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Hand over $4.99 or Spider-Man Gets It

All it may take to get people to spend money in free to play games is one well placed countdown timer.

[Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and video games at Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

I've been playing Marvel Puzzle Quest for the last several weeks, especially in waiting rooms and during quality time with my family. It's a free to play, match 3 puzzle game (think Candy Crush Saga) blended with Marvel super heroes. One of its key mechanics is building a roster of heroes, which you do by getting random comic book cover drops. Find a Spider-Man cover, for example, and you can recruit him to your superteam. You want as many heroes as you can get, since you never know when you'll encounter an in-game event where you will benefit from having a particular character. 

This being a free to play game, there are two pain points associated with this system that can be alleviated by spending in-game currency. First, you can only have so many heroes on your roster, but you can expand that limit by purchasing additional character slots. Second, the new hero covers that you find have a time limit; you have to use them or watch them go away forever. So you may find a 3-star Rocket & Groot card, but you can't actually use it unless you pay to make room for it in your roster. You can also sell the new card (or an old one to free up room), but that's essentially the same as letting it expire given what little you get for it. Each time you find a new cover you have 5 days to to act or it's gone. This sets up a well documented psychological quirk that makes people more likely to part with their money.

There's actually a constellation of mental foibles centered around our reluctance to part with things we feel like we own. The endowment effect, for example, happens because we value something more the instant we feel like we own it. Dan Ariely and his colleagues once did a study showing that Duke University students were willing to pay an average of $170 for coveted college basketball game tickets. When demand for tickets outstrips supplies, Duke holds a lottery where you can win a chance to buy one of the limited number of tickets. But once students from the same population actually won a lottery that gave them the right to buy the tickets, they were only willing to sell for an average price of $1,400. Simply owning the tickets made people value them almost ten times as much.

Ariely and his colleague Jiwoong Shin also did another study on aversion to loss and reluctance to give up options. The study has to do with what's called "psychological reactance." In short, we hate to lose options and will often give up more than an option is worth in order to retain it. The researchers created a little computer game where participants could choose between three doors –red, blue, and green. Players had only 100 mouse clicks to "spend" in the game by clicking to navigate between doors and then clicking in the rooms on the other side of each door. Clicking once inside a room yielded a random amount of money within a certain range. The red room, for example, could pay between 3 and 9 cents for each one of the player’s limited clicks, but the blue room may pay between 8 and 16 cents per click. Only the players didn’t know the ranges; they had to experiment to determine the optimal way to play the game and maximize their payout. But here’s the trick that the makers of Marvel Puzzle Quest would appreciate: If a player ignored a certain room for 12 turns without clicking on it, the door to that room would shrink and eventually disappear –gone was that option forever! But players could “reset” the door by clicking on it just once before it disappeared (an act that cost 2 clicks without generating any money).

So what did people tend to do? Even after discovering which room yielded the highest payout they STILL tended to go back and waste clicks on lower paying doors just to keep those options open even though they didn’t intend to actually exercise them. This was totally irrational, but psychological reactance made them reluctant to lose those options. (I also used this same study to  the stress caused by choosing between NPC romances in Bioware games.)

Similarly, when I look at hero covers in Marvel Puzzle Quest that are about to expire, I hate to lose that option, and I don't want to substitute one loss for another by deleting an existing character from my roster. Instead, I'm more likely to spend money to just keep it around. I am not speaking in hypotheticals here; twice I've spent $5 to buy enough "Hero Points" to bring a hero in from the cold before the timer ran out.  I may not even LIKE the hero or ever end up using him or her. But I want to have the option. For example: Hawkeye? I spent five dollars to make sure I didn't lose the opportunity to have Hawkeye in my roster? Ugh.

But could we use psychological reactance in a truly evil way? Yes. Yes we could! If the developers of this game wanted to be really evil, they would offer me an option to immediately recruit a hero for 200 Hero Points. And then to really take advantage of psychological reactance, they could gradually raise the price the closer the hero gets to expiring so that it would cost, say, 350 when I have only a couple hours left. Maybe 400 in the last 30 minutes.

I bet revenue would go up, and THAT would be something truly worthy of a comic book villain.

[Jamie Madigan writes about the overlap between psychology and video games at Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]



Ariely, D. (2010). "Paying More for Less." In The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. (New York: Harper).

Shin, J., & Ariely, D. (2004). Keeping Doors Open: The Effect of Unavailability on Incentives to Keep Options Viable. Management Science, 50(5), 575–586. doi:10.1287/mnsc.1030.0148.

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