Achievements Considered II

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.

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Achievements Considered

In his excellent, exhaustive (though ultimately inconclusive) GDC 2010 lecture “Achievements Considered Harmful?” Chris Hecker raises the issue of extrinsic rewards, specifically platform achievements/trophies, and asks whether they might be having a negative effect on the industry as a whole.  (Chris is sort of the unofficial conference gadfly and often uses his talks to generate further debate.)  After an overview of the current backlash against behavioral psychology, he explains that while the literature is extensive and often contradictory, most researchers agree that “for interesting tasks, tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation.”

Since “fun” seems like an intrinsic motivation, he warns of a “nightmare scenario” where Achievements and other extrinsic rewards are added to a game that is already fun, destroying the intrinsic motivation of the player while simultaneously pushing designers to add even more extrinsic rewards like digital drug dealers until every game becomes a Skinner Box.

Actually, "Operant Conditioning Chamber" sounds even more nefarious

Of course, Chris acknowledges that more research must be done to determine the likelihood of this “worse case” outcome, and ends his lecture with a call for more psychological investigation into gaming and gamers.  I propose that the situation is less dire, but that Achievements are potentially threatening for a completely different reason than the ones Chris suggests.

Need Replacement

First, let’s take a look at one of the classic psychology experiments performed by Edward Deci as far back as 1969 that demonstrated how extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic ones.  Two groups of test subjects participants were asked solve puzzles (called Soma Cubes) on three consecutive days.  The first day, each group was asked to solve three puzzles in an attempt to instill an intrinsic motivation by showing that the puzzles were fun because they fulfilled the need to demonstrate competence, especially in front of a judgmental audience of scientists.

Objective judgment is the worst!

Did you see him solve that puzzle?

On the second day, one of the groups was paid a few dollars for each puzzle they completed, adding an extrinsic motivation for them, but not for the unpaid group.  At this point, the need to look smart and competent was replaced for the paid group by a much more powerful need for financial gain.

On the final day, neither group was paid to solve puzzles.  The participants that had never been paid worked just as hard as previous days, their need for competence was still being met, but the group that had been paid was now unmotivated and quickly abandoned the puzzles.  Their need for financial gain was no longer being met, and their natural tendency to avoid losses made the puzzles seem pointless.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Rewards

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the results of this experiment lies in understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic.  Especially since extrinsic seems to carry negative connotations. Extrinsic does not mean “external to the player,” all needs are met by an external good.  Extrinsic doesn’t mean “materially beneficial or useful,” almost every need is directed at accomplishing some goal.  Extrinsic certainly does not mean “bribery” or “added with an immoral ulterior motive,” all rewards are intended to meet needs more effectively, and there is nothing selfish about achieving an aspiration.

An extrinsic reward is simply one that is “separable” or “nor part of the essential nature” of the activity used to obtain it.  Since making money isn’t an inseparable aspect of solving a puzzle, it can be removed and suddenly puzzle-solving fails to meet the money-making need.  At some point, parents will stop buying their children pizza for reading books, because pizza is not part of the essential nature of reading.  This lack of reliability is the true source of the demotivating effect.  And it is made worse when a reward appears to be intrinsic because it is “tangible, expected, and contingent” but is ultimately extrinsic and unreliable.

Cheevos

Every single Xbox 360 game is required to have Achievements.  They are inseparable from the activity of playing Xbox games.  Achievements are no longer an extrinsic reward, they are part of the essential nature of console gaming.  (And increasingly part of PC and mobile gaming, as well.)  This means that even Chris’ nightmare scenario avoids the demotivating effects described in the psychological research.  If a player’s needs are met by demonstrating competence, gaming will continue to be appealing.  And if their needs are met by collecting and investing in Achievements, gaming will continue to be appealing because we have an unlimited number of Achievement points to distribute.

Well… actually, Microsoft, Sony and the other platform holders have an infinite number of Achievements to dispense, and that is the real nightmare scenario for game developers…