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In the second part of his three-part series, PhD researcher and game designer Lucas Blair continues to present underpinnings in contemporary research which will help formulate best practices for designing in-game achievements.

Lucas Blair, Blogger

May 11, 2011

10 Min Read

[In the second part of his three-part series, PhD researcher and game designer Lucas Blair continues to present underpinnings in contemporary research which will help formulate best practices for designing in-game achievements. You can read part 1 here.]

Now, to recap. As I wrote in the original piece, 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.

Now, onward to the new content. In part two I will be covering the following concepts:

  • Expected vs. Unexpected Achievements

  • When Achievement Notification Occurs

  • Achievement Permanence

  • Who Can See Earned Achievements?

Expected vs. Unexpected Achievements

When a player earns an achievement, the notification they receive can come as a total surprise or as the finish line they were striving for. The expectation that a player has when starting a game stems from the design decision to let them know what they can achieve. Players either know what achievements can be earned before they play a game, or they come upon them unexpectedly during play. Expected and unexpected achievements have different effects on players and can both be utilized to improve player experience.

Expected achievements allow players to set goals for themselves before they begin. There are four well-established benefits to having players set goals for themselves. First, goals will allow the player to have objectives and allocate their resources to complete them. This could mean brushing up on certain skills, setting aside extra time, or asking a friend for help. Second, having a goal increases the amount of effort someone is willing to put into something. For game makers this will directly translate into more play time.

As someone who spent many hours pursuing the "Salty" meta-achievement in World of Warcraft -- in which a player must earn all fishing achievements -- I can personally attest to what time-sinks they can be.

Third, players who have goals are much more likely to not give up when facing a difficult task in a game, as compared to players without such goals who quit playing once the going gets too tough. Fourth, players who establish goals for themselves will acquire new knowledge and skills in order to meet those goals. This is also important to game makers, because those players who obtain new skills will in turn want to play your game more.

In addition to the benefits of goal-setting, expected achievements also allow players to create a schema, or a mental model, of gameplay before they begin. Players then refer to this schema in order to make sense of how the game is structured, and what actions they need to do in order to succeed. If a player purchases a new game and looks over all the achievements they can earn, they will develop a better understanding of the game itself. In fact, schema creation is often similarly used in training programs to help increase user performance.

On the other end of the spectrum are unexpected achievements. Unexpected achievements are relatively uncommon in video games, but can also have potential benefits to players. One such perk would be encouraging experimental play.

An extreme example of this strategy can be seen in the game Achievement Unlocked, in which players can earn quirky achievements for almost everything they do. Although the developers intended it to be a jab at the overuse of game achievements, Achievement Unlocked effectively illustrates the metagame that can be created through convincing players to run and jump around the screen randomly in hopes of earning all the mystery achievements.

Best Practice: Primarily use expected achievements so players can establish goals for themselves and create a schema of the game. Make sure achievement descriptions accurately reflect what needs to be done by the player and why it is important. Unexpected achievements can be used sparingly to encourage creative play.

When Achievement Notification Occurs

After an achievement is earned, the player must be made aware of their accomplishment. Players can be notified immediately while play is still ongoing, or after some amount of time has passed -- at a natural break in the action. The decision between using immediate and delayed notifications should be influenced by game type as well as the player's level of experience.

Achievement notifications that occur during play, like those in World of Warcraft, are a form of immediate feedback. Studies have shown that immediate feedback can improve learning and efficiency. This is especially important when using measurement achievements that directly relate to player performance.

It should be noted, however, that newer players will benefit more from this type of feedback than more experienced players. As players become more experienced, giving them increasingly delayed feedback will be more effective, as it gives them an opportunity to evaluate their own performance.

Another important consideration when giving players an achievement notification during play is the potential obtrusiveness of the alert itself. A disruptive alert could break the player's flow state, or what they often call "the zone", with unfavorable results.

When in a state like this, the outside world melts away, time becomes irrelevant, and focus is increased -- this is probably a common experience you've experienced when you play your favorite game.

Players who are in a flow state have increased motivation to continue playing and experience more enjoyment, so disrupting this sensation with an in-your-face achievement may not be ideal.

In order to avoid distracting the player, games that require a lot of mental muscle (such as those in the RTS genre) will delay when they notify the player about earned achievements. Games like StarCraft which have clearly-defined play sessions tend to give players achievement notification after a natural break in play.

These types of notifications also have the benefit of acting like delayed feedback, which has been shown to produce increased retention when learning something new. So a player who performs an action for the first time in a new game and recognized for it a little while after the fact is more likely to remember how to perform it in future game sessions.

Best Practice: For games with no clear break in play, give immediate feedback with an unobtrusive popup accompanied by a longer explanation available after play. For games with clearly defined play sessions and those that require a greater deal of concentration it is better to use delayed notification. Try to give new players immediate feedback and give more experienced players delayed feedback.

Achievement Unlocked

Achievement Permanence

Long after a player earns an achievement, they may want to reflect on the experience. Permanent achievements allow players to relive their former glory while impermanent ones exist only when the player is first notified.

Permanent achievements come in two varieties: digitally tangible and stored lists. These terms basically reflect the difference between the reward you get for earning an achievement and a catalogued description of the achievement. The tangibility of a digital item is an abstract concept, because the item only exists in a virtual world. However, an item that is "digitally tangible", like a pet or a tabard given as a reward, can be manipulated by the player and admired by others just like a physical reward.

Be careful: if all of the same rules that apply to rewards in the real world apply to rewards in a digital one, there should be some concern about the overuse of digitally tangible rewards. Rewards have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation (one's natural desire to do something), lower the player's sense of self-determination, and decrease the likelihood that a player will return to a task.

Stored lists of earned achievements, on the other hand, like those featured on Xbox Live, allow players to reflect on their accomplishments long after they have earned them. The act of reflecting on past events will give the players a greater understanding of the experience through recall.

Temporary achievements, like the phrases "Unstoppable" or "God-Like" in first person shooters, amount to verbal reinforcements. Unlike tangible achievements, these verbal boosts increase intrinsic motivation and do not infringe on the player's sense of self determination. After the notification is gone, any record of the achievement disappears.

Best Practice: Give players the opportunity to go over their earned achievements using some kind of stored list. Digitally tangible rewards are a great incentive, but won't keep the player around after the reward is earned.

Who Can See Earned Achievements?

Achievements that a player has earned are often visible to others in single player and multiplayer games. What information is shared varies by game. Some games take the decision out of the player's hands. These mandatory systems make an individual's achievements an open book. Player-defined achievement settings, like those in FarmVille and StarCraft II, give the player the ability to decide what they want to share.

Social approval is a big part of why people play video games. Making earned achievements visible to others will encourage players to earn them for recognition. Social recognition has been shown to have a positive effect on performance when used as an incentive.

Making earned achievements visible also gives the player's peers the opportunity to see the reward and decide if they want it for themselves. Striving for and eventually earning those rewards will improve their self-efficacy, their belief that they can accomplish other in-game tasks.

Having visible achievements can also act like a gaming resumé. Another player's earned achievements might reveal that they would make a good teammate or someone to ask for help.

Earned achievements that are visible to the community have potential downsides, however. Earned achievements that act as a resumé, as discussed above, can have the unintended consequence of excluding players.

This phenomenon often takes place in MMOs, where players ask potential teammates to link a completed achievement before allowing them to participate in game events. This creates a Catch-22 situation, where players must have experience in order to gain experience. Another problem with relying on social recognition as a motivator is that it is not a good predictor of future performance, once the recognition has been doled out or is no longer available.

Best Practice: Making earned achievements viewable to other players is a powerful incentive. To prevent players from being excluded because of their lack of experience, create achievements for players who take other players under their wing. Let players display a few achievements they are proud of to increase motivation and highlight their play style.

This is a multi-part article series: Part 1, Part 3

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

Kulik, J. A., & Kulik, C. C. (1988). Timing of feedback and verbal learning. Review of Educational Research, 58(1), 79-97.

Schooler, L.J. and Anderson, J.R. (1990). The disruptive potential of immediate feedback. The Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Cambridge, MA.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15(3), 41-63.

Fu, F., Su, R., & Yu, S. (2009). EGameFlow: A scale to measure learners' enjoyment of e-learning games. Computers & Education, 52(1), 101-112.

Metcalfe, J., Kornell, N., & Finn, B. (2009). Delayed versus immediate feedback in children's and adults' vocabulary learning. Memory & Cognition, 37(8), 1077-1087.

Greene, D., & Lepper, M. R. (1974). Effects of extrinsic rewards on children's subsequent intrinsic interest. Child Development, 45, 1141-1145.

Dickinson, A. M. (1989). The detrimental effects of extrinsic reinforcement on 'intrinsic motivation.'. The Behavior Analyst, 12(1), 1-15.

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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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