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Words to ban #1: Whales

By on April 16, 2019

I hate the term whales.

It is a word drawn from the gambling industry to describe their high rollers, the heavy spenders who gamble huge sums of money and often lose them.

I hate the word whales because words have power. When you hear a phrase, it guides your thoughts. If I tell you not to think of a white bear, a mental image of a polar bear is likely to appear in your mind’s eye.

Let’s think about what the word whales implies. It associates high spenders with the majestic creatures that swim in pods across the vast expanse of the Earth’s oceans. We (or at least some of us) track those creatures down in large, ocean-going, factory ships. We hunt them from fast, armed launches. We fire grenade harpoons deep into their flesh, where they explode.

To become part of this hunt, we abandon, temporarily, part of our humanity. We view these creatures not as majestic wonders but as fodder for our cannon, beasts whose role is to serve humankind. We hunt them for our own commercial purpose, and we need to get them fast for fear our rivals from Norway, Iceland or Japan will get there first.

When we view our players as potential whales, we dehumanise them. We create a mind-set where players are dumb creatures too stupid to “outwit” our monetisation systems. Where predatory tactics are justified by “survival of the fittest” and where we must race to hunt down the whales in our games before a rival company snaffles them.

Contrast that with treating your most engaged players as Superfans. If you want to create fans of your game, you must create something that people love. You must nurture your players until they become fans. You must nurture those fans until they become Superfans.

A whale is not an aspirational noun. Few people aspire to be whales. Many people aspire to be fans. I want to make the kind of games where people are proud to say, “I’m a Superfan of that game.”

I get accused of rebranding “whales” as “Superfans” because it has a better PR ring to it. It is true that Superfans sounds better in the press, but that is not the reason I try to ban the word with my clients. I ban it because if you focus on Superfans, it helps you, as game developers, have empathy with what you are trying to do to become a commercially successful service game: make games that people want to keep playing and offer them things that they value, that they can buy, and keep on buying, with no sense of buyer’s remorse.

This is an extract from Nicholas’s new book, The Pyramid of Game Design – get your copy here!

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: