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Leaderboards are worthless

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Hey, I’m a fairly competitive guy. And when I cranked up the new psychedelic not-a-shooter Dyad, I only wanted something closer to the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey than the first 20 minutes of the famously awful Space Giraffe. Instead, I got rapid-fire positive reinforcement: my rankings on the Dyad leaderboards.

Every three minutes or so, Dyad told me exactly where I stood. Generally speaking, I fall somewhere in the mid-400s. That sure sounds cool. I’m better at Dyad than roughly 6 billion humans on this planet.

Except…I don’t care. In fact, I’ve never cared about leaderboards. Ever.

This comes from a guy who once proudly entered R-U-S into every arcade cabinet that tracked top scores, talking about a bullet point that even the most bare-bones indie releases tout as a special feature. And I’d agree, were leaderboards not frequently misguided, spectacularly lazy, and mostly useless.

 

In Dyad’s case, that’s a bit of a problem. It falls into in the genre of games where replayability hinges on an obsessive-compulsive gamer wanting to beat his own best score. That strikes me less as replayability and more as repetition. You're invited to run the exact same level over and over and over again, chasing that universal symbol of perfection: the star. Three stars seems to be the upper threshold of human achievement, though I keep waiting for the game that's willing to award a fourth for total world domination. But since these levels often lack the randomness and unpredictability that makes multiplayer so compelling, I won't wait long.

Honestly, I’ve never bought into that thinking. I beat your level, but you don’t think I beat it well enough based on your nebulous criteria? Maybe you should’ve designed it better.

Angry Birds

So how about those multiplayer leaderboards? Nope. Still pointless.

Hey, I’m all for self-improvement. I don’t mind dying a few hundred (or thousand) times in a shooter’s multiplayer if I’m building up skills in the process. Failure teaches important lessons. Failure motivates. But for the vast majority, that's not what a leaderboard does anymore. Nobody sets out to overtake the 638,803rd-ranked player…we set our sights on the top slot or nothing, and that's just not even a vague possibility for most. Hitting 638,803rd place at least exists in the realm of possibility, but as a life-goal, it lacks a certain poetry.

So, outside of playing a game pre-release and trouncing a bunch of game reviewers (which I did once) what's it take to actually make it to the top of the heap? Well, it helps if you're a super-rich manchild like Kim Dotcom, who could devote entire days, day after day, to amassing the over-150,000 kills in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 he needed to be #1.

Dotcom even posted a professionally shot video heroically documenting his rise on YouTube shortly before authorities arrested him for running the illegal download site Megaupload. His ranking's slipped since.

Call fo Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Not everybody can just shut down their life to play one video game. Skill doesn't even factor into it anymore — this is a time issue. So rather than ranking the best of the best, the vast majority of leaderboards mainly show us that some people out there really have nothing better to do.

Look, I'm not opposed to the idea of leaderboards. I'm just saying it does no good to put them so far out of reach of people with jobs. Or, for that matter, to skew the list so far away from purely skill-based metrics; sports rankings score individuals on game-by-game performance, not number of games played.

Some games rank players based on their kill/death ratios, and that certainly makes more sense to me. Battlefield 3 has leaderboards for K/D ratios, win/loss, kills per minute, headshot percentage, avenging teammate deaths, and even specialist tasks like most teammate heals per minute. I can get behind that…an aggregate that recognizes consistent behavior instead of cumulative scores. I also pay attention to boards that zero in on my friend lists, because it doesn't matter to me if some nobody totally dusts me in Trials: Evolution, but if one of my buddies challenges my score, it's war.

The fact that I know that person makes it personal and therefore involving…two things most leaderboards can't match and don't understand. They go for plain, dull numbers, and congratulate themselves for dumping 10 million people onto the list. Pass. Until they come back down to Earth, leaderboards are a waste of time. Too big. Too meaningless. Too bad.


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