Reputation and ranking systems for online games and web games

Yahoo recently posted a page listing and describing eight different design patterns for a reputation (or ranking, or achievement) system for a community – where community could be a web community, the players of a particular game, etc. For a long time now, I’ve been meaning to write a post on this stuff, and this finally poked me to do it…

EDIT: It’s Bryce, not Bruce. Argh. Sorry, Bryce – I was thinking about Bruce Schneier at the time, I think.

(thanks to Jeremy Liew for posting about an interview with the guy behind it, Yahoo’s Bruce Glass, which looks at some of the thinking behind it and his own views on what to do and what not to do)

Reputation systems – why?

For most game developers – and moreso most game publishers – the answer is “look at XBLA” (Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade). In the past 2 years, MS has put out a series of press releases and marketing pimping up the large amounts of money that they – and the publishers – have been making off the additional sales generated by this simple achievements/reputation system.

(I think that’s great, but also a bit sad, because XBLA does some other equally special stuff that hasn’t had quite so much explicit attention. Who’s talking about the GamerCard, and what *that* means for online communities? Plenty of people have, but it’s not achieved quite the same amount of attention. I think a lot of people have dismissed it as a gimmick in comparison to the reputation system – which is foolish of them, because the GC provides an excellent way for players to spread their Online Identity, and identity is a much bigger pie to be taking slices of than reptuation systems ever will be. But it’s harder to work with, and I’ll come back to that in another post sometime in the future.)

Or, as Joshua Porter puts it in the Bruce Glass interview:

“Reputation systems have driven the entire business at eBay.com, much of the business at Amazon.com, drives activity at Digg.com, powers the moderation system at Slashdot, etc…and yet for all the millions of words written about web design very few of them have been dedicated to this type of software.”

Choosing a rewards system

As an online game and MMO developer, and someone who focusses on social gaming and how to integrate it with mainstream games design, I’d say that the answer to “which form of reputation system for your social game?” is simply and clearly “all of them”. And at first I thought that was just me.

I’ve worked on games that have had a heavy social/web element, and adding additional parallel rewards/reputation systems has only ever helped both the community and the game. Nowadays, everything I see reinforces this, at least for games.

For instance, easy example – look at Kongregate. Kong has 5 independent, parallel rating systems for each game, and 7 (!) reputation systems for each user/player/developer on the site.

Looking at how those interact with each other, I would argue that a lot of the site’s success is precisely because it has these multiple *independent* forms of valuing user content; it allows you as a member of the community to say “this is nothing special in many ways, but in one aspect it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen” – essentially allowing for a multi-dimensional measure of “goodness”.

So, although I understand and by default agree with Y!’s suggestion that you should look at your community, assess your target market and your product aims, and pick one reputation system, I feel that you really shouldn’t do that with games.

Why one is never enough

Because only having one:

  • Limits self-expression: you CHOOSE to invest of yourself in various ways in a community. Bruce Glass mentions this. He doesn’t mention the knock-on implication: what you choose to invest says something about who you are and how you wish to be perceived. So, this is a part of your personal online identity.you can only be good at one thing, not a set of things, and there’s no way to show
  • Reduces learning opportunities: with multiple rep systems, a community can let a member know that “we think you are really awful at some things, but really good at others. Please do less of the bad stuff”, instead of just “we don’t value you”
  • Prevents the majority of people from being recognized: Go read about the Bartle types. Then read Erik Bethke’s presentations on what happened when he thought that some of them “didn’t apply” to his own MMO, GoPets, and what happened when he changed his mind on that. There is no MMO without all four player-types represented. One rep system can only satisfy one quarter of the traits that are present in all your audience. It may be the largest represented quarter, but it’s still artificially limiting your appeal as a game/product/experience/community
  • Assumes you actually know – and can control – what your community is, what it will become, and how it will grow to get there. That’s usually not the case. It seems (at least in MMO and online games) that good community management these days is not directive, it’s reactive. That’s not an excuse to abrogate responsibility for encouraging and supporting your community, it’s just saying that you need to give them more opportunity to tell you what they want, so that you can then modify your offering. And they will change what they want, they don’t remain static
  • And after saying all that, I wonder: how much of this is games-centric? Because although I’m no expert on online communities in general, that sounds pretty applicable to a wider set of online properties – not all, I’m sure, but many more than just “games”.

    Which leads me to wonder whether the suggestion itself (that you should carefully choose just one) is a nice idea in theory, but perhaps not appropriate in the modern web world: perhaps communities now are sufficiently savvy, picky, and accustomed to being the ones to control success (e.g. youtube, where the community makes a video successful, not the site owners), that single-value measures of reputation are no longer what your community wants and needs.

    Maybe?

    And as for Kongregate … well, now I’m going to finally write up the post I’ve been meaning to for a long time about that.

    EDIT: the writeup of Kongregate’s ranking systems is here

3 thoughts on “Reputation and ranking systems for online games and web games

  1. Bryce Glass

    Hey Adam — just found this post (I’m Bryce or… your “Bruce” ;-) Excellent points, all!

    You’re absolutely right. The patterns that we published definitely have an ‘online community’ bent to them (rather than gaming, and when you think about what Yahoo! typically produces, it probably makes sense.) In fact, Josh Porter specifically asked me about Gaming-Vs.-SocialSoftware rep systems tho’ it didn’t make his final edit (I suspect because it was a long and lame answer) — I posted that response on my site: http://soldierant.net/archives/2008/06/the_bokardo_intervie.html

    And, I hadn’t realized until I read this, but you’re right — the interview at least, and possibly the patterns themselves seem to imply that there’s value in honing in on ‘the one RIGHT’ pattern to employ, but I agree — sometimes the right pattern may be several, additive ones. (This was kind of implied in my praise for Yelp and their numerous ways to reward good review-writers, as ‘Funny’ or ‘Helpful’ or just ‘First to Review’.)

    And I think we’d probably agree, too, on your assertion that it’s okay to use “all of them” (reputation types or patterns) in social gaming. Remember, because our focus is online communities (many of which are non-competitive in nature) we caution those designers to stay conservative. That was part of the impetus to also publish a ‘meta pattern’ (the Competitive Spectrum – http://developer.yahoo.com/ypatterns/pattern.php?pattern=competitive ) … to remind community designers specifically that they’re NOT designing a game, and probably don’t have that lateral range of motion that a game designer would.

    Great points all around – I especially enjoyed the “Why One is Never Enough” bullets… Looking forward to the next post on Kongregate! (Subscribing to your feed now…)

  2. Kriss Daniels

    “For instance, easy example – look at Kongregate. Kong has 5 independent, parallel rating systems for each game, and 7 (!) reputation systems for each user/player/developer on the site.”

    OK Now you are just confusing me, is this some sort of strange alternative reality kong that I am not aware of?

    Seriously.

    I want to know.

  3. adam Post author

    They’re listed in full in the other post linked to at the end of this post. I think I actually undercounted with my initial statement you’ve quoted :).

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