Want to Play?

This is a post that I had written over two years ago for my earlier blog. Though the formats of the SMS games has changed a bit in this time (and 4-digit numbers have given way to 5 and sometimes 6 or 7-digit numbers), I see that what I wrote back then is still relevant today.

What do you think?

Want to Play?

SMS QUIZ to 9999 to play
Quiz. Chargeable at Rs. 9
per SMS. Download exciting
tones at 9999 for Rs...

Looks familiar? Well most cellphone users in India have come across such a message some time or other in their stint with their service provider, most of the times piqued by such messages on count of invasion of privacy, but every once in a while paying notice to an odd one, hoping against hope to maybe get some stimulation for the brain, or worse still, a prize.

I’ve also fallen for these a couple of times. And here’s my take on such contests the companies run. The first message asking you to participate asks you to SMS a keyword to the 4-digit number (not 5-digit) to play. You send the keyword. And after losing the money for one SMS (anywhere between 3 to 10 for any 4-digit number in India) you are told the first question. That’s right – money worth one contest SMS just for showing interest in playing the game!

You look at the first question. It is something like: “Who was the first PM of India? (A) Benazir Bhutto (B) Sachin Tendulkar (C) Jawaharlal Nehru. SMS A, B or C to 9999 (now 59999) to play the quiz”. Now if you’re not a braindead guy or an alien on a tourist visit to India, you’d definitely know the answer to this one. And you will also know that every other person who got this SMS also knows the answer. Sounds like child’s play? What happens to the odds of you winning this ‘game’ then? Your response is one in a million correct ones. And you’re expected to pay the same amount (which lies between 3 to 10) again for answering this question – with no expected returns except the chance of having a shot at the next question. Now you know that the next question may be a bit tougher than this one, but will very well be another no-brainer. In any case you will be spending a lot on these SMSes before any good, mind-teasing question which has a chance of being a decisive question, because very few people would have the correct answer to it, is fired at you. And when the tough one comes you would be hooked, not by instinct but by a phenomenon called ‘escalation of commitment’ – since you’d have spent so much money on answering the preceding questions already, you’d nevertheless take a shot at answering this tough one – even when you may not know the answer.

This structure may have been modelled very similar to other quizzes that are played in levels, like your normal school/college/university/office quiz or even BQC or KBC, where the initial levels are very easy and the toughness keeps on increasing with increasing level. That means that as the player gets more and more involved, the questions keep getting tougher. This helps generate interest in the initial rounds, because every player finds the initial questions easy enough to send in the answers and keep playing. To a certain extent this also relates to what is generally called “beginner’s luck” – a phenomenon which draws the first-timer in the game by showing the initial lures of easy victories, though in this case it is more by design than by chance.

Now on to the inherent flaw in the model. You might have already guessed what I’m getting at: it’s the cost per answer. In every level the system aims to eliminate some users – the ones who give the wrong answer (in the first few levels it’s stupid to think that’ll happen – look at the question I quoted earlier :-)). And in each subsequent level that the player crosses, his/her chance of being the winner if a lottery was conducted then and there in place of further rounds improves, because the number of players still in the game keeps on reducing. I’m still under the assumption that the game’s difficulty level indeed rises as players keep on playing (if that assumption is untrue, I doubt if anyone interested in such games would patronize this model). Think about it: the initial questions are absolute sitters, you know the answers by default, and so does everyone else. The only reason you’d want to send in the answer is because you’d be curious what the next question might be, and having a shot at it… maybe if it’s good enough, some people would be eliminated with that question and your odds at winning the final prize would improve. The cost of playing the level seems quite huge at this point, especially because you don’t know the level of questions to come next, you’re not aware of the total number of questions in the game – which means you don’t know your total possible outward cash flows in playing, and there’s little or no possibility of your odds improving due to answering this question. Will you be interested in playing this game? I doubt it.

What could be a possible alternative to this structure is differential pricing for answering each level. Maybe the first few levels could be answered for free – just to create the initial pull. Subsequent levels would get expensive as they would get tougher – that is as the chances of winning increase your bet on yourself increases. A person who’s answered 10 questions and is on the 11th one would definitely want to pay more for answering the 11th question than the guy at the 2nd question attempting the 3rd one, because he’s perceptibly closer to the final stage and the prize. In this model the guy who knows he’s one answer away to glory (the finalist) may even want to pay up to say a hundred bucks if he knows the prize is worth more than that (again go back to ‘escalation of commitment’ to support this claim).

Benefits: More players. Players won’t take the game as just a money-making exercise on the part of the service provider. More revenues, since more players would filter out to the tougher and more ‘expensive’ questions.

Another model could involve charging the players upfront for playing. As of now you have to send in a keyword (PLAY, QUIZ etc) to receive the first question. You pay for this as well. Why not charge the player the whole money (in the name of entry fee) here itself? And this does not have to be equal to the number of levels times each message as priced currently, since as of now very rarely does anyone play the whole game. Charge the user a little more than the average spent by any player on the game right now, and you have a model which earns more than the current scenario.

Benefits: One time money – whether the player continues to play the game or drops the game in the middle due to whatever reason – the income is fixed. Players will take the game seriously – more like a contest – rather than as a timepass. More players will try answering as many questions as possible because answering each question is free – which leads to better visibility and recall of the game and the service provider – might even lead to better word of mouth if the game is good enough.

Want to play now?

PS: The title of this blogpost has been borrowed from P. J. Tracy’s suspense thriller novel.
The inline image is courtesy stock.xchng – one of the most wonderful stock image sites out there.

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