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Column: The Psychology Of Games

The Psychology Of Games: APB - Aggregated Payment Bias?

June 20, 2010 12:00 PM |

apb_200.jpg[Continuing his regular GameSetWatch column, psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan looks at Realtime Worlds' APB to explain why people don't usually like paying by the hour for MMOs -- or other services.]

Back in April of this year, Realtime Worlds announced the pricing model for its soon to be released MMO, All Points Bulletin, or "APB" as the cool kids say. A lot of us are looking forward to the futuristic cops vs. robbers game, but the announcement about the pricing elicited a fair number of jeers from a lot of players. Here's how the press release broke down the two payment models in US dollars:

1. Buy the game for the MSRP of $50
2. Play 50 hours for "free."
3. Buy additional game time using one of two options:
a) $6.99 for 20 hours
b) $9.99 for unlimited hours during the next 30 days (or you can also buy 60 or 90 day subscriptions)

Upon hearing this, the nerd rage was palpable on some forums. For sure, this was partially over the fact that APB was to have any monthly fee AT ALL, despite that being par for the MMO course. But there seemed to be two other targets of the virtual hand wringing.

First, the play time included with the retail product was doled out in hours (50 of them, to be precise) rather than the traditional 30 days of unlimited play. Second, the $6.99 for 20 hours of game time seemed a bitter pill to swallow, apparently because people didn't want to pay by the hour.

People seemed to willfully ignore the fact that the game DOES include traditional 30 days of unlimited play for one flat rate option, though. There was also some vague stuff in there about being able to earn game time in-game, but I'm going ignore that for now.

The Psychology Of Games: 'Three Reasons Why We Buy Those Crazy Steam Bundles'

June 2, 2010 12:00 AM |

gamasutra_image.jpg[Continuing his regular GameSetWatch column, psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan explains some psychological reasons why those big bundles from Steam and other digital distribution platforms are so hard to resist.]

Steam, the digital game distribution platform owned by Valve, often has these weird bundles for sale where they cram together, for example, every id Software or every Rockstar game or every game featuring squirrels into one package. One message board I frequent has a mega thread dedicated to gaming bargains, and doing a search for "Damn you, Steam" produces results like these:

"Damn... maybe I want Colonization. Have CIV IV & BTS on Disc. Should I just get Colonization @ $10.19 or just get them all and have on Steam for a wee bit more. Damn you Steam."

"Damn you Steam! More games to buy that I'll probably never get to play."

"Damn you Steam. I had just successfully resisted the urge to buy games at both the holiday sale from GoGamer (Heroes of M&M 5 Complete and EU:Rome at $10 each were tempting, and Company of Heores Opposing Front for $5 is a steal) and the last round of Steam Deals (King Arthur especially was calling my name), and now you put Civ IV complete (I own none of the Civ IV stuff) out there for $14. My game backlog can't take much more of this!!"

"This is madness. I am buying games for a theoretical PC that I will build someday (maybe) so I can play them. Damn you, Steam."

"Got $170 sitting my cart. Staring at it trying to figure out how to cut it down some. Damn you, Steam."

People are talking like Steam is forcing them to pounce on such deals when they happen even though they already have a huge backlog and may actually already own physical versions of half the games included.

What makes these plainly ridiculous bundles so attractive? I'm glad you asked, because I can think of at least three psychological principles at play here.

The Psychology Of Games: 'The Power of You: No, Wait, Others. I Meant the Power of Others'

May 2, 2010 12:00 PM |

file_rating.jpg[Psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan continues his new GameSetWatch column by examining why game creators might want to consider stuffing their virtual tip jar before the next user comes along and checks it out.]

Okay folks, I'm going to nerd out a bit but bear with me. There was this show that my wife used to like watching called Star Trek: The Next Generation. Maybe you've heard of it. In one episode Captain Picard is being held captive by the Evil Alien of the Week.

Said Evil Alien twirls his space mustache, gestures to a bank of four lights, and asks Picard how many lights he sees. When Picard says "Four" Evil Alien is all like "No way, dude, there are FIVE lights," but Picard is like "No way, buddy. There are only four lights." Also there are painful electric shocks involved, but Picard refuses to see five lights.

Turns out that most of us is no Jean Luc Picard (thank God, because that guy is SUCH a nerd) because we're apt to disbelieve evidence obvious to our own eyes when the conditions are right. And we don't even need a big scary alien dude looming over us. All we need are a few strangers in the room with us saying that they totally see five lights.

In the 1950s psychologist Soloman Asch conducted a series of experiments where he had gave members of a group an index card with a line drawn on it. Asch then projected a set of three different lines onto a screen and asked subjects to identify which one matched the one on the cards. Kind of like this, where the one on the left is what you'd see on your card and the one on the right is what you'd see projected on the screen:

The Psychology of Games: The Status (Quo) Effect

April 8, 2010 12:00 PM |

checkbox.jpg[Psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan continues his new GameSetWatch column by looking at the psychological ramifications of taking advantage of people's inertia to keeping with the status quo - particularly with regard to sign-up options for media and how they could be applied to games.]

Many of us have been surprised in spite of ourselves when one day we looked up and realized that we've been paying for a MMO like World of Warcraft when we haven't logged on for months.

Or maybe we're reading our e-mail and we get a cheerful note from Microsoft saying that our Xbox Live Gold account has automatically renewed and the charge applied to our credit card. And still we don't do anything about it. Why not?

A Brief Example Involving Adult Stuff

Before I explain, consider this graph, showing the participation rates between two groups of in a 401(k) savings plan. (For those who don't know, a 401(k) plan lets employees automatically sock away part of each paycheck for retirement. They offer lots of benefits and participating in them is generally a smart thing to do if you don't want to keel over of old age on the job.)

The Psychology Of Games: Xbox Game Room's Dummy Pricing (Not for Dummies)

March 24, 2010 12:00 AM |

-[Psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan continues his new GameSetWatch column by discussing the pricing for Microsoft and Krome's Game Room for the Xbox 360, which launches this week, analyzing why seemingly illogical pricing can bring significant advantages if pitched correctly.]

Microsoft recently announced that they were augmenting their Xbox Live and Games for Windows services with something called "Game Room," which would allow you to buy and/or play classic arcade games like Centipede, Space Invaders, and the like.

Basically, it'll be just like when we used to hang out at the neighborhood arcade, only with fewer cigarette burns on the machines and no attendants pretending they can't hear you while they listen to their Walkman in the back office. Or maybe not; I've never been to your place.

What I thought was interesting, though, was the price structure for the games, which breaks down like this:

- 40 points - Play a game just once on one platform (either Xbox Live or Games for Windows), like dropping two quarters in.
- 240 points - Own the game on one platform but not the other.
- 400 points - Own the game on both platforms.

So if we rate those three options from 1 to 100 on an "Accessibility" metric and plot that with price, it look something like this:


I don't think it takes much insight to guess that Microsoft would rather you not take the first option (about $0.50), since it won't take long to figure out that playing like ONE game of Frogger is quite enough for you. They'd rather you spend the 240 points (about $3) to buy the game on one platform, or even better 400 points (about $5) to buy it on both. But I don't think these prices are optimal for that. I think there's a way for Microsoft to actually get more money out of people by raising their prices.

The Psychology Of Games: The Glitcher's Dilemma

March 4, 2010 12:00 AM |

the_prisoner.jpg[Psychologist and gamer Jamie Madigan continues his new GameSetWatch column by writing about how social dilemmas work in the world of gaming, and how designers can work to diffuse them before everybody gets glitch happy.]

Soon after its release, some players of the online first person shooter Modern Warfare 2 discovered what became known as "the javelin glitch." Someone, somewhere, somehow figured out that through a bizarre sequence of button presses you could glitch the game so that when you died in multiplayer you would explode violently and murder everyone within 30 feet of you, often resulting in a net gain in points.

It wasn't long, though, before the method for creating this glitch spread through the Internet and servers were filled with exploding nincompoops. Just to a Youtube search for "Modern Warfare javelin glitch" and you'll get hours' worth of video explaining how to do it --it wasn't a very well kept secret. In fact, it quickly got bad enough that developer Infinity Ward had to rush out a patch to fix it, presumably screaming "Ack! No! You guys, stop it!" the whole time.

The Psychology of Video Games: Zombies, Barbarians, and Loss Aversion

January 25, 2010 12:00 PM |

[In a brand new column for GameSetWatch examining of the fascinating intersection of gaming and psychology, writer Jamie Madigan considers how small tweaks to the way a message is framed can lead to big changes in what gamers are willing to pay for.]

How could publishers get way more people to buy an Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network game after trying the trial version? And how can MMOs get wayward customers to resubscribe? Let me glue on my goatee and practice my maniacal laugh a few times and then I’ll tell you my ideas.

Zombie Outbreaks and Loss Aversion

But first, let me ask you a couple of hypothetical questions made famous in certain circles by two guys named Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman:

"Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for a zombie outbreak, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the outbreak have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows:

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

Which of the two programs would you favor?"

Okay, so Tversky and Kahneman actually phrased the question in terms of an Asian flu and not a zombie outbreak, but I figure we would stick to territory more familiar to gamers. That said, which of the two programs would you pick: Program A or Program B? The researchers found that most people they asked chose Program A: 72% versus the 28% who chose B.

So then the researchers presented the same hypothetical situation but with the following options: