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a still from the opening cut scene of neon white. it shows White and Green clashing swords.

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How Neon White brought back the leaderboard chase

We interviewed game lead Ben Esposito

Image: Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive
Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

When picking up the first-person shooter Neon White, I was astounded at how much I felt compelled to play, and then replay, the individual levels. The shooter transports players into linear courses where you run though as quickly as possible and use cards that give your character special powers, like bombs or an additional jump. The grind in Neon White felt enjoyable in and of itself — yet out of seemingly nowhere, I became the kind of player who whittled down my time by mere milliseconds. Part of this joy was no doubt due to mechanical minutiae, but there is one aspect that stood out even more: the leaderboards.

In Neon White, each level has a global leaderboard in addition to a smaller leaderboard that’s shared among your friends list. While leaderboards have played a central role in video games since the era of arcade cabinets, Neon White made me care about my scores for the first time in recent memory. Polygon sat down with game lead Ben Esposito over Zoom to talk about the unique implementation of leaderboards in Neon White, how they influenced the game, and and how social elements can help modern games stand out even more.

According to Esposito, the team had the idea of competing for better times in mind “from the beginning.” It all started in 2018, when Esposito had burned through a few failed demo ideas for a card-based first person shooter. He had the idea of making a shooter-platformer where you get cards randomly and fight through arenas. The designer said that playing with random weapons all the time “wasn’t very fun.” Nonetheless, that demo led to one last demo focused on linear levels with a set number of cards. Esposito sent the demo to a friend, and the friend sent Esposito back a list of times it took to complete each level.

an image of a level in neon white. there is perfectly reflective water and a pristine white architecture Image: Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive

“I looked at that, and I was like, I could totally beat that.” So Esposito started playing and learning all the ways to complete the level more quickly. “We felt like, Oh, the fun of this game is the optimization. And it’s only heightened by having someone to play against. So, you know, that was kind of the moment when the actual production of the game kicked off.”

In Neon White, you must eliminate every demon and reach a finish line as quickly as possible to finish each course. The game awards you a bronze, silver, gold, or Ace medal depending on how quickly you complete the course.

Esposito said the team wanted to be “super super careful” about the way they implemented leaderboards in the game. He and the rest of the team wanted to inspire competition, without overwhelming players with scores that felt unachievable. The team wanted to gradually take a player from knowing nothing about the game to eventually caring about their global score. “This is something I feel, and I think a lot of the team felt, because we’re not the best gamers,” he said.

To accomplish this, the game didn’t just have to be approachable — players had to get something out of failing, too. “We wanted to build this idea of replaying a level being the fun of the game, rather than a chore,” he said. So, Esposito and the team implemented the insight system, which allows players to unlock features for the level like the option to toggle pathing hints, as well as a ghost version of your character that shows your best run. It seems to have worked.

a screenshot that shows a leaderboard for a level called Glass Port in Neon White
A screenshot of a global leaderboard in Neon White.
Image: Angel Matrix/Annapurna Interactive via Polygon

“When we did the demo for the game, the leaderboard precision, in terms of the amount of decimal places, was only, I think, like two decimal places or something. Within the first day of the demo coming out, people were playing the first level hundreds and hundreds of times. And we found really quickly that people were mad at us, because the precision wasn’t high enough to give them a higher place than people who did it, you know, .001 second slower than them.”

I asked Esposito why he thought leaderboards have played such a central role in games, and why they’re a persisting feature in modern titles. “No matter if [games] are single-player or multiplayer, they’re still social.” Esposito recalled the image of huddling around an arcade cabinet as people take turns playing and trying to get a high score.

This is an idea mirrored in my own experience with Neon White. As I played, I found the friends leaderboard to be the extra motivation I needed to finish each level more quickly. Maybe I wanted to beat my old boss at a level, or just show another friend that I didn’t absolutely suck at a shooter for once. I also messaged a friend with a ridiculously short time on a level to ask how they beat it. In another instance, a friend I hadn’t heard from in several months texted me to say she saw that I had been playing and complimented my scores.

“I wanted to bring back the classic, like, high score table because it does enable that social component that makes this game not feel like, Oh, I’m just fighting its computer. I’m actually like, you know, part of some big thing.