Designing a simple “Thin Layer” gamified system.

I thought this week, after 2 years of avoiding it, I would write a short starter for actually creating a gamified system.  This will cover the basics of what I call a Thin Layer system – also known as PBL (Points, Badges and Leaderboards) system.

Now, before you all shout at me for explaining how to do a system that I can often be heard saying is not the best type of gamification, consider this. Thin Layer is the most common type of system out there and it is the easiest to start with. It can also be very effective over short periods of time, for things like short campaigns, education and on boarding into deeper systems. The point is (as Kris Duggan from Badgeville once pointed out to me), sometimes, something is better than nothing, as long as it is well designed and created for a purpose. My view is, of you are going to try – you should at least be armed with the right information to make the best go of it possible.

I will discuss creating a points system that will drive badges, ranks and leaderboards as well as a virtual economy.

Getting started – Points.

The first thing to do is take a look at my simple framework. We start from the assumption that you have worked out what problem you are solving and who you are going to be engaging with.

Now, you need to figure out what activities you want to encourage people to do. Taking a very (very) simple example of a website. You may want people to engage with your content more. You want comments, likes  and social shares. This could just as easily be you want people to view the details of a product, sell certain numbers of products per week, put the toilet seat down etc.

Points are the backbone of this type of system. You need them to track progress, track activity in the system, manage rewards, badges and leaderboard position. Even if the end user never sees them, your system has to have them!

Assign each action a certain point value. So in our example, Likes are worth 10 points. Shares are worth 15 and Comments are worth 20.  Give the harder tasks a higher point value – if it is harder to do, people may need a bigger push or incentive. (Take a look at BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model). It is easier to click a like button than it is to leave a well considered comment – though that may need peer review to guarantee!

Points should accumulate over time and stay stable. They are not a virtual currency that will be used for transactions – that has to be separate.

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Badges serve several purposes in a gamified system. The most common use is to recognise certain landmarks.  Decide what you want to celebrate on the system. Say thanks to a user for sharing 20 articles with a badge, that sort of thing. A very common badge to give is one for first action. This is pretty meaningless, however, it does set the scene for people using your system. If you get a badge that welcomes you to the system, you know what to expect. You know this system gives you points and badges for activity.

Try to make badges fun, both graphically and in their meaning. Getting a new badge for every 10 shares gets old very fast. Find more “fun” ways to assign them. I like to include a badge for 42 actions – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fans will know why. My other favourite is to give one for 11 actions (look into Spinal Tap – it goes to 11). Surprise people, make them laugh. Also, make them work for things, have badges that require exploration and imagination.

Another use is to thank people for things. Not all badges have to be given automatically; you can set ones up that are assigned by peers. If a member of a forum is really helpful, give them a badge they can display that thanks them and commends them for being so helpful. Not only does this have more meaning to them, it shows other users that they can go to them for help!

Badge Designing a simple 8220 Thin Layer 8221 gamified system

As people become more involved with a system, there hits a point where you can’t just keep giving endless badges. If your system wants to encourage long term usage, it has to have more than badges to keep people going. You can add new badges as you go along, but that can become problematic. First, it is time consuming and hard to keep creating inventive and interesting badges. You also have to be careful that the ones you add do not devalue ones that are already there.

Levels / Ranks

Levels or ranks are there to recognise levels of activity. The more actions a user undertakes, the more points and badges they earn, the more recommendations from other users, the higher their rank should be.  I tend to base rank on points earned. So when they enter a system at 0 points, they are the newbie rank. After maybe 500 points, they move up a rank. As rank increases, it is often best to space ranks out further. So 1, 2 and 3 may have a gap of 500 points, 4, 5 and 6 go up to 1000 points between ranks and so on. However, like badges, there comes a point when you have to cut off how many ranks you have – there has to be an end game to aim for!


I have spoken about leaderboards before in  A little on Leaderboards, so won’t go into much detail here.

There are two basic types, absolute and relative.  An absolute leaderboard shows your rank compared to everyone one else on the leaderboard. A relative leaderboard shows you people who are around the same level as you. The first one is great to get an overall view of where you sit, but can be very de-motivational if you are a long way down the board! Relative leaderboards avoid this by just allowing you to get an idea of who else is playing and are similar to you. This can be used to encourage social interactions – especially if you use a relative leaderboard that ranks you against other people based on similar demographics.

Used with care and with an understanding of who you are aiming the system at, leaderboards can be a very good tool.

Virtual Economy

Virtual economies are not as common an addition to a gamified system, but I wanted to include a little bit about them. Some systems allow you to earn virtual currency to spend on rewards (virtual or real). In games this is often how you unlock new weapons, or items for your character. Virtual currency should be separate from your points system – remember that needs to stay stable. A simple way to do it is equate every x number of points to 1 token of virtual currency.  In the Machinations example I have here, I convert every 20 points into a token.  This can then be spent on virtual goods.  You have to look into the legalities of this sort of economy for your region. This excerpt from Gamification at Work (1) is a good starting, Legal and Ethical Considerations.

Changing the rules

The needs of the project change and you understanding of those needs change. This means that you may need to tweak the system from time to time. Add new badges, change the space between ranks, alter how many points activities are worth or add new activities.  This is fine.

However, you have to try as hard as possible to make sure these changes don’t affect people’s current standings without a really good explanation. As much as many people may not be all that bothered about  earning things in your system – as soon as you change the value of what they have earned or even worse, take them away – they will certainly moan! Once earned, achievements of any sort should stay in the users’ trophy case forever!

Game Over

As I have said, there comes a point when a user may have earned every badge, found every Easter egg, and achieved the highest rank possible. The hope is, that by this time either the use of the system has finished (eg a short campaign) or they have found their intrinsic reason to continue using the system. However, that may not always be the case, so how do you keep this type of thin layer system going a bit longer?

The most elegant way I have seen of extending the life of a system like this comes from games like Call of Duty. In this sort of game, you have a very similar thin layer system on top of the game. You get experience points, earn badges, unlock new weapons and so on. When you have got to the highest rank the game offers, you are given a new choice, you can Prestige. This essentially is a voluntary reset of your scores and achievements. You get a new Prestige trophy, with a count of how many times you have done it (to show others how advanced you are), but have to start going through the ranks and unlocking things again. Not everyone will do this, but for those who enjoy the collection aspect of this, it gives them something to aim for again outside of the main game-play.

Just keep in mind, this is a very basic system. All we are doing is giving users feedback and keeping track of their activities, it is always going to have a relatively short shelf life. Points and badges are not there to reward as much as they are there to recognise desired activities. However, it gives you something to go on. Try to make things enjoyable, interesting and meaningful. Just keep in mind that long term engagement requires more than this!

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Machination Example

  1. Kumar, Janaki Mythily and Herger, Mario (2013): Gamification at Work: Designing Engaging Business Software. Aarhus, Denmark, The Interaction Design Foundation. ISBN: 978-87-92964-06-9. Book available online at


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7 thoughts on “Designing a simple “Thin Layer” gamified system.”

  1. Your argument that ‘something is better than nothing’ is the reason why people keep looking at gamification as some stupid “points, badges and leaderboards” thing which has little to no credibility, undermining the essence of gamification and the power it could have. Too often I find myself defending gamification in conversations with different departments/companies, who see it as a poor excuse of a system, aimed at marketing to children or low income public.

    • And if you read any of my work you will understand that I feel the same. However, if an organisation is going to invest, they need to see that there may be benefit – often they need to see this for themselves. If they implement a simple system well and see an increase of any sort, then they are more likely to be open to better and deeper options later on.
      Andrzej Marczewski
      Sent from my mobile device


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