Bulletstorm_boxart.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This week - on high scores and People Can Fly's Bulletstorm.]

Mind you, it's only a demo, but People Can Fly and Epic's first-person action title Bulletstorm has already shown just how a rusty old design element can be a life raft for a genre drowning in its own cliches.

Internet-standard consoles have created a retro revolution, and many features that depended on the sort of social gaming that floundered with the arcades have made new comebacks, just as the arcade games themselves have come back through PSN and Xbox Live. A perpetually online playerbase has made many new features possible, but also brought old features back from the past, including good old high scores.

Now, Bulletstorm may be a game in which players are rewarded for shooting enemies in the butt, but the actual flow of gameplay, (at least in the demo’s Echoes mode) is a FPS with arcade style scoring of the kind most commonly seen in shoot 'em ups.

Much has been made of the power score has to motive players, but Bulletstorm pushes the other side of positive feedback: delivering information to the player. Not all players are driven by leaderboards; some just want to know what's going on. This game shows that the actual system of points can be less important than the way it lets players know what's going on.

Pushing Towards Fun

The nature of what Bulletstorm chooses to award results in embarrassing thought processes like “what is the best angle to kick this Mad Max reject in the crotch so that he spins around in mid air so that I can shoot him in the butt and get like a million points?”

Although Epic and People Can Fly have intentionally made the nouns and verbs of that sentence as crude as possible, the complexity of thought that goes into optimizing score is the sort of critical thinking that good games make players do. A well designed score system rewards player behavior that is fun and challenging, and pushes players to do fun and challenging things.

Although the trailers for the game talk about killing people in “creative” ways, this isn’t strictly true for the simple fact that creativity can't be judged by the objective standards of a high score. Score instead rewards experimentation, and that’s okay. Score doesn’t push players to be creative so much as it pushes them to use the creativity of their brains for a specific purpose.

Beyond Bragging Rights

Score is like a grading scale with no upper limit. It incentivizes players by challenging them to do better than their friends, but score also does something even more important: it provides players with information. It answers the questions of "am I doing this right?” and “can I do better?”

Bulletstorm's interface is even more laden with detail than the average shooter. It labels everything on screen that's granting points and how, with pithy and crude descriptions like "voodoo doll" for enemies impaled on the environment or "vertigo" for enemies finished off with falls. The labels are big and colorful without being distracting, and they let the player know immediately. Player get to judge not just how they did on the entire level, but on each individual action.

The most important aspect of the high score is not that it “rewards” the player, but that it informs the player. In a linear FPS players can replay the same level a hundred different times and in a hundred different ways, but the differences between these runs will usually be too small for players to notice without a computer keeping track of them.

This in turn makes replay more interesting and more rewarding. Players are able to set personal goals, and then judge whether they’ve succeeded or not. Score can make players aware of the variance that always exists in video games, and it encourages replay for its own sake rather than for arbitrary rewards (Bulletstorm’s full version does contain a shop where guns are purchased for points, but as it currently stands the goal of the Echoes mode, and the demo, is points for their own sake).

It makes replay more interesting by showing with real information how one round was different than another. As an example, Portal has modes that rate players on number of steps taken or portals created, and that in turn makes players more aware of what they're doing.

Exploring Score

The information provided by Bulletstorm might not be personally relevant to everyone. Some players might be interested in how many feet they can fling an enemy, more how many they can kill in a short time period. Players are certainly capable of setting goals themselves, and sometimes do to great effect, but video games are also about giving players new experiences.

It’s not necessarily a good thing to insist that players discover that for themselves, especially if they have no way to measure their success. If we believe that we play games to have an experience—any sort, from the visceral to the cerebral, from the entertaining to the artistic, we have to believe that it’s also okay to drive players towards having those experiences.

In the indie game Beautiful Escape, score can even become a legitimate artistic device. It’s creepy to be graded on brutality, frustrating to never get the acclaim you think you deserve, and the protagonist’s ultimate dismissal of the whole system sends a powerful message about conformity and art. Score isn't such a gameplay-centric system that it can't be used for something more.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses video games and things that you do on a computer that aren't video games, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]