Why We Buy Things

Over the last year, I’ve been watching how people talk about the things they buy. And watching Kickstarters, buzz about games on Twitter, things like that, here’s the breakdown I’ve got in my head:

People buy things because…

  • they hear the product is good.
    See the emphasis on “hear”? That’s buzz. It doesn’t have to do if the product is actually good, but if it’s talked about as being good. There’s a difference that has to do with target audience and buzz spread.
  • they want to engage in a conversation.
    This covers people talking about a game for good or bad reasons. This is part of the reason I buy Vincent Baker games — they get talked about so much by my friends & folks on the Internet that I have to read to keep up. This is also why people go to movies that nerds hate on — they want to engage in the conversation about said hate.
  • they want to engage in a subculture.
    This is like the above, only wider. Works that are seen as formative in a subculture are often bought for this reason. It’s part of why some of the older indie/story game titles continue to sell.
  • they want to support someone.
    People will buy to support someone they like, even if the product itself isn’t terribly interesting to them. This is especially true I think of Kickstarters. There are some people I’ve contributed to where the product hasn’t turned me on, but the people seem cool so I wanted to support.
  • they have bought into a brand.
    People buy things because they have prior good experiences with a brand. Sometimes this results in sight-unseen purchases. I used to do this with anything Kenneth Hite wrote. (These days I don’t because my funds are stretched all over the place, but when Ken writes something it goes high on my consideration list.)
  • they have bought into a cult of personality.
    This is the more toxic version of above, and it happens often. It’s where rabid, unthinking fandom lives. That said, good money if you can make it happen, because people will forgive and excuse your faults when you reach that state.
  • they are buying a story about themselves.
    And this is the biggest one. This is a big reason why people buy limited editions and the higher end of Kickstarters. People like to tell stories about themselves, both to other people and to them internally.

I’ll tell you a story about the last one (that I think I’ve told before, but I tell it often enough to illustrate the point that I can’t remember where I’ve told it.) I was at a talk a year ago, when an artist was discussing her work. I won’t go much into that talk specifically, but when she was done, she said she had one of the ten prints here with her for sale. It was a couple hundred bucks, and back then I was a but flush. I liked her story, and I was struck with the desire to buy into that story.

With my phone in hand, I went up to her to buy the print. I asked if I could PayPal, and she looked iffy. Then I said “No, right now. I have PayPal on my phone.” She was amazed at this moment of technology. We exchanged money, and the story grew in that moment where I was the first person to e-pay her while physically present. I bought a neat piece of art with a story behind it, but what I really bought was a story that happens to also be represented by a piece of art.

None of those above are inherently bad (except probably the cult of personality). But they’re interesting, and if you’re selling, you should understand why people buy. Because to me, it doesn’t match with the priorities of a creator.

Speaking of, are there any I missed?

– Ryan


8 Responses to Why We Buy Things

  1. Mike Olson says:

    I don’t see one that covers “I walked into the store, saw a game I’d never seen before with an interesting cover, flipped through it for a bit, liked what I saw, and bought it.” Or the guy who goes to his FLGS, sees Mongoose’s latest Quintessential Book of Breaking Your Favorite D&D 3.5 Class, and buys it for all the poorly considered feats therein. Neither of these purchases rests on the author or any advance buzz. The buyers’ gaming groups have never heard of these books, and they’re not buying them for the sake of gotta-get-’em-all system-completionism. They’re solely about people wanting what’s actually in the book they’re buying.

    Basically, I’m not sure any of these seem to involve *content* — they all seem to be about who wrote it, how many of your friends/community-people own it/are talking about it, and so on. People *do* still buy books just for the content, right?

    Admittedly, I can’t think of a recent purchase — within the past five or six years — that wasn’t pretty heavily informed by reviews, advance buzz, or talk among my friends. But I’m pretty sure these buyers exist. I’ve seen them in my FLGS. I can’t be certain they’re not buying something just because of the author, but they don’t seem to be browsing with any advance knowledge of what they’re looking at, either.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That first one’s missing, yeah, but like all the others, it has nothing to do directly with the content. Cover art is marketing. Cover text is marketing. Location in a book store is chance to a publisher, marketing to a retailer.

      Related interest is also a fascinating point, but again, has nothing to do with the content of the book they’re buying, but ones they’ve bought into in the past.

      Which is where my thinking about how a creator is concerned with content, and yet content doesn’t actually sell like we hope it does — you’ve hit the nail on the head by framing it like that. I’ve seen people lament recently about how game X or Y is bad but successful (usually people ranting about Pathfinder, but also sometimes about Dresden, whatever’s hot at the moment).

      – Ryan

  2. msilver says:

    More and more, especially with RPG books, and most especially with RPG pdf/ebooks… I buy because I have disposable income and a bad habit of impulse shopping/collecting. I could name a couple games I’ve bought which I now think “why did I buy that?” but I don’t want to start an internet-hate-machine word-brawl. I’ll just say I used to own every supplement for a game that rhymes with Sifts.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      *nod* I would say that falls into buying into a brand. But maybe not. What’s caused you to impulse buy one thing over another? Don’t feel you have to name products if that feels uncool for you.

      – Ryan

    • msilver says:

      Well, with Palladium, TMNT was the first RPG I ever bought with my own money. I think I was 12 or 13 at the time. I didn’t actually play an RPG with you know, people, until I was out of High School. And I GM’d Rifts before I’d ever participated as a player. When I moved to Sacramento, I was pretty much done with the LOLDC mechanic so I gave away those books to a good home. I kept the TMNT stuff for a while, but that’s gone now too.

      Nowadays, I guess my purchases do fall into your classifications.. support someone and buying into a brand.

  3. Clark Valentine says:

    Two questions:

    What’s the difference between a brand and a cult of personality? I’ll buy anything Vincent Baker writes because I think his games are awesome – which one is that? Could be a bit of both, really.

    I bought Legends of Anglerre for research purposes this Origins. I doubt I’ll run it – if I do fantasy chances are it’ll be Chronica or Warhammer, probably. But I enjoy reading other implementations of FATE, both to mine ideas and just to see what other people do with it. Would you call that buying into a subculture?

  4. Hamish says:

    I think content does come into it sometimes. I have gone to cons, played in a game and thought, this is a cool game, I want to own it.

    It also meshes in an interesting way with piracy: http://www.geek.com/articles/geek-cetera/movie-industry-bins-report-proving-pirates-are-great-consumers-20110720/

    That said, I think your basic point is sound: actual content has a much smaller impact than we usually assume.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. Though my frame of mind in the post was thinking about Kickstartered games, which you rarely-if-ever play before buying.

      I might reframe your bit to “They have an positive individual experience…” because that could be about the person running the game, the people, etc. as much as it could be about the game itself. Which is not a bad thing — it’s something I believe I’ll be talking about soon, regarding the nature of platform in games.

      – Ryan