Who killed the high score? Part 1: Combat Devolved

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A familiar refrain in recent weeks, as everyone has been discussing the nature of games, is that videogames are no longer all about head-to-head competitions and high scores, as they were back in the heyday of the videogame arcade. While we often scoff at the ignorance of commentators who say you “get points” for killing enemies in, say, Grand Theft Auto IV – or pretty much any game that makes the news – it’s come up more than ever in the past fortnight, since Roger Ebert’s myopic dismissal of videogames-as-they-were-in-the-1970s-when-he-last-played-one has been countered by everyone in the entire world, all of whom have pointed out that most games aren’t about points or scores any more.

With typical obliviousness to the zeitgeist, and entirely by coincidence, I just discovered the campaign scoring system in Halo 3 – a game I’ve owned and played regularly for more than two years.

The option for campaign scoring is hidden in an inconspicuous sub-menu. When it’s on, a small number appears at the bottom corner of the screen as you play the Halo 3 campaign. Every kill is worth between five and 500 points, depending on the type of enemy, and subject to multipliers for difficulty level, speed of playthrough and “style”: headshots, grenade sticks, triple kills and so on earn extra points. By finding secret skulls hidden about the campaign levels, it’s possible to turn on additional handicaps that ramp up your score even further; for example, the Famine skull reduces the amount of ammunition you find lying around, but doubles your score.

The campaign scoring system seems like a throwback to a simpler era of game design. It’s a moderately complex meta-game, but – skull handicaps aside – it doesn’t affect the gameplay at all. The level design is the same, the enemies are the same, the guns are the same, the cutscenes are the same. It’s the same game, with a number at the bottom of the screen.

But somehow that score counter makes the whole experience much more engrossing. Knowing that number exists has transformed the Halo 3 campaign in my mind from a game I’d played through once, perfunctorily, on a low difficulty setting, and intended never to play again, to something that fidgets at the back of my mind all day when I’m supposed to be making pie charts and editing press releases. Suddenly it’s not enough to have seen the campaign through; I have to beat it, on as high a difficulty setting as my impatience and dearth of free time can bear. Because, you see, the higher difficulty levels give you a score multiplier. MORE POINTS!

Actually, it’s not just about points. Points by themselves are not enough. I rarely get into games that track your progression mainly through points – games like Geometry Wars and Brain Training. It only took me a few goes at Brain Training to realise I was just setting arbitrary standards for myself: the better I did, the better I had to do next time to keep up, and the eventual goal was… what? A better score. I’m not competing for the world record, so there’s no real target. No motivation.

Points with a goal is more interesting. The XBLA edition of Geometry Wars uses this formula, as do plenty of others like Chime and Trials HD. They avoid the ennui of solely points-based games by giving you something specific and permanent to aim for: achievements.

I’m not much of an achievement hunter; I’ll go out of my way to pick the low-hanging fruit if I know it won’t take me too many hours, and only if I’m having fun with the game to begin with. But there are a surprising number of obsessive completionists out there whose default goal with any new game is to harvest all its achievements. My partner, for example, has had all but one of the achievements for Viva Piñata for a long time; she lacks only the medal for playing for 50 hours. The reason she hasn’t sat down to get it? It would take too much time away from getting achievements in other games.

For me, though, neither achievements nor high scores are enough to motivate me to play a game. I’ll never suffer through an experience that isn’t entertaining to begin with just to get a higher score or an extra few gamerpoints. I suppose I have a low threshold before I start asking: “why am I doing this?” But when a game combines a compete-against-yourself system (like scoring) and clear, permanent and public goals (like achievements) with the rich level design and elegant set-pieces that are the rising form of contemporary videogames, as Halo 3’s campaign does, it can elevate the whole to something… perhaps not better, but something you can fully enjoy more than once.

If the game can tell an engaging, well-written story at the same time, it’s all the better. Fortunately, Halo 3 has very good guns.

END OF PART ONE.

Part Two will take a closer look at scoring systems in some other modern single-player games, and investigate what became of the old-school high score table.



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Fraser Allison

Fraser comes from a long line of tinkerers and troublemakers, and the apple didn't fall far from the tree. He's an internet addict and a friend to animals. In 2010, he completed an honours thesis entitled "The prosthetic imagination: immersion in Mirror's Edge", which you can view here. You can follow Fraser on Twitter, or hang out at his house and play Top Spin, whatever.

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15 comments

  1. I think the numerical high-score is an easy fallback for engrossing gameplay because, essentially, all games are procedural and fundamentally based on numerical values. The goal of all games, virtual and actual, is to obtain a higher numerical value than the opposition (such as scores in sport, for example).

    Even games with incredibly engrossing stories and well-built environments are still, deep down, built entirely on numbers. Either you are dead (’0′) or still alive (’1′). This doesn’t mean videogames shouldn’t try to present the amazing stories and worlds they often do, just that they need to accept that they are fundamentally based on systems and procedure.

    I guess that is why Halo 3′s campaign scoring is so fun: it does both. It is an old fashioned scoring system applied to a new, storytelling adventure game. Really, the scoring system is justing making arbitrary numbers visible, and applying multipliers, to maths that is already happening behind the scenes when scoring is turned off. Games are games best when they stop trying to not be games, I suppose.

    Don’t brush aside Geometry Wars, though. That game is amazing and has rubbed my analog sticks down to flat surfaces (no, really). Every now and then I will get a ridiculously high score that I can’t imagine EVER beating it. And then, six months later, I double it. There is still something exilerating about the old-fashioned, arcade-style point chase. Only now, instead of hoping there is some kids in the arcade watching over your shoulder (though they probably aren’t), now you just hope your friends are checking your high scores on LIVE (though they probably aren’t).

    Looking forward to Part 2 :)

  2. Oh, Geometry Wars! I downloaded the time-limited demo of GW on Xbox Live Arcade a couple of years ago, and decided that when I was good enough to survive the three minutes of the demo, I would buy the game. I never got there!

    I really respect its design, though. Good design is timeless; assigning a value to the player’s successes is a reward system that works as well now as it always has.

    It’s interesting, then, to watch designs come in and out of fashion, for example how highly cinematic, minimally interactive games are being pushed by the likes of Quantic Dream. Chris Crawford had a wonderful passage about the life cycle of good and bad designs in one of his books:

    “The survivors seem unable to learn from their competitors’ failures; low-interactivity games keep popping up like some time-hopping Sisyphusian dodo bird bent on repeating its extinction in as may eras as possible.”

  3. [...] Assorted bits and pieces Who killed the high score? Part One, at redkingsdream. Deus Sex: DX10 Denton’s Three-Way Adventure is all about [...]

  4. [...] been playing a bit of online multiplayer lately (no points for guessing the game), and there’s an obvious element of playing against other humans that elevates the challenge of [...]

  5. [...] In another notable blog post, Fraser Allison at Red Kings Dream writes about campaign scoring in Halo 3 and its effect on his play in the first part of a series called ‘Who Killed the High Score’. [...]

  6. [...] Part 1 of Who killed the high score? I wrote about Halo 3’s campaign scoring system, and how it [...]

  7. Why do you need scores to motivate you to play through the campaign on a higher difficulty? Why can’t the [i]challenge itself[/i] motivate you? Why can’t you do it for yourself and not because someone simply slapped some numbers down on the bottom of the screen?

  8. That’s a far more difficult question than it might seem. I could hypothesise, but if I needed a reliable answer I would ask someone who knows a lot more about psychology.

    As far as I understand my own mind, it’s about the perceived reward. Without scores, I would only play through a game as difficult as Halo 3 on legendary if I had limitless free time; otherwise, I quickly start questioning why I’m bothering. The only real payoff would come at the end, when I could say “I did this”; being able to say “I did half of this” is no success at all, so there’s no gratification for partial completion. Since my time is limited and there are many things I could choose to spend it doing, the constant reward for small successes keeps me feeling positive about my progress.

    It’s the difference between playing Diablo with and without character progression, or writing a book with and without chapters.

  9. Aside from Achievements for the score you also unlock new armour for your character in the multiplayer. And the Halo Waypoint portal allows you to unlock cumulative rewards from all Halo games including avatar clothing and a cross-game high score (called a “career score”).

    I beat it on Legendary so I could get a sword and pimp helmet for multiplayer and so I could beat my friend Shaun on the career score. He has, however just nerfed me by unlocking some more achievements in ODST… the Halo universe has meta-games about meta games… brilliant!

  10. [...] been playing a bit of online multiplayer lately (Halo 3, but never mind that), and there’s an obvious element of playing against other humans that elevates the challenge [...]

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