not just a trait on the sims
I love achievements. My Gamerscore is only a paltry 12,790 points but I’m always looking out to accumulate more. I’m a subscriber to xbox360achievements.org and frequently plan my gaming time around garnering new achievements for my profile. Surprisingly overall achievement chasing is not at all detrimental to my enjoyment of gaming, although many have touted achievements, trophies and gamer scores as having a negative impact on the way gamers play, think about and feel about games. They have been compared to carrots on sticks, leading the player through a game without ever giving real satisfaction, or even worse giving satisfaction for the wrong reasons. Some people play games they actually hate just to collect a few easy points to bolster their score, a practice which I find baffling. Somehow I can’t quite correlate a hardcore gamer with 100,000G by his name with Hannah Montana and High School Musical sitting in his games History. To each their own, I guess.
But achievements, far from being an omen of gaming Ragnarok (okay, no one has actually said it’s that bad but a bit of hyperbole never hurt anyone) can actually accentuate and even complement good games and make them better. The problem is, achievements call for good design in themselves and it is only in recent years that developers have realised that “Kill 10,000 of These” is not a fun way to play. The Gears of War series is particularly guilty of this, requiring multiple playthroughs and an estimated 400 hours of total game time for the achievement “Seriously”, which requires you to… kill 10,000 people in ranked matches. How about that.
With a bit of thought and forward planning, however, developers can increase the replayability of their games without slipping into repetitive, mundane tasks which run the risk of boring the player into never buying one of their games ever again.
everything fits in a box
Achievements are easily categorised into distinct types which call for particular player behaviours, and balancing these correctly is critical to ensuring continued player engagement. The most basic and easiest to unlock are progression achievements – some games are generous enough to give you one simply as a thank you for purchasing their game (such as Heavy Rain’s “Interactive Drama – Thank You for supporting Interactive Drama”). Usually awarded at the end of chapters or difficult puzzles and boss fights, by completing the game from start to finish the player can earn all progression achievements.
Following progression are the collection achievements – find all of these trinkets and get some points in return. Titles such as Fez and Tomb Raider, generally more puzzle oriented games, feature more of these than your average shooter but even Gears of War had three incremental achievements for collecting COG tags. This requires exploration and scrutiny on the part of the player, encouraging them to spend longer in the environments lovingly crafted by the devs. Guides for these achievements tend to undermine their efforts, but the principle is there.
Third, and generally more difficult than progression and collection, are the skill achievements – achievements for headshots, speed runs and completing the game on the hardest mode all fall into this category. The player must demonstrate aptitude at the game, not simply muddling through and lucking out. It’s important that the tasks involved aren’t too laborious or repetitive, such as Mass Effect 2’s “Brawler” achievement (shoot 20 enemies while they are knocked back by a punch) as the focus is then moved to the quantity rather than the quality of play, and the task quickly becomes tiresome. These achievements require more work than the others and for the player to actively seek them out, although it’s entirely possible to accidentally unlock headshot achievements, because everyone loves a good headshot.
It’s not just about getting the right mixture of these three achievement types, however. It’s also about implementing them in the way which best suits the game in question – if Minecraft XBLA asked you to create a building with 5000 blocks in it, the creativity element of the game is immediately undermined. Instead it encourages you to explore the world and build new, more exciting things like Nether portals, which in themselves require you to dig deep for diamond before locating lava and water falls to mine Obsidian. My favourite example of a game driven well by achievements is Eternal Sonata, which also happens to be my favourite game flat out.
Eternal Sonata is the only game I have completed all the achievements for. It’s a real time turn based JRPG set in the dying dreams of Frederic Chopin, and I loved every crazy second. Collecting the achievements was a monumental effort, requiring hours of forward thinking, several hand drawn maps and a lot of notes. It took me nearly 200 hours in total, the last 50 being covered within a 72 hour timeframe. It was also the most fun I had in 2011 while unemployed, because the achievements were exciting to work towards. 13 of the 22 were simple progression achievements – completing chapters and gaining party levels respectively, usually with a nasty boss at the end of each. 2 were collection based – score pieces and EZI items – and the rest were a combination of skill and exploration based achievements, given for finding hidden dungeons and defeating the incredibly powerful enemies within, or using riddles to lure out the pirates and then find their hidden treasure.
By hunting these achievements out, I found myself led to the most exciting and challenging areas of the game, areas that I might otherwise have missed. But! Is this bad game design? The potential to wander past the game’s best features? Not exactly. The achievements are well integrated with the gameplay, and the decision to use them as a driving force for the player allowed the developers to avoid anvil sized hints within a game built on mystery and revelation. The player is actively rewarded with hidden game content for seeking achievements – it’s no longer an arbitrary set of numbers, but an enhanced game experience.
You’re doing it wrong
It’s very easy to get it wrong, though. While Mass Effect is by far my favourite game series of all time, the achievements for the first game bordered on insane. Being a squad based third person shooter RPG, six of the achievements are based on having certain crew members in your squad for the entire duration of the game. As you can only have two people in your squad at any one time, this immediately mandates three complete playthroughs – every side mission, every assignment, with the relative squad member in tow. It doesn’t help that the game’s scale makes it very easy to not find all of the missions. The rest of the achievements are monotonous number based “Use X 150 times,” which require re-rolling as the character class which possesses the relevant move type or weapon. No matter how much you love Mass Effect, the achievements are a complete chore and bring nothing to the game whatsoever – an opportunity missed given the game is so broad in scope and has so many working variables.
Other design errors when it comes to achievement implementation include putting multiplayer achievements in what are primarily single player games – Fable II is incredibly guilty of this. With awful co-op and achievements which required having more than four friends who owned the game to exchange exclusive in-game world items, any attempt to earn a few G results in an okay game suddenly becoming awful. Sure, I’ll shoot fifty Gargoyles no problem, but I’m not playing doll swapsies over xboxLive, which very few of my friends who play this game even have. Because it’s a single player game. Which should not require xboxLive to complete. It’s not Call of Modern Battlefield.
It’s also possible for an achievement-crazed player to ruin a game for themselves through over-exposure. BioShock is one of the few first person shooters I was willing to suffer, wooed as I was by its beauty and pseudo-philosophy. Enamoured as I was, I decided to do an achievement run based on the enjoyment I garnered from my Eternal Sonata experience. Several hours later, as I snapped the last of the required photographs and found the final hidden Power to the People station, I found myself absolutely nauseated. Three achievements short of completion, I turned BioShock off because I has completely overdone it. Even thinking about it makes me feel a bit queasy – thanks to my obsessive, completionist nature I am literally sick of BioShock, one of the best games ever made. Following this experience I toned down my hunting and returned to playing games without thinking too hard about what I could be unlocking.
But this was a case of poor judgement on the part of me, the player, rather than anything to do with the achievement design. In a moment of madness I cared too much about finding everything, about doing everything, and it was to the detriment of my gaming experience. It’s in moments like these that achievement-oriented gamers need to be reminded that their Gamerscore doesn’t mean anything and that they run the risk of turning a fun experience into a chore – and turning one’s hobby into work is a risky business indeed.
When handled appropriately, achievements are a welcome addition to the gaming world. They challenge those who want more from their games, they give us extra milestones and visible rewards for our efforts. No one knows that I’ve completed Kingdom Hearts in its entirety, collecting every item and finding all the Trinities, but they would if it had been on the xbox360 or PS3. So it’s bragging rights too, and there is something nice about having added competitiveness in the gaming world for those who want to engage in it. It’s fun to compare scores, see what others have managed, ask them to give you tips or even just tell you about the experience. But all of this is very dependent on the achievements themselves actually being worthwhile. If no thought has been put into them, and if there isn’t a good progression : collection : skill ratio, it all begins to fall apart. Players get bored, completionists get frustrated, and there’s an opportunity missed by developers in terms of engaging customers with their product for longer. A bit of good design beyond the game will go a long way.