Scores on the doors

Ah, Score. Most noble of creatures, how fine you are to me. You lurk everywhere, in just about everything - at least, you do to me.

At the simplest level, scores are the game-creator's primary source of feedback to a player. By adding a scoring mechanic, the designer can easily let the player know if the stuff he is doing is "right" (score goes up) or "wrong" (score doesn't change or score goes down). I like it when my score goes up (or, in the case of lap times, down).

At a more complex level, scoring mechanics are there to be exploited. Decent players will work out methods of extracting the most from a mechanic and use these techniques to rise to the top of leaderboards. (Ah, Leaderboards...)

High Scores

A score is only a valuable thing if you have something to compare it to. Before comparison, it's just an arbitrary number - 10 could be a good score, but you just don't know. 1,000,000 could be a terrible score.

The first comparison is usually with yourself - how much did you score last time? That tells you if you're improving or not. How much did you score compared to the best you've ever done? These questions are pretty simple to answer with a high score table.

The evolution of the High Score is a fascinating thing. Initially, most arcade machines had a single High Score, denoting the best result achieved. Pretty soon they moved to a high score table, containing the ten or so best scores with the top score proudly displayed at the top of the screen during the game itself. Making it on to the table enabled the player to stamp his mark on the game - a three-letter moniker to strike fear into the hearts of the other players around the arcade. My personal tag was BUG, my brother's, FLY.

Leaderboards

Opening that out to the wider population is where things get interesting. Rather than taking your improvement and looking at it in a vacuum, you now have context. How does your score compare in the grand scheme of things? At least, that's where it should get interesting. In point of fact, increasing the leaderboard to encompass every player in the world is only the first step. Once you've got all that data, you need to present it in a decent way.

Again, the way we filter the information on a leaderboard has evolved over time. The first step is invariably to show the top n  players. Whilst this is easily the most significant data, it's rarely the most relevant to the player. With so many people playing, the top 10, 100 or even 1000 leaderboard slots can sometimes only represent a fraction of a percent of the user base. As such, it continues to amaze me that this is the default approach from so many people.

The next step from that is to include the player's score and position, so they can see how far they have to progress / take their own life as it dawns on them that they're never going to make it.

From there, it's a small step to have an option showing the player's score and those immediately around him. This shows a much more manageable metric for how much the player needs to increase his score to show an improvement, but it's still largely irrelevant as these neighbours don't mean anything to the player.

Geometry Wars 2 - lots of leaderboards
With that in mind, we start seeing the first of the useful filters - friend scores. The player's friends are the ones he cares about beating the most. It is by far the most relevant scoring comparison. The Geometry Wars games did a bang up job of this. They finessed the friend data and actually displayed it in game - showing the next friend score the player had to beat. This was a fantastic motivator. Likewise, Rock Band Blitz employs a similar system, making a particularly big show of you chasing down and beating your next rival's score.

Resolution

Dragging this post kicking and screaming back to an actual Score, we have the subject of resolution. That is to say, the actual number of different scores it is possible to attain. Simply put, the greater the resolution of the scores, the better. What you don't want to see is multiple people all tied on the score.

A similar principle can be found at the very top of the table, in so much as the perfect score should ideally be unobtainable. Otherwise, the leaderboard will simply start filling up with this score as more and more players achieve it.

So what the score designer needs to do is introduce tie-breakers. The simplest way of doing this is to ape the humble pinball machine. You'll notice that these things have scores that can rise into the multi-millions (which in and of itself is pretty cool) and yet the smallest scoring event is about 10 points. These minimal points are awarded for just about any collision the ball has that the machine can detect. These largely insignificant scores do a bang up job of ensuring that you'll almost never get a tied score in a game of pinball. Not to mention rewarding a player who manages to keep going for a long time as well as one who happily smashes the ball about a lot.

Scoring Events

Of course the flipside to the pinball analogy is the one that states that scoring events should be meaningful. Consider Football (that's "football" - you know? The sport that you play with your "feet"?) - when a goal goes in, it means something. That one, significant event can make all the difference between winning and losing. Basketball, OTOH, has scores in the hundreds and you're pretty much expected to score each time you have possession. With that in mind, each basket means less (until the final 30 seconds in a tight game) and the impact of each scoring event is lessened.

But here's a thought. These things only really matter in a head-to-head, real-time scenario. A sport in which the rules are normally kept simple to avoid exploitation and remain understandable to onlookers. What would happen if something like football started abstracting the score to include stats such as possession, successful tackles or corners taken? That certainly sounds like a terrible idea, largely because the players themselves would lack the feedback they need to actually exploit the system in a meaningful way. Also, the game would be largely impossible to follow for the spectator.

The same can be applied to something like an online FPS - which, when you get down to it, is as much of a sport as something like Football. The most successful games all use very simple rulesets - score a point for a kill or score points depending on how long you hold a control point for - rather than more complex ones with many different factors.

So in these cases, simple is good.

Exploitation

But in something where it's more about chasing highscores rather than a head-to-head contest, the idea is to get something exploitable. A good player will be able to use the various quirks of the system to beat his rivals. By that I mean it's not just enough to score points for doing certain things - leastways not just simple things, but more complex things or combinations of simple things.

There you go - combos. They're always a good place to start. Radiant Silvergun, one of the finest shooters ever created, incorporated many combo systems for players to exploit. Actually, it had one combo system which rewarded the player for shooting a red, green and blue target. The other system it used was a chain system whereby the value of targets would increase provided the player only shot targets of a similar colour.

They call it Bullet Hell for a reason
Then we get to Ikargua, also one of the finest shooters ever created and also by Treasure. Its system was a bit more elegant - shooting either black or white targets in groups of three would ensure that the chain value increased and bonus points were awarded. Personally, I found this particular system more satisfying than Silvergun's as the player was rewarded for killing everything rather than having to leave up to 2/3rds of the enemy intact. Like Silvergun before it, it was possible for a player to enjoy the game as a simple shooter but also allow an expert to craft superb performances and seemingly unobtainable scores.

Either way, combos and chains will probably be your staple for exploitable scoring systems. Well, those and Multipliers...

Multipliers

A lot of scoring systems include some kind of multiplier system. Simply put, these are just a method of increasing your regular scoring events. These can be the single most powerful thing in the score designer's arsenal - affecting a player's score like no other feature. But these titans of score design aren't just about making numbers bigger - they carry with them great ramifications and can have a serious effect on how people play the game.

Allowing a multiplier to get too high easily makes it the focal point of the game. Any other features you will have incorporated will likely be shunned in favour of chasing the multiplier as it rapidly becomes the most effective use of the player's time.

Likewise, allowing a multiplier to drop or reset during a game has weight too. The original Geometry Wars, for example, would reset your multiplier each time you lost a ship. As the difficulty of the game did not reduce as well, your first life was easily your most significant and subsequent lives were almost cosmetic in nature. The second in the series did away with this by imposing time limits. Lives were unlimited as the time lost due to a death was punishment enough.

The Rock Band series uses multipliers to good effect - promoting teamplay as everyone is encouraged to deploy their Star Power at the same time to maximise the band's score. Rock Band Blitz uses multipliers all over the place. The act of driving up the base multipliers for each instrument up is excellent - each 'stage' in a song can see each instrument's multiplier increased by three. At the end of the stage, the next stage's base multiplier will be the lowest of the instruments and the process starts again. Max all tracks before the end of the stage and you're laughing. Miss one of them and it can really hamstring your efforts. But that's only one of the systems in play -  Blitz probably requires its own post to do its mechanics justice.

Risk vs Reward

Or, you know - Gambling. This is an incredibly powerful motivator and is usually present in the vast majority of games. From the subtle placement of a valuable item in a dangerous situation to the outright, "do you want to bank that now or risk losing it for greater reward?".

Ah, the "Bank" mechanic. Stalwart of game shows the world over - Bullseye, Millionaire, Weakest Link - they all do it. The player has accrued a score (points, prizes - they're all the same according to Brucie (No, not that Brucie - the original Brucie)) and must choose whether or not to walk away with their score intact or put it on the line to achieve an even higher score.

Typically, this would involve walking away with the star prize or nothing. Millionaire refined it to include safe stages that would form the new bottom level a player could be left with - softening the blow somewhat. You'll notice that the way the host pitches it always focuses on the large sum the player stands to lose rather than the not-insignificant sum the player will have should they fail - it all adds weight to the decision.

Weakest Link adds a co-operative element. A shared score is being increased that each player, in turn, has a chance to add to. The thing is, the team don't actually get awarded the score until somebody says "Bank", moving the at-risk pot to safety before starting the whole process again. Greed and fear drive the jackpot up - everyone wants a higher score but no-one wants to be the one who loses such a high value with a single wrong answer. Likewise, to a lesser extent, you don't want to be the guy that banks, only to see the next people all answer correctly, meaning you'd missed out on a far greater score. As mechanical (and psychological) exercises go, this is one of the most intriguing.

Of course, there's a scientific approach to the banking strategy. Either the team should bank after every question or wait for six straight answers first. Leastways, that's what the boffins at New Scientist reckon, and who am I to argue with boffins? Although reading that would suggest to me that the US version of the show features a smaller chain of possible bank prizes...

Bar Billiards! How could I forget that? I blame the season of alcohol... Bar Billiards is a brilliant game. It's kinda like Snooker or Pool but with a much more convoluted scoring system (and considerably smaller space requirement). Points are accrued as part of a Break by potting balls into holes of various values - high values corresponding to trickier holes. Committing a foul (failing to hit another ball, knocking over a white pin or causing a ball to roll back into the baulk area) loses the player's break and ends his turn. This means that you have to play a legal but non-scoring shot to successfully add your break to your score - something that can be really tricky to do when there are a lot of balls in play. This means that you can end up racking up a break that's considerably higher than you would be comfortable with and spend ages trying to actually bank the thing. To top it all off, there's also the evil Black Pin that wipes out your entire score...

In Conclusion

As I look back over this (record-breaking length) post, it feels like I've covered a lot of ground whilst also barely scratching the surface. There are many many different ways of crafting a scoring system and it's up to the designer to work out what works best for the player.

Were I to offer a single piece of advice it would be to Observe Others. See how other games do it and try to distill it down to the component parts. Not just computer games either - scores have been around long before the invention of the computer and you'll be amazed at what you can find in completely different media.

Likewise, see how the system affects the way the player plays your game and be prepared to adapt to this - either by changing the system or changing the game.

Finally, release the thing to the wild, accepting the fact that there will always be someone out there who kicks your arse back to the stone age.

Addendum

After writing this article, I noticed a couple of things. Firstly, I had neglected to mention Bar Billiards, which ranks as one of my favourite 'bank' mechanics of all time.

Secondly, I forgot to cast the stink eye in the direction of Quidditch. If ever there was an example of not letting a story-person design an actual game, this is it. I mean, I like Potter as much as the next guy, but Quidditch just boils my blood every time. Pitch me Speedball on brooms and I'm there on a Fireball, but you've got to ditch the fecking Snitch. It's reason is simple from a narrative perspective, but it actively fights against a game let alone a sport - even one played by wizards. It's a one-off event that renders the entire game's duration utterly moo and is only there to make young Potter look badass. Snitch-catching on it's own should be a thing - who doesn't need more Speeder Bike sequences? Quidditch-sans-Snitch should be a thing, but rolling them all together is crazy talk.

Also, we're now firmly in 2013, so time to pick up a new Mayan calendar and wish everyone all the best for the New Year.

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