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The Cake Is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements, Part 3

In the final installment of his series on how achievements affect players, Lucas Blair presents five new areas of study: Negative Achievements, Achievements as Currency, Incremental and Meta-Achievements, Competitive Achievements, and Non-competitive Cooperative Achievements.

Lucas Blair, Blogger

May 25, 2011

12 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, and part 2 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.

In the first two installments of this series, the topics were mostly conceptual and covered a wide range of material including performance measurement, player motivation, and information presentation. For part three, I will be tying up a few loose ends by discussing some specific types of achievements and the potential consequences of their use.

In part three I will be covering the following concepts:

  • Negative Achievements

  • Achievements as Currency

  • Incremental and Meta-Achievements

  • Competitive Achievements

  • Non-competitive Cooperative Achievements

Negative Achievements

Most achievements are given to a player after they have done something noteworthy and positive. However, some achievements are given to players for a notable performance at the other end of the spectrum. When a player fails epically, they may earn a negative achievement. Examples of negative achievements include the Command & Conquer 3 achievement "awarded" to a player who loses a ranked game to someone 20 places below them in the official rankings, and the "Getting My Ass Kicked" trophy for repeatedly dying in PS3's God of War.

Negative achievements are the digital equivalent of pouring salt on a wound. Earning this type of achievement can cause players to lose their sense of competence and independence, which will make the game they are playing feel less fulfilling. If players know that there are negative achievements in the game, they will try their hardest to avoid them. Avoidance goals that are constantly in the back of the player's mind can be tiring and will make the overall experience less enjoyable.

Negative achievements can also make design flaws in the game a double whammy. Someone who dies repeatedly due to poor level design or a broken mechanic is not going to take a "you suck" achievement in stride. The player's response will be to blame the game and not themselves.

Best practice: Don't use negative achievements. Provide feedback within the system that can assist struggling players.

Achievements as Currency

Earned achievements could be used as virtual currency in games. Players may receive such currency in the form of points, coins, or stars, and later use them to purchase in-game items or real world objects. Microstransaction-driven games like League of Legends sometimes also have an alternative currency that is earned through gameplay.

Achievements are an obvious choice for a metric when giving out virtual currency. They are memorable moments, with defined requirements, that are already important to players. Using achievements as currency, however, may have a wide range of effects on players.

There is a great deal of research on giving money as an incentive for performance. Monetary rewards have greater returns on task performance than tangible rewards. This is probably due to the fact that acquiring currency allows a player to decide what they want to purchase with it. This takes the responsibility of choosing an appropriate reward out of the hands of designers.

School systems have recently used monetary rewards with some success. In some cases class attendance, test scores, and even the likelihood of attending college all improved when monetary rewards were offered. Other studies reported similar increased accomplishment, but only when rewards were tied to inputs rather than outputs. This means that students were rewarded for things like the amount of time they spent studying, but not directly for getting a particular grade. The idea being that if students are paid for good behaviors, the grades will take care of themselves.

The other side of the argument concerning currency is the same one that is often made against tangible rewards. Currency rewards have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation for the recipients of the reward. Players will end up caring about the reward system more than the game itself. More than one game company has exploited this kind of reward system in order to keep players strung out on boring tasks. Currency systems, like other reward programs, may also lower player creativity by inadvertently encouraging a hyper focus on the reward path.

Best practice: Offer players currency for completing tasks instead of rewards to give them a greater sense of control. Use a currency system to enhance a game, but don't attempt to make currency acquisition the main reason players engage in an activity.

Incremental and Meta-Achievements

Most of the time achievements are earned for completing a single task. Incremental and meta-achievements, however, are given for completing more than one task.

Incremental achievements are awarded in a chain for performing the same task through scaling levels of difficulty. Examples of incremental achievements are killing 250, 500, and 1000 enemies in an FPS, and earning different colored ribbons in FarmVille.

Meta-achievements are earned for completing a series of achievements that are for different tasks, for instance earning the title of "Chef" by completing all cooking-related achievements in World of Warcraft.

Both incremental and meta-achievements can be used as a type of scaffolding, a "training wheels" approach used in teaching. Here, players are given a rather seemingly complex task to do, only it's broken up into smaller pieces and sequenced like a training program.

Breaking the task up into pieces also has the side-benefit of helping players create a schema about how the more complex task is structured.

Incremental and meta-achievements usually take extended periods of time to complete. This is similar to long-term incentive programs. These types of programs have been shown to elicit greater performance gains than short-term programs, which give rewards for single actions. Another benefit of these types of long-term goals is that players will spend more time in the game trying to complete them.

These types of achievements, however, can have a potential downside. If players feel like they are only following a trail of breadcrumbs with little self-direction they may lose their sense of autonomy. The number of achievements, the spacing between them, and the amount of challenge each one provides are important things to keep in mind.

Best Practice: Use these types of achievements to hold the player's interest for longer periods of time and guide them to related activities. Make the spacing between incremental achievements, both in time and physical location, separated enough so that players don't feel too controlled.

Competitive Achievements

Competitive achievements require players to face off with one another in either direct confrontations or indirectly through their scores on solo tasks. This type of achievement can be completed individually or in teams where members work together to defeat other groups of players.

Some research indicates that competition can increase overall enjoyment and attitude towards a given task. Being successful in a competition has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation by influencing a person's perception of their own competence, and such competitive environments have also demonstrated increased performance on simple repetitive tasks.

Computer science classes in particular have noted success in their implementation of competition to make classes more interesting.

Although some studies have seen positive results from the implementation of competitive environments, other studies indicate that under certain circumstances competition should be avoided.

More often than not, competitive environments have a tendency to impede the learning process. This is in part due to the egocentric behavior that competitive environments often induce, which in turn make people less likely to help one another. Competition has also been shown to have a negative effect on the self-efficacy of learners. This makes players rate themselves and their teammates more harshly, especially when they lose.

Players who have a higher level of skill are more likely to enjoy competitive achievements and be less affected by the negative aspects. They will be at a place where the game is familiar to them and will not be as stressed out with the addition of competition.

Another consideration is the motivation of the individual players. Players that are high in achievement motivation enjoy competitive tasks to a greater extent and have more intrinsic interest than their counterparts who are low in achievement motivation. Gamers in general may have a higher overall achievement motivation, which can also vary depending on the game type. It is important to understand your target demographic and give players what they are most comfortable with.

Best Practice: If competitive achievements are used in a game, make them available only after players are comfortable with gameplay and no longer learning the ropes.

Non-Competitive Cooperative Achievements

Cooperative achievements are earned by players working towards a goal together in a game. These types of achievements are most common in multi-player games where players can interact with peers. The achievements can be rewards for group tasks like killing a monster, or built into multiplayer games to encourage teamwork, like earning 1000 assisted kills in a first person shooter.

Most research supports the use of cooperative environments to improve performance. Cooperative settings have been associated with academic achievement, increased self-esteem, and higher positivity when evaluating peers. Incentive programs that require teamwork have a greater effect on performance than those that can be accomplished by an individual.

Another great benefit of working cooperatively is that it gives players a wider range of goals that they may not be able to complete on their own. To facilitate this, achievements should encourage veteran players to engage with those less experienced.

The sidekick system in City of Heroes is a great example of this. Research shows that people who are protégés in businesses have a greater promotion rate and more job satisfaction than individuals who were not mentored. The mentors also benefit from these types of systems by seeing their own performance and social status increased.

Although cooperation has many benefits, there are some risks associated with this type of environment. One risk is attitude polarization in groups, which often leads to more cautious or risky decision-making as a whole. In these instances, team members will collectively make poor decisions they otherwise wouldn't if given the opportunity to decide by themselves.

Another problem that can affect groups is process loss, which can take place if the additional workload from coordinating communication and assisting others hinders group performance. The communication difficulties that can cause process loss could be accentuated in games because of the limitation of the available technology. A good example of this takes place during raids in MMOs, when some group members do not have access to voice chat.

Another problem caused by group size is social loafing. This is a problem in larger groups where an individual's performance is hidden and they will put forth less effort.

Best practice: To foster a cooperative environment, offering achievements for more advanced players to assist less experienced players is an option. The groups for cooperative achievements should be kept relatively small to decrease social loafing and process loss. The metrics used for earning achievements should assess individual performances within the group setting.

This literature review has hopefully shed some light on a pretty complex subject that I think deserves quite a bit more research. One of the difficulties of this sort of review is that we are borrowing research from multiple fields of study, and bending it to fit our needs as game designers.

To remedy some of the murkiness surrounding a few of the topics, RETRO lab is currently running studies on specific aspects of the taxonomy in order to strengthen the case for achievement design. These studies swap different types of achievements in games and then evaluate how each can affect players, examining factors such as amount of enjoyment and time spent playing.

As findings from the studies become available our lab will be sure to keep the gaming community informed of any significant findings. Thanks for all the comments and discussion over the past few weeks. I hope the debate over achievement design continues and that these articles have at the very least been a catalyst for discussion.

A special thanks to Dr. Clint Bowers for the guidance, as well as, James Bohnsack, Katie Procci, and the rest of RETRO Lab for all the help.

This is a multi-part article series: Part 1, Part 2

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

Deci, E. L., & Cascio, W. F. (1972, April). Changes in intrinsic motivation as a function of negative feedback and threats. Paper presented at the meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association, Boston.

Stajkovic, A. D., & Luthans, F. (2001). Differential effects of incentive motivators on work performance. Academy of Management Journal, 44(3), 580-590.

Condly, S., Clark, R. E., and Stolovitch, H. S. (2003). The effects of incentives on workplace performance: A meta-analytic review of research studies. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 16(3), 46–63.

Fryer, Roland. 2010a. Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials. Working paper, Harvard University.

Amabile, T. M., Hennessey, B. A., & Grossman, B. S. (1986). Social influences on creativity: The effects of contracted-for reward. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(1), 14-23.

Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (1996). Elements of the competitive situation that affect intrinsic motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(1), 24-33.

Lam, S., Yim, P., Law, J. F., & Cheung, R. Y. (2004). The effects of competition on achievement motivation in Chinese classrooms. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(2), 281-296.

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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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