It occurs to me that our generation has a bit of a weird relationship with the concept of “score”, which actually has left many of us with a sort of aversion to the concept altogether. And full disclaimer – I can understand it. I felt that way too for most of my life. But it’s a significant problem because a lot of games – arguably all games – are score based. Interestingly, most of us seem to make exceptions for score’s validity for a sport like Basketball, or a boardgame like Ticket to Ride. This is an obvious inconsistency, but what’s interesting is the journey we – digital gamers – have taken to get here.
The Value of Score
First, I need to illustrate why this is a problem. A very good example is the classic digital abstract game Tetris. I’ve heard some people tell me that they never pay attention to their score when they are playing, and that they actually have been seeing how far they could get, such as, “I got to level 9 that game!”. What’s interesting is, I, too remember doing this as a kid. Only in the past few years have I realized how wrong this was. Allow me to explain.
There are only two answers that are logically possible here:
1. Score is a fundamental part, and the goal of Tetris
2. Tetris is an inelegant, poorly designed and imbalanced game
The reason I say this is that most of the mechanics of Tetris seem to be inherently tied to – and counter-balanced by – the score. One of the core concepts of Tetris is that you can remove multiple lines at once. The downside to doing this is that it is more difficult and risky to perform, especially if you’re going for a “Tetris” (four-in-a-row) which is a major gamble that requires that you find a line piece before running out of time. So, it should be obvious that, because of this major downside, there should be an upside.
The upside is, obviously, that you get more points for getting bigger combos. But if you’re using “get to a higher level” as the goal of Tetris, then there is no upside. Therefore, the game is imbalanced and has all these mechanics in it which are basically useless. A player trying to get to the highest level possible should always keep the well totally empty and strive to get nothing but single lines, as you can see from the following chart:
There are other examples illustrating why Tetris is indeed a score based game, such as the fact that the sooner you hold “down” to set a piece down, the more points you get for placing that piece down. If score doesn’t matter, then to hell with that! Take your time!
The thing is, it’s understandable that we have this error in understanding about score. There are two major reasons for how we got here:
Reason #1: The Lack of a Battery
How would it have changed things if the GameBoy version of Tetris had had a battery in it which saved your score? Seeing that high score of yours on the scoreboard, knowing that it is there, beckoning to you – wouldn’t that have an effect on the way we thought about the game? Going several games in a row without even seeing the scoreboard, because we haven’t beaten any of our top scores… this creates motivation in a player.
But I can’t think of a single score-based game released for NES, GameBoy, or any other home console that actually saved scores, up until very recently with recent DS versions of Namco Museum or XBox Live Arcade’s Pac Man implementation. So that means that for those of us raised in the 80s and 90s – that’s a huge chunk of the modern active gaming scene – to care about score was really just impractical. What am I going to do, get a pencil and paper out every time I play my GameBoy? Of course not. Even if that wasn’t so impractical, few of us at that age had the understanding about games to even understand what I’ve explained above – that score is a fundamentally important part of Tetris.
Reason #2: The Narrative Structure
Once you give a game an “end point”, you implicitly (if not explicitly) suggest that getting to the end point is the goal of the game. You surely remember, even as a kid, wondering “who the hell cares about score in Super Mario Brothers?” I never met anyone who did. Because it was obvious to any of us that Super Mario Brothers already had a goal – to save the princess.
Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that the goal of Super Mario Brothers, and Contra, and Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden, and all of these 8-bit games, was actually simply to “beat the game”. Completion. That was the goal of these things.
Imagine for a second – what would it have been like if Super Mario Brothers had no “ending”? It’s probably possible that it could randomly generate levels, or at the least, randomly populate levels with ever-increasing numbers of harder monsters. What if that was the case? What if it even had a battery, too, and saved your scores? Then what would Super Mario Brothers feel like to play? What would you pay attention to?
I think even Nintendo was a little bit confused about what they wanted to do – or at least, they were unaware of all of the effects that adding in this (albeit loose) narrative structure would have on their game. It seems that they expected people to care about score, from mechanisms like this.
But later on, I suspect some wiser developers started to figure something out.
Reason #3: Score Might Be Kind of Bad For Capitalists
What’s so awesome about score is that it is a sort of “renewable gaming resource”. Not only does it judge your performance in a game, but it does so in a fluid, high-resolution way. If you do just a little bit better in Tetris than you did last time, your score will reflect that. It’s also a natural choice for single-player games, because as they improve as players, the goalposts are moving, too. Beating your high score gets harder and harder as you get better and better. This is why people are still playing Tetris 20 years on.
But… is that really a good business plan? Is it wise to sell people a game that they can play for the rest of their lives? Personally, not being a “business-person” so much as an artist who wants to hopefully make a living off of my craft, I would say that even if I make a little less money overall by selling a great game that has endless replay value, it’s still what I want to do.
However, I can certainly see some business person looking at a bottom line and saying that that will not do. Instead, the “buy a $60 game, complete it within a month, discard it and buy the next one” model might look a lot more attractive to that sort of person.
The narrative structure may not be a matter of developers and businesspeople not grasping its negative effects on gaming. It may be a classic case of planned obsolescence.
Most of us are not business people, though. Whether we are involved in game development or not, we are all game players. And score, as I mentioned, is very good for us.
We should realize, by the way, that not all scoring is so abstract as that of Tetris or a Roguelike. A match of Doom Deathmatch has a score that is literally “number of frags”. The score in Soccer or Ice Hockey is the “number of goals”. American Football and Basketball abstract the score out a bit more, giving more and less points for certain actions (such as six points for a touchdown or three points for a field goal).
This isn’t to say that all games need to have any system of points. Plenty of games don’t – although you could argue that even in a game like Chess, the game awards 1 point for capturing/checkmating the enemy king, and the game is won by whoever has the most points at the end of the game (which is triggered when someone’s king is captured/checkmated).
What I am meaning to say here is that where we draw the line at “what is and isn’t points” is arbitrary anyway. Points are simply an expression of “the goal of the game”. In Soccer, all of the mechanics, everything you do is towards that end of “getting more points”. Points are fundamental, as the goal of a game is fundamental.
So, if you are a person who says, “I never really care about points in games”, you are actually saying that you never care about the goal of a game. Again, I can’t blame this all on you as developers themselves have been rather confused about what the goals of their games are (is the goal of Super Mario Brothers to get a high score, or complete it?) But it is high time that we all took a hard look at our positions on this issue.