Score in Videogames: Why No One Cares, Why They Should, And How We Can Make Them
Since I wrote my related post, “On Score“, I’ve come to a lot of new realizations about score and its strange, rocky relationship with digital games. Our history has been so rife with problems that there are many of us who believe that score is necessarily, inherently irrelevant. I know people who say that they “don’t care about score in videogames”, without even talking about a specific game. While I’m certain this is a faulty idea, I feel that I do understand why they feel that way.
Historically, videogames have done a completely awful job of implementing score systems. I’ll get into exactly why this is a bit later, but for now it should be no surprise that anyone is tempted to dismiss score outright, if they were raised in this time period with scoring systems like that in most Roguelike games or even Tetris. I can’t think of a single digital game that has a really great scoring system; probably the best ones are very early games like Galaga, but even they have issues.
It’s worthwhile to recognize that score is an abstract gameplay concept. It is not a thematic element, and it is (or at least, should be) implemented a bit differently in each game you play. To “not care about score” is similar to “not caring about position” or “not caring about resources“. These are abstract elements and whether or not you care about them will be based on what their endogenous meaning inside the system is.
Consider a sport like baseball, or football. Obviously, if you’re going to play one of these games, you’re going to care about score. Very, very few people watch a football game with no interest in knowing what the score is. If you’re going to watch a game, and not care about score, then what keeps you watching?
I’ve heard the argument that this is because those games are multiplayer. I don’t think that this is the reason, though, because actually, all score-based single-player games are technically multiplayer. You’re competing to get the new high score – a high score that has been set by another agent. That other agent may be another human, yourself, or one of those preset ones that NES games came with. You don’t play against each other at the same moment, but does that mean Golf isn’t multiplayer?
Or boardgames: surely, people playing The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride are all caring about score, right? I mean, if you don’t care about score, these games really end up making very little sense.
So this begs the question: why? Why do people generally care about score in every kind of game except digital games?
The Smaller Cause: “Completion”
I’ve talked about this idea that videogames, at a certain point, started to become “about completion”, not about what games have always been about, which is “pursuing mastery”. This point was, unsurprisingly, the exact same point at which games started tying their play to a linear story. Of course, stories fundamentally have beginnings, middles, and ends — they are a sequence of events, by definition — and so it seemed to make sense for games to start having an “end point”, since we were now tying these to stories.
This was a terrible idea that caused all kinds of problems that we’re still struggling with today, but one of the subtler effects was that we started having a lot of games that had both a completion point and a score system. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers. Every single person I knew was utterly confused by the inclusion of “score systems” in these games. Who cares about points in these games? The objective is obviously to get to the end and “beat” the game!
In Super Mario Brothers, the score really was irrelevant. The game had a completion point, and it was pretty clearly all about reaching that completion point (rescue the princess!). The game also was not randomized, so it didn’t really make sense to play it over hundreds of times and compete for score. This series, and hundreds of other early popular games, set the tone for how people would think about score in the future.
The Larger Cause: Videogames Have Been Doing It Wrong
You don’t care about videogame scores, because videogame scores are simply not well-implemented. Even without the “completion” element, scores are not built into games in a way that would make us care about them. The first problem is in the nature of the kinds of numbers videogame scores produce.
Look at a team’s score in baseball: “4”. What does that score mean? Well, it means the team got four runs. How about a score of “21” in American football? Most likely, it means the team got three touchdowns. Same can be said for basketball, ice hockey, and almost every other sport you can name.
Boardgames are a good bit more complex in general, and they therefore usually have more complex scores, but I know of few boardgames where the scores routinely go well over 100. A score of over 100 in Dominion is very, very good. It’s practically unheard of in Puerto Rico. Ticket to Ride’s score counter on the edge of the board only goes up to 100, and you usually only go a little bit above that in a game, unless one player just dominates.
Now let’s look at some video game scores. You play a game of Galaga and then it tells you your score was 744,315. Okay. You play a game of Pac-Man and get 253,150. Cool. You play a game of Civilization and get 1,351,881. I think my best Dungeon Crawl score was around 33,000. Well, alright.
These kinds of numbers are extremely hard for people to derive any real sense of meaning from. I can’t find a link to support this, but I swear I remember reading that the reason Blizzard split up their Starcraft 2 leagues into “Divisions” of 100 people was because after the number 100, humans have a difficult time attributing any meaning. People don’t have a good innate sense for how much larger 551,365 is from 89,051, but they do have a very good sense of how much larger 70 is from 20 (this may be – and I’m purely speculating here, I haven’t looked this up – because early evolutionary humans traveled in groups of sizes roughly between 20 and 100? Someone feel free to correct me if not).
Careful with the Equations!
Equations are the other reason videogame scores suck. I often think about my favorite boardgames and how each time I score a point, I take a little victory point chip and put it in a little pile in front of me. In Through the Desert, I earn VP chips for connecting to oases, for picking up watering holes, and for getting the longest caravan. I do those things, and BAM, I get a victory point chip. There are also points you get for territory you control, but that also has a very direct look, and feel to it. I see that space that I personally carved out with my own actions and decisions, and I count up its size. Bam, that’s worth 12 points! I fully understand this feedback that I’m getting here.
Now compare that to a videogame’s scoring system. Very frequently, there is some weird equation that goes on, adding up tons of arbitrary numbers, and then dividing it by some numbers, and applying a multiplier for this, and so on. Eventually, a number comes out the other end: 1,135,640.3. Oh, okay. I don’t have any feeling of connection to this number. I can’t really see a direct relationship between my agency and the score I got. If the score was 500,000 off (that’s 50% larger almost), would I really be able to call it out? I’d probably go “Oh, okay” either way.
We have to be really careful with equations that have multipliers and division in them. These serve to disconnect players actions from the feedback they get in the form of score.
Focus the Player On Your Game’s Actual Goal
Too many games are confusing about what their actual goal is. Team Fortress 2 is one of my favorite digital games, but it’s guilty of this. Why, when I hit TAB, am I even allowed to see my personal, individual score? Does this have any bearing on the outcome of the game? It’s a team game, and only a team can win or lose, yet — and feel free to call me out on this — many if not most TF2 players are probably a bit more concerned about their personal score. This is because the developer showed information that wasn’t relevant. The same thing would happen if you had a visible counter that ranked people by “most time they melee’d the floor” — you’d have people meleeing the floor all the time instead of trying to win the match.
In roguelikes or other similar games, the “fake goal” is “getting to a higher (deeper) dungeon level”, which is a vestigial thing from our unfortunate history of tying games and stories together. The real goal is getting a high score, but I’ve had arguments with many who say that they don’t care, that they really care about getting to a higher dungeon level.
For AURO, our solution is to not even show what dungeon level number you’re at. Neither during the game, nor at the end of the game, would you see this information. Why not? Because it’s irrelevant! You should just as soon ask that the game display how many times you “canceled a spell” or “walked north”. It’s not relevant to the goal of the game, and displaying it only confuses players.
Videogames Can (And Must) Do It!
I want to be clear: it’s not at all due to any inherent property of digital games that they are so bad at score. Videogames can do it just as well as any other kind of game; it just requires a little more discipline on the part of a game designer since there are so fewer physical and practical limitations.
I’m not saying that you need to see some digital version of a VP chip fly into some digital bag every time you do something in a game. Videogames aren’t boardgames, and they aren’t sports. They are their own animal, and they can afford to be a little bit more complex than either of these things. But you really have to have serious discipline about it — we’ve been going off the rails with this since the beginning.
Videogames must do this, because single player games require some system of score in order to be endlessly replayable. And learning to master a game, just like learning a musical instrument or learning to paint or learning any other skill, should be an art that you can explore for the rest of your life.