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Chartboost Interviews: Rovio's Mark Sorrell on Game Behavioural Economics

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The Big Interview is a new monthly post hitting Playbook. In this series, we will sit down with leading executives from the mobile games industry to discuss a topic close to their heart to help you learn about monetization or marketing.

First up in the series is Mark Sorrell, Head of Studio at Rovio London. Mark started in Rovio Finland and has been instrumental in helping Rovio complete the transition to a true F2P company. He’s also been successful driving game development through the study of human behavior. In this piece, we take a look at behavioural economics and tap Mark for advice on how to apply its principles to the design of mobile games.

Playbook: So what exactly is behavioural economics?

Mark Sorrell: Behavioural economics, as opposed to economics, is a study of things that work. Behavioural economics does not make any suppositions about how people act. Instead it seeks to find out how they actually act. So it’s basically asking ‘How do people behave when given a particular economic situation?’

It’s used by the government in their Nudge Unit, which is behavioural economics plus government policy in order to try and get people to be healthier, save more for their retirement, budget better, whatever it might be.

It’s also employed quite often in ecommerce in terms of web, the way that Amazon design their payment system, for instance, to make sure that you buy as much as possible as often as possible.

And then in games it’s used to try and create the need for objects that are otherwise not technically needed, make people desire things by using the heuristics and shortcuts that already exist in their brain.

I think that the important thing is that behavioural economics is the study of the heuristics and shortcuts that the brain takes which are irrational but predictable

PB: Which predictably irrational behaviours have you seen take place when designing games for the mobile space?

MS: I’d say that the question is interesting. You’re saying in the mobile space. I would suggest that the space behavioural economics works in isn’t mobile games; it’s human beings. Human beings exhibit all the irrational behaviours in games because they’re human.

I would say that the thing most often specifically used [in mobile games] is loss aversion. When humans are asked to value a gain versus a loss, they will always value the loss more heavily than the gain. So it is less pleasurable to gain $20 than it is upsetting to lose $20.

Endowment effect is the fact that once you own something or think that you own something, you consider it more valuable than things you don’t own, which is another aspect of the same thing.

One of my favourite simple early behavioural economics tricks from quite an old game now is one in My Horse. Right at the beginning of the game it’s like, ‘Pick your horse,’ and you pick a horse, and then it goes, ‘Okay, give it a name,’ and you give it a name. The ones who stuck around were like, ‘Yeah, this is great. This is my horse, clearly my horse. It’s not a horse, it’s mine,’ and that meant there was this sort of emotional attachment to it.

PB: But how do you generate that value in a digital product? Isn’t it more valuable when someone feels they have something real at stake, like cash money, rather than something virtual?

MS: I don’t think it makes any difference. All value is subjective, all value is subjective. The concept of value in the first place is a human description. The idea that there’s a monetary value to things is an entirely human construction. And it’s also entirely subjective. There’s no absolute value for anything.

What behavioural economics seeks to do in many cases is find areas where the perceived value of something is higher than the actual value of it, or the value that it’s created with. So I’m not sure that games actually do face any problem at all.

In fact, I’d suggest it’s actually easier for games to get these things to work. If you’re in a shop selling a real object in a real retail store, then you are limited by the fact that it costs a certain amount to physically make the thing, it costs a certain amount to physically make the shop, the objects in it, to hire the people who work there, to persuade people to come and physically visit your shop. There are a lot of reasons why they might not choose to do so. It might be raining or cold or whatever else.

Whereas in a game, you control almost every aspect of it. The thing I always like to describe when I’m talking to product managers about the fact that we sell umbrellas, we also control the world and thus decide whether or not it’s raining.

PB: If you’re a mobile games company running a game and you are controlling the weather, how do you make sure you don’t cause problems by making it rain all the time?

MS: I think the first thing they do is they remember that what they’re to do is to provide people with a great experience which they are then happy to pay money for, and that that’s what they’re there to do. Games should be fun, they should be enjoyable. If you think like that, people will continue to play them well after that point

The second thing is remembering that what you’ve described doesn’t work. If you constantly make it rain and constantly make people buy umbrellas then soon they’ll go and live somewhere where it rains less, to stretch a metaphor. You just make less money.

PB: Are there any examples of mobile game design inspired by behavioural economics that you think is particularly good?

MS: Clash Royale is a very popular and easy to use example. Their chest system is incredibly well designed. It’s all about loss aversion.

You know, it’s exactly the thing I was talking about. ‘You can carry on playing if you want, but if you do, and you win a chest, you won’t get to keep it, so do you want to pay some money? Consider how else they might have designed it. There are more rational ways to design that, but they’re not going to be as effective.

Another piece of behavioural economics working fantastically well in games is all the money King have ever made, which has come from, as far as I am aware, from people buying more moves.

Imagine there are two situations, one of which is a game that says, at the beginning, ‘Do you want to buy five more moves?’ and there’s another one which says, ‘You’ve just run out. Do you want five more moves?’ at the end.

It’s abundantly obvious that offering the person five more moves at the end is going to make all the difference in the world and King offer proof of that.

PB: Finally if someone is reading this and wants more information on behavioural economics, where should they go?

MS: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman are a great primer on the subject from a kind of academic, and slightly practical, point of view. I would also suggest looking at the UK government’s MINDSPACE guidelines.