[In this opinion piece, originally published in Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers the implications of achievements in modern games, noting how and why these arguably insignificant rewards matter to players.
Like many others, I scoffed at the idea of achievements when they were introduced to the mainstream through Xbox Live. Now, there are times where I actually miss them in games where they're absent. This is especially true of games that are good, but need that extra push to be great. And more than that, if I'm going to try to suffer through something I actively dislike, such as Duke Nukem Forever
, I at least want my friends to be able to know about it.
This is a strange new relationship to have with electronic media. In the olden days, you'd have to send your high score in to a magazine via a screenshot in order to get any recognition for doing something spectacular in a game.
Now, with achievements and leaderboards, anyone can know that you got the "Seriously 2.0" award in Gears of War 2
(for killing 100,000 enemies). For many people this kind of reward is quite compelling, and just increasing the number of points they have in their gamerscore can be enough motivation to play a game.
But in my opinion, achievements just for the sake of achievements are not worthwhile. I like to see numbers go up as much as anyone -- but I want to feel that I've earned them. Receiving 200 points at chapter endings doesn't feel like something I've really achieved.
If I'm playing the game through, passing a chapter point is inevitable, if the game is fun. So how interesting is that, really? The more interesting achievements are those that encourage alternate paths or play styles, or reward exploration. But you have to do it right.
Recently I was playing Dungeon Siege 3
, a passable dungeon crawler with a middling story that I continued through because it got the loot mechanic right. Many of the achievements, rather than being secret, were visible to the player if they cared to look. This is fine, and in my case it compelled me to try to fulfill the requirements. But you have to be careful with even these, especially in how you describe them.
For example, in one Dungeon Siege 3
boss encounter you get an achievement for "defeating 50 automatons" before taking the boss down. I counted some 120 automatons defeated before I finished off the boss, just to be sure.
But I received no achievement. The game was not supplying me with the correct information or feedback, and I felt like I was getting cheated out of something. After jumping through the flaming hoops, I did not get the treat at the end of the performance. On the other hand, getting new rare loot was compelling enough on its own, and I didn't feel like I needed an achievement at all here. Getting a lightning-infused Spear of Magnificence was its own reward.
Then there are games like Dragon Age
. In this massive RPG, achievements encourage exploration of alternate narrative paths, leading players to more content that they otherwise might not see. They are actually partially responsible for improving (or extending) the player's experience. This also serves the developers' best interests, because it means less of their hard work will go unnoticed.
Now that we're all so used to these sorts of systems, what happens when we aren't provided with them? No Nintendo console has ever had a proper achievement system built in, and at times, I actually miss them. In Ghost Trick
, for example, you're moving linearly through an adventure, and achievements would necessarily be of the "progress" type, so achievements are unnecessary.
But in Monster Tale
, which is a smart beat-em-up combined with a monster raising sim, I've felt their absence. I can consistently get over 30 hit combos, for instance, which is somewhat difficult. It feels like I should be rewarded for that, or compelled to push myself further. Likewise, there are rare forms of monster you can raise, which I also felt warranted an extra award.
In the case of the combos, I simply wanted to show off. In the case of the monster raising, the new forms weren't sufficiently amazing on their own, and I felt I needed an extra reward. It seems that while achievements can't save a bad game, they can give a bit of a boost to game that's 80 percent of the way there.
If achievements are indeed extrinsic rewards, not an intrinsic part of the fun, this leads me down another path. Sony is starting to charge for its online experience in used games, giving download codes for newly-purchased titles, to discourage used game sales. EA gives bonus content to those who purchase games new.
What if platform holders universally decided that only purchasers of new games would have their gamerscores displayed, through a code entry, or some other such method? Would people still feel that achievements were extrinsic rewards? Would used game buyers feel cheated? This will likely never come to pass, but it's certainly food for thought.
As Nintendo prepares to release Wii U, the company is also reconsidering its online strategy. One wonders whether Wii U will continue to buck the achievement trend. Nintendo already lets you see the how often and how long you've played games on the 3DS and Wii, but doesn't let you share that information. Will Nintendo be the lone hold-out in the race to gamify the world? It seems an inevitable issue to address. Nintendo has the opportunity to provide, rather than arbitrary achievements, actual data about the games you've been playing.
This could be an even more meaningful achievement system of sorts, and one which wouldn't require developer implementation. When achievements move into hard data, I think the game will be changed for the better.