Psychology & Perception: How Games are Like Wine

In January of 2008, a Cal Tech and Stanford Business School research study showed that the perception of a wine can influence the actual physical enjoyment of the wine. In this study, people who drank the same wine that was priced at $90 vs. $10 did not only believe that the $90 wine was better but in fact actually experienced greater pleasure drinking the wine as measured by brain scanning technology.


(Somehow this wine in the picture above looks really good to me)

Hence this study indicates that a person’s psychology and perception can alter a physical experience.

I believe similar to wine, the enjoyment of games can be skewed by the perception of the game. Hence, the better the user believes the game to be (whether by marketing, pricing, or other means), the more the user can actually enjoy and derive pleasure from the game.

The Apple fan boys who stood in line for hours or even days to be the first to get the first iPhones or iPads may have not only bought into the marketing but actually psychologically convinced themselves to enjoy the product more.

As a thought experiment however if we were to try to alter user’s perception of a game, how could we do this?

The obvious drivers for perception to me, seem to be the following:

  1. Brand: e.g., Warner Bros’s Injustice
  2. Production value: e.g., Infinity Blade (for it’s time)
  3. Polish/UI: e.g., CSR Racing 

However, perhaps more overlooked are the following:

  1. Social proof: Pushing social recommendations (e.g., Candy Crush Saga) and surfacing social play and rivalries (e.g., WindRunner)
  2. Price: See Square Enix’s mobile games
  3. Pattern matching: Having similar mechanics to other games especially as part of first time user experience can negatively impact your game. e.g., “City building again? I’ve played about 20 of those… [delete app]”. Having a unique and clever experience can however give the opposite perception: see Limbo. “What is this? I’ve never seen this before…”
  4. Waiting lists: Popularized by Mailbox (acquired by Dropbox) a mobile app wait list will block the user from using the app until some number of people ahead of them have been granted access. It’s basically the nightclub line or Apple fanboy line as access to your mobile app. Also being used by the new mobile payments app Clinkle.
  5. Exclusivity: Social networks like A Small World or social news sharing services like Quibb which initially launch their services as invitation only or via screening their user base.

Understanding user psychology is a goldmine. If you don’t believe me talk to any of the game designers at DeNA who have really studied user psychology to a degree I haven’t seen at other mobile game companies. There are very specific psychological motivations behind many of their features.

So back to the original topic: Can games be like wine?

And if so, what else can we do to skew a favorable perception for our games?

Comment and let’s discuss!


  • Andrew Sandes

    Posted July 17, 2013 4:59 am

    Joseph, I like your post. I lived in Japan for 10 years so your comment on DeNA resonates with me. I know how detail oriented Japanese corporations are around things that may seem small (or too costly/difficult/troublesome) at the start but end up underpinning serious longevity/quality/revenue in their products/platforms/services.
    BTW – with regards to waiting lists for apps, I can understand this for “utility apps” to generate a buzz to get access. But don’t you think this goes against the free to play model in mobile gaming where you want people getting access and interacting asap?

  • Woosung Ahn 안우성 (@woosungahn)

    Posted July 17, 2013 5:20 am

    Re: waiting lists, *pre-register and get exclusive items* is a common marketing practice for mobile games in JP/KR these days

  • Joseph Kim

    Posted July 17, 2013 5:32 am

    Hi Andrew, I haven’t seen any game implement waiting lists yet but Woosung mentions Square doing pre-registrations and if anyone can and should pull off a waiting list they should.

    As typical, if anyone is doing it in JP/KR they are one step ahead of us. 🙂 Basically, I would use a Mailbox style model but then give “priority” to those who FB share or tweet.

    I agree that wait lists probably makes more sense in general for a paid app but 2 points here: 1. if the rumors are true that Apple will prioritize paid vs. F2P with iOS7 then we should see a shift back to paid games and 2. some games with followings like GAMEVIL’s Zenonia series or a branded title or a title by a celebrated person/team (e.g., Jonathan Blow, etc.) may be a title in which this could be effective. That of course would have to be coordinated with an Apple feature which could be a deal killer.

  • Joseph Kim

    Posted July 17, 2013 5:33 am

    Woosung thanks for the comment and link. Is there any mobile gaming news in this world that you’re not aware of? 🙂

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