What Are Mobile Game Whales & How to Find Them

What Are Mobile Game Whales & How to Find Them

by Mihovil Grguric

There are plenty of fish mammals in the sea. But not all fish mammals are the same – some are simply better than others. In the past few years, the term “whales” has been used to describe a tiny group of users (around 2%) that drives the most mobile game revenue.

Here’s what you need to know about mobile game whales and how to catch them! 

Who Are Mobile Game Whales?

A mobile game whale is someone who spends a lot on microtransactions or in-app purchases in free-to-play games. For example, booster packs, cosmetics, weapons, access to new levels, etc. However, unlike most other people who spend on in-app purchases, whales spend a lot. I’m talking thousands, and in some cases, millions of dollars. 

John Koetsier, VP of Singular, in an article on mobile game whales mentioned that he spoke to a casual mobile game publisher who had a whale that spent over $1 million on her platform.

Crazy, right?

If we look at statistics for top-grossing games, the whales represent the smallest percentage of users who are responsible for 50% or more in revenue sales of an app. In other words, there’s a small number of mobile game whales, but they account for the majority of a game’s revenue. They will often make a difference for a game from breaking even to being profitable.

That’s what makes gaming whales special, rare, and very valuable users that every mobile app or game is going after. 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.

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

A poll on Galaxy of Heroes forum asking users what amount of money makes a player a "whale".
A simple question asked on Galaxy of Heroes forum. What amount of money qualifies a user as a whale?

The Psychology Behind Mobile Game Whales

You’re probably wondering, what drives mobile game whales to spend so much?

Well, it depends on the whale. 

Some are motivated by winning and beating other players. Those types of whales want to have the best weapons, items, and gear to maximize their chance of winning. For others, it’s about showing off. When playing with friends, many whales want to get the best cosmetic items and signal their status. Others simply get addicted and emotionally invested in a game and its characters, which makes them spend a lot of money to get the full experience. 

Many whales spend on games that have a gacha system – a monetization method where players purchase an item without knowing what they’ll get. They may end up with a common item, but they might get something super rare (usually an exclusive game character), which is why gacha is so enticing and drives more spending. Some even compare it to gambling. It’s not difficult to see how a mobile game whale would be attracted to it – the lure of getting their favorite character or a super rare item is what drives them to spend thousands of dollars. 

Image showing the difference between fast and slow mobile gaming whales.
Fast and furious whale vs. slow whale

Different Types of Mobile Game Whales

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, while slow whales take their time.

Slow whales are much slower in their spending habits, at first they’ll spend only a small amount of money to try the functionalities. Once they get to know the game and start playing it more actively, they’ll spend more and more money.

With this type of player, your focus should be on retention, keeping them happy, engaged, and interested. Slower whales might be trickier to hunt and you will have to invest more time and effort, but they will definitely reward you in the end.

Mobile Game Whale Hunt
Mobile game whales are hunted down with ads, not spears bro.

Dolphins vs. Minnows vs. Whales

Now you know what mobile game whales are. But did you know that there are also dolphins and minnows? Here’s an explanation for both. 

Like mobile game whales, dolphins also spend on mobile games on a regular basis. However, they tend to spend much less. Dolphins tend to have a more limited budget but will purchase weekly/monthly, especially if they get a good offer. In other words, they’re trying to get as much value from the purchase as possible.

Their main purpose for spending is to stay competitive and enjoy the game more, unlike whales who are willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money to dominate the game and make sure they’re number 1. In other words, dolphins pay efficiently, while whales spend recklessly and are more impulsive. 

Minnows, unlike dolphins that tend to spend around $100 to $1,000 per month, spend even less than that – up to $100.  However, keep in mind, that depends on the particular game. Furthermore, whales, dolphins, and minnows are more about motivations for spending and spending habits rather than the exact amounts these groups are spending. 

Essentially, all of these marine life terms are helping game developers to place paying players into different categories based on their spending habits, which helps with monetization strategies. 

Guide: How to Catch a Mobile Game Whale?

The answer is simple – paid ads. But how?

The big ad networks, like Facebook or Google, offer advertisers a way to optimize campaigns for their certain in-app actions. That action can be anything important to your business. Still, the most common event is an In-App Purchase.

Instead of optimizing your campaigns for an install, you can signal the network that you’re interested in acquiring users who are more likely to trigger an In-App Event. This will bring your CPI up, but the users you acquire are going to bring in more revenue.

Ok, but how does this work in practice? Let’s take Google App Campaigns as an example.

Step 1) Connect your analytics/attribution engine to your Google Ads account

Under the Tools & Settings tab in your Google Ads account, click on Linked Accounts. If you’re using Google Firebase, click that, if you’re using any other analytics/attribution provider, scroll down and click on Third-party app analytics.


Google Ads Third Party Analytics
Select Third-party app analytics

Note: Connecting Analytics providers to your Google Ads account can be tricky, especially the Firebase, so make sure to read the instructions and that you have the right permission levels to connect the accounts (Thanks for making this hard Google!).

Once you’re in the Third-party app analytics tab, click the big blue button to add a new integration. 


Google Ads - Linked Accounts
Pick your app analytics provider

Connect your app analytics provider to the ad account and proceed to the next step.

Step 2) Import in-app events into your Google ads account

Go to Tools & Settings tab in your Google Ads account, and this time, click on Conversions. Click the big blue button, select App and then continue by selecting the analytics provider you’ve picked.


Google Ads - App Events
Pick the “App”

A list with all your enabled in-app events will show up. Select the ones you want to use and click Import & Continue. 

Voila! You’re one step closer to hunting down your first mobile game whale! 🙂

Step 3) Create a new App Campaign


Google App Promotion
Google Ads – Pick the App Promotion Objective

Step 4) Name your App Campaign, adjust Targeting, and set the Budget


Google App Promotion
Enter the campaign name & adjust targeting

Step 5) Optimize for the In-App Event (i.e., In-App Purchase)

This is the key step. If you’ve properly executed step 1) and step 2), once Google asks “What do you want to focus on?”, instead of Install volume, you’ll pick In-app actions. The dropdown with all imported events will immediately show up. Pick the one which matters the most to your business.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be an in-app purchase. It can be any user progression event based on a specific action (i.e., when a user spends a total of 5 hours in the game, when a user plays for 10 days in a row, when a user reaches a certain level, etc…).


In-App Purchase
Pick the in-app event.

Step 6) Wrap up the campaign creation

I won’t go into too many details on this one. Add creative assets and wrap up the campaign.

Setting expectations

Set away at least 7-10 days for your first test. Benchmark installs vs. install cost, and allow some time for the in-app purchases to start happening. Once Google’s powerful algorithms learn who is your perfect player (i.e. mobile game whale), you’ll be able to efficiently scale up.

To sum it up; you need to pile up data (ideally 5,000 conversions). A similar process applies to Facebook, and to all other ad networks which allow you to optimize for in-app events. Any questions? Just comment below or shoot me a message.

Establish a Meaningful Relationship 

Let’s step away from the technicalities for a moment there. 

Once you detect your whales, it’s incredibly important to approach them right. Generally, loyal players deserve to be treated better than others. These players are not only loyal to your game, but they also spend a lot of money on it. 

For this reason, you should make these players feel nurtured and valued. 

One way to do it is by giving them exclusive deals. Make these players feel VIP and give them even more reasons to spend money on your game. For example, consider creating special VIP discounts for players who spend a certain amount of money during their lifetime in the game.

Another thing you can do is to deliver bonuses on top of their in-app purchases. For example, if they spend $20 on an item, reward them with extra items worth a couple of bucks.

If you do any of this, highlight the fact these perks are made exclusively for them. 

You can do this by using effective monetization messaging. For example, you can name these offers something like “VIP Buyer Bundle”, or a “Gold Buyer Special”. These kinds of titles should make whales feel good about these offers. Consequently – they should make them spend even more. 

What Do Mobile Gaming Whales Say? 

A lot of us think: “I could never become a mobile gaming whale.” But there are many that do. 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 choose 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.”

Different things motivate different players – but one thing is certain, users are spending more and more money on in-app purchases.

Mobile Game Whales: Final Thoughts

As more game players choose to spend money in-game, developers need to rely far less on mobile game “whales” 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 that have a better chance of reaching more users. Some of the top-selling games in the Google Play Store are Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed Identity – already established and familiar titles.

Most mobile app and game publishers are using other monetization strategies such as advertising-based,  subscription-based, or in-app purchases monetization strategies.

In the world of mobile gaming, whales are still important, perhaps just not as much as in the early years of mobile gaming.

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

Occasional mobile gaming whale will be a great catch, but with plenty of other fish mammals in the sea that are willing to spend money in-game, game publishers changed their monetization models.  

If you can acquire 10,000 or 100,000 users, while keeping the CPI in the same range, congrats, you’ve hit the jackpot. If you want to make this a 1,000,000 new users a month, or to hunt down a $20,000 LTV whale — consider sending us a message. We’ve been known for our ability to hunt down whales.

EDIT: Mobile game whales. We hunt mobile game whales, not like real whales. 


About Udonis

Udonis is an independent full-service mobile marketing agency that acquired more than 200,000,000 users for mobile games since 2018. Visitudonis.co

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