I recently wrote about how the role of scores in video games has evolved - from the entire purpose of early arcade games to a vestigial organ in the nineties to a competitive bonus in the late aughts. Along the way something called "achievements" cropped up, which I consider both a marketing marvel and a social curse.
Achievements are merit badges that add up to a combined score across multiple games. With the Xbox 360 console, each achievement has a number value that adds to you what's called a player's Gamerscore. Achievements are awarded automatically for beating in-game challenges, such as finishing a level, or beating a specific boss without taking any damage.
Tougher achievements give more points to a player's Gamerscore. A player's Gamerscore is displayed online, and interested parties can comb through and see exactly what achievements make up a player's score.
The Xbox's console rival Playstation 3 uses a similar system, where players are given "trophies" for beating challenges. However, there are no numbers associated with the trophies. Players have a list of gold, silver and bronze trophies they have unlocked while playing.
The achievement score does not earn the player anything tangible, like free games or bonus levels. It is purely aesthetic.
On the surface, achievements sound like they should be a minor footnote in modern video game trends. Indeed, most new players ignore them. After all, it's just a list of what you've done during a recreational activity. The only person who really cares about a Gamerscore is the actual player. Achievements shouldn't matter very much.
But in practice, achievements are a big deal.
Achievements encourage people to replay a game using a challenging limitation, such as "The One Free Bullet" for beating Half Life 2: Episode 1 with only firing a single bullet. There's a very positive effect for players simply by putting optional challenges within a game. It's fun to complete these challenges, and it gives games a higher replay value.
But the quest for achievements often overshadows gameplay and for some, becomes more important than actually having fun. The Internet if filled with pages and videos to show players how to unlock difficult achievements. Games are criticized for having achievements that are too challenging. Video game review sites contain a lot of recommendations of games to play just for some quick achievements.
Achievements also encourage people to sabotage multiplayer games by selfishly ignoring team objectives to work on achievements. Players will plug away at mediocre advergames like Doritos Dash of Destruction - or as the game itself put it, "go on a Gamerscore rampage" - just to get more Gamerscore points.
The Doritos company got players to spend a good chunk of time in a world stamped with their logo not by offering them a fun game, but by rewarding them for playing with "points" that cost the company nothing.
I'd like to say I'm immune from the achievement siren song, but I've caught myself caring more than I should. A few years ago I was trying to decide between buying Bioshock for my computer or Xbox, and the idea that I won't get achievements with the computer version encouraged me to go with the console version. In the past few months I realized one of things that's keeping me from playing some of my old Playstation 2 games that I never finished is that there won't be any achievements to mark the accomplishment.
In both cases, I was more likely to use my Xbox 360 console than another gaming system because of achievements. That's a pretty powerful business advantage Microsoft introduced. Remember, these are just merit badges. They only cost a trivial amount of the programming effort, but they have a big impact people's desire to play video games.
Even games the players don't actually enjoy.
So what impact has the player reactions had on achievements themselves? I don't have a shred of hard evidence to support this, but my experience tells me that games are experiencing an achievement creep - that players expect to unlock achievements as they play a game, so game makers are making achievements easier. A game with difficult achievements won't sell as many copies.
The perfect example is the "Off The Boat" Achievement in Grand Theft Auto IV, where you get an achievement within the first five minutes of the game for driving a car down several blocks of quiet streets. The entire point of achievements should be beating challenges, not rewarding people for completing easy levels.
I've played a few downloadable game demos that informed me I've just unlocked an achievement, but I have to buy the full game if I want to get credit for it. That's a case of achievement-based marketing if I ever saw one.
Unlocking achievements is a guilty pleasure for me, a clever marketing scheme for game companies and a soulless, misguided goal for a large chunk of players. I like having them to add a little spice to games, but I loathe the culture they've spawned.
While individual achievements can be good indicators of skill, a player's gross Gamerscore tells you nothing. It is not like a Donkey Kong high score. It's simply a reflection of how many games a player has access to and how much time they're willing to work on an arbitrary goal.