What are “mobile games whales” and how to catch ‘em all?

What are "mobile games whales", the mysterious creatures of the mobile games sea? If you've never encountered this term, we'll explain it in this article.There are plenty of fish in the sea. But not [...]

May 10, 2019

10 min reading time

What are “mobile games whales”, the mysterious creatures of the mobile games sea? If you’ve never encountered this term, we’ll explain it in this article.

There are plenty of fish in the sea. But not all fish are the same. And some fish are simply a better catch than others. In the past few years, term “whale” started to be more often used for describing a tiny group (around 2%) of users that drives the most revenue for mobile apps and game publishers.

Mobile Games Whales.

According to data, in most top grossing games, the whales represent the smallest percentage of users but are responsible for up to 50% or more in revenue sales of an app.

Whales are special, rare, but very valuable users that every mobile app or game is going after. Whales are the users that are spending hundreds, thousands or even millions in a mobile game. And the mobile games whales will often make a difference from break even to being profitable.

This type of user won’t be that easy to “catch”. Top grossing companies will sometimes pay more than $500 USD for a “super whale” type of user. It might seem like a lot, but if that user spends thousands in the game, then the investment is completely justified.

Mobile whales were a big topic a couple of years ago when the mobile gaming world was just beginning to grow and expand. Few years do make a difference. “In the early stages of the mobile gaming explosion, every publisher hunted whales. Only a tiny fraction of gamers actually paid for in-app goodies, and while minnows were OK for ad revenue, big spenders — the whales — drove success.” Over the past few years, the number of game players who actually pay rose by a third.

A simple question asked on Galaxy of Heroes forum. What amount of money qualifies a user as a whale? Majority thinks that is $50 a week.

As more game players choose to spend money in-game, developers need to rely far less on mobile games “whale” or the big spenders. The quality of free apps has also improved and the paid app monetization model just isn’t that attractive. Currently, less than 5% of apps in the Google Play Store are paid. (App Brain) Paid apps are most often produced by well-known software companies to stand a better chance of reaching more users. Some of the top selling apps in the Google Play are Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed Identity – already established and familiar titles.

More mobile app and game publishers are using other monetization strategies such as advertising based monetization strategy or freemium model of app monetization. Latest data by deltaDNA recorded from January 2016 to September 2018 shows a major shift in the core business model in F2P games.

Just a couple of years ago, free to play games used to rely on a small percentage of users, mobile games “whales” that drove the majority of the revenue. Nowadays, games have more casual spenders along with the “whales” and they can have more balanced monetization models.

Percentage of paying users in mobile F2P games

In the last three years, the percentage of paying players per game in North America has increased by a third to 4.02% and a fifth to 2.43% in Europe. (Delta DNA)

ARPDAU (Average Revenue Per Daily Active User) has been steadily rising in the past few years for some specific genres. ARPDAU is a metric that helps you understand how well your monetization is working. You’ll need to track the success of your monetization, no matter which monetization model you’ve chosen. ARPDAU will also tell you how any changes you’ve made in the app are affecting the success of your monetization.

How to calculate ARPD(AU)?

ARPU or “Average Revenue Per User” is a metric which will help you understand whether your business model/monetization strategy works (or not).

When you’re acquiring users via different marketing channels, you’ll see that the ARPU can vary from channel to channel.

Keeping a track of ARPU per channel/source from which users were acquired can help you understand what channel is making you money. Calculating ARPU is easy. Divide the revenue with the number of users in a specific period of time (i.e. day – ARPDAU, week – ARPWAU, month – ARPMAU). Want to know what’s your ARPDAU or ARPWAU? Use the same formula over the desired period of time.

ARPU and ARPDAU formula

Why is ARPDAU important to track?

If you track your ARPDAU, you’ll easily see how some changes or events are affecting the revenue you’re making. Whether you’re changing the placement of your ads, trying out new creatives or added a new ad format to your app, you’ll notice positive (or negative) trends that will tell you how to optimize further to achieve the maximum revenue.

ARPDAU within strategy games has soared by 199.9% to 21 cents while in casino games, ARPDAU has risen 41.6%!

Back to the mobile games whales… 🎣

Whales are still important in the world of mobile games, but they’re not as important as they used to be. John Koetsier, VP of Singular, in an article about mobile games whales mentioned that he personally have spoken to a game publisher who had a whale on her platform that had cumulatively spent over $1 million on her casual mobile game.

A bit unbelievable, right?

App publishers of the modern age are more relying on scalable monetization models that will bring in a penny from each sardine, not necessarily a million from one whale.

Mobile gaming is starting to be a social phenomenon, with more and more console game going mobile. Games like PUBG Mobile, Fortnite and Free Fire showed us how powerful mobile devices have become. Mobile games was the fastest growing category of gaming overall, leaving behind consoles, desktop games and handheld gaming. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and Fortnite are some of the names we’re seeing in top charts all over the world. They might look very different and appeal to different markets, but they both can fit in the same category of battle royale games.

Battle royale games are exclusively multiplayer and most often free-to-play, offering in-app purchases. Social factor of these games can’t be denied. When you’re playing with your friends, you’ll want to show off, buy that extra pack or upgrade to look better and win!

Not all mobile games whales are the same…

Fast and furious whale vs. slow whale
Fast and furious whale vs. slow whale

According to Game of Whales, there are slow whales and fast and furious whales. The fast and furious whale can easily end the first session spending over $500 USD, while slow whales take their time. Slow whales are much slower in their spending habits, they’ll first spend a small amount of money to try of the functionalities. Once they get to know the game and they start to play it more actively, they’ll spend more and more money. For this type of players, the focus should be on retention, keeping them happy, engaged and interested. Slower whales might be trickier to hunt and they will require more time and efforts from your side, but they will definitely reward you in the end.

What do “whale” players say? 🎮

A lot of us think: “I could never become a mobile gaming whale.” Well, Eurogamer made an interview with David Pietz, a 34-year-old Twitch streamer that has confessed that he has probably spent upwards of $20,000 on microtransactions and loot boxes in the past five years. When asked why did he chose to spend so much on a single game, he answered:  “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 combine two guns you would get a plus one.” So, there are different motivations behind those numbers, but one thing is certain, users are spending more money on in-app purchases.

Game of Whales

No, not a Game of Thrones reference, but an online tool meant to improve and analyze your game performance and metrics. And if you’re wondering, yes, it was named by the top mobile gamer, so-called “whales”.

Game of Whales console.

Game of Whales team mission was to develop their “dream platform” that would actually increase the metrics they wanted to see improvements in. They’ve built an intelligent tool that automatically increases revenue, conversion rates, ARPPU and retention rates in mobile games.

Game of Whales was developed with the mobile game “whales” in mind.  It does the entire process of identifying, interacting, and optimizing on potential whales for you, automatically. The AI algorithm technology uses behavioral predictions to identify and motivate all of your whales for you.

To sum up:

Mobile games whales are still important, but as the population of players who pay is broadening, it will only help mobile game publishers in the monetization of their games. Games are not a category to be overlooked, they’ll only about to get much bigger. In 2018, there were 194 billion downloads, and that number has been steadily increasing in the past few years. As consumers become more open to in-app purchases, consumer spend grew rapidly. Console games are transitioning to mobile, and as the number of players increases, the ARPDAU keeps on growing.

What does that mean for game publishers?

Game publishers don’t need to rely on mobile games whales anymore to bring their profits up. Occasional mobile games whale will be a great catch, but with plenty of other fish in the sea that are willing to spend the money, game publishers changed the rules of the game. Mobile games are a business of a scale, and that’s one thing we’re great at. If you can acquire 100 or 1000000 users, while keeping the CPI the same, congrats, you’ve hit the jackpot. 🎉🎉🎉

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About Udonis:

We are an award-winning marketing agency specialized in mobile apps & games. We help scale products that people love, keeping the attention on data and results. Have questions, need help? 🤗 Email us at hello@udonis.co!








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Slavica Grgić

I'm Slavica, Social Marketing Manager at Udonis. If I'm not writing new blog posts, I'm making sure that everything is picture perfect.

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