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Score Forth and Multiply

Many games use numeric scores to rate your performance. In some, the same performance will always earn the same score; in others, there are permanent or equippable bonuses acquired over time that apply a multiplier to increase your score and the same performance will earn different scores depending on what multipliers are in effect.

I think the persistent score multipliers are almost always a bad idea as they decouple performance and feedback. I’ll explain.

First, an example of a game that uses them well: Beat Hazard. This is a twin-stick shooter in which you can equip a limited number of “perks” before playing a level. Some of these do things like give you extra lives or super bombs; others do things that increase your score multiplier.

The result is a highly-customizable difficulty selector that rewards harder play with higher scores. If you aren’t confident in your skills or you just don’t want to press yourself too hard, you can load up on safety nets and panic buttons. But if you want to top the leaderboards, you’re going to have to load up on point bonuses, which means playing without the crutches. It’s great!

It really only works once the player has access to enough perks of both types, which takes a while - but the player does at least get to decide which perks to unlock in which order. There’s a similar system in Muse Dash with less player freedom that renders high scores more or less meaningless for a long time.

Muse Dash is a rhythm game that gives you several ways to rate your performance after a song - how many notes you hit with various levels of timing, a letter grade based on this, and a numeric score. What really matters in terms of your performance, especially in terms of having a target for improving your performance, is the number of notes hit - ideally you want to hit every note with perfect timing. If you’re anywhere close to this, your letter grade will always be “S” and your numeric score is irrelevant.

As you play you unlock outfits and accessories with various effects, but you don’t control the order. The earlier unlocks tend to carry “easy mode” effects - turning a few missed notes into just-good-enough hits so as not to break your combo, for example. The ones that increase your score come later, requiring hours and hours of play to unlock.

The player is thus taught to ignore the numeric score, at least until they finish the unlock-based progression and turn to leaderboard-based competition for motivation. And that’s… fine, though it removes a lot of the player agency provided by Beat Hazard’s approach. The obnoxious part is that immediately after the game launched on Steam, the publisher held a high score contest.

Score is not a meaningful way to compare skill levels if people who’ve played more have access to bigger multipliers. Regardless of performance level, to have any chance of winning the contest you needed to have to have unlocked the late-game outfits and accessories. It wasn’t a skill contest - it was a skill-and-has-played-the-game-a-lot contest. Right after the game launched on Steam.

That’s annoying, but at least it was a one-time thing and you can mostly ignore score and focus on notes hit as your goal for improvement. You can’t really do that in Snowboarding The Next Phase.

Snowboarding The Next Phase is, naturally, a snowboarding game. Each descent course has a number of missions - things like getting a certain amount of air time or landing a particular trick a certain number of times. There is always a mission to score a certain target number of points. Naturally, better performances (successfully landing more and better tricks) award more points, but accomplishing missions also rewards outfits and boards - and the more of these you collect, the higher your permanent score multiplier. This can dwarf score differences that are due to actual performance levels - I’ve played for an hour or two and my multiplier is already in the area of 13x.

While the courses I’ve seen haven’t gotten noticeably more difficult or complex, they have drastically increased their score targets and even list suggested multipliers telling you how much gear you need to unlock before the game thinks you can plausibly hit that score target. This creates a sense of progression, at least in theory - the player has a reason to keep unlocking gear to increase their multiplier, and then gets higher and higher scores on later courses. But the game hasn’t really gotten any more difficult or mechanically deep - the score multipliers provide a wholly artificial progression that’s hard to find satisfying, and to do so they made it impossible to use scores as a way to actually measure your skill and see how much you’ve improved. I have almost zero sense of whether I’m actually any better at the game than when I started.

But at least you can just shred some powder and get outfits and continue along the progression. In Alphabear, a similar system is used to block progress in support of aggressive monetization.

Alphabear is a spelling-based puzzle game. You earn and upgrade bears as you go and you can equip three bears to take with you into any level. Bears do a few different things, but they all carry score multipliers and you’re generally best off equipping your three biggest available multipliers.

Trouble is, the bears have cooldowns - they fall asleep after you use them and you can’t use them again until they wake up. And bears with higher multipliers sleep for longer.

You could decide you don’t care about scores and you’re just here to spell. But to progress in the game, you must hit increasingly high score targets on its levels - it’s balanced such that even perfect play won’t get you enough points unless you’re using high-multiplier bears. And you will quickly burn through your best bears and be mathematically barred from progressing until they wake up - unless you spend coins, that is, which wake bears up early and can of course be bought with real money.

The score multipliers thus convert what should be performance feedback into a “fun pain” energy mechanic to encourage spending. It means nothing for your skill level or as a way to compete or self-improve. It’s just about extracting your money.

Alphabear is the only one of these games that I would say is doing anything downright evil, but all of these designs rely on the same principle - score multipliers drive a wedge between performance and feedback, enabling that feedback to mean something else which is almost always tied to a progression system. But what else you do with it can vary a lot. In Beat Hazard and Muse Dash it’s also an obscured difficulty selector. In Snowboarding The Next Phase it’s an obscured level grinding requirement. And in Alphabear, it’s an obscured energy mechanic. But in every case, it makes score less useful for understanding your own performance, which makes it harder and less engaging to improve your skill.