On “Score”

It occurs to me that our generation has a bit of a weird relationship with the concept of “score”, which actually has left many of us with a sort of aversion to the concept altogether.  And full disclaimer – I can understand it.  I felt that way too for most of my life.  But it’s a significant problem because a lot of games – arguably all games – are score based.  Interestingly, most of us seem to make exceptions for score’s validity for a sport like Basketball, or a boardgame like Ticket to Ride.  This is an obvious inconsistency, but what’s interesting is the journey we – digital gamers – have taken to get here.

The Value of Score

First, I need to illustrate why this is a problem.  A very good example is the classic digital abstract game Tetris.  I’ve heard some people tell me that they never pay attention to their score when they are playing, and that they actually have been seeing how far they could get, such as, “I got to level 9 that game!”.  What’s interesting is, I, too remember doing this as a kid.  Only in the past few years have I realized how wrong this was.  Allow me to explain.

There are only two answers that are logically possible here:

1.  Score is a fundamental part, and the goal of Tetris


2. Tetris is an inelegant, poorly designed and imbalanced game

The reason I say this is that most of the mechanics of Tetris seem to be inherently tied to – and counter-balanced by – the score.  One of the core concepts of Tetris is that you can remove multiple lines at once.  The downside to doing this is that it is more difficult and risky to perform, especially if you’re going for a “Tetris” (four-in-a-row) which is a major gamble that requires that you find a line piece before running out of time.  So, it should be obvious that, because of this major downside, there should be an upside.

The upside is, obviously, that you get more points for getting bigger combos.  But if you’re using “get to a higher level” as the goal of Tetris, then there is no upside.  Therefore, the game is imbalanced and has all these mechanics in it which are basically useless.  A player trying to get to the highest level possible should always keep the well totally empty and strive to get nothing but single lines, as you can see from the following chart:

Why Tetris without score is out of balance

There are other examples illustrating why Tetris is indeed a score based game, such as the fact that the sooner you hold “down” to set a piece down, the more points you get for placing that piece down.  If score doesn’t matter, then to hell with that!  Take your time!

The thing is, it’s understandable that we have this error in understanding about score.  There are two major reasons for how we got here:


Reason #1:  The Lack of a Battery

How would it have changed things if the GameBoy version of Tetris had had a battery in it which saved your score?  Seeing that high score of yours on the scoreboard, knowing that it is there, beckoning to you – wouldn’t that have an effect on the way we thought about the game?  Going several games in a row without even seeing the scoreboard, because we haven’t beaten any of our top scores… this creates motivation in a player.

But I can’t think of a single score-based game released for NES, GameBoy, or any other home console that actually saved scores, up until very recently with recent DS versions of Namco Museum or XBox Live Arcade’s Pac Man implementation.  So that means that for those of us raised in the 80s and 90s – that’s a huge chunk of the modern active gaming scene – to care about score was really just impractical.  What am I going to do, get a pencil and paper out every time I play my GameBoy?  Of course not.  Even if that wasn’t so impractical, few of us at that age had the understanding about games to even understand what I’ve explained above – that score is a fundamentally important part of Tetris.


Reason #2:  The Narrative Structure

Once you give a game an “end point”, you implicitly (if not explicitly) suggest that getting to the end point is the goal of the game.  You surely remember, even as a kid, wondering “who the hell cares about score in Super Mario Brothers?”  I never met anyone who did.  Because it was obvious to any of us that Super Mario Brothers already had a goal – to save the princess.

Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that the goal of Super Mario Brothers, and Contra, and Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden, and all of these 8-bit games, was actually simply to “beat the game”.  Completion.  That was the goal of these things.

Imagine for a second – what would it have been like if Super Mario Brothers had no “ending”?  It’s probably possible that it could randomly generate levels, or at the least, randomly populate levels with ever-increasing numbers of harder monsters.  What if that was the case?  What if it even had a battery, too, and saved your scores?  Then what would Super Mario Brothers feel like to play?  What would you pay attention to?

Wouldn't this mechanism suddenly make sense?

I think even Nintendo was a little bit confused about what they wanted to do – or at least, they were unaware of all of the effects that adding in this (albeit loose) narrative structure would have on their game.  It seems that they expected people to care about score, from mechanisms like this.

But later on, I suspect some wiser developers started to figure something out.

Reason #3:  Score Might Be Kind of Bad For Capitalists

What’s so awesome about score is that it is a sort of “renewable gaming resource”.  Not only does it judge your performance in a game, but it does so in a fluid, high-resolution way.  If you do just a little bit better in Tetris than you did last time, your score will reflect that.  It’s also a natural choice for single-player games, because as they improve as players, the goalposts are moving, too.  Beating your high score gets harder and harder as you get better and better.  This is why people are still playing Tetris 20 years on.

But… is that really a good business plan?  Is it wise to sell people a game that they can play for the rest of their lives?  Personally, not being a “business-person” so much as an artist who wants to hopefully make a living off of my craft, I would say that even if I make a little less money overall by selling a great game that has endless replay value, it’s still what I want to do.

However, I can certainly see some business person looking at a bottom line and saying that that will not do.  Instead, the “buy a $60 game, complete it within a month, discard it and buy the next one” model might look a lot more attractive to that sort of person.

The narrative structure may not be a matter of developers and businesspeople not grasping its negative effects on gaming.  It may be a classic case of planned obsolescence.



Most of us are not business people, though.  Whether we are involved in game development or not, we are all game players.  And score, as I mentioned, is very good for us.

We should realize, by the way, that not all scoring is so abstract as that of Tetris or a Roguelike.  A match of Doom Deathmatch has a score that is literally “number of frags”.  The score in Soccer or Ice Hockey is the “number of goals”.  American Football and Basketball abstract the score out a bit more, giving more and less points for certain actions (such as six points for a touchdown or three points for a field goal).

This isn’t to say that all games need to have any system of points.  Plenty of games don’t – although you could argue that even in a game like Chess, the game awards 1 point for capturing/checkmating the enemy king, and the game is won by whoever has the most points at the end of the game (which is triggered when someone’s king is captured/checkmated).

What I am meaning to say here is that where we draw the line at “what is and isn’t points” is arbitrary anyway.  Points are simply an expression of “the goal of the game”.  In Soccer, all of the mechanics, everything you do is towards that end of “getting more points”.   Points are fundamental, as the goal of a game is fundamental.

So, if you are a person who says, “I never really care about points in games”, you are actually saying that you never care about the goal of a game.  Again, I can’t blame this all on you as developers themselves have been rather confused about what the goals of their games are (is the goal of Super Mario Brothers to get a high score, or complete it?)  But it is high time that we all took a hard look at our positions on this issue.

  • Ocarina654

    Very interesting article.

    Just want to point out that Chess actually has a sort of scoring system. Each piece is worth a certain number of points, and so by taking more piece than your opponent, you can be ahead in points, which generally means you’re going to win. Not always, however, as someone with less pieces on the board could still technically checkmate you before you checkmate him.

    Because of that, like your Mario example, the point of score becomes muddled and keeping track seems pointless. I know professionals and those that are serious about chess do, but the general population usually doesn’t even know you can score chess.

    • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

      True, good call. Didn’t realize that about chess, actually.

  • embarrassing

    I think its more fun to play for survival than a high number, it’s more satisfying to reach the next level and to see what it has in store. However a good way to make score interesting in a game with scene development is to have it be important part of the game system, such as rewarding extra lives when you get a certain amount of score — which also benefits you in getting further in the survival goal, providing of course that lives are not given so often that they’re made meaningless like in most Mario games where the challenge is trivial.

    • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

      >I think its more fun

      You really can’t use this as a metric as it has NO explanatory power.

      >it’s more satisfying to reach the next level and to see what it has in store.

      Yeah but then what? You’ve seen what’s in all the levels and you’re done? I’m saying score is renewable and more reflects a system of gameplay that has tons of replay value.

  • mauro7inf

    I think this gets some of “points” wrong. People who don’t care about points simply don’t care about them where points aren’t the goal — for example, Super Mario World has a point system, but there’s really NO REASON for it to be there. I can take my cape and go to that Forest of Illusion level where you can keep stomping on the Wigglers, and I can get so many points that I break the display, but what does that actually *do*? So when Donkey Kong Country came out with its minimalist display, nothing really was lost (other than the timer), since points were just completely irrelevant.

    On the other hand, there are games where points *do* things — get 10000 points, extra life; next one at 30000, then 50000, then 75000, or something like that. When lives are scarce, this makes people actually play for points. Some games give you some sort of bonus if you achieve a certain score, like giving you a medal if you score enough kills on a particular level, or some other unlockable. Some games keep track of your score per level and encourage you to get 100% completion. Those are all legitimate uses of points as a game mechanic. What *isn’t* is just having a score total sitting up there doing absolutely nothing. It might not be bad design — maybe the score display adds some element to the *feel* of a game, like being in an arcade — but it’s also not worth paying attention to unless you really have nothing better to do in life.

    • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

      >People who don’t care about points simply don’t care about them where points aren’t the goal

      >On the other hand, there are games where points *do* things — get 10000 points, extra life; next one at 30000, then 50000, then 75000, or something like that.

      Right so, you are still thinking that the only thing that *really* matters in a game is “getting further” – nearing “completion”. But in the case of Tetris, score is just like score in football – it rates how well you did. It doesn’t need to “do something” to matter.

      If you start thinking about digital games the same way you think of board games and sports you’ll understand what I’m saying a bit better.

  • http://www.goodstuffmaynard.com Joel McDonald

    I’m not convinced that score is a fundamental part of Tetris. Both mechanics you mention (“Tetris”ing and fast-dropping) are simply more fun to do–they are intrinsically interesting to players. I think there’s a potential danger associated with attaching a score to your game. The danger is that your players’ initial enjoyment is undermined by chasing a carrot on a stick.

    • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

      Score shows whether you win or lost, and by how much. Are football players chasing a carrot on a stick by trying to achieve a high score? And make no mistake – EVERYTHING in football is based around getting the highest score possible.

      Games aren’t toys. They have motivations – a goal. In Tetris, that goal is getting a high score.

      • sabrina

        I’m not sure that the correlation you’ve pointed out- that if you perform better in Tetris, you will get a better score- necessarily means there is a causation- ie, that I perform better in Tetris TO get a higher score.

        I suspect that many avid players of Tetris aim for the multiple line clear moves because it is more challenging and expresses one’s mastery over the game. Mastery is Fun.

        The fact that the game rewards/recognizes this mastery with increased assignment of points is good. (Good job, Game Designer!) But it does not necessarily mean that players are motivated to perform these moves in order to score these higher points.

        Scores provide a single dimension measurement of player mastery. In Tetris- it is relatively easy to get a sense of your mastery- how high are your stacks? How fast are the blocks falling? You can visually look at the game and get a sense of how well you or another player is performing. This may be why many players do not focus on the score. Other games are more difficult to evaluate. You may not be able to look at a football field and get a sense of one team’s mastery over another. Score becomes an important summary of such a game. An interesting contrast to Tetris might be Bejeweled- where no matter how much you’ve achieved, the game board looks much the same. In Bejeweled, without the score, I have no sense of my own progress and mastery in the game. (Although, Bejeweled, like Tetris, is also played as a pasttime by players who are not motivated by mastery)

        Perhaps “if you are a person who says, “I never really care about points in games”, you are the kind of person who prefers games where mastery and achievement are primarily self evident, rather than needing to be revealed via a score? You might prefer narrative games. You might prefer games as a pasttime. You might play games only to the point that you see and understand all the rules, rather than to achieve the highest score. Related to that last point, I do think score can be an important measure of progress when more obvious measures (I’ve reached a level I never reached before, I encountered an enemy I’ve never encountered before) have been exhausted.

        In any case- Interesting post! It generated lots of thought.

        • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

          >I suspect that many avid players of Tetris aim for the multiple line clear moves because it is more challenging and expresses one’s mastery over the game. Mastery is Fun.

          This, and the score-driven suggestion I made, are the same thing. Score is simply a numeric expression of your mastery.

          So to be clear – you are right. The numbers of the score themselves actually mean nothing. It’sthat they are a representation of our level of mastery that’s important.

          >In Tetris- it is relatively easy to get a sense of your mastery- how high are your stacks? How fast are the blocks falling? You can visually look at the game and get a sense of how well you or another player is performing.

          Now, this is just wrong. A good player will let the stacks get decently high from time to time. And how do you correlate “how fast the blocks are falling” to how good a player is? Nothing you mentioned here can be used to judge a player’s skill at ANY time during his match.

          • sabrina

            > how do you correlate “how fast the blocks are falling” to how good a player is? Nothing you mentioned here can be used to judge a player’s skill at ANY time during his match.

            As you advance in Tetris, block drop speed increases. The longer you survive, the higher the level you reach, the faster the drop. (This may not be true for every incarnation of Tetris, but in the single player versions I’m familiar with, it is)

            Thus, you can glance at a player’s screen and get a feel for how challenging the game currently is and how well they are surviving that challenge. In fact, some versions of tetris even use the music to reinforce this difficulty (faster music for faster levels).

            • sabrina

              Further, I’d suggest that neatly stacked blocks with spaces for horizontal blocks as built by a skilled player keeping pace with the current challenge level of the game differs greatly from honeycombed stacks that a struggling player might build. At a glance, you can tell how much control the player has over their board.

            • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

              >As you advance in Tetris, block drop speed increases. The longer you survive, the higher the level you reach, the faster the drop.

              Yeah but it’s pretty easy to get very high in level if you just get single rows, but your score will be crap. Being at level 10 means very little about what your current score is. That’s my point. You can-not glance at a player’s screen and see anything about his actual skill at the game.

              • sabrina

                This kindof gets to the heart of your point on scores. Your comment assumes you define skill in Tetris solely as the ability to get a “tetris.” While that is a hallmark of a skilled player- board management is the ultimate determination for survival. At a high level, a player that only completes one row at a time will likely fail because they have not mastered the game well enough to complete more complex moves such as clearing multiple rows at a time. They will be overrun. A player that is good at managing their board will develop the skill and forethought to setup multi-row clears- culminating in the tetris. The score in Tetris gives me additional information about how skilled the player is, but I do not need it to get a sense of their mastery. Nor do I need it, as a player, to get a sense of my own performance- at least not until I’m on the upper end of master players. The current state of the game gives up a lot of that information. I would posit this is why many players talk about “how far they got” in tetris, rather than their score.

                • http://www.dinofarmgames.com keithburgun

                  Skill in Tetris is a combination of staying alive *and* consistently getting Tetrises or triples. The score accurately represents a player’s ability to do this. Looking at the screen only tells you “what level they are on” or “how high the well is”, neither of which is the way to judge a player.

  • Miguel

    Very interesting read. I like the comparison to sports, it’s what I use as a starting point. It makes a lot of sense. I’ll take it to another level and say it mostly applies to sport leagues. Of course we all play because we “love the game”. When I play with my friends on weekends we play to have a good time and have fun win or lose. Sure we keep track of the score but it’s ehh. Now leagues be it minor, pro, whatever, winning means something and points matter a whole lot more. Maybe it needs meaning behind it? Like a championship?

    I’ve been debating with myself on how to implement a score-points system because I’ve never cared for them. One series that really pops in my head is Devil May Cry. For the life of me I could careless about the score or grade I got. And the game tries really hard for you to care during the game play with big numbers and score total going up and at the end of every mission breaking down how you did with a grade. But man did I have a blast playing and finishing those games (Except 2 but that’s another topic..).

    I definitely took notes here. Got me thinking a lot more!

  • http://www.scoreoid.net/ Almog Koren

    Great post haven’t read a good post on the subject for some time. I think with mobile we’re starting to see a lot of short action games that are based on scoring. I think this is create but as game developers we need to find ways to make scoring create.

    I did a session at Casual Connect and of the ideas that I suggested is connecting a players global score to their game achievements. Think about getting extra points for pausing the main mission to complete an achievements getting more points when your done or event better points to help you upgrade.

    Now the global leaderboard shows points and how you got them. This gives you higher retention.


  • H_R

    First, which Tetris are you talking about? I guess Game Boy A-Type (Endless/Survival). The original Tetris didn’t give points for clearing rows.

    A-Type is definitely balanced around score. 2 Player mode should prove that score wasn’t a thoughtless inclusion (In 2 Player mode, you send lines to your opponent by clearing your own rows. One sends zero, two sends one, three sends two, and a tetris sends four).

    But that doesn’t mean A-Type is balanced perfectly. The drop bonus is unaffected by level, so its use falls off into oblivion pretty fast. There’s no reason to intentionally build past a potential tetris, you only do it because you’re waiting for an I-block. Whether or not the base scores and multipliers are balanced is beyond me, but NES and Game Boy use the same scoring systems while the NES well is larger (10×20 versus 10×18), so there’s that.

    There are reasons to not even bother. To get comfortable at higher levels, it pays to practice just trying to survive there. When you get comfortable at levels higher than 9, you can’t start there and have to play 100+ boring lines first (there’s a fast mode, but it doesn’t boost score). The controls are sluggish. Finally, the pause screen hides the well from your eyes, but not your memory. Pausing after every drop almost eliminates drop speed from the equation and completely eliminates any potential for fun.

    That being said, I played for score.

    Your “Major Decision” bit on Tetris seems off to me. Why is that the major decision? You can’t get lines all the time, getting a single line at every opportunity is not always safe, thus building is not always risky, and getting a tetris is always the safest move when available.


    On to your reasons people don’t care.

    #1: I agree.

    Are you saying that seeing a score and not seeing a score are both motivators?

    As for early score-based games with battery backup: Wario’s Woods (NES: Time Attack), Game & Watch Gallery (GB), Tetris DX (GB/GBC), Super Mario Bros. DX (GBC: Score Attack), just to start.

    #2: I agree and really like this section.

    #3: People still make money off Tetris and chess. Nintendo credits Tetris on their Corporate History page!

    Conclusion: You write that some games don’t have points, but it could be argued that they do (the argument is a complicated way of defining a state and is thus incorrect*). Then you write that points are the goal of all games. Earlier you wrote that you couldn’t think of an old score-based game with battery backup, but used “score-based” as a qualifier, so you obviously thought of Final Fantasy or Pokemon or something. How does this all sort out?

    *When you take the king, get a power token. At any time you may trade a power token for a destiny token. Destiny tokens are worth one point. The goal of the game is to score one point.


    For reasons people say they don’t care about score, I would add these:
    don’t remember playing for score.
    knee-jerk reaction based on all the (perceived) bad or unnecessary score systems they’ve encountered.
    played few or no games that truly make an effort to balance gameplay with score.
    don’t think of score-based rankings and achievements they max out for every game.

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