Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The psychological value of ownership, and how free to play games use it.

Hi all, I’m back! I’ve also been reading. Despite the lure of watching Aaron Sorkins ‘newsroom’ on the plane, I also found time to read most of this book:

You can read about it on amazon here:

It’s pretty cool, but the bit that really stuck in my head was the bit about an experiment I’d read about before, but not fully grasped the implications of. It’s to do with ownership. In a nutshell, the tests ask a bunch of people to value something they do not possess, but are shown, such as a mug or a bar of chocolate. Different people are then given the item in question, and possess it for a while, during which they can see it, but are distracted by other tasks. Those people are then asked what their selling price is for the item. Overwhelmingly, people value the item they own much higher than the value people gave to it when asked to buy it.

In short, owning something makes it seem more valuable. Which is understandable, we want to appear rational. I know my car must be a bargain, and worth > X (where X was what I paid), otherwise I’d be a gullible idiot, and I don’t want to feel that…

So…relating that back to 2 topics I obsess over… the popularity of Free To Play Games and the price wars and low prices of non-free games…

Free to play works because it doesn’t ask you to value the game until you already feel you own it. How much would you pay for farmville to buy it outright? maybe $5? But play the game for free for a month, build up your farm, invest it, and then hit a plateau in the game where you really need to buy coins to continue…. and suddenly YOUR game is worth a lot more than $5. You value the game you already own very highly, and so buying add-ons for it is just common sense. I suspect this is why DLC works so well, and sells so well. You have already made a commitment to valuing the game, by investing your time. Only a fool could try to rationalize NOT spending money on it now…

Food for though.

9 thoughts on The psychological value of ownership, and how free to play games use it.

  1. Interesting take on the idea. So the ideal goal when designing a F2P game is to therefore foster that sense of ownership. That sits a bit better with me than simply design to maximise revenue.

  2. I’ve been teaching this for three years now :-)

    It’s not just Farmville type games, although you are right. Valve does it extremely well with Team Fortress 2 where it lets you own a weapon for a week before taking it away from you – but you get one chance to buy it RIGHT NOW for a big discount.

    And gamers think Zynga is evil and Valve is holy….

  3. Also,

    the ownership thing is most powerful if you actually like the thing you own. The experimentation thing is important.

    On the other hand, people stay in abusive relationships because “better the devil you know”, so sometimes just the mere fact of “ownership” (in this case of a relationship, I’m not implying servitude) is better than the absence of ownership

  4. Finally, does this not explain why a demo is not the same as a F2P game. There is no sense of ownership, because you know you don’t. You also know it’s not the actual experience, in the same way that a movie trailer is not an actual trailer. The emotional resonance is all wrong.

  5. This is pretty much exactly it. Expansions as well- you pretty much have to decide either to keep going or quit most of the time.

  6. You can increase the value of an add on but only if you produce a base experience that has a material value to the player in the first place.

    AKA. A lot of players won’t pay for coin in a f2p ville game because the game does not have substantive value to that person. They are only playing it “in passing” or as a distraction.

    You have to create an experience that compels the player to return on more than a pastime level. Get them thinking about it during the day and anticipating their return to it in the evening. Mere player progression “Level Ups” are not enough any more (although it gets you far)

    This is why you see millions spent on making a vivid 3d cartoon world with rich personality, so the developer can busy himself selling you dozens of $2 hats.

  7. On the other hand I’d never feel like I owned a free-to-play game, because I’d clearly just be renting it and why should there be an end to the milking?

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