Think Design : Anchoring

Most blog posts take about 15 minutes to read. This one should only take you about 5.

Today, we’re taking a look at another concept that affects the decisions we make. And I’ll warn you now: even when you know of this effect, it will be almost impossible to avoid falling for them.

Imagine you are going to donate to a charity you support. How much would you give:

  • $10
  • $25
  • $100
  • $500
  • $1000

I’m going to guess you chose either $10 or $25. Very few would choose $500, and almost no one would choose $1000. The reason is anchoring. When we have a few options to choose from, we often use an anchor as a kind of reference point, and compare the other options to it. In this case, the first number we see is $10, so we compare the other amounts to $10. Here, even $100 seems a lot when compared to $10.

But imagine if the order was reversed:

  • $1000
  • $500
  • $100
  • $25
  • $10

In this case, there would probably be many more people choosing to donate at the $100 level. This is because the anchor is set at $1000, so $100 seems cheap in comparison but is still a very respectable amount. The reason this works is because if $1000 is the first number we see, our thought is “well, $100 is 10x less than $1000, so it’s probably a fair amount.” But if we see $10 first, our thought is “$100 is 10x more than $10, and that seems like too much.”

Restaurants often make use of the anchoring effect, too. The most expensive item on the menu will usually seem exorbitant. Take a look at the second most expensive item. It probably seems comparable in terms of quantity and quality, but is notably cheaper. This is because restaurants often want you to order the second most expensive dish, not the priciest. Why? The profit margin is often better for them on the second steepest. By anchoring your decision to the most expensive dish, the second priciest seems reasonable by comparison, and you have no problem ordering it.

Check out the very first price on the menu. Now everything else looks like a better deal.

We also see anchoring used all the time when new products are announced. When the iPad was revealed, Steve Jobs said the following: “What should we price it at? If you listen to the pundits, we’re going to price it at under $1000, which is code for $999. I am thrilled to announce to you that the iPad pricing starts not at $999, but at just $499.”

How much should we sell this for? $10,000? $100,000? This can be yours today, for the low low price of just $499.

By repeating high numbers three times, and showing a large $999 on the screen behind him as he spoke, Steve Jobs anchored that price in the audience’s mind. When the price of $499 was revealed, it seemed cheap in comparison. And even the most expensive iPad sku was substantially cheaper than the $999 he had anchored. This same approach has worked wonders for the infomercial industry.

Okay, so how does anchoring affect us as game developers?

One place we often see anchoring in the industry is with review scores, and how they can affect our perception of a game. In one study (see it here), researchers divided participants into three groups, and had them play Plants vs. Zombies on PC. Before playing, researchers told each group about expert review scores of the game. One group of players was told that critics gave the game a score of 91, one group was told that critics gave the game a score of 61, and the third group wasn’t shown any reviews. What do you think happened?

Mmmmmm, delicious scoooooores. Oh, and brains! Braaaaaiiiiiinnnnns.

The Positive Review group gave the game a score of 85 (remember, they thought reviewers had given the game a 91). The Neutral Review group, who hadn’t seen any scores, gave the game a score of 79. The Negative Review group gave the game a 71 (they thought reviewers had given the game a 61). Researchers controlled for statistical significance, so we can fairly conclude that the scores that players saw before playing influenced their evaluation of the game. This anchoring effect could therefore affect the way players perceive your game after seeing review scores on Metacritic or in the App Store user reviews. And can we be certain that critics don’t fall prey to the anchoring effect? Once a reviewer sees the first few published review scores come out for a game, are they more likely to arrive at a score that is close to the consensus?

On the design front, if you have an in-game store, the applications of anchoring should be quite obvious. Anchor the user with a really steep price on one item, and offer a different one for what seems like a great bargain when compared to the first. Sales on that second item will increase.

Higher numbers for in-game currency amounts and original prices serve as anchors to make the sale price seem cheap.

Using anchoring to encourage purchasing isn’t limited to in-game stores, either. Here’s an example from Steam.

Anchoring on Steam. Yes, even Valve does it!

If you’re interested in reading more about the psychological tricks Valve uses to get people to buy on Steam, there’s a good article about it here.

In a game like Mass Effect, the player can choose from a set of responses during an in-game conversation. In a case like this, designers could use the first choice as an anchor, which the player would use to judge the other available responses.

The harshness of the first choice most people read (top left) makes the others seem tamer.

Anchoring even plays a role in how we perceive the pace of a game. If the first few levels in your game are short and action-packed, a long, slower level will feel out of place. As you make design decisions, consider the anchors your game has already established with players, and how those anchors might affect the player’s reaction to the new things she’s encountering.

Anchoring is often useful – we need points of reference to make plenty of decisions every day, or we would quickly be overwhelmed. Because we use it all the time, it makes it difficult to avoid it when it doesn’t make sense, or when it actually causes us to make bad decisions. But knowing about it lets us put it to good use as designers, and watch for it in our daily lives.


Ryan Donaldson teaches The Business of Games at VFS Game Design