Are Leaderboards Bad? Part 6 (Final)

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This is the last entry in my series on leaderboards. If this is your first time here, you’ll probably want to start with Part 1.

Over the last several weeks, we’ve looked at what leaderboards are, how they’re used in online gambling, how they and similar game design elements are perceived by experts of all sorts, and a bit of academic research on them. We’ve also talked more generally about gamification and its use (or not) in games.

And at this point, you’re probably starting to wonder if I’m ever going to answer the question: are leaderboards bad?

(Drumroll, please.)


But are they bad like carbs are bad? (Who the hell really knows, right?) Or are they bad like that band my old colleague was in that didn’t really know how to tune their guitars?

I’m leaning towards the latter. In the beginning, they can be interesting, in a way, but long-term they’re not good for your health. That’s where the evidence seems to be leading, at least.

But if you must, if you absolutely must, offer leaderboards to your players, here are some general guidelines that will help you create effective ones.

1. Don’t run it for all of your players.

More specifically, make it opt-in for the subset of players you believe to be motivated to competition. If you recall:

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Be smart and identify that small percentage of players, then make them their own top-secret, hyper-competitive leaderboard.

Players not interested (and this will be most) will feel like an element of control has been taken away from their gaming experience if they’re plunked into a campaign as aggressive as a leaderboard. I resent someone snatching control away from me, don’t you?

2. Make them short and temporary.

Everyone gets bored of doing the same thing all the time, even for money. Sometimes, especially for money. Keep it short. How short? As short as you want. I’d suggest under a week for each one, and no more than once a quarter for each set of players, but do your own measurements and research and figure out what’s right for you. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

In fact, I’d love to see what happens with a one-day leaderboard.

3. Don’t focus on the top places by default. Highlight the individual user and show a couple players above and below.

Which of these would you find more motivating?leaderboardpart6 255x1024 png

You want people to play more, not get intimidated about how impossible the whole thing is and give up early on. Or not start if they’re coming in part-way through the campaign. Competitive people like to win things, not just place in the leaderboard somewhere. This behaviour needs to be shaped a little, or you’ll end up with a small group of players trying for the top spot and a whole lot of players who aren’t trying very hard.

4. Make sure the top post is achievable with more play than what you’re getting now.

The goal of your leaderboard campaign should be to get players to increase their play a bit. Aim for a 20% increase from the players, not 120%. Thus, your leaderboard should be challenging, but not exhausting. You don’t want players running out of steam before the end.

5. Run, measure, analyse, refine, run, measure, analyse, refine…

Et iterum. Identify your mistakes, then learn from them or you’ll keep making them. Your first campaign won’t be perfect. No first time ever is.

Try different:

  • player segments,
  • countries,
  • prize amounts,
  • prize types (iPads, cash, tickets to football matches, bonuses, etc. – go wild),
  • prize escalation,
  • qualifying criteria,
  • duration,
  • number of winners,
  • graphics,
  • notification methods, and
  • anything else you can think of.

Don’t be afraid to experiment! And try to find something that doesn’t directly equal wagers and that you can clearly measure the ROI from. For example, running a leaderboard based on “Hit the Kings achievement in Thunderstruck II as many times as you can!” includes the element of luck (more fun “wager as much as you can”) and you can easily measure the impact of the promo, as it will be the increase of activity on that particular game by the leaderboard competitors over the duration of the campaign.

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6. Don’t just copy what someone else has done.

Our industry is in its infancy. No business in online gaming is doing everything right, and quite a lot of them are doing a lot of things wrong. And the worst thing you can do is just copy what someone else has done, as chances are it will be wrong for your player type/target demographic/region.  A campaign that’s hugely successful for high rollers in Sweden may be an expensive flop for beginners in Hungary.

7. Advertise the heck out of it to those players involved.

There’s nothing more frustrating than running a campaign with 100 winners, paying them all out, then getting emails from the confused players asking why we gave them money. Do your best to make sure that the players in the campaign know they’re in the campaign.

8. Most importantly, don’t fall into the danger zone.

You will want to. Your casino/poker/bingo manager will beg you to. Your players will plead. But you will be strong, and you will absolutely not increase the value of your leaderboards without strong analytics backing the decision. And you positively, absolutely will not start increasing the value of your leaderboards just because players’ interest in them is waning. When that happens, and it will inevitably happen, back off and try something new. Be strong. Resist temptation.

After you’ve built your leaderboard (following all the above, I hope) and you’re ready to go live, make sure you have built a report that can answer these questions:

  • Is the behaviour being encouraged artificial or genuine? LinkedIn remained popular after the surge of user engagement fell away.  Indeed, its popularity likely increased further. That is because LinkedIn adds value proportional to its users’ contributions. The more people who contribute valuable content, the more people remain interested in engaging with the site. However, if the activity you are encouraging does not intrinsically add value to the users’ lives, then be cautious: you may be driving down long-term engagement when you use leaderboards.
  • What are the minimum and maximum lengths of time between leaderboards? You want to keep activity high, but also not exhaust your players. Learn this answer and your bottom line will thank you. Disregard it and your ROI will suffer in all subsequent campaigns.
  • Plus all the usuals. If you’re not making money from it, don’t do it.

In wrapping up, I’ve come to realise that one thing noticeably lacking throughout this blog series is actual research done on casino players’ behaviour and values before and after leaderboards are introduced. We need more research done for casinos! Do your own, of course, but don’t be afraid to share your findings more widely. Or at least to me.

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Well done! You made it to the end! Hopefully now you know more about leaderboards than when you started reading. Hopefully you will stop using the word ‘gamification’ to refer to adding game design elements to games. Hopefully the world is now a slightly more rational place than it was before this series was written. Only time will tell.

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This will be my last post for a while, as I’ve got three straight weeks of travel ahead. If you’re going to IAGR in Lima or EiG in Berlin, I’ll be attending (and speaking at) both. Come see me if you have a chance! Before that, I’m travelling around the UK for a week. The husband and I were lucky enough to pick up tickets to four Rugby World Cup matches, so we’re doing a bit of a roadtrip around the UK to attend the matches and see a bit more of the country I visit so frequently, but see so little of.

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.