Leaderboards are a common feature in games but developers are often surprised because they are ineffectual or quickly lose impact. The problem is not in the underlying value of leaderboards but in how they are often designed. A recent blog post by Omar Ganai and Steven Ledbetter, How to Motivate with Leaderboards, does a great job of presenting the underlying psychology driving leaderboards and best practices.
What makes leaderboards work
The key principle behind leaderboards is that people want to win and winning improves status. What is often neglected, however, is that some players do not want to win, they want to avoid losing. The latter is important as players who want to avoid losing perform worse when competing. Competition is good for motivation and achievement only when it helps users feel competent. You need to design your leaderboards so it does not make your players feel incompetent.
Ganai and Ledbetter point out that self-determination theory shows people seek and engage in undertakings that fulfill three basic needs. Thus, a well designed leaderboard is consistent with these three needs:
- Competence. The emotion a player feels when they successfully complete a challenging goal. The opposite feeling is ineffective or helpless.
- Relatedness. The feeling a player has when they are understood and liked by other players. The opposite feeling is rejection and disconnection.
- Autonomy. The satisfaction a player gets resulting from a personal commitment and choice. The opposite here is coercion and manipulation.
An effective leaderboard will combine competence, relatedness and autonomy while not making the player feel helpless, disconnected or manipulated.
Best practices in designing leaderboards
To design a leaderboard that drives behavior and incorporates the three needs above, the authors point to four “ingredients”:
- Goal-setting.Goal-setting involves giving or guiding a user toward a goal, and has become recommended as an effective building block for behavior change. The goal of most leaderboards implicitly is to be number one. You need to go beyond this implicit goal and guide your player toward a goal. Effective goals include having fun, learning and showing autonomy. They also recommend nesting intrinsic goals with the extrinsic goals, like making yourself a better poker player by competing on the leaderboard. Finally, an effective technique nests individual goals inside team goals, so the leaderboard is more about playing with others than being number one.
There are also some goals you should avoid as they will prove demotivating. These goals include meaningless rewards (get more worthless points by finishing number one), emphasizing outcomes players cannot control and focusing on pride (i.e. you should win because only the smartest win).
- Feedback. A strong feedback mechanic can promote feelings of mastery and competence. You should provide feedback for players on how they are progressing tied to the above goals they have set. The authors also suggest proving juicy feedback, “juicy feedback is varied, unexpectedly excessive sensual positive feedback on small user actions and achievements.”
- Social comparison. Social comparison helps players understand how they are doing compared to others. Rankings are inherently a form of social comparison. The trick is doing it right because social comparison can make people feel ineffective and unrelated. People tend to compare themselves with people above them so it is easy for them to then feel incompetent.
There are some techniques to mitigate the risks in social comparison. First, you can tell players they have achieved a standard, even if they did not finish first. Second, explain why players got the score they did and explain how they can do better. Third, give players a choice of playing more or stopping (putting them in control). Finally, acknowledge losing is not fun. If you keep players focused on improving and playing well, they are likely to stay engaged. Also, if they lose as part of a team, the impact of the loss will not be as great, thus it is critical to emphasize connections and relationships.
- Social rewards. Just as Facebook uses the Like button, let other players reward a player for their activity. You can achieve this impact by letting them follow the player or just sending a virtual high-five. It also helps to make the rewards surprising, as predictable rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.
What to do
Rather than avoiding leaderboards, build them but build them correctly. If you employ a lazy approach and just rank players 1 to one million, the leaderboard will not work well and impact will diminish over time. If you take the time, however, to set up effective goal setting, provide good feedback, employ social comparison and have strong social rewards, you will have a winning feature and move up the AppStore leaderboard.
- While leaderboards are a central feature in many games, for them to be effective you must build them properly or else they will be ineffective.
- A key to good design is keeping players from feeling incompetent or inferior.
- The other critical components of powerful leaderboards are clear goals, a strong feedback loop, social comparison and rewards that are social.