How points, leaderboards, and badges change the way players play

Herman Tulleken

Written by Herman Tulleken

 On 9/5/19 3:41 PM

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We have said that spending too much on peripheral features, such as leaderboards and badges, is a mistake (Mistake #25 in our list).

But how much is too much? These features can be vital for the successful promotion of the game; therefore, merely omitting all of them is not a viable solution.

To decide which ones to include may be tricky. In this guide, I explain various support features of games and how they affect the way players play. 

The support features change gameplay in one or more of these fundamental ways:

  • Giving the player useful information about the game or their state therein.
  • Play the same game with different goals.
  • Giving players the ability to play outside the original confines of the game.
  • Giving players the ability to talk about the game.
  • Giving players the ability to play or play better together.

 

These features are what are often used to gamify non-games. Read about the difference between gamification and games used for marketing.

 

Points and score

In many games, players get points for different actions. Usually, the goal of the game is to achieve the highest score.

How does the presence of points affect gameplay?

  • It helps the player gauge progress through a level or the entire game.
  • It allows players to compete with others and themselves (see also leaderboards below).
  • Players that observe how their score improves over multiple sessions get a feeling of mastery.
  • It allows designers to change the values of actions, and so choices are more interesting to the player. Suppose you have a choice between killing two monsters in a game. You may choose the easiest one to improve your chances of success. But if you get more points for killing the difficult one, there is a tradeoff between safety and points, and the choice between the two monsters is more interesting.
  • It signals difficulty to players.

 

Stars

A game can grade a player's effort by giving them one, two, or three stars. (This scenario is typical, but other possibilities exist.)

Stars can be awarded for reaching certain score levels, or for completing the game within certain speed limits, or completing the game in specified ways.

How does this grading affect the game?

  • It allows players to decide for themselves how much difficulty or challenge they want. Casual players can enjoy the game, but there are still enough optional challenges for more serious players.
  • It increases the game's replay value. Once a player finished all levels on one star, they can play all levels again to try to get two stars, and eventually three.
  • It gives players a crude but very understandable way to compare themselves. Saying you completed all levels on three stars is much more meaningful than saying you finished all levels with a total score of 6385600.
  • The number of stars serves as a further measuring stick.

 

Stats

Games can also track other variables: how often a player dies, how many coins they collect, how many times they got bonus matches.

How does tracking stats other than the score affect gameplay?

  • It gives players opportunities to compete on different axes. "You may have the highest score, but I played the most number of times!"
  • It gives players different ways to play the game, trying to improve various scores.
  • Accumulative stats (stats that accumulate over different play sessions) make the game more valuable by making the player's investment explicit. Players do not like it when a bug reset their stats, or they cannot transfer stats between devices.

 

Leaderboard

A leaderboard shows the scores (or stats) of various players. Usually, the top 10, or of the section that the player occupies.

How does the existence of leaderboards in a game affect how players play?

  • The leaderboard makes it easier to compete.
  • The leaderboard makes it easier for players to keep track of their progress over time.
  • It gives layers a sense of the scope of possibilities. If the top score is so much higher than a player's own, they realize there must be a lot of uncovered ground.
  • It gives a sense of how many people are playing the game and how often. A dynamic leaderboard is an active game.

 

Achievements

An achievement (or badge) is a permanent proof that a player accomplished something specific. A game can award achievements for natural progression through the game, but the most interesting achievements are given for unusual situations, such as achieving a very high (or low) stat or discovering something special.

  • Well designed achievements encourage players to play the same game in different ways, and therefore increase the replayability of a game.
  • Achievements give another dimension along which players can compete.
  • If the number of total achievements is known, the number of achievements the player obtained is a measure of game mastery.

 

Screenshot taker

Games are fundamentally about experiences. And just like we capture special moments with a camera, so players want to capture special moments in a game.

How does the ability to take screenshots affect what players do?

  • Once players can record moments, they are more likely to share them. (It is, therefore, vital that these are easily accessible outside the game, or can be shared directly from inside the game).
  • Players may set up interesting situations specifically to able able to take a screenshot (or video clip). Therefore, it encourages them to play the game in different ways and so increase the replayability.

 

Social Sharing

There are a few things that players may want to share about the game:

  • That they are playing it.
  • A screenshot from the game
  • An achievement.
  • A stats screen.
  • A leaderboard (most probably with them on it)

This is all good for promoting the game, but how does it affect gameplay?

  • Making something bragable makes it more valuable and desirable. Being top of a leaderboard is personally rewarding, but being able to let all your friends know makes is socially satisfying too.
  • It enhances the out-of-game activity, and so make it more likely players will take part in such activities, such as setting up tournaments and matches.

 

In-game chat

Chat is useful in online multiplayer games, where players need to work together to accomplish a goal. If players are in the same location, a chat feature is not necessary, but still useful if players want to talk to only some other players.

How does the ability to communicate with players affect gameplay?

  • It makes it possible to strategize.
  • It makes it possible to accomplish more complicated tasks.
  • It encourages players to make their own goals, rules, and systems within the boundaries of the game.

Of course, there is a downside; harassment is common in games that allow players to communicate. Dealing effectively with this requires additional design resources and support once the game is launched. (Also, see Mistake #44.)

In-app purchases

Exchanging real money for virtual things is how many games are monetized. (This is not very common in advergames, and a mistake (Mistake #11) in our opinion. However, it is still essential to know how it works. )

These are some things you can typically buy:

  • In-game currency (which players can then exchange for other things on this list)
  • Items
  • Levels
  • Characters
  • Second chance, extra life,
  • Extra choices or gameplay mechanics
  • Removal of ads

How does the ability to buy virtual goods affect gameplay?

  • This makes virtual goods more valuable. Players will care more about a sword that they paid real money for. (Although, a sword earned through gameplay will also have more value, and can even have more value than a paid sword if the effort to obtain it was high enough.)
  • It raises the stakes of the game, and make t more enjoyable.
  • Removing ads make the game more enjoyable, and increases session length and retention.

 

Unlockable Content

Game designers often chose to unlock content only once a player achieved a certain goal. A common example is when levels can only be played once the previous level has been finished, but any other content can be unlocked for any game goal. Here is how unlockable affect gameplay:

  • It creates mystery.
  • It creates a sense of progression.
  • It makes achieving the goal more rewarding
  • It makes locked content more desirable and therefore motivates the player to reach the goal
  • It reduces choice and simplifies the experience

 

Matchmaking and tournaments

Games such as Words with Friends became very popular not because of novel mechanics, but because of making it easier to play together. The problem with many multiplayer games is finding people to play with. Even if you have many friends, it may be tricky to sync up to play together. Games that solve this by providing matchmaking is superior (and now the norm for mobile games). How does this feature affect gameplay?

  • Gameplay sessions, because they are easy to set up, come disposable. The stakes are lower, but so is the barrier to initiate a game.
  • Players have more opportunities to play, and therefore, they can learn faster.
  • Stats that accumulate over sessions grow faster and have more meaning.

 

Caveats

  • The list of support features in this post is not exhaustive.
  • Award systems in games can be complicated, and it is easy for these systems to blend; keep that in mind when looking at a specific game.

 

Conclusion

Understanding how support features work will help you make better decisions about whether to include them or not, and how much of the budget should go towards their development. If you are considering using an advergame for your business, consider requesting a plan from us.

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