yukai chou gamification

The 8 Core Drives of Gamification #6: Scarcity & Impatience


(Below is a snippet of Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. If you like this blog post, you will LOVE the book.)

Driving Obsessive Behavior with Scarcity & Impatience

Scarcity and Impatience is the sixth core drive of the Octalysis Framework, and is the drive that motivates us simply because we are either unable to obtain something immediately, or because there is great difficulty in obtaining it.

We have a naturally tendency to want things we can’t have. If a bowl of grapes were plainly on the table, you may not care about those grapes; but if they were on a shelf just beyond your reach, you will likely be thinking about the grapes regularly: “Are they sweet? Can I have them? When I can I have them?”

Personally, Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience is the Core Drive that intrigues me the most, and is also the last Core Drive I learned about. Its fascination lies in the fact that it is completely unintuitive, irrational and emotionally difficult to utilize.

This post is to explore this Black Hat/Left Brain Core Drive, understand its powers, and some game techniques that harness it towards behavioral change.

The Lure of being Exclusively Pointless

South Park, a popular American animated sitcom created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, has many lessons to teach us about human behavior, especially the irrational ones (once you get pass the potty-mouth cussing and unnecessary gory scenes).

In one of the episodes, Cartman joins NAMBLA, the controversial main character Eric Cartman decided that he was too mature for his other fourth grade friends, and went online to find adult friends that are more mature. He ends up being recruited to the organization called NAMBLA, short for North American Man/Boy Love Association (which in fact, is a real organization). The “mature” members of NAMBLA then asked Cartman to bring all his friends to a party they are hosting in his honor.

Not knowing the true nature of what he is getting himself into, he sent out invitations to all his classmates besides his usual close friends, Stan Marsh and Kyle Broflovski. He then starts to brag to them about how he is going to his mature grown-up friends party but he’s not inviting them. The below conversation is a classic that speaks to our Core Drives.

Stan: We don’t want to go to some stupid adult meeting anyway!
Cartman: Well that’s nice, cause you can’t go!
Kyle: We don’t want to go!
Cartman: You can’t go!
Kyle: We don’t want to go!
Cartman No. You can’t go! Hey, Clyde, Butters, check this out! [Leaves]
Stan: Dude, maybe we do need to start being more mature.
Kyle: yea, I guess we need try to get into that club too.

What you see here is a classic example of scarcity through exclusivity. Even though Stan and Kyle were genuine when they said they weren’t interested in joining some adult party, when reinforced in the face that they don’t qualify for the party, they developed a natural sense of motivation towards the party, even though nothing about the party itself became more appealing.

The concept of exclusivity was taken to a whole new level in another episode titled Cartmanland, In this episode, Cartman inherits $1 Millions from his deceased grandmother, and decides to use almost all of it to buy a struggling theme park just to entertain himself without being stuck in lines.

Instead of trying to improve its business, Cartman makes a full 38-second TV commercial to show how amazingly fun “Cartmanland” is and emphasizes that no one besides him can enjoy it. “So much fun in Cartmanland, but you can’t come!” is the catchy slogan.

After realizing he needs more money to hire a security guard to keep his friends out, Cartman starts to accept two customers a day to pay the security guard. Then he starts to realize that he needs pay for more things such as maintenance, utilities, and other operations, so he started to open it up to three, four, tens, and then hundreds of people everyday.

Since people all saw how they couldn’t get into Cartmanland, when they learned that it is starting to accept more people, they rushed to get in.

Eventually, everyone wanted to go to Cartmanland and it went from a near-bankrupted theme park into one of the most popular ones ever. Experts within the episode even called the “You Can’t Come!” campaign to be a brilliant marketing ploy by the genius millionaire Eric Cartman.

Unfortunately, with more people in his precious park, Eric Cartman became miserable and eventually sold the park back to the original owners, and then lost his money afterwards.

Even though these are exaggerated examples, in this post, you will see that our brains naturally have a tendency to pursue things just because they are exclusive.

To seem more South Park Gamification examples , check out Top 10 Gamification Lessons learned from South Park.

On the other side of popular media, in the movie Up in the Air, Protagonist Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is a corporate “downsizer” that flies all over the place to help companies lay off employees. In a conversation with the young and ambitious status-quo disruptor Natalie Keene, played by Anna Kendrick, Bingham gives us a lesson about the value of scarcity, status, rewards, and exclusivity, as he talks about his obsession with airline miles.

Ryan Bingham: I don’t spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my mileage account.
Natalie Keener: So, what are you saving up for? Hawaii? South of France?
Ryan Bingham: It’s not like that. The miles are the goal.
Natalie Keener: That’s it? You’re saving just to save?
Ryan Bingham: Let’s just say that I have a number in mind and I haven’t hit it yet.
Natalie Keener: That’s a little abstract. What’s the target?
Ryan Bingham: I’d rather not…
Natalie Keener: Is it a secret target?
Ryan Bingham: It’s ten million miles.
Natalie Keener: Okay. Isn’t ten million just a number?
Ryan Bingham: Pi’s just a number.
Natalie Keener: Well, we all need a hobby. No, I- I- I don’t mean to belittle your collection. I get it. It sounds cool.
Ryan Bingham: I’d be the seventh person to do it. More people have walked on the moon.
Natalie Keener: Do they throw you a parade?
Ryan Bingham: You get lifetime executive status. You get to meet the chief pilot, Maynard Finch.
Natalie Keener: Wow.
Ryan Bingham: And they put your name on the side of a plane.
Natalie Keener: Men get such hardons from putting their names on things. You guys don’t grow up. It’s like you need to pee on everything.

Beyond the collection, status, and achievement (Core Drives 2, 4, and 5), one thing that was very important for Ryan was that “I’d be the seventh person to do it. More people have walked on the moon.” This shows that because it’s something that he (along with billions of others) couldn’t get right now, he valued obtaining it more. It was simply more appealing because of how exclusive that was.

Persuasively Inconvenient

As the above example shows, our brains naturally and intuitively seek things that are scarce, unavailable, or fading in availability.

Oren Klaff is a professional pitcher and fundraiser who claims to close deals through a systematic way he calls neuroeconomics, a craft that combines neuroscience and economics, digging deep into our psychology, appealing to what he calls the croc brain, and utilizing various Core Drives such as CD5: Social Influence & Relatedness, CD6: Scarcity & Impatience, CD7: Unpredictability, and CD8: Loss & Avoidance (the discerning Octalyst may identify that there is a heavy focus of Black Hat Core Drives here. We will explore why sales and closing deals mostly appeals to Black Hat Core Drives, while workplace motivation mostly appeals to White Hat Core Drives in other posts).

In Klaff’s book Pitch Anything, he explains the concept of Prizing, and how it ties into three fundamental behaviors from our croc brains:

  1.      We chase that which moves away from us
  2.      We want what we cannot have
  3.      We only place value on things that are difficult to obtain

He claims that instead of ABS – always be selling, salespeople should practice ABL – always be leaving. If you are always leaving the discussions, it means that you are not desperate, are highly sought after, and do not depend on this deal. You are the Prize. Klaff claims that, when you do that, money will flow in as the ultimate commodity to win that Prize.

Through his methods, Klaff has raised over $450 Million and claims to continue so at a rate of $2 Million a week.

It is oddly true that often times, as we place inconveniences on something, it becomes more valuable in our minds. In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the author Robert Cialdini shares how Colleen Szot revolutionized her infomercials by simply changing the call-to-action line from “Operators are waiting, please call now,” to, “If operators are busy, please call again.”

Why would this be? In the first case, viewers can imagine operators sitting around, waiting to answer calls and take orders for products that may be of marginal value. In the second case viewers will more likely perceive that the operators will be struggling to answer a flood of calls and keeping up with the demand on orders.

Even though this message suggests an inconvenience to buy a product, the perceived scarcity of the viewers is enough to get people motivated enough to quickly make a call before the product runs out.

Oren Klaff also brings up another example in Pitch Anything where BMW released a special-edition M3 that required the buyer to sign a contract promising to keep it clean and take care of the special paint. Without this promise in writing, they won’t even allow you to buy the car! In this case, BMW is prizing itself so that the buyer would believe it is a special and exclusive privilege to drive the car, even though the buyer has all the money available.

Maybe that’s why the hard-to-get strategy is so prevalent in modern society conversations. It’s not just a way to show personality, but it actually drives real results as it inspires people to chase harder.

Gamification Techniques in Scarcity and Impatience

Magnetic Caps (Game Technique #68)

When I consult with my clients, I often remind them that they should scarcely create a feeling of abundance. Abundance is boring. The feeling of abundance, unfortunately, is not very motivating to our brains. Scarcity, on the other hand, is motivating. Even if the user committed the ultimate Desired Action, such as pay a lot of money, a persuasive system designer should only give people a temporary sense of abundance, and after a few weeks or months, the feeling of scarcity should crawl up again, with new targets that the user cannot obtain yet (or perhaps they have used up all their virtual currencies).

A great system designer should always control the flow of scarcity, and make sure everyone in the system is still striving for a goal that is difficult, but not impossible, to obtain. Failure to do so would cause a gratifying system to implode and users abandoning it for better grounds.

This plugs nicely into Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, where the difficult of the challenge must increase along with the skill set of the user. Too much challenge, and it leads to anxiety. Too little challenge, and it leads to boredom.

There have been many interesting studies that show, by simply placing a limit on something, people become motivated towards it. If you introduce a feature that allows people to use as many times as they want, often times, no one cares to use it. But once you place a limit of using this feature only three times a day, more often than not, you will see people enthusiastically taking advantage of their rights of using it, and excitingly trying to unlock the fourth one.

In Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Wansink describes that when a grocery store just displays a promotional sign that says, “No Limit Per Person,” people often just buy a few of the promoted item. However, if the sign said, “Limit 12 Per Person,” people started to buy more – in fact, 30%-105% more. That’s another odd nature of scarcity, where by drawing limits, it draws us towards the limit.

This means that, if you want to increase a certain behavior, one powerful way is to place a limit on that activity. Of course, you don’t necessarily want to limit the activity so much that you are losing key metrics from that limit. The best way is to first find an “upper edge” of that metric which simply forms a perceived sense of scarcity, but doesn’t necessarily limit the behavior. A company could say “Even though we want users to select an unlimited amount of hobbies, 90% of our users choose less than five hobbies on our website” which means it would be appropriate to set a limit at five of six hobbies instead of having no limits.

What about the 10% of the power users you ask? Aren’t they important? Yes they are (and if you asked that question, it means you have been thinking about user motivation and experience phases, which is great). This is when you let the power users unlock more capabilities and have the limit rise as they continue to prove their commitment, which is described as the Evolved UI technique below. Again, you still want to let these power users feel that is a Magnetic Cap at the top, so that they always have that sense of Scarcity in their minds, instead of a feeling of abundance.

Appointment Dynamics (Game Technique #21)

Another form of Scarcity is in the form of Time. And the most well-known game technique on time scarcity is the Appointment Dynamic, popularized by Seth Priebatsch’s popular TEDx Boston talk on The Game Layer on Top of the World.  Appointment Dynamics utilize a formerly declared, or reoccurring time where users have to take the Desired Actions to effectively reach the Win-State. One of the most common examples include Happy Hour, where by hitting the Win-State of showing up at the right time, people get to enjoy the reward of 50% appetizers and beer. People expect the appointment and plan accordingly.

Appointment Dynamics are powerful because they form a trigger based on the time. Many products don’t get reoccurring usage because they lack a trigger to remind the person to come back. According to Nir Eyal, author of Hooked and a dear friend of mine, External Triggers are company attempts such as sending you reminder emails, pop-up messages, or people telling you to do something.

On the other hand, Internal Triggers are built in your natural response system to certain experiences. For instance, when you see something beautiful, it triggers the desire to open Instagram. Facebook’s trigger, on the other hand, is boredom.

I once had a friend who told me how one day, he was using Facebook, and he suddenly felt bored, so then he instinctively opened a new tab on his browser and typed in “” Once the site loaded, he was shocked, “Oh my. I was already on Facebook. Why did I open Facebook again?” Again, this is the power of an Internal Trigger that connects to a feeling as common as boredom (for instance, what do you do when you are waiting in line?).

With Appointment Dynamics, the trigger is time. My garbage truck comes in every Tuesday morning, so on Monday nights, I automatically get an internal trigger reminding myself to take out the garbage. If the garbage truck comes out all the time, I may procrastinate more until my garbage overflows, and when I’m newly driven by Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance.

One extremely innovative example (and I rarely say this) of a company utilizing the Appointment Dynamic is one of the largest Korean shopping centers named eMart.

eMart realized that their traffic and sales are usually great during most hours of the day, but during lunch time, foot traffic and sales drops significantly. They wanted to figure out how to motivate people to show up during lunch time (Desired Action), and they mustered up the principles of Core Drive 6 and a bit of Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity. They ended up launching a campaign called “Sunny Sale” and built a statue in front of their stores.

eMart Gamification

On its own, this statue looks fairly abstract and doesn’t seem to resemble anything. However, when the sun reaches the top of the sky during noon time, the shadow of this statue transforms into a perfect QR Code where people can scan with their mobile phones and see unique content.

Isn’t that cool? Now, because the QR Code can only be scanned within a limited time between 12PM to 1PM, people are rushing there to scan in order to see what happens.

Honestly, at that point, it doesn’t matter what the results of the QR Code scan is – the scarcity and intrigue (stemming from Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity) is enough to get people to show up. In the case of eMart, it also includes a coupon that consumers can redeem immediately for a purchase online. Even though due to the theories of Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation, this isn’t the best type of reward design, it still reportedly improved eMart’s noon-time sales by 25%. Not bad when you are already the No. 1 leader in the industry (and with this type of pragmatic thinking, no wonder they became that).

Torture Breaks (Game Technique #66)

By now you may have noticed: another type of game technique from Core Drive 6 Scarcity & Impatience utilizes the “Impatience” part, which means not allowing people to do something immediately.

In the old days, most console games try to get users to stay on as long as possible. If a player is glued in front of the screen playing the game for five hours straight, that’s a big win for the game. Nowadays, social mobile games do something completely different.

In many social mobile games these days, they don’t let you play for very long. The game will let you play for thirty minutes, and then tell you “Stop! You can’t play anymore. You need to come back 8 hours later, because you need to wait for your crop to harvest/you need to wait for your energy to recharge/you need to heal up.”

For some parents who don’t understand Core Drive 6, this design makes them very happy. “That’s great! These game designers are so responsible – now my son’s play time will be limited!” But in fact, they don’t know that the game is implementing what I call Torture Breaks to drive obsessive behavior.

A Torture Break is a sudden and often triggered pause to the Desired Actions. Whereas the Appointment Dynamic is more based on absolute times where people look forward to (Every Monday morning the garbage truck will come; on July 4th when you open the app, you will get a huge bonus), Torture Breaks are often unexpected hard stops when the user is committing the Desired Action. It also often comes with a relative time-stamp based on when the break is triggered, such as “Return 5 hours from now.”

This differentiation between the two Game Techniques may differ from Priebatsch, and they often times work hand in hand together (oftentimes after a Torture Break is triggered, an Appointment Dynamic follows), but I feel it is important to note the difference and plan your gamified systems accordingly.

In the example of social mobile games, because the player was forced to stop playing, she would likely start thinking about the game all day long. Often times, she will log back in after three hours, five hours, six hours, just to check if she is finally able to play, even though she knows as a fact that it hasn’t been the allotted eight hours.

If the player was allowed to play for as long as she wanted – lets say three hours, should would likely become content, stop playing, and not think about the game for a day or two. Therefore, the brilliant game designer who knows this would allow her to play for two hours and fifty-nine minutes, and then trigger the Torture Break.

At this point, she will be obsessively trying to come back to play that final one minute (this is when the game provides another option – pay $1 to remove the Torture Break). But no, she has to wait for a few hours before she can play again, and her three-hour play appetite resets again when that happens.

Another game, Candy Crush, which is one of the most successful games in the world and making approximately $2 Million a Day, incorporates the Torture Break very well also.  After losing a life, the game pauses and forces you to wait 25 minutes before you can gain another life and proceed to the next level.  This draws players to constantly think about those slow-passing 25 Minutes, and makes it difficult to plan other things to do while being occupied by this obsessive thought.

Of course, the game also gives you two options: ask your friends to give you a life (Social Treasure), or pay right now (Anchored Juxtaposition). See how all these game techniques work together to become a holistic motivational system towards Desired Actions?

Evolved UI (Game Technique #37)

One of the things I’ve regularly recommended my clients to do but face much resistance on is the Evolved UI, short of Evolved Users Interface. The problem with most user interfaces is that they’re too complex in the Onboarding stage, and too basic for the Endgame.

In the popular gaming phenomenon World of Warcraft, if you look at top-level players play, the interface could make you dizzy. There are close to a dozen little windows open, all with different stats, options, and icons. It shows so much information about how your teammates are doing, how the boss is doing, where is everyone, your own resources, you could barely see the animation of your own character fighting! It truly is one of the most complex user interfaces around.

However, World of Warcraft, along with many well-designed games, never start off like that. At the beginning, there are only a few options, buttons, and icons. And as you get to more Win-States, it starts to unlock more options, skills, and capabilities. A beginner player, also with the help of great Step-by-step Onboarding Tutorials, Narratives and the Glowing Choices, never gets confused about what to do at the beginning.

Based on the concepts of Decision Paralysis, if you give users twenty amazing features at the beginning, they feel flustered and don’t use a single one. But if you give them only two or three of those features (not just one, since our Core Drive 3 loves choice), and have them slowly unlock more, then they begin to enjoy and love those features.

However, the Evolved UI concept is very difficult for a company to implement emotionally, because it feels weird to withhold great features and functionalities from the user. In the case of my client EmbraceHer, whom I am an advisor of and whom runs one of the most popular apps on pregnancy called Pregnancy Companion, it almost feels amoral.

Why should we withhold important functionalities such as baby kick counters or information about the third trimester to pregnant women on their second trimester that want to know everything there is to know? And sometimes, it truthfully isn’t “right” to do it. For the designer though, it is important to acknowledge it as an option to drive more behavior towards the Desired Action. Just because it makes users feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad for you, nor the user for that matter.

One company that finally did implement the Evolved UI concept is Sony, calling it Evolution UI (in fact, I modified my game technique name to fit theirs just to avoid semantics complexity in the industry).

Sony noticed that even though the Android smartphone system developed by Google was very powerful, it had a great learning curve and beginners could feel flustered. They therefore launched the Evolution UI, which at the beginning shows very limited core options on the phone.

Once users have shown that they have mastered the basic set of UI, such as opening 5 apps, they unlock an achievement, which unleashes new features.  That way, the difficulty of the user experience never surpasses the skillsets of the user, much to the liking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory mentioned above.

Even though under the lens of deep game flow design the rewards-unlocking pace in Sony’s Evolution UI seems to be less than optimal, it is a great step towards the movement of large industries learning Human-Focused Design from decades or centuries of game design experience.

So what’s the consequence of having an UI that is too complex at the beginning? Google Plus.

As mentioned earlier, even with a lot of great functions, Google plus is not getting sticky traction because of the learning curved required. Most mainstream users feel confused when they are accidently pushed onto Google+ when using Youtube or Gmail, thus quickly leave the platform.

Gmail, on the other hand, implements a small form of Evolved UI, which manifested itself as Google Labs. In Gmail, they by default show users the basic set of features and functionalities, but there are many cool features that could be unlocked in the “Labs” tab, allowing users to deal with more complex but more powerful features once they feel ready. (Is Google Labs in Gmail shutdown recently?)

Great! So now what do I do in my gamification campaign?

Of course, understanding Scarcity & Impatience doesn’t mean start-ups should start pulling down their servers on purpose, or setting up fake and corny limitations in their systems. Some users may become obsessed, but you could likely turn away many other users who quickly jump into denial mode and never come back.

The most obvious application for start-ups based on CD6 Principles is to launch with a confident pricing strategy. Instead of just offering everything for free or easily available for everyone, a more premium pricing model or well-explained exclusivity might also increase the confidence of users/buyers with a result in increased conversion rates.

Of course, if you price an item outside what is affordable to your target market, then this could backfire. But more often than not, when customers don’t buy your product, it’s not because they can’t afford it. It’s because the perceived value they have for your product is not worth the cost (and sometimes that cost is in the simple form of time investment or “talking to my boss about it”).

Besides pricing your service/product with confidence, you may want to create a sense of exclusivity for each step during the Discovery and Onboarding stages, where the service makes them feel that it’s uniquely for them, that they uniquely qualify for the access (Email notification that is only sent to VIP members). They now have exclusivity as the “Harvard students”, the “Apple Fans”, or even more broadly as “people who signed up the newsletter.”

For actions that lead to rewards and investments, instead of allowing unlimited actions (such as “liking” as many times as you want), consider more restrictive options. Often, placing a cap on how many actions a person can take (or investments that they can make) will cause them to desire it more.

By increasing perceived value, customers and users are more likely to stay engaged and take greater interest in your venture, while making sure you don’t give out all your hard-earned world-changing work for close to nothing. Of course, it would even be better if your product is actually great and you truly make your customers’ lives better.

The Big Picture of Scarcity in Octalysis Gamification Design

Scarcity and Impatience is considered a Black Hat Core Drive, but if used correctly, can be very powerful in driving motivation. Oftentimes, Core Drive 6 is the first source of generating Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback in the system. When fused with Core Drive 7: Unpredictability and Curiosity, CD6 becomes a great engine to drive online consumer action. Finally, working alongside Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance, CD6 becomes a powerful force that not only pushes for action, but pushes for action with extremely strong urgency.

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