Monday, October 5, 2015

#04: Incrementing a Score AKA Gumby

About the Mechanic:

Score systems are a feedback mechanism based on the idea that a bigger number is better.  Specifically, players who are better at a game typically have a higher score.

Scores can be incremented in any number of ways; it may be a good idea to read some other Game Mechanics Pokedex entries to gain ideas of how this can happen.  

This mechanic could be considered a super-mechanic of Gaining Experience.  Incrementing a Score is more abstract than an XP system - you gain score by doing something, which reflects your skill, and has no other effect on gameplay.  Compare this with Gaining Experience - you gain XP by doing something, which counts towards a character level; often, leveling up resets the amount of XP you have towards your next level, even though the total is often stored for reference.

For a time, Scores were useful as both a social component to games, and a way to encourage more monetization.  In Arcades - real-world places that hosted numerous game cabinets, where people would go to play video games - in addition to gaining a score, if you had one of the top 10 best scores on a cabinet, you could also add some initials to your score, thus inspiring other people to feed their precious pocket change to the cabinet in exchange for the ability to attempt to either get higher on the list than you, or take the #1 position.

In the modern day, Incrementing a Score is more rarely used, because it's less useful to most designers than it used to be; since we don't feed our consoles or PCs quarters, the social impact of getting on a top 10 scores list no longer exists, and it makes less sense for monetization.  The only thing a Score system provides now is feedback.  That being said, the feedback aspect of Incrementing a Score is deceptively powerful.

As a designer, you want to be mindful of Scores on two levels - in a 'sequence', and in the context of a complete play-through of the game.  In this mechanic, a 'sequence' refers to a series of related challenges, what in the old days we might call a 'level' (unrelated to character levels.)  Each sequence has a number of events; doing something that the player should do rewards some amount of points.  Ideally, a player has to do certain things to complete a sequence; when designing a level, the player will ideally have a certain amount of score.  Typically a player who fails before the end of a sequence has a lower score than where they should for that point in the level.  The target score for the game is therefore a sum of the target scores of each of the levels.

Referee Information / Data Structure:

Current Score
High Score (1...n)

Designer Information:

Sequence Score Target
Game Score Target
Event Score Rate = Score / Event
Sequence Score Rate = SUM(Event Score Rate in Sequence Events)
Game Score Rate = SUM(Sequence Score Rate in Game Sequences)
High Score Beaten = Current Score > Best High Score


Failure = Player Score < Target Score (Implicit) OR
Failure = Player Score < High Score
This mechanic has no hard 'success' condition.

When Is This Mechanic Engaging?

  1. You need a simple way to tell players how well they're doing - as above in the text analysis, bigger numbers mean the player is doing better.
  2. You need an overarching implicit goal - players can beat the game, but to keep them coming back or provide some other form of fun, beating the High Score lets them have a reason to keep trying.

When Is This Mechanic Distracting?

  1. The score does not matter (AKA The Whose Line Is It Anyways? Rule) - If the points do not matter, you are giving useless feedback.  This fact will not be lost on the player; the result will be the player ignoring the score.
  2. Event Scores are not reasonable and/or internally consistent.  Typically, more difficult tasks reward higher scores for the event.  Additionally, similarly difficult events should give the same contribution towards the player's score.

Game References:

  1. In Shovel Knight, players gain score for picking up various gems found through the course of the game.  They can be gained by digging up stone piles, defeating enemies, putting out camp fires, just lying out, and more.  In addition to being a practical measure of how good the player is at exploring the map and finding things to dig, they can be used to Purchase Upgrades (a future mechanic that will be analyzed.)
  2. Super Mario Bros. for the NES is perhaps the most well-known game that uses Scores as a primary way to communicate to the player.  The rewards for individual actions, such as defeating enemies, or picking up coins and powerups is lavish, but reasonable and internally consistent.  That being said, most levels have a very low target score - it's usually possible with careful play to complete levels without gaining any score at all.  As a result, the score can be safely ignored - Gaining Continues (another future mechanic) or picking up powerups is usually much more worthy of the player's attention.
  3. Guitar Hero does a good job of using Scores to communicate the player's mastery of a song.  As you more accurately hit notes, you will gain a score multiplier that increases the Score yield of individual events.  This is important not only for feedback, but for reinforcing that the player execute the song consistently - consistent execution means you can repeatedly get the best possible score for the song.
  4. The first Mega Man had a Score system; this was dropped in subsequent installments of the franchise.  Hard information is difficult to come by for why this decision was made, but this blog speculates that it was excised because it was a poor indicator of the player's progress.  Mega Man titles are known for their high difficulty; it's fully possible that the player fail through little to no fault of their own.  Thus, a Score would be deceptive feedback.  Instead, in each installment, Mega Man's ever-expanding toolkit of abilities gained from defeated Robot Masters proves to be a much better way to communicate the player's progress in metonymic terms.

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