score system

Player Motivation in Below Earth

My first plan for Below Earth was, to procedurally generate levels, and generate different set of levels the further you advance. Quite similar to Spelunky‘s level system. But since I didn’t have much content I made a prototype with only one type of random generated levels to test it. But there was no motivation to explore levels or engage enemies, as all levels seemed similar and the only goal was to get a high score. And score doesn’t mean anything, if you don’t have any global or friend leaderboards ready and an interesting mechanic for amassing points like combos or chains. Just making a counter go up is (most of the time) not something you feel motivated to do.

In Spelunky on the other hand, you have a set amount of levels and you can find items and collect gold to buy even more items at the shops. This way exploring the level becomes a viable option. So you have to decide if you want to risk fighting against that enemy to maybe find some item or gold or leave it and try to advance further. But for Below Earth I didn’t want to have shops and lots of items. I wanted to keep the scope small (considering it’s a Ludum Dare entry), so I had to find a way to make it engaging despite it being limited in complexity.

That’s why I switched to a fixed amount of hand-crafted levels. Of course this would also be possible with generated levels, but hand-crafted levels are faster to get good results with. So the new goal for players was to advance to new levels to see what new content and what new situations await at the next level. I also thought keeping the score system was a good idea back then, but in hindsight it only felt slapped onto the rest of the game, as score only played a secondary role. There still were no leaderboards or combo system, so your score was essentially the amounts of enemies you killed. Not interesting.

So either you go the arcade-y point centric system of player motivation all the way, or don’t go it at all. One recent example would be Bastion, as it has a separate story mode and score-attack mode. In story mode, there is absolutely no score system to distract you, it’s just pure story. In score-attack mode it’s all about piling up points, the current score is permanently displayed on the screen, there are combo systems in place and after every level you can compare your performance to the global or friend-wide leaderboards. That’s score done right.

Finding the right way to motivate your player can be pretty tough. For the Below Earth post compo version I’m planning to completely drop the score system and instead rely on advancing levels, boss fights and maybe some items as player motivation. Speedrun leaderboards could be an alternative to the score system.