It can be stressful, though, and unfortunately the “best” strategies are usually the most cutthroat and unapologetic. It creates an extremely competitive environment in which some players thrive, but many others can feel lost or overwhelmed. Personally, I get easily distracted when playing online; the constant smack-talk and pressure to perform can be a bit much when all I want to do is sit down and relax after a tough day.
Being the pseudo-hermit that I am, I usually prefer the confines of a single-player experience. I find it’s a lot easier to get immersed in a game's virtual world when I'm allowed to progress at my own pace. I can waste time organizing my inventory or pause to make a sandwich. Cataclysmic events that threaten to liquidate the universe are put on hold while I use the bathroom. I’m in control.
However, as much as I enjoy a little “me time”, the victories I celebrate in single-player games are somewhat hollow. I get trapped in a positive feedback loop where success comes so fast and frequent that it’s practically lost all meaning; like I’m just going through the motions until the game crowns me the hero. Where’s the rush? Where’s the drama? Can a single-player game even hit the same emotional highs and lows of a multiplayer game without the distractions and bullshit that usually come along with them?
As it turns out, yes! Games that include time trial leaderboards are the perfect solution for someone like me. I can compete with players from around the world without having to deal with all of the things that can make competitive multiplayer such a chore. Seeing my score right up there alongside others not only paints a clear picture of where I currently stand but encourages me to identify the flaws, eliminate them, and ultimately improve my technique. Immediately seeing the effects reflected as a higher rank is not only addicting but serves as its own motivation.
Obviously, videogame leaderboards are not an entirely new concept; they’ve been around since the days when Pac-Man and Space Invaders ruled the arcades. But things were a lot different back then. For starters, you were limited to your local arcade(s) and therefore could only compete with players in your immediate area. Not to mention you had to pop in a quarter or two every time you wanted to take a shot at greatness. Waiting for the kid in front of you to finish playing was a buzzkill too. And if you somehow managed to actually get a high score, your claim to fame was limited to three capital letters; unless you were the only “JOE” in town, you were stuck with entering your initials, which is lame. (Side note: If you’re ever at an arcade cabinet and see “AAA” next to the high score, that’s me.)
Taking this idea online transformed these dinky leaderboards of the past into giant battlegrounds where millions of players compete asynchronously on a global scale. Time zones, work schedules, sleep patterns -- none of that matters anymore. At any given moment there could be thousands of players from around the world playing the same stage, struggling to shave a half second off their time and pushing themselves to the point of perfection. To me, that’s a beautiful image.
Even though leaderboards had been around since my childhood, they didn’t really get their hooks in me until a few years ago when I rediscovered them in a fairly unlikely game: Braid. Yep, Jonathan Blow’s award-winning and thought-provoking puzzle platformer does indeed have leaderboards, believe it or not. I stumbled upon them pretty much by accident while fiddling with the menus and it seemed like a fun little distraction at the time. It didn’t take long before I was obsessing over every jump and spending hours trying to perfect each stage. Within a few weeks I had cracked the top ten on all six leaderboards; something that I had never really considered a possibility. Not only was this fun, but I was apparently kind of good at it too? Interesting.
This spark of confidence carried over into to another XBLA game called The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, a charming little puzzle platformer about a greedy pie thief who can create doubles of himself. Its silent film aesthetic, unique gameplay mechanics and fantastic soundtrack were what initially drew me to it, but once I realized it had time trial leaderboards it was all over. The obsession was back in full effect.
I played Winterbottom for much longer than Braid, in part because there were way more stages to master, but also because the cloning mechanic lent itself to some really interesting strategies. I really dug deep and actually ended up nailing a handful of times good enough to claim the #1 spot in the world! Long after the victory beers and ridiculous dancing that took place in my living room, I was still shocked at what I had achieved. In an attempt to stay humble I reminded myself that Winterbottom wasn’t a terribly popular game to begin with, and this was only in terms of people playing on Xbox LIVE. None of that made it feel any less amazing, though, and it’s definitely a moment that I will always cherish.
Around this time I found myself becoming a more active member here on Destructoid and started building friendships around this mutual hobby. Before I knew it, my friends list had filled up with people I actually enjoyed playing games with on a regular basis. It was great! It also helped redefine my opinion of what an online service like Xbox LIVE really is. Up until this point I had viewed it as nothing more than a sea of anonymous adversaries with stupid names; now it was a social gaming hub for my friends with stupid names. Big difference.
A convenient byproduct of this was noticing their scores and times popping up in games like Trials HD, where the leaderboard is right there next to track selection and impossible to ignore. I became far less concerned with my world ranking and instead completely focused on specifically beating them. As fun as it was competing with thousands of gamers, I found a much deeper level of satisfaction in taking out my friends, largely because I knew it would burn them. I knew they’d curse my name when they logged on and saw that I had bested all of their Super Meat Boy times. I relished the idea of becoming someone’s nemesis, just as many of them had become mine.
What I found interesting was how that relatively small change brought leaderboards back down to Earth for me. Turning on my 360 feels more like walking into my local arcade. Loading up a game is like joining a crowd of my friends around our favorite machine. Instead of bracing myself for disappointment when I load up the ‘boards now, I look forward to it. I want them to beat me, because then I can beat them back. Reclaim my position. This is why leaderboards are so much fun and precisely why I keep coming back to them.
For the purpose of this blog, I figured I should check in on some of my “world record” times to see how they were holding up after years of neglect. Practically all of my Braid times had been thoroughly smashed except for one still holding tight at #11. Not too bad. The Winterbottom leaderboards were even more surprising, as I found that a single person had gone through and claimed the top spot on every single stage! Getting beaten by hundredths of a second is a somewhat difficult concept to wrap my head around, but I can’t help but marvel at the determination and skill involved in doing so. Though it bruised my ego a bit to see my best scores pushed down to #2, in the end it wasn’t all that important.
None of my friends are on those leaderboards anyway.
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