Achievement unlocked!

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Achievement unlocked!

The achievement system (formally introduced with the Xbox 360) has fundamentally changed the way we play games. Whether they’re called “achievements” or “trophies” or something else, the system is a mechanism which, if done properly, can add value to a gaming experience by increasing rewards and exposing gamers to content they might otherwise have missed out on. Further, gamers can (and are meant to) compare their achievements online with their peers and use them to win bragging rights. But for all the good that achievements can do, they’re a mechanism that are very easy to get wrong, and when they’re a requirement for developers (as they are on the Xbox 360), console manufacturers are creating a recipe for disaster.

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It should be noted that “achievements” as we understand them today are not a unique institution. Traditional “high score” achievements have been an essential feature implemented on most of the games made in the early ’90s and prior in the form of a high score table that is displayed to everyone in the room, though the “reward” was merely implied by the recognition of the player’s effort (a notable exception to this is when game companies would run promotions to reward high scores with tangible trophies, such as Activision’s patch giveaway or Nintendo Power’s high score contests). Non-traditional achievements such as completing an entire game without harming anyone or using only the weakest weapons available were rarely recognized at all within the games themselves, and were also difficult for gamers to boast about to others, since people required some context and prior understanding of the game.

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The addition of achievements and a “score” based on them changed all of that. Now, rewards could be given to players directly for good performance, all types of achievements were quantifiable, and everyone in the world would see your score attached to your name online–indicating whether you were a veteran gamer who could be a desirable wingman in a game ofHalo, or whether you’re an uncommitted casual who should be hunted down and farmed for easy kills in Battlefield. A gamer’s score became a part of their identity, and suddenly gamers were in a position where they were motivated to excel not just for the love of a game, but for some external incentives and a certain stake of their pride. A service even emerged that offered to boost GamerScores for a steep fee, demonstrating the irrational value the score has for many people.

When done right, achievements extend the life of a game and reduce the burden on developers of creating content by motivating players to fully explore everything a game has to offer. And while external rewards are optional on some platforms, others (such as the Xbox 360) have minimum requirements for the number of rewards and the total values conferred to the player upon achieving them. This requirement has led the vast majority of games to distribute their 5+ achievements in random or lazy ways (upon completion of levels or after beating the game on various difficulty settings). For gamers who are already given incentive to complete as many achievements as possible, this creates a litany of issues:

The types of bad achievements

  • Negative – “Die 10 times”
    These achievements motivate precisely the type of behavior rewards are meant to avoid. Developers began to offer these as cute “consolation prizes”, but gamers who want the full score will have to purposefully play poorly in order to collect these rewards.
  • Toxic – “Kill your teammates”
    A Turok game was criticized for a particular achievement that required a player to kill their own teammates in an online match. These types of achievements not only motivate the wrong behavior, but require trophy-hunting players to actively ruin everyone else’s experience. Similar offenders include “online winning streak” achievements that can be gamed by disconnecting from a match before losing.
  • Pointless – “Open your inventory”
    Achievements that reward routine behaviors required to play the game devalue every reward that is subsequently given. Further, they devalue the “currency” of the player’s score–if these things are just being handed out, why are they coveted or valuable?
  • Disruptive – “Found the secret hideout”
    This may be more of a personal peeve, but achievements are accompanied with a notifying sound and a large icon appearing on the screen. The jarring appearance of a colorful trophy can completely ruin the atmosphere and suggests to the player that they’re just playing a game instead of having an experience.
  • Scummy – “Completed all the DLC
    Often, achievements are tied to the completion of premium content that must be paid for in addition to the game itself. For gamers addicted to their scores or loyal to a game, this represents a cynical gouging from publishers.
  • Spoiler – “Defeat the traitor Judas”
    Many achievements are listed before they’re completed–after all, how would a player know what they need to do to earn their points? Unfortunately, some developers give achievements for completing end-game content that are named in such a way that ruin developments in the plot. Even when devs are careful, achievement lists distributed online may inadvertently spoil a plot point for a gamer who was just looking for a rundown of how to earn their rewards.
  • Infuriating – “Kill 100 enemies in under 10 seconds”
    This is the worst type of achievement if done incorrectly, because while it’s ostensibly rewarding exactly the sort of behavior a reward system should acknowledge, the goal is so difficult and the payoff in score is so tantalizing for some gamers that the result is a situation in which players will torture themselves. Nobody wins in this scenario; it’s rarely a good thing to make your customers angry (it should be mentioned that the best practice for impossibly difficult challenges is to set their value to 0 points to remove irrational incentives to complete them, though this seems to confuse gamers).
As our consoles become more connected through the internet, mechanisms such as achievements capitalize on the opportunity to build on (and socialize) the incentive and reward structures that were implemented in games of yore. Unlike many of the improvements to the user experience that the internet offers, however, achievements have for the most part served only to undermine the experience they were meant to support. John Dean from CVG UK takes this sentiment to its natural conclusion:

 

“Gaming wasn’t boring before achievements came around, so I don’t see any harm in waving goodbye to them now.”

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