Realising I'm a Whale in Pokémon Go

By Laura Kate Dale on at

Since Pokémon Go released back in July 2016, I have played it on a near-daily basis. It’s become a core part of my daily routine. I used the game as a motivator to get up and walking again after major surgery left me weak and in pain, or I rack up distance on eggs when walking to Greggs for a breakfast bap before work. I catch ‘em all on my walks to and from roller derby, use raid battles as motivation to go out running three times a week, and open the app when visiting new cities to ping up interesting local landmarks.

Pokémon Go is without a doubt my most played video game of the past year, and that includes sprawling open world titles like Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild. It’s also a free-to-play game, and living in a busy metropolitan city I could easily have gotten away with never spending a penny, as evidenced by how many of my local Pokémon Go raid friends are deep in the end game without having spent anything.

However, I have spent money in Pokémon Go. Quite a lot of it. In the 14 months the game has been available, I’ve spent roughly £150 — and I don’t regret it in the slightest. I never purchase loot boxes in games or indulged in mobile game microtransactions before now, but something makes me feel like Pokémon Go is worth it. I don’t feel personally manipulated by the game, either, but there’s no denying it: I am one of the whales now.

I’m slightly exaggerating, of course. The F2P market uses the term "whale" for a specific kind of paying customer, the type of person who will drop thousands of pounds on in-game currency and boosts without batting an eyelid. In that context I’m more of a minky than a blue whale. But nevertheless I’ve spent what I’d consider to be a substantial amount of money on it, over a long time. I see Pokémon Go’s microtransactions as a way to support the developer on a semi-regular basis for a game I play extremely often, and in return I get quality of life improvements that are likely not affecting people who haven’t put in 300+ hours.

I’ve expanded my total capacity for captured Pokémon so that I can hoard numerous duplicates and take the time to check for IV stats later. I’ve expanded my item inventory so I simply never have to worry about having enough materials — a safety net while exploring. I’ve bought premium raid passes so I can get my legendary raids done in one batch on the day they release, rather than spreading my attempts across the month. I’ve bought lures to drop at public events like conventions as a way to thank the community who are still playing. I’ve bought extra egg incubators so I can get totally unnecessary baby versions of Pokémon with adorable hats on.

I spend maybe £10 a month in Pokémon Go, and that money goes hand-in-hand with months of social interactions, motivation to exercise, and fun play. In some ways, it even feels like it’s saved me money. In my local town I stopped using public transport in all but the worst weather, instead opting to walk and get distance on egg-hatching. Just on the bus fares dodged, Pokémon Go has probably broken even for me.

Still, it was weird realising that I had become the target market of a free-to-play mobile game. I was thinking about why the ‘whale’ thing felt weird and realised that if more mobile games were like Pokémon Go, I wouldn’t feel so negatively about whale culture. Pokémon Go is a free game that, over a year later, I still find pleasant and surprising. The fact it feels like it’s never asking for money might be a clever trick, but it also makes me all the more willing to reward Niantic financially.

A year and a half later and BAM, I’ve spent the equivalent of two or three AAA games on a free-to-play mobile game. Did I get two to three AAA games worth of fun for that? I’d say I did and, what’s more, feel no shame at being a money-squirting whale.