In recent weeks Eurogamer has closely followed the debate surrounding video game loot boxes and in-game gambling. We've investigated the legislation around the issue, reported on the government's response to direct questioning and investigated how developers could react to stricter regulation. But what about the people who actually spend money on loot boxes?
'Whales', as they're called, are the big spenders when it comes to online and social games, forking out roughly Ł25 a month on microtransactions. In free-to-play games, the vast majority of revenue is generated by 'whales' who make up a small percentage of the player base. This is the business model most free-to-play games are based upon.
Eurogamer spoke to David 'Siigari' Pietz, a 34 year-old small-time Twitch streamer from Oregon, USA who, in a 2014 reddit AMA confessed to being a video game whale. We wanted to find out why he chooses to spend so much money in video games, whether he feels exploited by game makers and, of course, whether he considers loot boxes gambling.
What do you do for a living?
David Pietz: I'm a DJ and audio engineer. I've been working in a restaurant as well just to get out of the house occasionally. I quit DJing full time six years ago and I've been pursuing other audio-related interests, such as working for translation companies.
Would your wage be above or below average?
Pietz: I'm comfortable.
How much have you spent on microtransactions and loot boxes?
Pietz: I've probably spent easily upwards of $20,000 in the past five years.
Are there certain games you spend the money on, or is it spread over a mixture of games?
Pietz: I play what I play while I'm interested and when it fades away either something else finds me, so to speak, or I seek it out and go to it.
The most recent game I've started playing is a mobile game called King's Raid. It's a little anime style game. I found a really active community on Twitch for this game and within the third day I was spending. I told myself when I got this game. 'I'm going to free-to-play this one.' Yeah, it didn't happen.
Is that important to you when you are picking games to play, having a very active community?
Pietz: Finding a community is really important because it tells me the game has a healthy heartbeat and there is going to be a reason to invest my dollars into something that is totally intangible and can totally poof at any moment.
Your AMA suggested you mainly invest in mobile games. Are mobile games what you tend to focus on playing or do you branch into triple-A titles?
Pietz: When I called myself a whale back then I didn't actually understand what whale meant. I just thought it was a big spender. Big spending, sure, people spend a lot of money on games. Nowadays you talk about people who are whales, and we are talking about Moby Dick slaying, spending millions of dollars and I can't compete with that.
I played League of Legends for years and when it started its own loot chest system I started losing interest in the game. I liked they had an upfront, 'this is the price you pay for this product', like this skin or this whatever. I thought the company had some integrity. But then they got into the loot box system, which seemed to be cut and paste from Hearthstone. I was like, I don't know if I want to see the game going down this path, because I know this path very well and this is not something I feel invested in when the game, in my opinion, is starting to see its way out. It definitely discouraged me from spending and for the past few years I've said, 'Riot, I'm not supporting you with money anymore.'
Most of the games I've played I wouldn't say are triple-A titles. I've dabbled in Overwatch. I've tried Hearthstone. The kind of games I'm interested in are collectable games really. I played a lot of Magic: The Gathering as a kid and an adult. So I've got a lot of knowledge of collectable games. When Hearthstone came out I told myself there is no reason to get invested in this when I know how much it costs to play Magic: The Gathering.
Would you put Magic: The Gathering card packs in the same category as loot boxes?
Pietz: Yeah. Kind of. There are some things to say about that though. It's really clear what the odds are every time you open a pack of cards. You know exactly what you should be expecting to get. Now, they break that down. So say, for example, in a 200 card set, there are maybe 40 rare cards. Of those 40 rare cards, five are any good - any good meaning they'll see play. I know the odds at this point. So I've got a one in 40 chance that this pack will have a good card and there are 36 packs in a box. So the chances of me getting all the rares, I know I'll get some duplicate bulk rares that suck, because it's just how they do it and the good cards are going to be less available so yeah... it really just comes down to I know what I'm getting into when I submit to it and they're not trying to shark me.
What is the most you have spent on one video game? Is there a particular game you have invested a lot into?
Pietz: I played a game called Atlantica Online for a while. I probably spent $5000 on that.
What encouraged you to spend so much on that game?
Pietz: It's a super competitive game. It was an RPG and your characters could get more powerful by getting weapons plussed. So say that you have this gun, when you get it, it's just a gun plus zero. If you combined two guns you would get a plus one.
Like an upgrade?
Pietz: That's right. So then you get into factoring, literally, it takes two guns to make a plus one, takes four guns to make a plus two because it takes two plus ones plus two plus ones to make plus two and it takes eight to make a plus three, etc. It gets expensive. You're trying to find what's the best and cheapest path. It's all RNG. It's all randoms. So it just got really expensive. I liked the game and I played it with some friends but, honestly, I just liked being powerful in that game. I liked kicking ass and it was really expensive to kick ass in it.
In a really disgusting twist of events there was a gacha pack released for that game and I bought some pre-paid cards, some Nexon cash or whatever, and put it into the account. There's a new gacha pack that came out and something in the pack dropped that wasn't listed on the list of drops. It didn't say 'and many other items', that was the complete list. So I said, 'hey, this is not OK, this is garbage, I would like a refund,' and they said, 'no, we posted our loot table and stuff,' and I was like, 'no, you didn't post the loot table, this is not on it,' and I charged them back and they banned my account. My moral fibre got involved at that point.
Was this after you had invested all that money into the game?
How long have you been spending money in games like this?
Pietz: It's probably been five, maybe seven years. It probably started when mobile games and microtransaction really hit. I think that didn't really start until 2010/2011, that I started spending on small purchases and whatnot.
So it grew from there?
Pietz: To be simple about it, yeah. I definitely had limits and I never went over my limits. I can't say I've been financially distraught because I was paying microtransactions.
Has it has any negative effects on your life, with partners etc?
Pietz: My girlfriend, now wife, at the time was like, 'you're spending how much on this?' and, 'that's disgusting.' I explained to her - she plays mobile games too - who says you can't spend money on it if you like it?
You said before you hadn't understood the definition of whale when you called yourself one. Would you still consider yourself a whale?
Pietz: As long as you don't repeat it [laughs]. Whale has earned itself a derogatory namesake and, in the game I'm playing right now, to call somebody a whale is basically calling them somebody who spends frivolously and without restraint. I definitely have restraint. I'm not going to put myself into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt over a game which is here for a short time then could vanish.
I'm not admonishing those who do that - I got to be really clear about it. If you've got the disposable income then be my guest. I'm spending my level of disposable income. But that's just it, when you come down to it everything is relative. If you make millions of dollars or you have millions of dollars and you spent $100,000 on a game. then OK. There are people that I have played with who have spent, I'm not joking, millions of dollars on one game. It breaks my brain to think about that and that's OK. To them it's probably just another day.
It's really crazy to think about this and it's something a lot of people get upset about, and I think it's unfair. Sure, they could do anything with their money, but what they do with their money is their business and if it impacts you in a negative way then you can leave or stop playing that game. The people I play with, who are at this level, there's no chance on God's earth I can compete with these players. They have the spending power, the knowledge, the time-invested, they have everything. Even if I started the same as them on day one, sure I might feel like I can keep up with them but, in the end, no way. It's just not going to happen.
So to say, do I call myself a whale? Yeah at my level [laughs]. We call them dolphins.
You say you play with these people you know you'll never catch up with because they have the money to invest. Do you think that makes games unbalanced or unfair?
Pietz: Part of the reason these games have leaderboards is to make you feel like you're competing against someone else. Leaderboards exist to pressure players to spend money. It's a gentle pressure at first. There are elements in the games that make it easier to get ahead, whether it's getting a hero, gear, new character, or whatever. And as these leaderboards offer you rewards, which help you earn more things, they kind of gently pressure you, like 'you should get this new hero that's come out and spend all of your cash on this right now,' or maybe you've had some sitting in your game account and you should spend it. The fact those sort of pressures exist is what causes people to move towards the mindset they are no longer playing against themselves and they are playing against other people.
So yes and no. It depends on the player's mindset and it depends on the developer's mindset. Some developers push really hard for a cash shop-only presence where you must pay money to continue in the game. Others have a way less obvious, if you want to progress faster you can send some money. I think striking a balance between the two is really where I like playing because I don't like 100 per cent, 'I must spend money' to compete in this game. But at the same time I like to spend money because I want to enjoy the game.
So you like having the option there?
Pietz: Exactly. That's right. Inevitably I will end up spending if I truly enjoy a game. I think it's fair to the developers. I know they are making money hand over fist but if I enjoy a game truly and spend some money on it, that feels good inside.
Pietz: [Directing me towards a comic] I think that's a pretty good example of how we, spenders, feel. I'm going to buy something now and it feels good right now but later there's going to be something else for us to buy in order for us to feel good.
Does that ever make you feel like the developers are preying on you?
Pietz: Absolutely. I quit playing League of Legends over that feeling. I saw the direction they were going and it was more monetisation. Obviously, every company's first priority is making money, but it's how you go about doing it. When you start doing it in really underhanded ways that are kind of invisible on the surface, it's pretty nasty.
Are loot boxes a form of gambling?
Pietz: Absolutely! It is gambling and the same feeling you get when you pull the jackpot on a slot machine is the same feeling these companies are aiming for whether you win or lose.
When you lose they want you to feel down, they want you to feel like you lost and it's terrible. They want to get you down in the dredges because when you win they want you to feel ecstatic. Every single detail is meticulously made to make you feel amazing. That's why if you have some amazing item just kind of poof and a little sparkle of glitter, you're not even going to know if what you got was good. You're not going to be excited about it and you might junk it, then later you might feel like trash. They don't do that. They make it this whole ordeal of whoosh, here's a super cool item. They want to make you feel good and that ties in so directly to our brain and our dopamine receptors to where we feel good when we get that. It becomes a drug.
It's why you need to be really careful, and I advise anyone who plays these kinds of games to be really vigilant when it comes to how much you're spending. Only spend on play cards. If you're going to do it, put your money onto a prepaid card for the month and only have that money to spend. Don't ever attach your credit card to your gaming account because accidents happen. Don't do that, like set yourself limits so you don't get trapped because gambling is a huge problem.
If you are not cognisant of the money you're spending, you can find yourself in a hole really fast. Especially when these games aren't offering you anything tangible you can actually put your hands on, you don't actually realise the perceived, or the real, value of what you're getting. A skin that costs $10, you don't even consider that it actually costs $10 unless you put the money onto a card and watch the money vanish because there's no money left. If it depletes from your bank account then you won't feel that until you are out of money. So I think it's really important to be careful when you're gambling on intangibles.
I'm pretty fortunate I had a well-structured family growing up and I learnt the value of money and the importance of it. Doesn't mean I always acted responsibly. I sure learned. I think that if we can exercise that going forward then it will be a boon to our children.