The era of mobile gaming started off great with cute little time-wasters like Angry Birds, but then in-app purchases happened. Today’s top mobile games are mostly “free-to-play,” which is a nice way of saying everything you do seems to cost money. Some players are willing to pay, and one publisher has developed an AI that can identify the so-called “whales” who will spend the most. And you thought Oblivion Horse Armor was bad.
Developer and publisher Yodo1 is behind some highly popular mobile games like Crossy Road and Rodeo Stampede. It’s not uncommon for top players in these games to spend a few hundred dollars on power-ups, cosmetic items, and in-game currency. Yodo1 CEO Henry Fong recently revealed that Transformers: Earth Wars, a title published by Yodo1, has been much more successful in luring in whales. One player in that game spent a whopping $150,000. At Game Connect Asia Pacific, Fong talked about how Yodo1 uses AI to keep whales coming back.
According to Fong, the AI tools provided freely by companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have made it trivially easy to chew through large datasets and extract useful insights. Yodo1 spent about a month building its AI, and then fed it two and a half years of game transaction and player behavior data. Right out of the gate, Yodo1 was able to identify the big-spending whales with about 87 percent accuracy. Fong believes the team can get the accuracy up as high as 95 percent.
Knowing which players have the potential to spend big is only the first step. Yodo1 is working on ways to encourage these high-value players to extend their sessions and open the game more often. It could do that with special in-app purchase bundles, notifications, and sale events targeted at potential whales. Someone who can afford to blow $1,000 on a mobile game might look at a $300 bundle valued at $600 and buy it without a second thought.
Yodo1 has also found that pestering the whales doesn’t seem to drive them away — aggressive monetization only causes about 15 percent of players to drop off, and the others keep spending to preserve their existing investment. Basically, the sunk cost keeps them glued to their screens. Members of the audience expressed some concern over the whale-hunting approach to mobile games. Fong, however, believes that it’s hard to get people to spend money. If a game isn’t funny, whales won’t spend money just to do it. So, there’s still a drive to create compelling experiences. Although, we’re ultimately talking about monetizing the artificial scarcity of digital goods. A lot of gamers and developers are understandably uncomfortable with that.
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