The Search for Whales

Editor’s note: this is a republished work from our days as Zam/ReadySet. Some images my have changed.

In the beginning, Romain Schneider tells me, he was “just a gamer like everybody else.”

But he’s being modest. In the free time afforded to him as a student, Schneider was discovering his competitive streak in PC MMOs. He created characters that went down in legend, recognized for their power by players all over the world.

“Let’s call it an addiction problem,” he says. “Whenever I started a game I had to do it fully, competitively, and to the extreme.”

This was all well and good when Schneider had the time to feed this addiction, but the freedom of university was soon replaced by a demanding professional life.

“I couldn’t fully live it anymore,” he reflects. “My solution came with the mobile generation, and games that allowed you to enjoy them while still continuing with real life to a certain extent.”

2013’s mobile MMO Galaxy Legend was among the first to really catch Schneider’s attention, but the move to mobile did little to alleviate his compulsion to play and compete. Two things, however, had changed: free-to-play was now the dominant model, and Schneider had disposable income from his job “in a senior management position at one of the biggest financial institutions in the country.”

So he began to spend real money in Galaxy Legend – not to make it more fun, but to make it more boring.

Galaxy Legend

 

“In my case, spending was an addiction control,” he explains. “It was basically like cheating, like hacking the game in a way. Then it gets boring and you can get out. If you don’t do it, you need a lot of time to max everything out and be at the top.”

For a while, this was enough. Schneider would spend a few hundred euros to see “everything the game had to offer,” before quitting. Inevitably, mobile game developers grew wise to this.

“They became cleverer and more elaborate, and then the spending ceiling increased,” he recalls. “So in theory you could spend thousands and thousands, and then tens of thousands, and still not max out.”

At the peak of his spending, Schneider’s annual outlay on Galaxy Legend alone was around 50,000 Euros ($58,000) – a mere “fraction” of his salary, but a significant amount to anyone. What’s crucial to understand is that when spending reaches these levels, it is invariably driven in no small part by interactions with other players.

First, there’s obviously the tussle to be the best. Schneider’s Galaxy Legend spending began with that same impulse to max everything out, but really intensified when he “realized everyone around me was doing the same thing.”

But arguably even stronger is the desire to compete as part of a team, with guilds playing a big part in free-to-play mobile games. “You perceive your expenditure is not for yourself,” Schneider considers. “It’s for the team, and that’s one of the key mechanisms that got me to pay the big sums.”

Star Trek: Timelines

 

Big spenders tend to find themselves moving in the same circles. Schneider recalls one six-month period in which his guild spent a combined 250,000 Euros ($290,000), the bulk of which came from the top five to eight players.

Schneider tells me that he has spent money in every game he’s ever played – Wonder Tactics, Summoners War, Star Trek: Timelines, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes and DC Legends being just a few that spring to mind. In so doing, he has become part of a community that he likens to a university alumni network. “When you enter a room where an alumni is – even if you haven’t met them yourself – there’s an instant rapport and connection.”

“This was the basis for everything I did,” he goes on. “I’d just go into a game, meet someone I knew from somewhere else, they’d introduce me to other people, and you are instantly one of them. You are in: trusted and fully networked.”

Regularly communicating through chat apps such as LINE and Discord, this became the basis for many real-world friendships – and, for Schneider, a business. His vision was to create a company funded by, and embedded within, the community of affluent mobile gamers he has grown to know so intimately.

That company is Janeious, its debut game the in-development Fusion Guards. It’s already raised more than $1.5 million from its community stakeholders, who are all sold on the vision of a mobile game that truly understands and caters properly to its high-spending contingent.

DC Legends

 

One stakeholder goes by the name of Bastion Riddicker. He met Schneider while playing Star Trek: Timelines, before inviting him to join the “umbrella of guilds” he runs in DC Legends. The pair have since rubbed shoulders in various other games.

Like Schneider, Bastion initially entered mobile gaming as an MMO player seeking a more balanced lifestyle. He found it, in the sense that mobile games allowed him to spend more time outdoors and less time in front of a console, but this wound up being a far more costly way of playing.

“We used to just spend $50-60 on one game and that was it,” he considers. “And here we are spending thousands on a mobile game. How did they get us to do that?” For Bastion, a dedicated collector of comics, figurines and other memorabilia, mobile games managed to tap into the same impulses.

That Star Trek: Timelines and Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes launched within two months of each other, at the time when he began taking an interest in mobile gaming, no doubt contributed. These two games, and later DC Legends, allowed Bastion to cultivate digital collections that mirrored his physical ones

“I was already [a compulsive] collector before mobile gaming, so it just made sense that I was going to go crazy in this,” he says.

By night, Bastion works as a party limo driver in San Francisco. It’s a lucrative business, not least thanks to the generous tips of Silicon Valley higher-ups. Indeed, it’s not inconceivable to imagine that, on occasion, mobile game execs have lined his pockets in the same way he’s lined theirs.

If he makes $600 on a night, he tells me that he can comfortably earmark $200 of that to spend on a game. In an average month, he’ll spend between $1,000 and $2,000 on mobile games. But just because his spending is at a level most would consider to be excessive, that’s not to say it’s unthinking.

In Star Trek: Timelines, for instance, he is now pulling back on spending after realizing the poor value it offers. “You could spend $20 in Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes or DC Legends, and get the same amount as you’d get for $100 in Star Trek,” he states. “It’s really outrageous, but it’s working because people are willingly spending.”

What’s kept Bastion playing Star Trek: Timelines, then, are the other players. Real-world friendships have emerged from the community, and he even met his girlfriend through the game. It may at times have left him feeling “cheated,” but it’s hard not to see the value here.

In the world of the high-spending player, the game itself seems almost irrelevant. In my conversations with Schneider and Bastion, neither of them once mentions how the games they are playing bring them joy in any recognizable sense. Bastion talks about the short-lived buzz of attaining and showing off sought-after characters, but admits that buyer’s remorse is usually not far behind.

The real nourishment seems to come from the players themselves, the emotional pull coming from within the group chats rather than on the leaderboards. Now that the community is going one step further and creating Fusion Guards, it’s almost immaterial whether or not the end product is a success; simply collaborating to make it a reality is the most exciting game of all.

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