Tarbell was right

by Morgan Jaffit

There’s something about game developers and magic, which shouldn’t be too surprising given how much of what we do is effectively illusory. Watching the latest E3 presentations reminded me strongly of some of the lessons I learned, back in the deep past when I was a magician (of the stage variety, not the chalk circles and strange incantations).

Harlan Tarbell was a reasonably well known stage magician back in the 1900′s, although he’s most famous for writing a corresponence course in magic that was pretty much the gold standard in such things for years. The most compelling part of those courses was not the explainations for how illusions were achieved (the gimmicks, if you will) but the examinations of the psychology of magic and the necessity to sell your audience on the reality you wanted to present. Misdirection and manipulation are the two most important parts of any illusion, and surprisingly this E3 Sony showed how well they can deliver and MS fell flat on its face.

There is a story Harlan tells about his days as a travelling salesman, coming across a store that sold sweets. Business had been terrible, and the owner asked Harlan to help pep things up. Harlan watched the sales people working for a few hours, and asked a few of the local townsfolk how they felt about the store. Then he returned with a quick diagnosis – people think your store is cheap and nasty. They feel like you’re always taking something away from them. If someone wants 100g of sweets, you toss 120g on the scales then keep removing sweets until it’s at the right level – which is totally legitimate, but makes them feel bad.

Instead, he suggested, load it up to 90g then slowly add sweets until you’re at weight. Then throw one extra on top. Then offer them a sample of one of your other brands. You can never take away from a customer something you’ve already given them without them feeling bad, but if you offer them a trivial extra with each purchase you’ll build a fan for life.

That’s a lesson that Microsoft have missed absolutely in the latest round of the console wars, and one they should have taken to heart. In essence, the second-hand sales approach they’re proposing aligns reasonably closely with what’s already going on with Steam. It’s clear that they’re trying to begin the move towards purely digital products and the “phone home for validation” model is part of that. In the process, they’re sweeping away a bunch of the sweets people are used to having, and that’s caused a mighty backlash.

In the meantime, Sony is keeping quiet as to exactly what sort of limitations on second hand sales might be possible on the PS4. So far, they’ve hand-balled that one over to the publishers, who are keeping quiet. They’ve managed to turn what is effectively a “no comment” into a massive victory.

That’s the magic.


  1. Derek on 06.14.2013

    I feel Sony learnt this through the bitter taste of the last console launch, when they showed all these great games and service, then blurted out the cost of the console (an earth shattering $599 USD) and then ran off the stage. Piling on the sweets like that only to yank a bunch away at the end really backfired on them.

    I think they approached this conference with a much more humble position with regard to their customers, and it paid off even if they were vague.

  2. Morgan Jaffit on 06.17.2013

    Agree – it’s funny to see the reversal of positions from the last launch. In the end though, that didn’t hurt Sony as much as I thought it might – both consoles came out about even last gen. Will be interesting to see what comes of this time around.

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