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The Cake Is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements

In this first in a new series of articles, PhD researcher and game designer Lucas Blair uses academic research to formulate best practices for designing in-game achievements.

Lucas Blair, Blogger

April 27, 2011

11 Min Read

[In this first in a new series of articles, PhD researcher and game designer Lucas Blair uses academic research to formulate best practices for designing in-game achievements.]

Achievements are a hot topic in the gaming industry. Player feelings toward them range from obsession to indifference and designers seem equally torn over their use. Controversial or not, achievements appear to be here to stay, so designers need to learn to utilize them to their fullest potential. Achievements, if they are intended to have a positive effect on players, must be a forethought, and not an afterthought, during the game design process.

In many cases they are carelessly tacked on to a game after it is already close to completion. Unfortunately, the benefits of a carefully-crafted game mechanic can be undermined by attaching a poorly-designed achievement to it.

Alternatively, if achievements are designed in the same manner as other aspects of games, they can be used to improve the player's experience and the overall quality of a game.

There is an established body of scientific study covering a wide range of topics, which should guide the design of achievements. In this article series, I will be sharing a taxonomy of achievement design features created by deconstructing how achievements are currently used in games.

The goal of this exercise is to distill mechanisms of action out of achievement designs, which have been shown by research to affect performance, motivation, and attitudes.

This taxonomy, although intended to be comprehensive, is likely to be subject to debate and future revisions. For the time being however, I think it is a good jumping off point for a discussion that must be had if we are to ever effectively harness the potential of achievements.

In part one I will be covering the following concepts:

  • Measurement Achievements

  • Completion Achievements

  • Boring vs. Interesting Tasks

  • Achievement Difficulty

  • Goal Orientation

Measurement vs. Completion Achievements

The first branch in the taxonomy contrasts Measurement and Completion achievements, which describe two distinct conditions under which we reward players for their actions.

Measurement achievements are given to players for completing a task to a certain degree. Their performance can be measured against another player's performance, their own performance, or some standard set by game designers.

An example of this would be the star rating used in Angry Birds, which gives the player a number of stars based upon how well they beat the level. A measurement achievement can be likened to feedback, because it is evaluative in nature. The literature regarding the use of feedback in training and education indicates that feedback is beneficial to players because it allows them to reflect on their performance in relation to goals they have set for themselves.

This reflection increases the player's perception of competence, which in turn increases, their intrinsic motivation -- a term used to describe a task one finds inherently rewarding. That increase in perceived competence could also mediate the negative effects of other design decisions, like overusing rewards, which decrease intrinsic motivation.

On the other hand, completion achievements do not tell the player how well they've performed the task; instead they are offered as an award once a task is completed. Completion achievements can be split into two subcategories: performance contingent achievements and non-performance contingent achievements. Performance contingent achievements require skill to complete while non-performance contingent achievements are awarded for simply being present.

Performance contingent completion achievements, like those received for finishing a dungeon for the first time in World of Warcraft, can be better understood by reviewing what we know about the use of rewards as an extrinsic motivator. Some incentive programs have been shown to have a significant positive effect on task performance. However these types of rewards can decrease a player's sense of autonomy, especially when given in excess. This decreased sense of autonomy leads to lower intrinsic motivation.

Rewards also create an artificial ceiling for performance at the reward threshold. Once players have earned the reward, they are unlikely to continue on with the task that they were persuaded to do. For game developers this translates into the replay value of their game. Using rewards makes players less likely to take risks as they do not want to hurt their chances of being rewarded. This is especially relevant to rewards used in video games where designers wish to encourage creative and experimental play.

Non-performance contingent achievements, like earning a tabard or a pet for attending an in-game event, have no negative effect on intrinsic motivation. However these types of rewards do not have a performance measure, so players are unlikely to be interested in earning them unless they are paired with some sort of social reinforcement.

Best practice: Use measurement achievements instead of completion achievements to increase intrinsic motivation through feedback.

Boring vs. Interesting Tasks

Achievements are earned for the completion of a task or series of tasks. These required actions will fall on a spectrum ranging from boring to exciting from the player's perspective. If a task is boring the reward structure associated with it has to be different from tasks that are inherently interesting to the player.

Boring tasks (such as trade skills in MMOs) can be paired with extrinsic motivators, like achievements, in order for players to engage in them. Because players are not inclined to do these tasks on their own, intrinsic motivation is unaffected by the use of rewards as an incentive.

There are two common strategies used to motivate people to engage in dull task. The first strategy is to make the player aware of the inherent value of the task through the wording of the achievement.

An example of this would be the "Lifesaver" achievement in Deadliest Catch: Sea of Chaos, which is given for rescuing a crewmember. The use of the term "Lifesaver" implies that the task is important because you are helping others.

The second strategy is to add additional rules or fantasy to the task itself, which is what all achievements do at their most basic level.

Interesting tasks which the player would engage in without any form of additional motivation do not need to be reinforced with rewards. Players will engage in these tasks without any coaxing, so achievements (especially those that are completion achievements) should be used sparingly.

Instead of trying to create artificial interest in a task the achievements should be attentional, in that they focus the player's attention on important lessons or strategies for the task. This could improve player performance by scaffolding "hints" about what the most effective strategy is.

A good example of this would be the achievement "The Flying Heal Bus" in StarCraft II, which leads players to utilize a specific unit more effectively.

Best practice: Reward players for boring tasks and give them feedback for interesting ones. Make achievements for interesting tasks attentional.

Achievement Difficulty

The difficulty of achievements is addressed twice by designers. First, the actual difficulty of achievements needs to be on a level that is attainable but challenging to the players. Second, a player's self-efficacy for the task(s) associated with the achievement must be high enough that they feel confident in attempting it.

Achievements should provide challenging goals for players to fulfill as moderate difficulty leads to superior gains in performance and a greater sense of accomplishment upon completion. However, achievements that are too difficult will not even be attempted by players. However, those that are too easy will be completed quickly, and won't provide an adequate challenge. A common strategy to keep in-games tasks interesting is to provide alternative objectives for those players who have reached a mastery level of performance.

Player self-efficacy (which refers to an individual's perception about their own ability to produce a desired result for a specific task) is another important factor that game designers must consider. Increasing player self-efficacy is important because it has been linked to increased goal commitment, increased strategy creation and use, and a more positive response to negative feedback.

There are four factors that designers can address in order to affect a player's self-efficacy. The first is their level of expertise on the subject matter. This is another important reason to make sure there are achievements available for players at all skill levels.

Seeing people around you succeed -- or vicarious experience -- is the second factor that influences self-efficacy. This effect is likely to be particularly powerful if the person being observed appears to be at the same ability level of the observer. Examples of utilizing this in games are leaderboards for online games or the "brags" in systems like OnLive.

Social persuasion (giving someone a verbal boost) is the third method of influencing self-efficacy. This can be as simple as telling someone "good job" after a performance or the "50 NOTE STREAK!" messages that appear in Guitar Hero. How a person feels is the fourth factor, which includes stress level, emotional condition, and perceived physical state.

Best practice: Make achievements challenging for the greatest returns in player performance and enjoyment. Phrase achievements and design interactions to increase player self-efficacy.

Goal Orientation

A player's goal orientation must be considered when designing achievements as it will influence how they experience a game through goals they set for themselves. There are two types of goal orientation which are commonly referred to as performance orientation and mastery orientation. Players who favor a performance orientation are concerned with other people's assessment of their competence. Players who have a mastery orientation are concerned more with improving their proficiency.

Games tend to push players toward a performance orientation as they are constantly emphasizing direct goals like time and points earned. Unfortunately, players who gravitate toward this type of orientation take fewer in-game risks and spend less time exploring, afraid that doing so might affect their score.

This occurs frequently in first person shooters where players use the same weapons and tactics over and over again because they think it is the best way to optimize their kill to death ratio. However, research has shown that when individuals are given performance oriented goals they typically perform better only with simple, non-complex tasks.

To balance out player predisposition towards performance orientation designers must actively try to instill mastery orientation in the goals and feedback they create. There are several benefits associated with having a mastery orientation.

Players who have this mindset will accept errors and seek challenging tasks that provide them the opportunity to develop their competencies. When given mastery goals players will have higher self-efficacy and utilize more effective strategies. Research has also shown that people given mastery oriented goals perform better on complex tasks.

To help foster this type of orientation designers should create achievements that acknowledge the effort players are putting forth and support them during challenges. Games should treat errors and mistakes the players make as an opportunity to provide diagnostic feedback and encouragement.

The names and wording of achievements are very important when trying to effectively communicate this. For example Heavy Rain's "So Close..." trophy, which is given to players for reaching, yet failing, the completion of a difficult task, could be seen as encouragement and recognition of effort.

In contrast, a similar achievement in Guitar Hero III, named "Blowing It", is titled in such a way that it could be perceived as discouraging.

Best practice: For complex tasks requiring creativity or complicated strategies try to instill a mastery orientation. For simple or repetitive tasks instill a performance orientation. Try to keep new players, who are still learning how to play, in a mastery orientation.

This article series continues: Part 2, Part 3

For more information on these topics check out the following sources:

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985b). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1-27.

Eisenberger, R., & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of reward: Reality or myth? American Psychologist, 51(11), 1153-1166.

Lepper, M. R., & Gilovich, T. (1982). Accentuating the positive: Eliciting generalized compliance from children through activity-oriented requests. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(2), 248-259.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.

Bandura, A. (1999). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. In R. F. Baumeister, R. F. Baumeister (Eds.) , The self in social psychology (pp. 285-298). New York, NY US: Psychology Press.

Seijts, G. H., Latham, G. P., Tasa, K., & Latham, B. W. (2004). Goal Setting and Goal Orientation: An Integration of Two Different Yet Related Literatures. Academy of Management Journal, 47(2), 227-239.

Winters, D., & Latham, G. P. (1996). The effect of learning versus outcome goals on a simple versus a complex task. Group & Organization Management, 21(2), 236-250.

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About the Author(s)

Lucas Blair


Lucas Blair is a game designer and PhD. candidate in Modeling and Simulation at the University of Central Florida. His research on the use of achievements to enhance player performance, self-efficacy, and motivation has been a convenient excuse to play games all day.

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