July 9, 2012
Once upon a time, as old fairy tales and fables begin, very many early computer Quest/Adventures games, the only genre dealt with in this article, included a numeric-counter indicating progress. For example… each time an essential action, task or dialog, etc, was completed a 'ping' or other sound was emitted and the 'score-counter' chalked up some points on a display panel. Frequently, if they were minor achievements, a small increment was implemented on the main score, whereas if the success were really substantial, a larger number of points would be added.
As far as I know, most gamers were happy with this system or its minor variations. It gave the player a constant sense of achievement and motivation to continue. It also provided a sense of what was primary in the solution of puzzles and maybe helped to overcome setbacks, it also gave the player a pretty accurate idea of what fraction of the whole game he had succeeded in completing to date.
Quite a number of players took this a step further and were not satisfied unless or until they had obtained the full maximum possible number of points. It would happen fairly frequently that a player would finish a game fully and completely but would find that his final point count was say 'only' 146 points out of the total possible of 150. Some of these players would replay part or even the whole game until they arrived at the absolute maximum possible score. Developers and Publishers alike were not averse to this since it tended to increase the playing time of their game and the player would get more bangs for his bucks. In addition, it reduced the possibility for reviews or reports to claim that a game was short or "I finished the whole game in 4 hours" etc. Such adverse criticisms, whether fully justified or not, could be the kiss of death for a game.
All seemed well. However it turned out unexpectedly that there was a proverbial fly in the ointment… Well not actually a fly but some nasty bugs!
In every single case the bugs materialized always as a complete unexpected absolute surprise and shock. I never ever expected problems and certainly never searched for them!
It all started nineteen years ago with a good unpretentious game called Blue Force developed by a Company called "Tsunami Games". It was a typical 3rd-person point'n'click game, rather similar to Sierra's early "Police Quests", and featuring a police officer called Jake Ryan. A fair way into the game, Jake enters his HQ and checks in. For the correct procedure you receive the appropriate bonus of points.
So far, so good!! Then for some strange unknown reason, I repeated that same action, naturally expecting no reaction since there was no reason to duplicate and purportedly no more points to be gained!?!. However, to my absolute astonishment, I received the same number of points once again. I have no idea now as to why I repeated the identical action unnecessarily. I can't remember… after all it was almost two decades ago!
Nevertheless, being curious, I experimented and found that I could repeat that particular action as many times as I liked, obtaining the same increase in points every time. Thus I could get any total number of points I wanted - possibly even more than the maximum total points that the game permitted… I don't know about that since I didn't continue far enough to try it!
The next time a similar thing happened was in a 1995 game with an excellent sophisticated "Sierra" game called Shivers. Most of this quite hard game, with its many complexities, takes place in a weird museum. But before you can even enter it, close to the beginning, as a short warm-up, you have to perform some tasks, each one giving you an added point-count.
Once again, completely by happenstance, I stumbled on the fact that you can repeat a certain one of these tasks as many times as you wish, adding the same number of points every time! Hence, either intentionally or not, you can rack up any number of points whatsoever, thus rendering the point- count and total completely worthless and meaningless!
Two years went by and in 1997 I played "Sierra's" Shivers 2: Harvest of Souls. I certainly did not anticipate a repetition of the same type of flaw. But I'm darned if it didn't happen yet again!
Somewhat into this game you are obliged to perform some essential actionand for so doing receive a number of points. I seem to remember that it applied to a vending machine in the motel lobby. But I'm not certain if it was actually there since it was 15 years ago, although it most certainly did happen fairly close to the beginning of the game. Once more you can repeat that action over and over again acquiring the same packet of points each time!
Fast forward a few years into the fairly early 21st century and I encountered my last exact example of this exact same bug. It was in a modest Independent game The Adventures of Fatman. Pretty early in this game, Fatman, a parody of Superman, receives a few points for obtaining an edible item. I seem to remember that it was a doughnut, but the passage of many years renders that questionable, What however is not questionable is that he can pick up the food repeatedly and add the same points every time… as in the previous examples. This might be wonderful for Fattie with his prodigious gargantuan appetite , but not for the unfortunate game developer!
I did encounter one other anomaly many years ago, and an amusing one at that. It was not exactly the same as the abovementioned cases since I have no idea how or where in the game it occurred… I was too busy solving puzzles and avoiding being killed to keep an eye on the score! All I know is that at the end of the game an incredible window was displayed. I was absolutely astounded to read an on-screen notification as follows… "Congratulations. You have completed the game with a total of 1016 points out of a maximum possible of`1000 points"! I can't really repeat this case since, unlike the previous cases, I don’t know where in the game it occurred or what caused it!
I would be very interested in knowing if others came across these troubles, and even more so with additional examples. In over 30 years of constant computer game playing and related activities I have never seen a report or remark of any of the abovementioned bugs although I guess there have been some somewhere! I have never been in touch with any of the Developers or Publishers concerned, although maybe I should have been. Hence I have no idea whatsoever whether all or any were ever aware of these problems or whether any were corrected after release. It is certainly likely that adventure game developers were made aware of the potential dangers of including numerical scorers in their games, despite the advantages outlined at the beginning of this article. After all, they involved a lot of extra programming and particularly checking and testing and if despite this they apparently not infrequently resulted in bugs, it was a very doubtful proposition.
Whether or not developers became aware of the hazards and decided that numeric indicators were more of a curse than a benefit the fact is that
after a good while they were incorporated less and less and eventually fell out of fashion completely!
I have never known why I particularly stumbled on those several different scoring bugs. Maybe the same happened to everyone who played those particular games? Or maybe it was due to the fact that I did a great deal of intensive alpha and beta testing and detailed walkthrough writing? Either way makes no difference factually… those bugs existed and fairly likely continue to remain even now in those games.
As the numerical score pad died out, it gave way to a more flexible albeit less precise method of tracking progress throughout the game. This generally took the form of a narrow long bar with equidistant markings dividing it into the requisite number of chapters. As each chapter progressed the empty bar would fill with a bold color and as each chapter was completed, its appropriate segment would be completely filled. It used to somewhat remind me of a pre- digital mercury or other liquid thermometer. This system made allowance for small scoring discrepancies and, if necessary, also permitted the player a little latitude in that he did not necessarily have to complete every single minor action in order to proceed to the next chapter.
However for one reason or another this fashion did not last very long and eventually also died out. It may have been due to the fact that it was not applicable to the many non-linear games which were then in the ascendance.
There was a somewhat half-hearted attempt to allot stars for success in solving puzzles, or for the lack of skipping them when applicable. But the concept didn’t take off!
And so eventually all forms of scoring systems more or less vanished from gameplay. As a matter of fact, I personally only recall one single example over the past few years although of course I may quite easily have overlooked others:-
Some brainwaves do not disappear completely! After a lapse of many years, quite recently Jane Jensen (of Gabriel Knight acclaim) released a game called Gray Matter. It incorporated some ingenious scoring elements (not the old-fashioned numerical panel), which, if nothing else, offered some guidelines if/when stuck.
What the future will bring in this realm, who can tell, but there are always developers who design new ideas, modifications and innovations!