So, a couple years ago I was talking with a few friends of mine about video gaming in general and somehow we got on the topic of points. You know like, score, Pxs, Rank, bonus points, incremental amounts of currency that holds no intrinsic value to a particular game but can be accrued to a high degree through a game players skill? Yeah those. Anyway, when that came up my friends seemed to guffaw at the idea of points as though it were an archaic concept that was already replaced. I didn’t believe so, but my opinion was in the minority so I did some thinking and a bit of research to find out if points really are a tired concept that gaming no longer needs. The short answer? No. But, there are a lot of stipulations that make the concept feel outdated.
To better illustrate this point, let me tell you a story about when I played Super Mario with my father in my teen years. We were playing on the Wii Virutal Console at the time but I had already played it on the NES when I was a child a bit, but my father? He grew up with the game. He knew the infinite life glitch and could pull it off every time (much to my dismay.) Anyway, when we played the game’s two player mode I noticed that we had very different play-styles. Me being the Sonic fan at the time slammed my finger down on the run button and tried to get through the level as fast as I could, damage boosting through enemies and depending on the stage clear bonus to carry my score. Meanwhile, my father would go and kill every enemy, get every coin and even check most of the bricks for secrets. What I found fascinating was that the longer we played, the more clear it was that his score was much higher than mine. I also found that my father usually got to play the game longer than I did, because I would misjudge the distance of a jump and die or simply beat a level too quickly to enjoy it. In short, the points showed who was having more fun.
But that’s old games right? In today’s time, most games don’t have a score marker on the top left of the screen and we don’t line up at arcades to compete with our friends. But back in that era of gaming, points were one of the most crucial parts of learning how to play a game better than someone else. Look at most Pinball machines for an example. Did you know that when you initially strike the ball, depending on how hard you hit the ball you can get a “skill shot” bonus? And for some machines a skill shot can even start your ball in a different place than most others? I had no idea about this! Someone had to show it to me! When I did learn about pinball skill shots it was clear to me that anyone who was serious about getting a lot of points would always go for skill shots, whereas casuals who had only seen a pinball machine get hit by the Fonzie on TV would simply let the ball rip. It creates a dialogue between gamers, tips and tricks to be passed down, a differentiation between beginners and experts and a way to keep hype circulating for a particular game.
Many people like to complain about how games these days have too many tutorials, but these are the same people that can’t be bothered to take the time to find every secret in a Mario game. Like most traditional games, with video games, you are supposed to learn how the game is played as you play, which means points are conformation that you are playing the game correctly. Getting a high score shouldn’t just mean you beat the game, but that, you got your money’s worth for said games. This explains why the high-scores in arcades were such a big deal because in the early years of gaming old games were expensive and all the quarters you had to put in an arcade machine probably paid arcade owners for their retirement plan.
So using these two examples let me give you a new problem and see if you can work it out. You’re playing Street Fighter 4 and you hear that there are secret boss fights you can get after defeating the last boss in Arcade mode. You complete the Arcade mode multiple times but you seem to not be able to get the boss fight at all. How do you go about unlocking that boss?
Was your answer: “Idk google it?” If so you’re wrong! The game gives you all the tools you need to find the secret boss without looking up a walk-through. Admittedly, the first clue is a bit situational, but in older Street Fighter games (like Street Fighter 2 in the arcades) if you finish the game fast enough and get enough perfect matches, instead of fighting Bison at the end, you fight Akuma who wrecks you and the rest of your allowance with his fireball hax. Spoiler alert this is how you get to the fight with Oni (sort of). But let’s say for the sake of argument that Street Fighter 4 is the first Street Fighter you’ve played. How do we get to the final boss? Well firstly, you get good at the game. Most people play fighting games not to struggle through them, but to hone their skill to an art and use that skill to beat friends or assert dominance in the arcade. You should be steam-rolling the arcade modes before even thinking about going for the secret boss. This is a big step for a lot of modern players who seem to have this desire to get good at everything right away and see all there is to see before they have to return the game to Game Stop. It requires time, it requires practice, it requires you to play the game! You want to get that secret boss or not!? So you get good at the Arcade mode and comfortable with each level but what is beyond that? So there are some numbers that keep coming up when I do cool things in the game what are those? Oh! They are points! Looks like I’m getting a huge point bonus when I get a perfect in a match! So let’s just do that in the Arcade mode! And Lo and behold before you even notice:
A wild Akuma appears!
There’s a cut-scene for it and Akuma acknowledges your strength when you beat him and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. But Street Figthter’s intrinsic theme of always needing to get stronger leads you to believe that there is more than just a fight with Akuma. Maybe if you get even more points, you’ll get a different boss fight!? This effect is further enhanced by the fact that the character select screen has some empty spots that don’t seem to be automatically unlocking. So you keep looking for things that give you more points, getting first hit, landing an ultra combo at the end of a fight and when you string these things together you find that you do in fact fight Oni at the end of Street Fighter 4.
And it feels deserved and totally worth it. The music swells and Oni talks to you as though you are a man seeking god-hood and he seeks to put you in your place. So naturally you punch God in the face because of your unprecedented skill. Or you get bodied–everyone’s experience will be different. But this struggle, this build up and this pay off? That’s what video gaming is all about.
All this being said though, there is a right way to handle points and a wrong way to do it, and I believe that because some developers have handled points the wrong way, people think that points are meaningless. So if Street Fighter 4 is a good example let’s take Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon for the 3DS as a bad example. While you don’t accrue points in Luigi’s Mansion 2 in the traditional sense, you will get a rank at the end of each ghost hunt.The rank is determined by a few things, namely what you find, how fast you beat the level and how much health you lose. But anyone who played the first Luigi’s Mansion knows that speed running was never even a dream for most people playing the game on the count of the fact that there is no run button. Everywhere Luigi goes he hustles at the speed of a grandpa off to get the iHop early-bird special. Why would the developers take over the same walking mechanics in the first game and expect you to find everything and clear the level fast when you move that slow? Wasn’t the game renown for having a big, open ended mansion to explore? Isn’t Luigi scared of all the ghosts and atmosphere in the mansion which makes him move slower and more cautiously? You could argue that that the ranking system was meant more for a new game + kind of feature–but if that were the case why do I have to have the game tell me how badly I do each time I complete the level at my own pace?
This is a classic case of having points simply for the sake of having points. In this way, the points are devalued because they get in the way of how you enjoy playing the game. Sure you can get the high score in Luigi’s Mansion but at what cost? By doing this they effectively took what was an exploration game and turned it into a level based game! What were they thinking!?
Ranking systems are good for modern games to keep people on the right track when they play a game, but, the ranking system needs to be built in a way that also allows the player to enjoy the game. If they seem absurd or shoved in as a formality then naturally players aren’t going to care for them. Points should create goals, goals create challenges to overcome and overcoming challenges is part of the joy of playing video games. So yes, points are not only relevant, but one of the few things we have left to circumvent gaming from getting too easy. Of course there will always be stipulations to this idea, and I don’t mean to imply that looking up secrets online is bad or that you even need points to play a game the right way, only that, some players give up too easily or are stuck in the wrong mind-set when playing a game which devalues an experience.