By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, November 11, 2007
I recently spent at least a half-dozen hours playing a video game I'm not sure I liked very much.
It's not just me -- nobody seems to like CSI: Hard Evidence. Every review I've read has pretty much ripped apart the new game based on the hit TV series. "If you buy this, the only thing that needs investigating is your head," wrote one annoyed critic.
And, yet. There was one game feature that most reviews tended to note under the "pro" column. The game, you see, coughs up 1,000 of some of the easiest-to-attain "gamerscore" points available on the Xbox platform.
What's a gamerscore? It's a clever system built into Microsoft's game console, designed to hook gamers by doling out bragging rights to dedicated players. Every game for the console coughs up the points as you play, whenever you complete assigned tasks or "achievements" in a game.
Every Xbox user sees his gamerscore alongside his online moniker whenever he logs on, and so do his friends. Some games are generous with the points, some are stingy. My score, thanks to a little padding from Dr. Gil Grissom and the rest of the CSI team, is up to about 9,000. Also, I'm now a huge fan of the show.
To be clear, the points are worth nothing outside the quasi-social network of Xbox. Even within the world of Xbox Live, which turns five years old this week, the points are only good for some vague, and nerdy, street cred.
If this all sounds rather goofy, well, that's because it is. Goofy and effective. In a recently released study, one research firm found that a game with the right mix of gamerscore-building "achievements" built in could sell up to 50 percent more copies than a similar game without them.
"A good group of achievements generates buzz you wouldn't see otherwise," said Geoffrey Zatkin, one of the founding analysts at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research.
Zatkin said the system is particularly effective in increasing sales for games in which players win points for pulling off feats of viral marketing, such as designing levels and posting them online. "The system is turning gamers into advocates," he said.
One Xbox 360 owner in Vancouver recently earned a small measure of fame for winning points every day for nearly 700 days in a row. His streak ended last month.
David Dreger, known online as Knuckles Dawson, owns all the latest game consoles, but he's been spending a disproportionate amount of time on the Xbox. That's partly because he is busy feeding his gamerscore, which is up around 52,000.
"It has changed the face of the gaming industry," he said of the system. "It will make you play games that you otherwise wouldn't touch."
With this sort of success in place, Microsoft has been trying to build a similar social network and community for its slow-selling iPod rival, Zune. (Exactly how such a system would work among music fans, I have no idea.)
Microsoft's competitors in the gaming industry might also be getting on board with their own systems. Sony is working on a similar setup to give gamers bragging rights, in the form of virtual trophies, inside an online world it's developing for the PlayStation 3. Called "Home," the virtual world is slated for a release next year.
Microsoft executive Robbie Bach, president of the company's Entertainment & Devices Division, was in town last week to show off some new parental controls that Microsoft incorporated into the latest version of the Xbox operating system.
Bach said the system was designed to bring game fans together. "It started around concepts we were thinking of about: 'How do we increase the social aspects of gaming -- how do we get more interaction among the gaming audience?'
"Game developers were skeptical at first," he said.
Microsoft says the average score is about 2,000 points. Unfortunately, it's impossible to know who has the top legitimate score because some Xbox owners have figured out how to trick the system to give themselves artificially high scores.
The gamers at the top of some suspect charts have scores of 200,000 or more. Alas, those gamers -- the ones with online handles like Neckkutter, R3tribution, im78yearsold and StripClubDJ -- did not respond to a request for comment last week.
There's even a business built around gamerscore inflation. One site, called "Level my 360," offers to rack up a gamerscore for a price ($160 will get you 2,000 points). I highly doubt many gamers use the service, though I have to admit I'm not above outsourcing the job to my 6-year-old stepson -- which is why my friends periodically ask me why I've been playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Looney Tunes games so much lately.
Aaron Greenberg, group product manager for Xbox 360, said in an interview last week that his co-workers unplug cheaters whenever they detect someone who has mucked around with the system.
Dreger, like many owners of the game console, is hoping that an update to the Xbox operating system, due this fall or winter, will do a better job of catching people who have cheated on their gamerscores.
The hard-core game fan said he gets a regular flood of e-mails thanks to his reputation as a video game champ. Half of his correspondents tell him he's a hero. The other half -- well, those are the e-mails telling him he's a loser and needs to get a life.
As a result of that latter type of e-mail, he pointed out a few things about himself, when I talked to him last week, that I hadn't asked about.
"I don't live in my mom's basement," he said. "I snowboard, I work out, I bike everywhere I go. It just happens that gaming is my primary hobby."
Just for the record, then: Same goes for me, except for the snowboarding part. And the biking.