Monday 16 August 2010

Achievements: How Two Rights Still Make a Wrong

I was out in Angel on Wednesday for a regular games writers' knees up with lovely people like Rhianna Practhett, Andy Walsh and Jim Swallow, and found myself having two conversations with the excellent inventor of the 'untweet' (enough people untweet someone's breakfast report and it disappears for ever), Terry Chilvers, that I was sure I'd left behind in another life. The first was the old console vs PC argument, in which we quickly established that if good, fun, AAA is your thing, stick with your black box; if experimental, meaningful, cutting edge experiences are what you're about, then you can't afford to miss the likes of The Void and The Curfew.

The second was achievements. I recalled sitting next to some Sony guys at a Develop conference a few years ago and being a little taken aback by their admission to largely playing games for GamerScore nowadays, and it reminds me that our industry is still very much polarised by those who see it as a new form of expression, and those who see it as a time sink. 

Pro No. 1 - More Players
The first benefit of the meteoric rise of achievements is - to my mind - the simple encouragement it provides for players to play more games. As noted by a satire like Armor Games' Achivement Unlocked (my thoughts on that here), achievements are an incredibly sharp and effective application of player psychology. I am, most likely, no more thrilled about a legion more thirteen year old CoD players joining the ranks than you are, but ultimately more players - no matter what they're playing - is a good thing for our industry moving forward. 

Pro No. 2 - More Ways to Play
The other, oft-neglected purpose to which we can set achievements is in guiding players into enjoying a game in new and inventive / emergent ways. Online games in particular tend to see the development of player-pioneered gameplays - eg the rocket jump - and a cleverly designed set of achievements such as those in L4D2 can open up ways of playing that a tutorial simply couldn't cover. My favourite implementation of this was a game Jim mentioned - whose name I've forgotten, Jim if you're reading help me out here? - in which every achievement was themed around failure: blow yourself up with a grenade; kill the president's daughter... 

And the Inevitable Con
While there's plenty of good that can be done with achievements, for me they fail to outweigh to big drawback - that achievements are encouraging players to regress in their expectations of interactive entertainment.

Achievements insist implicitly that players 100% a game. They insist that players see a game as quite literally a 'game' - a challenge to be overcome. They break immersion. Finally, they draw out addictive behaviour.

I love a good, AAA romp. Sometimes I want to switch off my brain and blow some shit up. Same applies to film, music and literature. What I desire most of the time, though, is for interactive entertainment to be smarter, more mature, and more valuable a way to spend time. The principle of someone sitting on the sofa with a huge bag of Doritos playing GTA IV for 36 hours straight just for the GamerScore is one I find reprehensible - it puts our industry firmly back in the 'games are for geeks' stereotype of yesterday. That some players genuinely buy awful games just for the low hanging fruit makes me sick to my core. To be clear, I don't believe everyone is like that, but I feel there can be no doubt that the sort of beautiful, singleplayer experience provided by something like Braid is largely antithetical to the concept of achievements and the mindset they breed.

My position is largely summed up by Terry's observation in the pub: achievements are exactly what a non-gamer would expect games to be about.


  1. Oh, come now Tom, you're more sophisticated than that, aren't you?

    Some people like blowing shit up. Some like exploring every nook and cranny of the game world to be the person who everyone else turns to when they don't know how to do something, or where something is.

    And some people like a little pat on the back every time they achieve something.

    Modern gameplay design needs to cater to all types (I wonder if APB's failure in part is due to Dave Jone's stated desire to recreate a Counter-Strike feeling - which only appeals to a narrow subset of gamers).

    In short, you're bemoaning that games don't have to force a single experience on all players (unlike a movie or a novel). They can allow different players to experience the game differently. Achievements are part of that.

    Isn't that the simply saying that you prefer non-interactive entertainment, you Luddite.


  2. Ah, dissention, eh?! :-)

    I agree that there is a place for achievements. I agree that they're a very effective (if largely empty) motivational tool.

    What I don't agree with is the use of achivements by default, resulting in the simplification - or even arcadisation - of intelligent, artistic interactive experiences. Certain people within our industry have worked long and hard to prove that games can be and are about more than just completing levels for high scores. Achievements and their huge popularity directly oppose that.

    I'm not bomaning the fact that games don't force a single viewpoint on their players. I'm bemoaning the fact that a single pervasive mechanic all but demands games be viewed in the context of an empty challenge to be beaten - and that certain players may be prevented from discovering that there's more value to be found in a game than 'Shoot 40 enemies in the nuts'.

  3. Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

    I'm happily enjoying the new extension of the Half-Life universe, navigating the antlion caves and then suddenly:

    Achievement Unlocked!
    ** Acid Reflex **
    Kill an acid antlion worker.

    WTF. All the narrative, the artistic merit and love poured into that game - undone and broken in a moment. Jack McNamee makes the point that the immersion of HL2 is broken by loading screens (amongst other things) - I don't agree - but it's clearly broken by ACHIEVEMENT pop-ups.

    Okay, I'm exaggerating. But that's one of the comment achievements on this blog.

    ** Hyperbola **
    Overstate your point using exaggerated language

    Defense Grid had shitloads of achievements to the point where you could get multiple achievements popping up in your face (just like Achievement Unlocked) - although DG is one of those games which is far more suited to achievements than something like HL2:E2.

    ** Illustrated Man **
    Use multiple references to illustrate your point

    I can see that as a freelance narrative designer, you could easily feel your work demeaned with the plot undermining with a scorefest (which is essentially what achievements are).

    ** Nodding Dog **
    Inflate the ego of your blog host by agreeing with his/her point.

    I'm not big on achievements; they have their place but half the time it's like having to grind through an MMO, where you feel the developers were thinking, "man, this will keep them busy for a while!".

    ** Two Thirds Spartan **
    Post a 200 word comment.

  4. As harbour master points out the only problem with achievements is when they break immersion in a game; either directly via a pop-up or by convincing the player to focus on attainment at the detriment of other elements.

    While the former is annoying, the latter is all about choice - it's their game and their choice of how to experience it.

    One solution would be to allow notification of achievements to be switched on, off, or to only appear when you exit the game. Achievement data would still be collected and displayed with your gamer tag for those who care about it, while those who don't won't be bothered anyway.

  5. Hey Tom, great piece here.

    I've found gamerscores/achievements useful in way that hasn't been considered here - as a barometer of playability among a given gamer's circle of friends.
    When I'm thinking about buying a game, I often scour my friends lists and see who has it, and what progress they've made through it. Low scores mean it's probably not that good, high scores pique my interest. It can be a quick and dirty mechanism for peer review.

    As for the game I mentioned, that was 'Secret Service', which is a bog-standard FPS with most of the usual kind of collect this/shoot that cheeves in place - but the game also has a couple of "sarcastic" ones that award you zero gamerscore for things like blowing yourself up with your own grenade or firing off a whole clip of ammo without hitting anything.

    While I'm here, something I feel I should mention is that (I'm pretty sure) you can actually turn achievement/trophy notifications off if you don't want your narrative bubble burst during play. Having that option instead of bemoaning them seems like the better solution for all.

  6. Agreed on all counts. If the option to score achievements were provided at the start of a game - rather than it being implicitly assumed that you want them switched on - then we could probably all live a bit more harmoniously.

    I'm a great proponant of shorter, higher fidelity games. If we were allowed - by publisher and by consumer expectation - to produce shorter, more meaningful games without mindless repetition, I think we'd be in a much more interesting place where funding could be spent on what's important, rather than reaching an arbitrary average play time.

    Now here's the question. Let's not forget that achievements are - to my knowledge - forced onto developers for the 360. Regardless of what options we provide, a great many players are going to pursue those achievements, prolonging play time.

    a) Does that feed into the vicious circle, maintaining the expectation that a game should be 15+ hours long regardless of how pointless that play time is?

    b) Does that provide developers with a get out clause for those players who demand quantity over quality - provide a short, excellent game, then load up on pointless achievements to keep the masses happy?

  7. I've given it some thought, Tom. I don't think it's all doom and gloom.

    a) No.

    Not everyone plays for achievements and I don't recall achievements featuring prominently in any reviews, particularly in reference to game length. Limbo is blasted as "short" yet it has achievements. (Given my PC-only status, I cannot confirm how much play time Limbo's achievements potentially add.) And I'm still seeing reviews that report a game should have been shorter, having been padded until it's bored the crap out of you.

    Certain games are rewarded by achievements; something like Defense Grid's bronze/silver/gold stars kept me entertained for a while, adding real replay value. I was determined to finish every level "perfectly" until I realised some of those levels were just monster hard to pull off and threw in the towel.

    Generally I ignore achievements and I can't be the only one.

    (I do think we have a problem with expecting a certain game length, but that's a separate topic.)

    Also bear in mind all the player statistics currently available suggests the percentage of players who play a game through to completion is miserably low. Players who don't complete are unlikely to be players who strive for achievements - it just doesn't make sense.

    b) Maybe.

    I sense the danger is more in the social/casual gaming space on this; but I'm sure Nicholas could roast my ass on any invented facts I presented, considering I avoid social games like the plague.

  8. Interesting feedback, thanks. It's quite possible I've let my utter hatred of the idea of games as 'games' to sway me a little on this. You're also right that while we rarely see reviews comment on achievements, we do often see them slate overlong playtime, which can only be positive things.

    One point I'd raise - I am (to my shame) often in the camp of pursuing achivements to the detriment of actually finishing the game. Psychologically, I'd guess I'm particularly susceptible to the allure of 100% completion - even when it's a thankless task. I have to actively put out of my mind the possibility of missing notes and story elements in things like Bioshock, even though I comb the levels religiously.

    Particularly in open world games - for example, AssCreed2 recently - I'll do all the pointless shitty little stuff, then realise how far I still have to go in the game despite having played for ten hours, then get bored and do something else.

    Might be that's doing more than its bit to warp my perspective as well ;-)

  9. Tom. I used to be you. There is no shame in these things. Apart from not actually completing the game, as there is no excuse there... you do raise an unexpected point. Do achievements prevent people from bothering to finish a game...?

  10. My perspective on the place of achievements in games pretty well comes from the way they make the player perform when they are aware of them. Say for instance that a game involves a compelling story but it's gameplay focuses around solving puzzles and narrative building... I may be describing Penumbra... anyway. In this kind of experience, the last thing that the develop would want is the pressure of achievements detracting from the flow and progression of the narrative by suggesting they perform arbitrary tasks, external to the experience that was created for the player. Even in games that have a strong gameplay focus, even a well implimented system can be problematic.

    When I played Arkham Asylum, I thoroughly enjoyed the concept of the riddles within this game, I found myself obsessing over them to the extent where they became a major distraction and interruption to the flow of the game. Where I wanted to continue with the story, I constantly found myself distracted by this particular feature which ultimately detracted from my experience with the game. I think that this would be a nice feature to unlock in a second playthrough. Maybe all achievements should be that way.

    On the other hand, It think online achievements can be really interesting as they can encourage emergent gameplay. However, some just encourage grind to the point of hatred for what you are doing.