Are Leaderboards Bad?

Cityville leaderboard png

This is Part 1 of a series on leaderboards. I will be looking at leaderboards in online gaming from various perspectives.

I have been operating under the assumption for the last few years that leaderboards are inherently bad. In my opinion, they’re costly, ubiquitous and, for a large portion of players, demotivating. But people continue to run them (although less than they used to), and I wanted to look a bit deeper into what is actually going on with them.

To start with, what is a leaderboard? It is a ranking of players, as per some metrics, that rewards players for their placement on the ladder.

There are essentially two different things going on with a leaderboard:

  • Competition. You’re battling against other players to reach the top.
  • Rewards. Once you reach the upper echelons, naturally you expect a little moolah as a reward.

Both are effective in some circumstances and less in others. We’ll dig a bit more deeply into that as we work through each of our perspectives on leaderboards.

First perspective: mine

Back in 2007, the company I worked for ran a poker rake race. It might have been the first online poker rake race ever; it certainly felt like a new idea at the time. The mechanics were simple: play raked hands, move up the leaderboard, win cash prizes according to your leaderboard position when the promo ends after six weeks. It seemed like the perfect promotion. Easy to set up, easy to explain, easy to update, easy to report on afterwards (or so we thought).

And the players went nuts for it. Our gross revenue shot up, although our net revenue was dragged down by the race. We had loads of new sign-ups. We had struck gold.

Rake races pngAnd so we continued them. And other poker operators caught on and started running their own. There was already a community of high-value players who chased the best bonuses – now they also chased the best rake races. The Rakeback Wars were already getting started, and our new rake races just added fuel to the flames.

We found ourselves falling into a cycle. We listened to our players, and they wanted rake races, so we continued them. They became a permanent part of our promotional mix. And then one day all the managers at the company got together and started to wonder if they were doing more harm than good, so we agreed to stop them for a while and see what happened.

Two things happened.

  1. Players complained. Oh, how they complained. To quote one player: “This is absurd I will not be playing there much in Feb if no rake races.” Even players who were perfectly fine playing before we started running rake races started threatening to leave if we stopped them. One player called us “the greediest bastards around.” We were genuinely shocked by the vitriol sent our way for what was, we thought, a logical and understandable action.
  2. Our revenues skyrocketed. Our first month without a rake race was our best month ever. Yes, we lost some of our high-volume players, but the rest of them made up for it and then some.

The summer decline started soon thereafter, and our revenues took the expected dip. Rather than bring back rake races, we started experimenting with other types of promotions, which had better net effect but weren’t quite as powerful as that first series of rake races. The gold rush was over.

In the intervening years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about leaderboards and what they do to players psychologically and to operators financially. I tend to think the world is better off without them. And, as I discovered when I started doing research into gamification, I’m not alone.

This is the end of Part 1. Stay tuned for the next installment!

About the author

Lydia Barbara is the head of Pegasus Gaming Solutions, Microgaming's consulting division. Lydia has been in the gaming industry for 13 years and is considered one of the online gaming industry's top thinkers on poker and other forms of gaming. Connect with Lydia on LinkedIn.