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Unlocking Achievements: Rewarding Skill With Player Incentives

Where did in-game achievement mania come from? Gamasutra talks to Naughty Dog, Infinity Ward, EA, Turn 10 and more to find what works, and what doesn't in the world of player achievements.

Mary Jane Irwin, Blogger

April 1, 2009

13 Min Read

As soon as the Flash game Achievement Unlocked loads, praise flashes across the screen. Congratulations, you have an uncanny ability to stand still. Another notice pops up to say, good work, you've figured out how to move left. And look, you've successfully skewered your elephant on the spikes below. High five!

As the game aptly illustrates, the video game industry's rush to adopt these miracles of user engagement has left a slew of hasty implementations in its wake.

No one wants a pat on the back for simply going through the motions; it makes the whole notion of achievements meaningless. It may once have worked for King Kong, but after gamers sapped those 1,000 points there was no reason for them to return to the title.

There is a better way to incorporate achievements into games.

Parlor Tricks

Regardless of whether you call them achievements, trophies, badges, medals, or whatever, these digital rewards act best as incentives for gamers to finish games, try out new features and modes of play, and experiment with the offered tools.

When deployed skillfully, achievements keep players engaged. They foster community. They are a reason to play new games. They're a new metric to prove game mastery. Hell, achievements are the new high score.

There is also evidence that they improve sales. Xbox 360 games that distribute their 1,000-point allotment across more than seven achievements sell markedly better than games with fewer achievements (although there is a correlation between a high number of achievements and big game budgets), reported Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) in September 2008.

"Ignore Accomplishments at your own peril," cautioned EEDAR's expose. "On the Xbox 360, game titles that have a larger quantity and wider diversity of Accomplishment types simply sell better."

This phenomenon is not exclusive to console games. Badges appeared in the casual space as a daily incentive to visit Web portals before Microsoft co-opted them for Xbox Live.

It was Microsoft, however, that took achievements mainstream.

They were a way to add stickiness to the community and the console, explains Aaron Greenberg, director of product management for Microsoft's Xbox division. "We never anticipated this reaction... where there are achievement fan sites and people playing games that they would never play [for the achievement points]."

Achievements are also driving incremental game sales on the Xbox 360, says Greenberg. He points out that the console's attach rate of eight games per system is the highest, ever, for any platform.

Achievements, he says, are a big part of that.

So far Xbox Live players have unlocked 2.5 billion achievements and racked up a collective Gamerscore of 52 billion points, reports Greenberg. That's almost 150 achievements per Xbox Live member.

Thanks to Microsoft's achievement success, these incentive systems have spread across consoles, handhelds, mobile devices and social networking platforms.

And without the overarching achievements concept, Justin Hall's experimental Passively Multiplayer Online Game (now called Nethernet) would not even exist. The game capitalizes on gamers' compulsion for the web -- players earn achievements while they surf.

The Call of Achievements

Achievements are "like a topping on a pizza," explains Robert Bowling, community manager at Infinity Ward. They enhance the gameplay experience and reward dedicated players for their effort and skill.

That is why unlocking all the potential points in a Call of Duty game is such a grueling process. They are badges of honor -- particularly achievements like "Mile High Club," says Bowling.

Only 2.8 percent of the 10 million Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare players who have ever logged into Xbox Live have earned the achievement, which is awarded for completing COD4 on veteran difficulty.

Achievements like "Mile High Club" should be rare -- perhaps only one per game, Bowling explains. "It is one of the hardest achievements to achieve and you lose some of that weight when they are all that hard. It would be more frustrating than fun."

Players, however, complained that the achievements in Call of Duty 2 were too difficult to obtain, says Call of Duty 4 lead designer Zeid Rieke. All but three of the 13 achievements had to be completed on veteran difficulty. So the studio compromised for COD4.

"It's really nice to get a pop-up every hour or two saying that you've done something cool," says Rieke. That's why the team ensured achievements were more evenly spread throughout COD4. Points should not be given away, he says, but the player should naturally unlock them as he progresses through the game.

"The trick is you want to constantly feel like you're being rewarded," says Bowling. At least 60 percent of achievements should be achievable by the average player on one play through. That's why COD4 has achievements for consistent headshots and knife throws -- it rewards players for developing their skills.

Infinity Ward also wanted to highlight creative play. If someone found and used a rocket-propelled grenade to down an approaching helicopter, he unlocked the achievement "Bird on the Ground." "Daredevil" was awarded to players who, blinded by a flashbang, still managed to kill an enemy. These rewards, says Rieke, inspire players to try new things.

While incentives are important tools, Infinity Ward is conscious of achievement mania. That is why it chose to only distribute achievement points throughout the single player campaign.

Other games with robust multiplayer modes have been plagued by achievement whores who hijack bouts so they can complete incentivized goals, rather than the goals of that game instance. Since COD4 is team-centric, Infinity Ward thought adding achievements to online play would end up ruining the experience for all.

Skate This Way

Achievements can also act like traffic cops, directing players toward new features they might not otherwise experience.

The Skate team at Electronic Arts built a robust community site, Skate.Reel, for its game but worried players would not naturally gravitate to the site. It used achievements to drive players to the web by rewarding the uploading of Skate session photos and videos.

EA Black Box's Skate

But some of these online achievements -- designed to goad players into joining the community -- were too far removed from the game. "Skate Celebrity," which was unlocked after your photo or footage was reviewed 20 times by other gamers, was entirely outside of the player's control.

"It wasn't necessarily fair," says Skate 2 Producer Brian Lindley. Players complained that the game's achievements were generally too difficult to get. "In retrospect, we had too many online achievements in the original Skate. It was a hard lesson."

When Skate 2 rolled around, the team decided it would spread the achievements more evenly throughout the experience, and it would be a bit more generous when it came to giving them away.

"For a game like ours, where it's a big open world and a lot of stuff to do... If a player has played through all the paths of the career, they should walk away with 400 points," says Lindley. But to get the full 1,000 points, players will have to complete every challenge in the game.

Uncharted Territory

Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was among the first PlayStation 3 games to adopt trophies, Sony's incentive system. "When we released the patch [that made Uncharted trophy compatible], it drove people back to the game," recalls Lead Designer Richard Lemarchand.

People, he says, delight in earning trophies. They are a fairly simple idea, but they add an extra, fun flavor to games. They can potentially reward all sorts of play styles, from exploration and speed runs to total mastery. And they are a way to chronicle your accomplishments in the game.

"We had 48 trophies in Uncharted," says Lemarchand. "We saw how much players enjoyed them, and it got us excited about applying ourselves more seriously to the design of our trophy system and trying to find trophies that are unique and really attention-grabbing. That's what we're doing right now [brainstorming trophies for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves]."

Lemarchand worries that the quest for trophies may drive some players into play styles that are not a natural fit for them -- they could end up completing tasks that negatively affect their experience with the game.

On the other hand, he says, it could break habits and preconceptions.

The most compelling trophies are those that are a benchmark of player skill that test their combat or traversing prowess, says Lemarchand. One of his personal favorites was the trophy "Dyno-Might!" that was awarded for killing three enemies with a single grenade.

"You would sometimes get it by accident, but when it gave me the best feeling was when I did it on purpose -- whether by clever evaluation or because the stars aligned."

Sony/Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

These displays of skill carry more weight in the public sphere than those that commemorate a player reaching an arbitrary checkpoint, says Lemarchand.

"This whole world of incentives, of public awards for things that players have done in the course of their unique experience of the game, is a jumping off point for a whole new world of game design," says Lemarchand.

"It has to do with games becoming more social through connectivity and games breaking out of the constraints that they have had historically... We are fundamentally social creatures, and fundamentally playful creatures. Most everyone has that urge to be part of a social group -- to be seen in a social group."

Trophies embody that spirit.

Get Social

If you are under the impression that achievements, trophies and so forth are solely a core gamer pursuit, know now that you are mistaken. Badges are responsible for the compulsive, daily visits to casual game portals like Pogo.com.

There is, however, a difference between the two worlds. Console achievements are generally tied to specific goals (like completing a level or killing a certain number of villains), explains Juan Gril, studio manager at casual game developer Joju Games.

Casual achievements are easier to come by -- say, by playing a game 20 times or by wasting a few hours gaming on a holiday. In comparison, they usually aren't hard to achieve, he adds.

"You have to be clever in how you plan achievements," explains Gril. "The most important thing is you have to be sure that the achievements allow the player to really explore your game." He emphasizes making use of all of the game's components -- distributing them across both single and multiplayer modes.

Your reward system should not rely on points, he says. Rewards should also be visually interesting, so players want to keep them in their collection (if tied to a Pogo-like service). Clever and descriptive names are important too, as they will help generate conversations about the achievements and, in turn, the game.

Another main difference is that casual achievements -- similar to Sony's trophies -- are all about displaying your accomplishments rather than bragging about your overall Gamerscore. This culture is propagated by countless time-exclusive badges. It is not unusual, says Gril, for casual games to release new badges each month.

Lap Counting

Turn 10 Studios uses achievements as a visual snapshot of a player's progress through a game. With one look, friends, rivals, and developers can tell how far a player is in career mode or how many cars he has bought.

Microsoft/Turn 10 Studios' Forza Motorsport 2

Achievements have also driven traffic to areas of Forza Motorsport that otherwise might be overlooked, says Bill Giese, senior game designer at Turn 10.

"It can be a double-edged sword -- you don't want players to get an achievement just for entering a screen but you also don't want to force them to spend countless hours in a feature."

Instead, you want to create an achievement at the point where you've shown players why a feature is fun and hope that they'll continue to spend time in that area of the game even after they've received the achievement.

Beyond appeasing the desire to boost Gamerscore, Giese says achievement points have become an important data set for understanding a game's most attractive features -- Turn 10 will use the gleaned info to improve its next game.

Normally the development team would not have access to that kind of data, explains Zeid Rieke, lead designer on Call of Duty 4.

Achievements have taught Infinity Ward a lot about the people who play its games. The most stunning stat was that 30 percent of the players who logged onto Xbox Live skipped the single player campaign entirely.

What Not to Do

No one wants to point fingers at games that do achievements badly, but there is consensus about what to avoid.

Don't make lame achievements. Rewarding players for collecting 1,000 baubles is neither fair nor interesting to the player, says Naughty Dog's Richard Lemarchand.

Don't reward failure. Don't hand out "anti-achievements" to players for doing things badly -- or for accomplishments that are not achievements at all, says Robert Bowling at Infinity Ward.

Players don't want to be struggling through a level and end up with a reward for losing a number of times in a row, agrees Zeid Rieke. That's not productive, and it defeats the point of achievements.

Don't make them impossible. Make sure that you're distributing points evenly throughout the playing field, recommends Joju Games' Juan Gril. If the majority of achievements require players to master the game, it deters all but the hardcore from pursuing them.

Don't tie them directly to points and high scores, says Gril. For a player to earn all the achievements in your game, they should have to make use of all the game's different components. That means rewarding players for completing objectives and exploring the game as well as racking a high score.

Achievements are now an industry standard. When used effectively, they can teach players new skills, prod them to explore new areas, and teach developers how to improve their games.

Just don't abuse that power. As Turn 10's Bill Giese jokes, he "can't wait for the day when we get achievements for achievements."

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About the Author(s)

Mary Jane Irwin


As a young lass, Mary Jane Irwin bullied her way into the media world thanks to her tenacity, sheer will and wit. Mary Jane may also be able to control minds. She clawed her way from frat house to club house, laying waste to such fine publications as IGN.com, Business 2.0, Valleywag.com, Wired magazine and Forbes.com. But despite her upward mobility, Mary Jane could never escape her videogame-filled past. For the last six years her dreams have been plagued by mushroom men and space marines -- a chilling side effect of writing about the culture, business and wares of the games industry. Still, she plays on, hoping one day she’ll outlive the zombie horde, nuclear apocalypse, or Piñata garden. Mary Jane does love other things too. Like bunnies. MJ (as the kids call her) also writes about business, culture, technology and the mighty Internet.

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