Achievements as a Design tool

I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with video game achievement systems. The ‘hate’ comes mostly from the fact that I tend to really disagree with how they are used nowadays. I believe achievements can and should be part of a game’s design, but more often than not they’re relegated to just some medals for completing certain parts of the game or pure boring grind. There are also skill-based achievements, like getting a perfect run in Super Meat Boy, – I think those are perfectly valid since, well, you have to actually achieve something. But then there’s achievements that can motivate the player to experiment with the game, try out different things, and it seems to me there’s just too few of that.

In Assassin’s Creed, there was an assassination mission in the harbor of Acre. Using information about guard placements and comfortable routes that I got from investigation missions, I’ve successfully got to my target without getting noticed, assassinated him without being caught in action, and got back to the Assassin bureau without anybody chasing or attacking me. Assassin’s Creed being a game where you choose how to complete things as you please, there are no specific in-game rewards for any styles of play (and there shouldn’t be). Though that means the only thing that I got after that was a feeling of self-satisfaction, which, I must admit, was pretty awesome, but wouldn’t it have been much cooler if there was an achievement for it?

In Left 4 Dead 2 there’s an achievement for going through a whole campaign with a certain garden gnome. That’s a very silly mission that you wouldn’t put into the game like that itself, but as an achievement – it’s a cool goal to put in that requires different tactics, since one player most of the time is going to have the gnome in the hand and therefore unable to battle properly. On a side note, losing that gnome half-way through is heart-wrenching.

Or, let’s say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution has got a pacifist achievement for not killing anybody except the bosses. Admittedly, that’s somewhat of a dominant tactic in the game anyway, since you get more experience points for knocking out people rather than killing them, so… Maybe that doesn’t apply as much to the point I’m trying to make. Although, the game has got a hidden achievement for successfully throwing a basketball into the hoop. I feel that’s a better example.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has got achievements for exploration, helping people (and animals) out in the world (something that the game doesn’t require you to do, by the way)… playing music for an old man… helping a person with suicidal tendencies to cope with his loss… Pretty much all the hidden side-quests that exist in the game. When it comes to achievements implementation, I feel like Brothers is at the top of the list.

Achievements don’t have to be just for completion (although I don’t necessarily mind those types that much), grind (kill X enemies, do this N times, etc… boring) or perfection. These are what I feel are seen in games the most often, but they can be a lot more than that. They can reward different styles of play, exploration, experimentation, side goals, curiosity, and there are a lot more good examples than I’ve listed in the paragraphs above, but not enough for achievements to feel more interesting as a whole.

Too often achievements are close to a last-minute addition, which impacts their quality greatly. We have to look at achievements as another tool in our design box. Something that has to be planned and discussed as the project progresses through the development rather than when it’s time to go gold soon. What do you think about achievements? Do you feel they can be something more, or can’t? Maybe they’re just fine the way they are now?

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Posted on April 28, 2014, in Game Design and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. What are your thoughts on achievements as bragging rights outside of the game? (I think Steam tries to do this in an attempt to build community, but there’s also the darker side where achievements on Xbox relate to your GamerScore . . . )

    I tend to agree with you – done right, achievements can tease players into experimenting with gameplay as well going after content they might not of even known about, otherwise. My favourite example is RE 5. There were enough “try something crazy” achievements that it added a lot replayability to the game, for me atleast.

    • Well, if achievements in question are like from Super Meat Boy where you have to beat a whole world without a single death (a LOT easier said than done), then I don’t mind them to be used as bragging rights. Rewarding skill and training with achievements is fine.

      However, because of the sheer amount of achievements (and Steam also starts to fall into this trap with their profile spotlight capabilities that you get into the trap where you can show off all achievements that you have and if you’ve got every achievement from every game), and how a lot of them aren’t really well thought, being neither based on skill or just something interesting, a phenomenon of ‘mine is bigger than yours’ starts to appear, and I don’t agree with that kind of thing as it tends to be more of a negative bragging rather than positive healthy bragging. People just collect achievements to collect as many as possible and show their greatness over everybody else. And even for people who are not that kind of show-offs, there’s still a lure to collect achievements just because they’re there, and it’s very hard to resists. But this transforms gaming experience from an engaging one to a grinding one, I think, and is detrimental.

      This makes me thinking: achievements are a medal on a profile, essentially, but they don’t actually give any tangible use-able rewards. Perhaps there should be some sort of a ‘meta-award’ system for achievements. If we take Steam and Super Meat Boy for example. If a player completes a few of those harder skill-based achievements, let’s give him a discount for The Binding of Isaac from the same developer. Or things like that. A code for one of the DLCs, an in-game reward. Maybe I’m being naive right now, but I think a ‘meta rewarding’ system for achievements will alleviate some of the community problems as the motivation for achievements will transform from ‘get as many of these medals to show off as I can’ to ‘get as many of these so I could get cool stuff’. But on the other hand, this can lead to a whole other set of community problems. Do you think this is an idea worth considering or it may make the existing problems with achievements deeper?

  2. As a gamer, I think a meta reward system for achievements would be great — creating more value out of playing a game and/or finding new ways to play that game.

    However, incentivizing achievements even moreso might just compound the problem. Maybe you work around that by rewarding players with neat (but primarily cosmetic) items . . . similar, I guess, to some F2P models . . . maybe you can cash in your achievements for custom themes for your profile/forum avatar etc etc.

    Then again, maybe we’re looking at the symptom and not the cause here. What if Steam, Xbox, Playstation et al. just made it requisite that any achievements in a game have to be meaningful in some way — add value to the gameplay experience. (I guess that opens the door to what “meaningful” actually means, but atleast developers would HAVE to think about the achievements they put into their games.)

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