alone or in colectives, doing what they want and not caring if it supports them financially; they can agent up or play the game their field requires and work within whatever compromises they can stand; they can sell out to the highest bidder and do whatever the market demands. Or any number of points on that curve.

    The most capable, original, inspired, innovative individuals won’t necessarily cluster at any of the nodal points. Some of the most original thinking will happen in obscure niches, some of the most amazing skills will be harnessed to the most soul-dead hyper-commercialized projects – and vice versa. Even so, certain media, forms and companies will develop reputations that will skew who chooses to work for them. If gaming continues along the path it’s going there will be a reaction within its structure and that will have outcomes that will change patterns.

    I don’t think we will see a return to box sales driving profits ahead of other revenue streams. The whole entertainment mega-industry is moving towards the subscription model that was supposedly so heavily rejected in MMOs just a few years ago. It doesn’t mean the future has to be lowest common denominator commercialis, though. That can’t and won’t sustain the innovation needed to keep the shark swimming.


    • People always look it this as if it’s only two axis, artiness and financial success. But there’s a third axis, consumer enjoyment.

      There are artists that create pure art, they don’t care about their consumers. I have ZERO interest in that because it’s shit. It might be great art but it’s boring and shit. There’s nothing in it to enjoy.

      On the other side we have stuff optimized for financial gains. I’m not really interested in that either because the pure optimization on financial gains warps the quality of the good until it breaks.

      But there is a third thing. Something optimized for the consumer. That’s what I want. Unfortunately, most artists don’t want to create that because they either prefer as much money as possible (dull main stream) or they want to create art only for themselves (boring as fuck).


      • Your third pole (let’s just call it ‘entertainment’) aligns perfectly with the second commercial pole, in my view. People will pay for the philistine crap that gives them the dopamine hit, so that’s what gets produced. Mainstream is mainstream because it does the job efficiently for a large proportion of us.


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