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I am building an online game much like Mafia Wars. I was thinking of displaying the number of registered users on the home page, but then I thought:

"What if a new user sees that the total number of registered users is 5?!" :D

That would be too embarrassing to my still growing game. Then another thought came by:

"Why don't I display 500 instead?!" ;)

Nobody would know if there is actually 500 users registered to my website unless of course they start actually playing and interacting with other players.

However, I just have a feeling that this isn't ethical. What if this generates a negative publicity to my website?!!

What's your opinion should I fake the number? or should I honestly display it? or should I wait till I have 1000 real account then start displaying the number?

And most importantly is this legal?! :D

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Lying to the general public is still no a crime. If it were, most politicians would be behind bars. –  Oded Apr 30 '12 at 12:39
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why the down-vote? I clearly asked reasonable questions concerning my website advertisement! At least leave a comment. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 12:50
    
Well, it isn't covered by the FAQ as something the site is about... –  Oded Apr 30 '12 at 12:58
    
@Oded Doesn't this qualify for freelancing and business concerns? –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 13:01
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"However I just have a feeling that this isn't ethical" - Epic statement, u realized it before going behind the bars :) –  sree Apr 30 '12 at 13:35
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9 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The legality or otherwise of this will depend on where you are and where your customers are.

However, it is misleading, unethical and misrepresentation - any of which might get you in trouble with someone.

In the initial stages of the life of the game simply don't show the number. Wait until you have a real number to show.

An alternative might be to show the number of new registrations per week or day (assuming that this is a reasonably large number). This way you could still advertise the game as being popular and also encourage users by advertising the number of new people they can play with/against.

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+1 for the daily/weekly idea this could really prove to be better initially. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 12:47
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@Songo: If you really want to get really fancy, you could have your code figure out which metric (# new users per day, per week, total # users, # currently online) looks most "impressive" and then display that. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 30 '12 at 17:36
    
@FrustratedWithFormsDesigner now that's what I call a real solution! Great addition to the post indeed. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 17:42
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User Story 1: Lie to 5 existing users

Since we have only 5 users, we have decided to lie to them and tell them there are 500 users.

Do you really think that these 5 users won't find it strange for a website to be dead even though it claims to have 500 users?

User Story 2: Remind 5 existing users of how inactive the site is

Let our existing users know that there are only 5 of them, so they might as well leave the site.

User Story 3: Scrap user story 1 and user story 2

Scrap first two user stories and concentrate on how you can increase the traffic. Neither user story 1 or user story 2 will generate more traffic.

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good conclusion to the whole problem :D –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 14:38
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I have a very reliable rule of thumb when it comes to metrics: If I'm not proud of a value, I don't advertise the value.

First of all, let's talk about what that doesn't mean. It doesn't mean lying. This can be tricky sometimes, but there's a difference between lying and lack of disclosure. For example, I'm still in college, and I don't put my GPA on my resume. I do this because my GPA is less than stellar, and while there are understandable reasons, I can't fit an explanation on my resume, so I leave it off. If someone asks me about it in an interview, I'll tell them my GPA without hesitation, but then I've got a chance to tell the story behind it. If all someone has to go on is a metric, and the metric is bad, they'll jump to conclusions. Don't give them the chance if you know the conclusion they'll jump to isn't correct. If someone asks, tell them, but don't advertise it if you don't have to.

So what I'd recommend is actually right in your question:

should I wait till I have 1000 real account then start displaying the number?

Post milestones, and once you reach a reasonable minimum, post a dynamic counter. Brag about success, but wait to draw attention to it until it's something you're proud of. Never forget about metrics you're not proud of, because those are areas you want to invest in, but you don't need to shout it to the world until you're doing something about it.

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Making up the number of registered users because the REAL number of registered users embarrasses you is simply unethical. It is lying, and if anyone ever found out, you would probably lose many customers as well as trust and good-will with the community. Would you want to play a multi-player game made by a company that deliberately lied about the number of online players? Don't do it!

Why not have a very simple piece of code that says

if numberOfUsers > 500 then
    bannerMessage := "More than 500 registered users! Play today!"
else
    //You could also have a random number generator choose one of n messages that says something like "Play now!", "Have Fun today!", etc...
    bannerMessage := "Sign up to play today!"
end if;

Another possibility, though this might only apply to certain types of games, is to have some "bots" (AI-players) always online, in case the number of human players online falls below a certain threshold. I've seen this most often in online first-person-shooter games (though there's no reason it couldn't be done with the other games - but that's what I played the most of, so that's mostly where I saw it). I forget which one but I am pretty sure there was at least one where the game host could configure a minimum number of players in the game and if there weren't enough human players to meet that number, the rest of the players would be filled in with bots.

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Actually generating bots was one of the solutions I thought of for increasing the number of players. A bot in my case will be a generated account that is identical to a registered user, for example my game will have 150 players (50 users + 100 bots). Do you think counting the bots is a good thing? –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 14:35
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@Songo: I wouldn't count them as "registered users", because that implies some person has actually gone to the trouble to set up an account and play, rather than a script that generates an account and plays the game. You could call them "online players" but you should be honest to the human players that some of players online are AI agents. As I recall, some of the FPS games indicated which players were bots, and even the ones that didn't it was pretty obvious, based on the player's name (they all used stock names that the game shipped with, whereas human players made up new names). –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 30 '12 at 14:47
    
"You could call them 'online players'"...the first thought that ran into my mind is "Should I fake this number too?" :)))) just kidding :D... but actually this is a good idea stating them as online players. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 14:53
    
end if? yuck... –  Click Upvote Apr 30 '12 at 20:28
    
@ClickUpvote: Yeah, working in PL/SQL right now. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Apr 30 '12 at 20:29
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When the number is in the single digits there will nobody to play at the same time you are on. For some games that would be deadly. Team first person shoot games with nobody else on line would be a problem. Hangman like games would take days to play.

If you are charging to register, you have to be honest with the number of people registered and the number currently on line. If you are not they will be moving quickly to cancel the monthly fee, or even ask for a refund.

For a free game, people will not play if the speed of play and the percentage of time they get a live player doesn't meet their expectations. If they expect to see dozens every time they log on, but never see anybody they will quickly stop visiting. Thus hurting you ability to grow.

You should report real numbers, and spend a lot of time getting people to the free version of the site/app. Once the numbers reach a high enough number you can roll out your paid version. This could include extra features, powers or lifelines.

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+1 I really haven't thought about the impact on the paid users. Good point indeed. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 14:24
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Is this Legal?: Probably, as long as you don't accept money based on the number (e.g. from advertisers or from people who specifically want to play the game with other people). Otherwise, you're effectively lying to them to make money, aka Fraud.

Is this Ethical?: Of course not. Generally, when you have to ask on a website if something is ethical, then it's unethical. If something can be described as lying, it's unethical. If you're worried it might be illegal, it's unethical.

What to Do: FOCUS ON THE PRODUCT. Is displaying the number of users going to affect the end product? No. Is it going to take up time to write that could be going on the product? Yes. Is it going to demonstrate the actual quality of the product? No. Is it going to encourage people to use your product? Slightly, but they will immediately feel cheated when they work out you've lied to them, and thus blacklist you.

There are better ways to advertise yourself than going "Look how many people like meeeeee!" Do one of them instead.

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+1 good thing u mentioned accepting money based on the number of visitors as I plan to have sponsors for my game. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 14:48
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"Why don't I display 500 instead?!" ;)

Because that's dishonest. Do you need more reason than that? If you're going to lie about the number of users, what else would you do? Would you rig the game so that your friends do better? And even if you wouldn't, why should your users believe you once they discover that there aren't really 499 other players?

IANAL, but if you use a made-up number of "registered users" to entice people to join your game (and really, why else would you bother displaying the number?), that might be fraud. And legal or not, it's certainly not ethical.

I think you'd be wise to simply not display the number if it's below some threshold. Use some other marketing tactic to encourage early adopters to try the game. For example, SO has a silver 'beta' badge that was only awarded to those people who took part in the private beta phase of the site. You could do something similar by offering early users some sort of bonus for jumping in early. It doesn't even have to be a special resource like the beta badge -- it could just be the possibility of accumulating resources (wealth, weapons, experience, etc.) before there's much competition.

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+1 good idea for encouraging early users using special privileges and bonuses. –  Songo Apr 30 '12 at 14:45
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  1. You shouldn't be afraid to actually say you only have 5 users online. Everyone starts small. You should run advertising campaigns on big sites that are mmo-based.

  2. However, if you still want to lie and be dishonest, you could always 'manipulate' the number.

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Hello and welcome to Programmers! While your opinion is valuable, we expect all answers to elaborate further, and ideally back up opinions with credible references. Please read our FAQ and our "how to answer" guidelines thoroughly and consider expanding your answer to explain why your suggestion solves the problem presented in the question. –  Yannis Rizos May 1 '12 at 14:04
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I think numbers will not affect your game site if its worth playing it in my sense so my opinion is to show the real numbers

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Hello and welcome to Programmers! While your opinion is valuable, we expect all answers to elaborate further, and ideally back up opinions with credible references. Please read our FAQ and our "how to answer" guidelines thoroughly and consider expanding your answer to explain why your suggestion solves the problem presented in the question. –  Yannis Rizos May 1 '12 at 14:04
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