Thoughts on Design - Points Part 2

by Dr Taliesin Coward

While the first part of this series examined Experience Points (XP) and how they are used to simulate a characters increase in power and ability, as well as guide, control and motivate the player, this article focuses on the more abstract Points used in scoring, and some of the shared characteristics which underpin those point systems I find the most compelling. As mentioned in the first article in this series, some of the views on point-systems are highly individual, and no doubt not everyone will agree. That said, if this article prompts the reader to reflect on points and what systems they prefer and why, it’s goal will have been achieved. (The astute reader may realise that this was said, almost word for word, in the first article in this series, but if something is worth saying, it is usually worth repeating.)

In contrast to XP, Points primarily reflect just how well a person is doing at the game, and primarily stem from electronic arcade games like pinball machines. Unlike XP, where the prime motivator is the fun of building and growing your character, the prime motivator of Points is prestige, whether this takes the form of personal satisfaction in just how high you can drive your score, or competitive one-upmanship which comes with holding (or taking) the coveted High Score. Anyone who’s ever hopped on their friends computer and set about taking the first place in Space Cadet Pinball knows the feeling.

If a game can get a player hooked on the drive to be ‘the best’ (and recognized as such), a point-scoring system can have a player returning again, and again, and again. Indeed, the ability to set a publically viewable High Score is considered to be one of the features behind the phenomenal success of Space Invaders. Points can also have a gameplay mechanic: at x number of points, the player is rewarded – usually with an extra life that will allow them to continue to play and set an even higher score.

Points tend to come in two flavours: collectible items which yield a score when run into by the player, or a reward for a particular action. Having considered the games I’ve played over the years which use a variety of point systems, I’ve realised that all the ones which I enjoy, and which will have me coming back to try and set a new High Score, all share six common, and simple, features.

First and foremost, is prestige. They explicitly tie into the drive of being ‘the best’ and reflect your personal skill at the game, saving your score to a leaderboard (either locally or online).

Secondly, what earns points must be clear. A player has to be able to accurately predict what actions or collectible items will yield points, and how much. This ties directly into both strategy and risk-reward (discussed further on).

Thirdly, they must actually be fun and entertaining to earn. An excellent example of this are the collectible items in the Commander Keen games. Whilst episodes 1-5 feature sweets, cakes and other such goodies as point-yielding items, it is far more entertaining to collect the items in Episodes 4-5 than it is in Episodes 1-3. In Episodes 1-3, running into a collectible will cause it to simply vanish with some sort of auditory feedback. To actually see your score, you have to pause the game and pull up a board which shows you just how many points you have. In Episodes 4-5, however, not only is there the sound, there is now an always-visible scoreboard which ticks over whenever you collect an item, and collectibles transform into a golden number (showing its score) which floats up and vanishes. In a similar way, when players run into the point-yielding gems in Rayman 3, they issue a sparkling sound and zip around the player before zooming out the top of the screen, leaving a glowing trail of light behind (as well as having floating score numbers and an always-visible scoreboard). For points tied to actions rather than collectibles, a good example of this is the Batman: Arkham series where longer, harder and visually more flashy (and hence visually rewarding) combos are worth more points than their simpler counterparts.

Fourthly, they must be regarded by the player as a ‘reward’. For collectible items they may reflect the players skill at navigating the game world, by placing the items in hard-to-reach areas, or next to traps or other hazards. They may also reward the players observational skills, by hiding collectibles in secret locations, or reward them for engaging with the world. Rayman 3, for example, had a little blue frog that was hidden throughout its levels. If players centered the camera on it for a few seconds, they would be rewarded with 250 points. However, in order to find the frog, players had to listen for its distinctive squeaking noise. Using points in this way can greatly increase the engagement players have with the game world, and encourage them to explore every area.

They can also reward player strategy and skill at executing that strategy. This applies both to point-yielding collectibles, and rewards for actions. Regarding collectibles, in Rayman 3, picking up an item started a short-lived combo-meter. After it was activated, any further points would be added to both the player’s score and the combo-meter. After the combo-meter’s timer ran out (a timer which the player can extend by earning more points), any points accrued would be added to the player’s total score. For example, if players picked up two yellow gems, the first gem would yield 10pts, whilst the second would yield 10pts + 10pts in the combo-meter, for a total of 30pts. Furthermore, the amount of combo points any item gave depended not only on its base value, but where in the sequence it was picked up: the first five items adding only their base score, the next five double and so on. Accordingly, the same combination of gems, depending on the player’s skill, could yield either 390pts, or 4,840pts.

A similar example, but for non-collectible point scoring, can be seen in the Batman: Arkham games. In these games – particularly in the arcade-style arenas – points are awarded for defeating foes. However, the amount of points depends on numerous factors, including the total number of uninterrupted hits the player can execute (the higher the better), the total number of different moves and gadgets employed, and whether the last foe was taken down using a flashy (but risky) ground finisher. As such, a player who becomes skilled at drawing out a fight as long as possible, and can weave every move and gadget into a free-flowing combo (no mean feat) will get a far higher score than the player who simply spams the attack button.

Fifthly, the points are tied to additional rewards. This can be as simple as earning an ‘extra-life’ as in the case of pinball, Commander Keen and Space Invaders. Alternately, it can unlock particular features. In Rayman 3, points would unlock small arcade games and humorous videos (note, you did not ‘spend’ points – these features simply became available when a threshold was met), and in Batman: Arkham Knight earning a 3-Star rating on any challenge map (often tied to points) rewarded the player with an upgrade-point to spend in the game.

Sixthly, and perhaps most importantly, points – or the bulk of them – must be optional. As points reflect the player’s skill at the game, points which the player automatically acquires simply by playing the game do not, psychologically speaking, count. So, while every player who beats a combat-challenge map in the Arkham series must by definition acquire a base number of points, this can be massively increased by the player choosing to execute more flashy (and more risky) combos.
A more extreme example is provided by the the first three levels of Commander Keen Episode 4: The Shadowlands, where it is possible for players to go from start to finish without collecting any points at all.

The only partial exception to this rule is in games where getting the High Score is the entire point, often tied to a ‘how long can you keep going?’ style of gameplay. Pinball has this, the infinite challenge maps of the Batman: Arkham series has this, and so does Space Invaders. The longer you can stay alive, the more points you can earn, though it should be noted in all these games player skill and choice still counts, whether it’s the skill-shot needed to take out the UFO which flies across the top of the screen in Space Invaders, or how complicated a player can make their combos in the Batman: Arkham Asylum.

When all of these conditions are met, the result – at least for me from a perspective as a player – is a highly engaging experience which entices me to come back to try and try again.

Given this, and how popular point systems were, why have points fallen out of favour? Two obvious reasons are their ‘arcade-y’ nature, which doesn’t necessarily gel with the style of game (particularly more cinematic or serious games), and that it can actually slow some games down. An example of this is the original, 1993 Doom by id Software. In Wolfenstein 3D, id Software’s precursor to Doom, various point-yielding collectibles in the form of gold and treasure, were scattered, littered and hidden throughout the game’s levels. When making Doom, id tried a similar idea. However, it just felt wrong. Not only did it seem thematically inappropriate, it broke-up the game too much, getting the player to switch between blasting demons and collecting points.

Interestingly, while ‘points’ have in name largely disappeared, their spirit lingers on in any game which provides some sort of measure which tells the player, and especially other players, how well the person did. At the end of each level of Doom, for example, a page appears telling you how long it took you to complete the level (along with a par time to beat), and a measure, in percentages of how many of the level’s enemies you killed and how many secrets you found. City of Brass, challenges players to reach the end with the maximum number of gold coins possible (rewarded for exploring the city) and forces them to balance hording gold and spending it on upgrades to let them survive. Ghostrunner tells you how long it took to complete a level, and how many times you died doing so, as well as a global leaderboard to encourage you to compete with other players. Cuphead ranks your in-game performance from S all the way down to a D-. In every instance these ‘scores’ challenge players to keep coming back again and again, and improve their skill with each round.

All in all, points have played a central part in the history and popularity of video games. If carefully and thoughtfully used, points can be a valuable tool to keep players engaged with and enjoying a game, enticing them to explore every nook-and-cranny of the virtual world the developer has laboured so intensely over, and making them want to come back again and again in ways that other enticements simply cannot.


A. Games

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios, 2009).

Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady Studios, 2011).

Batman: Arkham Knight (Rocksteady Studios, 2015).

City of Brass (Uppercut Games, 2018).

Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons (id Software, 1990)
Episode 1: Marooned on Mars
Episode 2: The Earth Explodes!
Episode 3: Keen Must Die

Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy (id Software, 1991).
Episode 4: Secret of the Oracle
Episode 5: The Armageddon Machine

Cuphead (Studio MDHR Entertainment Inc., 2017).

Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt Red, 2020).

Diablo 3 (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012).

Doom (id Software, 1993).

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda, 2002).

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda, 2006).

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda, 2011).

Ghostrunner (One More Level, 2020).

Neverwinter Nights (BioWare, Obsidion Entertainment, 2002).

Space Invaders (Taito, 1978)

The Witcher 3 (CD Projekt Red, 2015).

Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992).

Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc (Ubisoft, 2003).

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003).

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 (BioWare, 2004).

B. Book and Articles

Demaria, R., & Wilson, J. I., High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games Berkeley, CA: McGraw Hill, 2002).

Hansen, D., Game On! Video Game History from Pong to Pac-Man to Mario, Mincraft, and more (New York: Macmillan, 2016).

Kohler, C., Power-up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life (Brady Games, 2004).

Kushner, D., Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (New York: Random House, 2003).

Schreier, J., Blood, Sweat, and Pixels (New York: Harper Collins, 2017).

C. Audio-visual

“We play Doom with John Romero”
accessed 10/05/2021

High Score [documentary], (Netflix: France Costrel, 2020). ■ 

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