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Leaderboards: the original social feature

By on July 29, 2014

This is a guest post from John Griffin, crossposted on his Gamesparks blog

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 common 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.

gamesparks leaderboards social game features trials fusion

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:

  • Achievers – are players who focus on obtaining a level of success, measured by points, prizes, material possessions, or other valuation criteria. Known as the “Diamonds,” they will strive to gain rewards, recognition and prestige, with little or no advantage in gameplay or advancement.
  • Explorers – players who seek out the thrill of discovery, learning about anything that is new or unknown. Referred to as the “Spades” because they tend to dig down and uncover things, explorers feel a rush of excitement when they discover a rare artifact or a secret pathway.
  • Socializers – these are individuals who are attracted to the social aspects of a game, rather than the game strategy itself. They are the “Hearts” of the game world, because they gain the most enjoyment from interacting with the other players in the game. For them the game is the social vehicle that allows they to engage others and build interesting relationships.
  • Killers – these players live for the competitive elements of the game. They are referred to as the “Clubs” because they like to “take it to” their competition. They love the opportunity to compete (and beat) the other players.

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 DesignNicholas 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:

  • Scale: For a game with a small player-base, a simple database table could be used for most leaderboards.  However, when a game has a sizeable player base, the underlying technology must be capable of returning real time ranking updates at the same time as millions of new scores are being updated.  Most database systems have indexing which can help with the ranking performance but indexes slow down the performance of writing new scores.  Its important you use a solution that is optimized for both the score updates AND the ranking.
  • Cross platform: The less the device or platform gets in the way the better.  Players, particularly on mobile, are likely to play the game across a number of devices and platforms and expect their leaderboard position to follow them regardless of which device they are using.  Furthermore, when groups of friends are competing they are not always going to be on the same device.  Limiting your solution to a single device or platform limits the impact social features, in general, and leaderboards, more specifically, can have on your game.  Walled gardens impede virality.
  • Multi-Attribute: A leaderboard should be capable of containing many different attributes and give the developer the ability to aggregate these in a variety of ways including the use of complex macros.  The more complicated the aggregation or ranking the bigger the performance hit so, not only does the solution need to enable you to build formula; it must be optimized to ensure ongoing performance of those complex calculations.
  • Dynamic Partitions:  Some games have more complex leaderboard requirements.  For example, they may have global leaderboards, leaderboards by level, leaderboards that get reset from week to week or leaderboards by geo or location.  Many solutions require you to setup individual leaderboards for each of these requirements, which is a lot of work.  Better solutions enable you to dynamically partition a single leaderboard to meet all of these requirements.  Dynamic partitions allow you to specify different aggregation parameters at set up and automatically update and re-index on an ongoing basis as player activity continues.
  • Messaging: Notifying players of changes to their leaderboard position can be an effective and important return trigger to get them to go back into the game and once again try and re-claim that lost ranking or position.  This is particularly important for leaderboards based around social groups or guilds / clans.
  • Time-based or Scheduled: Introducing the concept of time to a leaderboard can dramatically improve its effectiveness by allowing you to implement use cases such as ‘high score this week’, ‘most improved this week’ or just weekly or monthly tables.  This can turn a standard leaderboard into a weekly tournament in terms of its impact on players.
  • Geo-location: Geo-location, particularly for mobile games, is becoming a much more popular feature.  You should be able to sort your leaderboards by location and be able to link players by their geographical proximity to each other.

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.

About John Griffin

John is the CMO of GameSparks and has been working in the media / games industry for nearly 20 years. Having previously worked with household names such as Sky, BBC, EA and Disney, John moved on to set up GameSparks early in 2013 with co-founders Griffin Parry from BSkyB and Gabriel Page of ioko. GameSparks is a cloud-based platform for mobile game developers to help them create games more quickly and for less money. Post launch, the game mechanics we provide as-a-Service are designed to leverage virality, increase retention and drive new revenues.

All games will one day run in the Cloud. Nearly all mobile games will embrace freemium and be delivered as a service implying the need to evolve over time. This evolution places new challenges on games developers and GameSparks' sole purpose is to help address this and make it easier for developers to be successful.