Monday, August 21, 2006

On Vanity Points

"Vanity points" is a concept I touched on a while back. The idea is, in a typical game, and especially in online team games, you typically have scores, points, and awards which are not absolutely critical to victory: e.g. the numbers on the stats screen at the end of a game of WarCraft 3, or the number of kills in a capture-the-flag shooter. Usually these points do indeed imply contribution to the end result. They rarely, if ever guarantee it; in Counter-Strike, one man might die from gunshots that expose the locations of enemies to allies, who then get the kills. The dying man deserves little credit, to be sure, but he gains none; meanwhile all the credit is given to the killers. This is compounded by the fact that killing the enemy is not necessary to win a given round of Counter-Strike.

So, you might think I'm opposed to vanity points; nothing could be further from the truth. In fact I think they are critical to directing the attention of the players. A movie director or cinematographer will ensure that a concept is expressed to the audience by directing the attention of the audience. Example: if one half of the shot is a conversation far away, and the other half someone's face up close, one will plainly see the close-up character's feelings regarding the content of the distant conversation. The same goes for games with their vanity points. In Counter-Strike, one does not need to get kills to win, and yet this is the overwhelming strategy to attain wins. Thus are new players browsing the scoreboard instantly aware of the critical role that killing takes in the game, if they didn't know already.

If you got rid of the death count in Counter-Strike, would nothing happen? More likely, you'd see a small drop in camping, more aggressive charges from non-campers, and more of a tendency for unskilled players to stick with a server as their kills stagnated while their deaths skyrocketed. The death count gives the players a greater sense (impossible as it may seem) that dying is, in fact, bad.

Further, a community might get the wrong ideas in its head about how to accomplish something without the proper vanity points. In Battlefield 2, one gains points for healing and reviving players as a medic. If this was not the case, players using medics would no doubt be more combat-oriented. In this case, vanity points have influenced how players play the game, by telling the players that, in the opinion of the developers, healing and reviving is a critical action to benefit the team, just like killing; so critical, in fact, that it deserves vanity points. Thanks to vanity points and "most/best" rankings each round (i.e. "Most revives"), newbies self-tutorialize by running blindly for any dying persons they can see in order to resuscitate them. Those that learn to play properly eventually cease over-compensating and integrate the medic-specific aspects of play into the overarching game. Thus vanity points can influence a player to not only play differently, but learn how to play properly without any sort of explicit guide.

What to take away from this is that vanity points and awards are usually an incomplete and poorly-understood mechanic in the vast majority of games that employ them, but they can also be a powerful tool for influencing the flavor of your game by influencing how the community at large plays it.

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