Thursday, May 13, 2010

The return of video game scores

One of my elementary school friends had a Super Mario Bros. 3 birthday party where his mom gave us prizes on how we ranked in the game. What confused me at the time was she ranked us by the seven-digit score at the bottom of the screen, but that wasn't how our generation played video games.

We were the class of 2000. The previous generation cared about scores because they played in the arcade and the best players punched their initials into the public leader board on each machine. Early video games often didn't have an end - they were a repetition of a few levels and gave the player an opportunity to rack up a high score until they ran out of lives. There was no unfolding story, much like a pinball machine. Your score was all you had to demonstrate your skill.

By the time my friends and I got Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1990, scores were irrelevant. Video games always had an ending, and along the way there was no more repetition of the same level. With the terrible exception of Revolution X, each level was a unique step in a linear path.

When we talked about our accomplishments, we never spoke about scores. We talked about level completions. Some games, like Super Mario Bros. 3, still displayed a score but we ignored them. The only numbers we took into account is how many lives and continues it took us to finish.

Perhaps its because levels are unique and memorable, while scores are abstract and rather arbitrary. I didn't have to write down what level I completed to talk about it. If I didn't know numerically which level it is, I could simply call it the volcano lair or the old cemetery.

The exception was racing games like Super Mario Kart. The game kept track of your fastest race times. However, like the public arcade cabinets, your score was limited to that machine. The current generation of video systems are all online - home machines have worldwide leader boards, as well as friends-only leader boards.

Games like Batman: Arkham Aslum have special challenges where players have their fastest completion time or highest score automatically posted. This is a lot more meaningful than the group of people who visited the same arcade cabinet and are only identified by a three-digit initial.

My friends and I still talk about completing levels, but as most games today use unlimited lived and continues, there is more focus on the difficulty setting. It has not come full circle to score. Leader boards get a little notice, but not as much as level completion.

There's one other aspect to video game scores today called Achievements, but its such a rich topic its worth it's own entry.

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