Achievements (and other platform reward structures like Trophies) satisfy a very important human need for validation. We want social approval and an “official” recognition of our accomplishments is valuable to us, it endorses our decisions and allows us to believe that we make a worthwhile contribution to our community. Achievement points may not have material value, but they are not meaningless. Denigrating them as “epeen” mischaracterizes the near universal human aspiration they fulfill.
A Great Achievement
Xbox Achievements are particularly well designed as reinforcing rewards. They can be Expected. Even before a game is on the shelves, the list of Achievements is available on the internet. If a player meets the requirements, the Achievement is given and the points are awarded. There is no random chance, no potential for missing out. That is why the current trend is to award all the Achievement points over the course of a campaign, where every player can get them, instead of in multiplayer or for defeating exceptional challenges. Any uncertainty in earning Achievements might drive players to another game that hands them out more reliably.
Achievements are Efficient. Especially with a new game when the easy ones are available. The more time spent with a game, however, the harder the remaining achievements become. At some point, it is going to be more efficient to abandon the current game and buy another one for the easy points. Even a game that is worth playing to completion must eventually run out of its allotted 1000 points and stop meeting the need served by Achievements.
Achievements are Essential, are even required as part of the certification process. It would be unthinkable to ship an Xbox game without them. And they have become such a fundamental aspect of gaming that a momentous event in a game doesn’t seem that important without Achievements attached.
Achievements are Exclusive. The platform holder is the only source; they cannot be found anywhere else. They can’t even be liquidated and taken to another platform. They are unlimited, new points can be added at no cost to the platform holder, but maintain value because there are unbreakable rules about how they are handed out.
Exploit, Embrace or Eclipse
In so many ways, Achievements are the ultimate reward for investment… and that is the problem. The reason so many developers are uncomfortable with Achievements is because they know that nothing confined to a single game can compete with a permanent, global, visible Achievement system. The need for public validation has replaced whatever aspirations their game was meeting, and now their game and the rewards it offers are the extrinsic, separable part. In light of this understanding, there are three possible responses for game developers.
Achievements are a powerful motive force, and they are available to every game on the platform. It is tempting to exploit their power, to offer players 1000 effortless points and make a quick sale. How many games have sold more copies than they deserved because reviews cited “easy Achievements”? A cynical path, but so is putting out a stream of cheap sequels to a poorly made licensed game.
The most common choice is to embrace Achievements and try to use them to help players enjoy the game. Doling them out at a reasonable rate, so the player reaches 1000 points at about the same time they have seen all the game’s content. Avoiding situations where the drive to earn Achievements would clash with the game’s other objectives. Designers learned quickly not to award points for betraying your teammates or leaving your Xbox in matchmaking for 24 hours straight. Approached in this way, Achievements can bring players in and drive them through the game’s content, but they will inevitably be swept on by that same powerful tide.
The final, most difficult option is to accept that players enter your game looking for Achievements, and then offer them something better. Meet a different need than validation. Or form a community around your game that is so tightly bound up together that the connections it provides are more significant and personal than the vague validation of a high Gamer Score. Eclipsing Achievements is difficult and time-consuming, but the result is a loyal and evangelical community.
What would you think of a game with only one achievement?
Insert Game Disc – 1000G
As you mentioned, it’s a cynical way to address Microsoft’s forced achievement system and also a way to make a quick sale. But what if the game still had 50 total achievements?
Insert Game Disc – 1000G
Secret Achievement – 0G (Beat Campaign on Normal difficulty)
Secret Achievement – 0G (Earn a Triple Kill in Multiplayer matchmaking)
Secret Achievement – 0G (Find all of the hidden skulls)
So the players that just want the 1000G get what they are after and can return to playing the modes they find the most fun. Some completionists will still want 50/50 unlocked, but those are the players that will look them up online anyways. The remainder will still be affected by the extrinsic reward of achievements, but taking away the connection to gamerscore should slightly reduce the negative impact on motivation, right? Valuing secret achievements at 0G could also reduce the chances that players will go to the internet and look up how to unlock them.
I wonder – how much text can you squeeze into an achievement’s description and does Microsoft have any rules regarding what you can do with that text?
I ask because I was trying to think of a way to create an intrinsic reward with an achievement. It is largely impossible for most gameplay, but then I thought of Halo 3’s Marathon Man achievement, unlocked by finding and reading all 7 terminals in Campaign. What if that achievement was split into 7 achievements, with the description for each replacing the unlock requirement “Find X of 7 terminals” with a paragraph of text expanding on the story content presented within the terminal itself? Skip the gamerscore pizza and reward reading books with more books. (By the way, thanks for linking Chris Hecker’s “Achievements Considered Harmful?” presentation, it was entertaining and very thought-provoking.)
You could do the same with achievements concerning the completion of campaign levels – the achievement description for beating each level on the highest difficulty could have a short paragraph filling in a minor plot detail, maybe presented as an in-universe transmission.
Achievements tied to non-story elements of a game are still likely to be extrinsic rewards, but maybe they can also benefit from expanded descriptions. An achievement such as “Get 3 splatters with the Warthog” could have a description such as “Did you know the Warthog has an e-brake? Press A to quickly come to a stop.”
Again, someone could easily look these up online, but hopefully the 1000G handouts upon disc insertion curtail that behavior.
Marathon Man is an excellent example of trying to eclipse Achievements by using them to prime the pump on a (hopefully) more powerful reward linked to meeting a need you can “own”. The Halo story caters to human curiosity, the need to investigate and understand a mystery. The terminals were directly targeted at meeting that need, and by giving out Achivement points for finding them, we hijacked Microsoft’s exclusive reward and tried to get player’s hooked on the reward that only Halo could provide, more information about Halo’s story. Ideally, by the time you get the points, you don’t care about them, even if they are what steered you toward finding the terminals.
A more heavy-handed way of doing this might be giving points for playing a few multiplayer matches (even if you don’t win.) Or for equiping some loot items. The goal is to replace Achivements with your own exclusive rewards.
“Inserting the Disk” for 1000 points does the opposite. It pays off the need for Achivements and lets the demotivation happen before the player is even exposed to the exclusive gratification/rewards your game can offer. Maybe they would keep playing anyway and find them on their own, but you might as well use the tools you have available.