Monday, May 17, 2010

How achievements ruin video games

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.

Achievements effect all players

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.


  1. I play World of Warcraft, and they added the achievement mechanic to the game a while ago. I don't get into it, myself. I might if they didn't have achievements for mundane things like reaching level 10. Yay! Two digits!

    But it's proved to be handy in a game with its own local economy. The craze for achievements can be a great money maker. One of my tricks is a cooking related achievement. You accomplish it by consuming four particular food items that have names related to emotions - and are seemingly rare (but not really). I can't remember them, but there's something like a happy cupcake and a sick fish... I dunno... it's actually been a while since I did it.

    Anyways... these items are extremely inexpensive to make. In fact, it only requires about two input items each to make a "stack" of 5 - as opposed to most food items that are made in stacks of 1. It costs the equivalent of pennies and I sell each set for multiple gold pieces - about 20 times the actual cost to construct. I sit in a major city on an in-game holiday (usually a time when many people have achievements on the mind) and peddle my goods.

  2. I'm retired from Warcraft, but my experiences with the achievements were also great for selling overpriced trash, but not for questing with strangers. I remember being in instances (dungeons) that are supposed to take five people to beat, and someone would be commanded to leave for the boss fight so everyone else can get an achievement for winning with only four people. This was an awful application.

    Some achievements should inspire shame, not triumph. There are ones for playing a game for an unreasonable amount of time, such as a Rock Band 2 achievement for playing every song in a row - that's more than six hours - without pausing.

  3. Thankfully I overcame this before long.Individuals dependably jeer when I say that in light of the fact that I have a 75k gamerscore yet this is on account of I've recently played a ton of games,not on the grounds that I've sat there and 1000k'd every one of them.Truth be told,I just have something like 5 games maxed out.Achievements truly do influence how individuals play games however and it makes them play them uniquely in contrast to how they regularly would.What's more that as well as it causes some really solid burnout for many individuals also from posts I've seen.What I discover truly pitiful is that games really do get a business increment for having simple achievements.What's more it was a really sizable jump from what I recall.No less than 10k units more due to it,which is crazy considering how little function you would need to do to make a rundown of straightforward achievements.
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