Good Old Scarce Games

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I’ve noticed that someone over at the online game retailer knows at least one simple trick about how to combine psychology and sales. Specifically, the person in charge of their e-mail campaigns knows about something that psychologists call the scarcity effect.

Over the last month or so, I’ve gotten e-mails from like this:

As you can see, it mentions an “All-time high discount” for the excellent game, Darkest Dungeon and notes that this is your “final time to buy.” That right there is attention-getting enough, but the ad amps things up a bit by also including a ginormous countdown timer that tells you exactly how much time you have left to snag this prize before it’s gone. Presumably forever. The timer actually counts down in real-time, right there in the e-mail. also did a similar promotion for Diablo and for a “Hidden Egg Discount Code” event that they did around Easter:

That one has the added twist of telling you to go through with completing your purchases lest the discount codes you found become worthless and you’re left paying full price for old games like some kind of chump.

I’m guessing that these e-mail campaigns were actually somewhat successful thanks to the scarcity effect. The scarcity effect refers to the finding that we tend to overvalue things if we think they are rare or about to become rare. I wrote about this in my first book, Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them:

Sales aren’t usually perpetual. That’s pretty much right there in the definition of “sale” if you look it up. Bargains are often only “while supplies last” and the research is pretty clear that “available for a limited time” is a super- effective sales pitch because we value things more that are rare or otherwise have limited availability. 

…Valuing something because it’s rare is just one of those decision-making shortcuts that sticks with us because it offers such a good tradeoff between accuracy and mental effort over a lifetime. Psychologist Stephen Worchel and his colleagues illustrated this with a study involving cookies, but not those that websites deal in.1 The researchers told subjects that they were participating in an experiment measuring people’s preferences for various consumer items. At a certain point in the spiel, the experimenter jabbed at a secret button under the desk. Psychologists love secret buttons, but instead of opening a trap door underneath the subject as usual, this one summoned a second experimenter bearing a jar of cookies. Depending on the experimental condition to which the subject had been assigned, this second experimenter delivered either a jar full of 10 cookies or an almost empty jar with just 2two cookies. Subjects were then asked to retrieve a cookie from the jar, take a bite, and then share their thoughts on taste, attractiveness, and what the cookies should be priced at. Relative to those who picked a treat from the mostly full jar, people drawing from a jar with only two cookies found them more delicious, more desirable, and worthy of a higher price. This happened despite the fact that the contents of both jars were exactly the same and came from a larger stash of just one brand of supermarket cookies. The perceived rarity of the cookies was influencing not only their perceived value but also their taste and appeal.

From Getting Gamers: Chapter 9: Why Do We Go Crazy for Digital Game Sales?

Given this, it’s easy to see why the countdown timer might be effective at getting people to click through on the sale that is offering. Is the price on the other side a good one for Darkest Dungeon? If you’re not aware of something like the scarcity effect, you may automatically –and subconsciously– find the offer appealing if you know it’s dwindling in availability. actually has a history of using psychology in its marketing and sales events. The site used to have “Insomnia sales” where limited quantities of games were available for a discount, and when they were gone, the sale moved on to the next deal. So while some okay games at a slight discount might linger for a while, particularly attractive deals might sell out in a few minutes. So if you weren’t losing sleep watching the website for the next deal, you might miss it. 

In conclusion, you actually should buy and play Darkest Dungeon. It’s a really good game at any price and I talk about it more in my next book, The Engagement Game, in the context of how to promote a culture of growth and learning agility. But that’s a topic for another post.


1. Stephen Worchel, Jerry Lee, and Akanbi Adewole, “Effects of Supply and Demand on Ratings of Object Value,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, no. 5 (1975), doi:10.1037/0022-3514.32.5.906.

2 thoughts on “Good Old Scarce Games

  1. Pingback: Good Old Scarce Games | The Psychology of Video Games - Enewsgate

  2. I do feel a little sorry for people tasked with marketing things online today. Savvy purchasers are aware of these tricks. Sites like or (for games) and (for amazon) mean consumers can turn the tables. If a product isn’t really at the lowest ever price, no sale.

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