Psychology – Endowment
At the end of mid-level television game shows when a contestant has lost and is going home with nothing of any financial value there is a popularly offered phrase of comfort, that the contestant arrived with nothing and is going home with nothing and so hasn’t lost out. This homily flies almost directly in the face of the social psychological idea of endowed loss however, which is fine for those game shows since they’re not designed to be popular as re-playable board games, but isn’t fine if it shows up in your game. Basically, endowed loss is the idea that if you give me something and then take it off me its psychologically more painful than if you never gave me the thing in the first place. Furthermore, that people are inclined to value what they already have over what they might acquire, to the point of making potentially foolish decisions in order to hold onto what they already have.
This idea comes up again and again in tabletop game design generally and is quite central to creating a positive player experience, it’s been written about quite extensively (and by better informed folk than I) in relation to how it can create a bitter experience that could stop player returning and cause early game imbalance. Instead of running over those points again, I’m going to take some time in this blog to look a little at two elements of endowment, opening resources and asymmetrical powers that I haven’t seen specifically examined in that light before.
It’s a pretty common element in games for players to have opening resources, a handful of some kind of low-level resource to start the engine going. Its more or less intrinsic to the system of these games that these specific starting resources have little or no endowed value to the players, if they don’t toss them into the pot to build towards later resources everything has a tendency to break down. In fact, this is such a well understood trope of games that opening resources seem to suffer a sort of reverse endowment effect where players will endow them with less value than they would otherwise hold.
For example, if I create a simple dice betting game where I offer players a $5 stake and then allow them to bet that stake to gain a reward based on the result of a dice roll the game will need to offer a payback significantly beyond 50/50 to cause the average player to wager their starting stake. Conversely, if I create a Euro-game where players are given an early stake, I would have to actively warn against spending that stake at the first chance if it’s a poor idea for long-term success. As such, if a player is given as a starting resource any kind of rare or emergency resource it should be framed with very clear advice about holding it back. As another example, if players are given a single re-roll in a game the intention of which is to save it for when a low probability event might knock them out of the game that intention needs to be made extremely clear up front to not see the re-roll spent on the first or second roll of the game. Opening resources in a game will be seen as cheaper than earned resources in direct opposition to the traditional nature of endowed resources, often being burnt by players just to see what happens when they pull the levers of the game.
In fact, the best advice is probably that if a player is given a resource that it is important to save as an opening resource it should probably have its usage limited or even removed from player choice. In the example of the re-roll above, if intended to balance out the possibility of elimination, it should probably be limited to only being useable for elimination critical rolls. The downside to such a demand is that players who reach the end of the game with early resources un-used will often react with disappointment that they had a lever they never got to pull, balancing those sorts of expectations requires careful presentation and explanation.
One of the more ubiquitous and tricky elements in modern game design is asymmetrical powers. It is close to an assumed feature of modern games that players will have some form of asymmetrical starting position, and powers is one of the simplest ways of doing this. Such powers are generally given at set-up which creates a possible problem connected to endowment. Powers are either handed out randomly or selected by players, selection can avoid the issue of endowment, but front-loads learning the game. If handed out randomly these powers will then be a target for player endowment and will need to fulfill that endowment to satisfy expectations.
This comes with two primary problems, player over-focus and investment, and balancing. Over focus comes when a player is given a power of a type where, for example, they produce two resources when other players would produce one. If a player is given this power, they will attach excessive value to such production, focusing on it to an excess, if this resource fails to pay back at increased rates to a worthwhile degree such a power will actually become a negative for a player learning the game. If the resource in question hits a usefulness ceiling, or is only worth having in a certain stage of the game players will often find themselves over invested in it to their own detriment due to endowment of their starting powers. This is connected to balancing in that if players discover that their endowment of their starting powers is a distinctly weaker choice than another player’s endowment of their own power their eventual disappointment will be exponentially magnified. That is to say, if one player’s power results in useful returns however much investment is put into it while another player’s has a ceiling, even if its effects are more powerful if used judiciously the response to the second power may be disproportionately negative.
Endowment is a fascinating and well researched psychological effect, shifting player expectations in a manner that needs to be understood in order to balance and shape a satisfying player experience. The nature of games are that they build and manipulate their own expectations within the “magic circle” of a game, even to the degree where effects present in simple testing or theoretical games can be subverted or altered in more complex designs. By examining and pushing these concepts as designers we can build better player experiences and so better games.
How have you seen endowment used, positively or negatively in games that you’ve played? How have you sought to use and manipulate it in your own designs? Which other areas could the theory be applied to in order to enhance the player experience of a game?