Loss Aversion, Achievements, and Trial Conversions

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

But first, let me ask you a couple of hypothetical questions made famous in certain circles by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman: 1

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease 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?

Which would you pick? The researchers found that most people chose Program A: 72% versus the 28% who chose B.

So then the researchers asked the following version of the same question:

If Program C is adopted 400 people will die.

If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

Which of the two programs would you favor?

Which would you pick? Most of the experimental subjects picked Program D by a wide margin — 78% versus the 22% for Program C. The thing is, both sets of choices are identical. Look closely. Programs A and C both result in 400 people dying and 200 living. Programs B and D both have a 1/3 chance of saving everyone and a 2/3 chance of killing everyone. The ONLY difference is that Programs A and B are phrased in terms of lives saved and Programs C and D are described in terms of lives lost.

Tversky and Kahnaman said this points to “loss aversion,” which is one my favorite kinks in the human brain. In short, loss aversion is our willingness to go to great lengths to avoid losses –much farther than we’ll go to get an equivalent gain. In other words, losing $10 is more painful than gaining $10 is pleasurable.

Consider another quick question and suppose that a company were offering two subscription plans for an online MMORPG.

  • Option A gives you a $5 credit
  • Option B lets you avoid a $5 monthly surcharge

Assuming both options were otherwise identical, which do you think would be more popular? In all likelihood it would be Option B, since people prefer not losing $5 to gaining a $5 discount. This despite the fact that the monthly costs would be identical. This is also one of the reasons you’ll more often see “$10 late registration fee” advertised instead of “$10 discount for early registrations” for events where the organizers want you to register early.

So what does this have to do with getting people to buy a Xbox Live Arcade or Playstation Network game after they play the trial version? Right now, it’s not uncommon for such trials to pop up a message saying something to the effect of “You would have just gotten an achievement/trophy just now! Buy the full game to get it!”

And that’s pretty good. Pretty sneaky. Pretty psychological. Because we obviously like getting things we value. 2 But the phenomenon of loss aversion suggests a way to be better, more sneaky, more psychological. Instead of saying that you will get the achievement or trophy if you buy the game, actually give it to them and then say you’re going to take it away if they DON’T buy the game. And I mean really give it to them –have it show up in their gamer score and on their achievement/trophy list. Just take it away if they exit the trial version of the game without buying the full thing, and make sure they know it.

So, to all the game developers/publishers out there, I guarantee that your conversion rate will go up, because while people like the promise of getting something, they hate the promise of losing it way more. Just don’t tell the gamers that you got the idea from me.


2. The “I don’t care about Gamerscore” folks can just put a cork in it, here

24 thoughts on “Loss Aversion, Achievements, and Trial Conversions

  1. Oh most people will remember about this phenomenon for about a month or so. One of the reasons marketing tricks still work.

    Going off topic, I am really grateful that I took a different blog title since my focus is on studies pertaining to video games. More importantly, your blog would improve gamers’ attitudes towards psychologists since they mostly bring uncomfortable news, like aggression effects and addiction.

  2. A very interesting read. There is no denying the importance that trophies and achievements hold for so many players. The hardcore gamer will scoff and declare they are insignificant, but behind closed doors they are searching for just one more treasure in Uncharted to obtain the Expert Treasure Hunter trophy! Giving the player rewards and threatening to take them away? Genius! Cruel and cheap, but genius.

  3. @ Wai Yen
    Yep, I briefly considered a blog similar to yours, but decided that I wanted something that straddled the line a bit more. And this format gives me more freedom to write about whatever I want as long as I can shoehorn in some concept from a psychology textbook. It’s less of a “reporting on” and more of a “musing about” kind of thing. Not to say the former isn’t interesting or important; I just decided to go a different direction.

    I’m not so sure. I’m middle of the road myself, in that I’ll usually chase achievements up to a point, but not for very long after it stops being fun. I think a lot of hardcore gamers are pretty into gamerpoints, trophies, WoW achievements, etc.

    @Frank Rogan
    If you do, please let me know. I’d be fascinated to see this kind of thing deliberately put into practice and to see what the results would be on conversion rates.

  4. Thanks for the insight Jamie. I first noticed this with Splosion Man trial. The achievement doesn’t actually get unlocked but it’s an in-game screen that tells you you’ve gotten it and get to keep it if you buy now. Shadow Complex does a better job of it.

  5. Yeah, I’ve had the same thought before about XBLA games and trials. However, it turns out there are boring technical reasons why this specific thing won’t work 🙂 Basically the API exposed to game developers doesn’t actually allow the taking away of achievements after they’ve been granted. I think it makes things easier for Microsoft on the back end, and since they’re hosting all of this stuff in the first place you just deal with it.

    The upgrade-in-place-to-keep-achievement-you-just-got driver is already way stronger than comparable mechanisms in decades of PC shareware software, so I think the devs are pretty happy overall.

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  10. The problem posed by Tversky and Kahneman has bugged me since I heard about it in my cognitive class. I think that something that saves 200 people every time is not the same as something that has 1 in 3 chance of saving 600 and a 2 in 3 chance of killing everyone. Over many “trials” the average number of people saved by picking B becomes 200, but the statistics don’t really matter for a single instance. For this one choice, 600 people will continue living or they will all die; or you can choose to save 200 every time. I wonder if phrasing option B as “1/3 will survive, while 2/3 will die” would significantly change the distributions of choices.

  11. Thanks for the great post about trophies and achievements. Your post brought up a lot of interesting gaming points that I haven’t thought about. I’m looking forward to reading a lot more of your site in the future.

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