I. THE FUNCTIONS OF BADGES
Before getting into suggestions about how to implement badges, it's useful to consider the functions they can serve in a MMOG.
- record of achievement
- indicator of playstyle
Badges are a kind of shorthand for describing the actions you've taken, and more specifically the kind of actions you like to take. If you have more Location badges than anything else, other players can assume (probably correctly) that you're more interested in travelling than in combat or mastering professions. Similarly, if you have numerous badges for things like "...has slain over 10,000 animals" and "...has participated in the destruction of [whatever]", then it's probably safe to assume that this is someone who prefers combat to travel or profession-mastering, and so on.
So a badge system that offers a few specific categories of badges, each of which is clearly related to a unique playstyle, will be effective at letting other players know what you like to do in the game.
- mark of common interests
The badge system itself could also be used to perform this function -- what if we could search for nearby players who are actively displaying certain badges or badge types?
- conversation starter
II. WHO'S INTERESTED?
There's a sense in which collecting badges suggests one MMOG playing style in particular: the Explorer. This isn't someone who's just interested in visiting different places; an Explorer is someone who enjoys finding all the content a game has to offer.
Explorers don't just collect Location badges -- they also collect combat badges and profession mastery badges; they want to know how the game works; they want to understand why the game system behaves the way it does.
Some players want this knowledge specifically to gain power over other players, or for security from other players. These folks aren't Explorers, exactly; they do these things more as achievements. In fact, that's what the typical person who enjoys this accomplishment-oriented playstyle is called: the Achiever. There's nothing inherently wrong with being an Achiever -- you could even say that these are exactly the people that a badge system in a game is intended for.
But Explorers are worth encouraging in an online game, too. These are the people who not only know all the interesting features of a game, they understand why those features exist and how best to enjoy them. An Explorer can not only tell you where to find that critter you've been wanting to bag, but can also tell you the best tactics to use and even whether there are other creatures in the area that you might also be interested in.
It seems to me that this type of gameplay ought to have some badges geared toward it as well. Location badges are a good start, but how about some additional ways to indicate that a character has collected lots of knowledge about the game world?
(Note: For more on Achievers and Explorers, and on the other two major playstyles -- Killers and Socializers -- read Richard Bartle's "Players Who Suit MUDs" essay.)
III. "PHYSICAL" DISPLAY
Badges shouldn't just be bit of text that you have to /examine someone to see -- they ought to be "physical" objects in the game world that your character can actually see being worn by another character.
There are various ways this could be done. One obvious way already in the game is high-level armor, especially high-level factional armor. Another type of "badge" is someone being followed by a creature pet -- the creature acts as a kind of marker to tell other players that this person is probably a pet handler.
But why not make this type of badge official? Certain badges ought to be actual physical objects (in the game) that a player can choose to display. The most obvious form of this kind of badge is as something you wear outside your clothing -- medals, pins, rank sashes, and other decorations.
Or you could let the player choose one badge from those she's won to be displayed as a visual effect -- perhaps a glow, or an icon displayed above her head. This wouldn't have to be fancy; a simple icon would be enough (although fancy would be cool). And it could reuse the code recently added to allow some "emoticons" to be displayed above a character's head, so it shouldn't even be very technically challenging.
So I say let's think about what badges are really good for... and then go to town thinking of ways to enhance the current badge system to achieve those goals!