Leaderboards are probably the oldest social feature used in games and are used to increase the level of competition amongst players by ranking them in a variety of ways with the aim of generating more game play. Space Invaders, which was first released in 1978, is reputed to be the first game to use them and since then the majority of games have followed suit with leaderboards being, by far, the most commonly deployed social feature in games today. Microsoft mandates that all Xbox Live games have leaderboards and 90% of mobile games across all platforms reportedly use them.
Why are leaderboards so commonly used in games?
They are relatively simple to design and add into a game
When leaderboards were initially introduced back in 1978, they were simple tables often showing only the scores of the top 10 ranked players. Players were identified by gamer tags of up to 3 letters, which many used to input their initials and others used to put a smile on our faces. While my own initials were ‘JPG’ the leaderboards I remember back then were filled with TITs and ASSs. Memory was the main constraint and as this became cheaper, leaderboards got better, adding additional information such as level or lap time and expanding allowable gamer tags to full names.
Memory is no longer an issue - we have lots of it at our disposal - but, despite this, the leaderboard concept has remained relatively simple. Structurally, a leaderboard is usually no more than a table in which the entries are ranked by one or more fields such as score, lap time or number of kills etc. The key change in leaderboards relates to the number of entries they contain as today’s connected games mean that leaderboards are used to manage the ranking of the entire player base of a game and, as we know, that can get into the hundred’s of millions.
Although an important social component, leaderboards are generally accessed when not playing the game and often from an option on the main menu. They do not, therefore, have to be incorporated into the core game design. They can be pretty easily added on to most games. Most of the innovation in leaderboards, from a game design perspective, is around social or friends leaderboards. For a game with a very high number of players, a global leaderboard (one which ranks the entire player base) loses its effectiveness as players can be disenfranchised when told they are in position 8,706,127 in the game. Being so far down a leaderboard can overwhelm a player and gives the impression of an impossible task to climb to a respectable position. Arguably, players don’t care about global ranks until they have ‘Best in the World’ in their sites. Game designers are now designing for this and more commonly implementing friends leaderboards where you see where you rank with respect to your pool of friends which is far more impactful on the behavior of the player. Friends leaderboards, when used in conjunction with popular social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter, can be incredibly effective at driving player acquisition and retention particularly when notifications are used to inform participants of significant leaderboard changes.
There are other good examples of leaderboard design innovation. Geo-leaderboards, for example, ranks those players within a certain geographic area … a city or a country perhaps. This ties back to the old arcade leaderboards which, by virtue of being not connected, represented the pool of players who played in your local arcade. Other examples include allowing players to play against the ghosts of players above them in the leaderboard as Trials Fusion does or building the leaderboards around groups or clans of players as in Clash of Clans.
They have broad appeal
When looking at player behavior, Richard Bartle, who was a professor at the University of Essex, is one of the key contributors to the study of player psychology. He constructed a model whereby player behaviors could be divided into 4 key types:
Based on his model, it is likely that leaderboards appeal to both achievers looking to track their success and killers looking to beat everyone else. For many games, these two groups represent the majority of their player segments.
They are effective at driving retention and engagement
Leaderboards help increase a player's level of engagement with a game by motivating them to achieve a higher rank and climb the leaderboard. They improve retention by motivating players who are slipping down the ranks to re-assert their position at the top.
In the Pyramid of Free-to-Play Game Design, Nicholas Lovell talks about The Superfan Game and describes it as being a game whose players have transitioned beyond being casual players into being hobbyists where the game is their hobby and they are comfortable spending money on it. It’s hard to achieve but if you want to install fierce passion in your players then you need to try and cater for what they truly value in the context of the game be-it social elements such as guilds and clans or leaderboards and competition. In the same piece, Lovell quotes Kongregate CEO Emily Greer who said that all successful games on Kongregate had one thing in common: “a strongly social and competitive end-game”.
The effectiveness of leaderboards is further evidenced by the number of triple-A titles that use them. Notably, many, if not most, of the leading MMOs and PC / Console titles have dedicated websites to support the communities of their players and leaderboards inevitably make up an important feature of those sites.
How are they implemented?
Although leaderboards are relatively simple in how they are presented to the player, behind the scenes they can be much more complicated. In order for leaderboards to be shared across players and platforms they need to be written to a central service or server. There are many off-the-shelf solutions but not all of them are the same. Developers are better off looking for solutions that are specifically optimized for the often heavy-duty requirements of their games. This is often not the case with the more generic cloud data solutions.
Here are some of the factors a game developer needs to think about when choosing a solution:
Not all leaderboard solutions have this rich set of capabilities and developers need to consider both their current and future requirements when selecting a solution. Changing solutions post-launch is not that straight forward as the existing data will need to be migrated to avoid losing all of the existing scores and ranking.
Leaderboards are an incredibly effective social feature that, with the help of optimized 3rd party solutions, can be easily added to a game. They are primarily used to increase a games retention and engagement but can also be used to drive up player acquisition. Although relatively simple, from a game design point of view, the underlying technology can be complex depending on requirements and developers should choose their solution carefully.
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