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In Free Mobile Games, a Tiny Minority of 'Whales' Still Does Most of the Buying

Just 0.23 percent of all mobile gamers are responsible for two-thirds of all in-game sales.

Ken C. Moore / Shutterstock

By and large, players expect mobile games to be free — and although the number who convert to paying users is inching up, almost none of them ever pay anything, according to a new report from app testing firm Swrve.

The report looked at in-app purchases made within freemium games in January 2015, with a sample size that Swrve says numbered in the “tens of millions.” It found that 2.3 percent of players ever make a purchase, up from 1.5 percent a year ago, and that the top 10 percent of that group (so, 0.23 percent of the total) is responsible for two-thirds of all sales.

Whether that counts as improvement depends on your perspective. Although the total number of payers is up, the proportionate purchasing power of that top fraction of players is also even higher than it was a year ago. In January 2014, that group represented “only” 51 percent of all in-game sales.

Swrve argues that free-to-play games are becoming increasingly dependent on this small minority of big spenders, commonly referred to in the industry as “whales.” Small purchases of between $1 and $5 are still the most common among apps surveyed, but represent 13 percent of overall sales, half of what they were worth a year ago; the second-most common type of purchase, worth between $11 and $20, went from representing 22 percent to 39 percent of all sales.

And this isn’t just about landing one $15 sale: A fifth of payers made five or more purchases in January, up from 13 percent of payers the year before.

The number-free takeaway, for those of you who don’t find this digit-minutiae inherently fascinating: Mobile gamers as a whole may be warming up to shelling out some cash for their fun. But luring in the right handful of players, the right whales, is still the surest bet. Thar she blows!

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