Engineering Experience Through Score

by ZorbaTHut4 min read2nd Aug 2020No comments

24

Mechanism DesignGaming (videogames/tabletop)Practical
Frontpage

This post is about bowling and Super Mario Odyssey.

Bowling is a game about knocking down pins with a ball. There are ten pins, and you (sort of; keep reading) have to knock them all down ten times (each one called a "frame"). You get only two throws per frame; if you still haven't succeeded, the pins are reset and you go on to the next frame.

There was probably an early version of bowling where you got points based on how many pins you knocked down, for a maximum score of 100. That is, still, where the game starts. But it's gotten more complicated. Today, if you manage to knock all the pins down (a "spare"), you also get points for however many you knock down on your next throw. In fact, if you manage to knock all the pins down on your first attempt (a "strike"), you get points for however many you knock down on your next two throws.

So the best possible score here is now three hundred points; we get a strike on every single throw, we get a total of 17 ten-point bonuses thanks to our strikes, and then we get two bonus throws at the end just to finish scoring our earned bonuses (the first of which counts double because it's accumulating bonuses from frames 9 and 10, the second of which is just accumulating bonuses from frame 10.)

This has interesting interactions, however. Remember, we get two chances to knock down pins on every single pin reset. Imagine I bowl a perfect game, except that, on the fifth frame, I only knock down nine pins. On the next throw I get the next pin, then continue bowling perfectly from there on. First, my Frame 3 bonus will be only 19 instead of 20. Second, my Frame 4 bonus will be only 10 instead of 20 (I did get all the pins down, but it took two throws to do it.) Third, my Frame 5 bonus will be only 10 instead of 20 (because I got a spare instead of a strike, I only get a bonus for one throw, not two.) This single mistake, missing a single pin on a single throw, has cost me 21 points out of a possible total of 300.

The thing I find interesting about bowling's scoring is how hard it gets to pick up those last few points. Anyone can get fifty points, anyone moderately skilled can break 150, but 250 is quite hard and a perfect 300 is a thing of legend. Once you're at the point where you're racking up strike after strike, even a slight mistake is devastating to your score, whereas back when you could barely get the ball all the way to the end without landing in the gutter, it just kinda didn't matter. This is great for new players and for experts, because no matter how good you are, there's a way to improve your score that's right on the edge of your skill level.

----

Super Mario Odyssey is arguably a collectathon game, with only one thing of relevance to collect: moons.

There are a lot of moons in Super Mario Odyssey. There are moons hidden under bridges. There are moons hidden in water. There are moons hidden in pipes. There are moons you have to race for, moons you have to buy, moons you have to find clues for in other zones, moons that are buried in challenge stages or in hidden locations or that are guarded by bosses. In the end, there's arguably 800 moons.

Most of the moons are pretty simple to find. During the early game it feels like no matter where you go, you're stumbling over a moon; if you see something neat in the distance, you can probably go there and find a moon, and you might find a moon or two just while traveling. The game has been criticized for this; many of the moons don't feel like an accomplishment, only filler. It's Just Another Moon, there's another one around the corner, no big deal.

Then you start running low on easy moons.

Each level lists all the moons you can find. By default all you have is a list of Moon IDs; perhaps it informs you that you are still missing Moon #14. This is still useful because it tells you which level your missing moons are in, which tells you where to focus your efforts. Once that's no longer useful, be aware that each moon also has a title, and you can get that title by talking to a parrot - most of these are hints, but not all. Once that's no longer useful, observe that the moons are clustered by ID, so if Moon #13 is in the Dark Swamp, and Moon #15 is in the Dark Swamp, you can be reasonably certain that Moon #14 is also in the Dark Swamp. But if that doesn't help, you can buy a location from an NPC in each zone, which will mark its location on your map.

So now you've got the moon's name and location . . .

. . . which still isn't quite enough.

I'm sure there are people out there who managed to find every single moon without out-of-game help. I'm not one of them; I found almost all, but I needed help with perhaps ten of them. That is, I could get up to 790 points out of 800, but those final ten points were absolutely brutal.

The thing that the critics don't seem to get is that Mario Odyssey isn't designed to be a challenging game for highly skilled players. It's designed to be a challenging game for everyone. Anyone can get a hundred moons, anyone moderately skilled can break 300, but 700 is quite hard and a perfect 800 is a thing of legend; no matter how good you are, there's meant to be some moons that are right on the edge of your skill level.

----

If you've gotten this far, the comparison I'm making should be pretty obvious.

In both cases, it's designed specifically so that a novice can sit down, give it a try, and feel proud of their non-zero score. In both cases it's also designed so that anyone deserves to feel proud of a perfect score (unless they cheated with walkthroughs, I guess, which is what I eventually had to resort to.)

Scoring systems like this have a significant effect on the feelings of your players. Score curves are vitally important, and this is a thing you must consider when designing a scoring system. This is a single and simple example of how a carefully-designed score system can be used to engineer someone's experiences.

For homework, think about how you'd design a discussion-forum-esque karma system. What goals do you want your scoring system to have? How do you accomplish those goals?

Extra credit: if you were to design a system for reporting on political vote results, assuming you could dictate how votes were reported but you were stuck with either first-past-the-post or approval voting, how would you design it, and for what goals?

24