It seems worth stating up front that I've never spent a cent of my own money in a free to play MMOG. There have been occasions when, for the purpose of previewing or reviewing, companies issued me credits to use in the item shops and/or pre-made characters equipped with merchandise from them. However, I have never used any of them for my own play. And when given currency, the most I've ever spent in a single game is less than the equivalent of $15 real cash; i.e. the amount I'd pay per month in many subscription titles.
So, I'm definitely not a “whale.” In case anyone isn't yet familiar with this label, which certain other industries such as gambling and hospitality tend to apply more frequently, it refers to a big spender. The term is gaining traction in the MMOG space, although there's no apparent consensus as to how it should be defined. For instance, does it mean an individual who spends more than $X? If so, is that per month, average per month over what length of time, lifetime total, etc.? Or how about measuring spending relative to a title's ARPU? That brings up even more questions. Is the minimum 2x? 5x? 10x? More? And again, over what duration?
While I doubt there will ever be a universally accepted definition or standard, we all know that MMOG whales do exist. As with their aquatic counterparts, there are various "species". What's more, their spending habits aren't all driven by the same singe motivation or combination of reasons. While I'm not at liberty to disclose the proprietary information that has crossed my desktop over the years, I can offer some insights as to how certain types, including some who aren't of the pure "pay to win" mentality, think and act.
As you undoubtedly know, vanity is tremendously important for some players. They want their characters to look just so. In some cases, that merely means having equipment that all matches. Further steps include creating a highly distinctive appearance, and extend all the way up to a completely unique one that no one else can duplicate. There are even users - not a huge number, but probably a lot more than some would think - who will use items with quite inferior performance characteristics but visuals that have special appeal to them.
Such cosmetic whales can spend surprising amounts of money - thousands of dollars. It may seem silly to do so (it does to me), and even more so if the gear they purchase isn't statistically the best in the game. But this feeling is based on applying my personal standards where I really shouldn't, to someone else in situations that don't affect me. Other people have their own play styles, priorities and values. And of course, their financial circumstances can mean that expenditures I'd consider substantial are minor or even trifling to them
Vanity can also be a factor for social whales. These are players for whom being accepted by others is exceptionally important. One way in which this manifests itself is gifting. Such individuals can spend very substantial amounts of money for things they turn around and give away. In some cases, this translates into purchasing non-bound items for their friends, even for their entire guilds. As above, such merchandise isn't necessarily performance-boosting. The primary goal is to gain the feeling of acceptance - or after a while, to maintain it - by positioning themselves as generous benefactors.
In some games, the ones where gift quantities for at least some things are visible, a variant on this can arise. It involves people who want others to think they have lots of friends and/or admirers. They buy large amounts of the items in question to gift to themselves, using alts or other workarounds if necessary. This also seems a rather silly practice to me, but obviously, not everyone agrees.
The last category I'd like to discuss today can be the biggest of all, but swims in a sea that can be rather turbulent with controversy. It's the gambler whale who buys huge numbers of containers that hold random items. There is usually a small probability that the contents will be very high quality, even the best in the game. So, these players increase their chances of getting such gear by taking the high-volume approach. Effectively, they purchase lots of lottery tickets. In doing so, their total spending can add up very quickly.
While this isn't a straight pay to win situation, neither is it completely not. On top of this though, there's what may be a much greater concern, the question of how and where to draw a line between providing fun and starting to foster a form of gambling addition.