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In Defense of Achievements

Posted in Gaming by Simon Ferrari on February 15, 2009

Here’s a comment I just made on about achievements. It’s by no means a well-edited or fleshed out article, but it’s fairly comprehensive. I’ve written this elsewhere, and I’m tired of retyping it every time I feel the need to do some blogosphere intervention. Now I can just copy paste!


I get attacked enough by Bogost and my fellow researchers that I’ve developed a standard line on why I like achievements:

1. Some of them, much like Daniel mentions for this game, come along with unlockables that justify going along with the sometimes absurd lengths it takes to achieve them (my favorites for this one are the armor pieces in Halo 3 and the stats bonuses awarded by achievements in Mass Effect).

2. The other strength is that they increase replay valuable and encourage alternate playings. The best example of this are the 99 achievements for The Orange Box. Most obvious among these is the one that requires you to beat Ravenholm using only the gravity gun. The designers have littered the stage with sawblades and other sharp objects, and it really is more fun to try to play through just using Valve’s physics toy (there are some parts where the objects on the ground are greatly outnumbered by the faster headcrap zombies).

Ian claims that this is lazy design – i.e. we’re not giving gamers good enough reason in-game to play a certain way so we’re giving them an artificial incentive to do it. I don’t find this to be true – often it’s a matter of gamers simply min-maxing their experience in order to beat a game using the path of least resistance. This isn’t a design limitation – it doesn’t make sense to require all players of different skill levels to play a game the exact same way (my beliefs here come from a post on GamerHate about the way he designed a level of Warcraft 3 to be playable by all players despite being designed originally as a level requiring perfection in a single winnable strategy).

3. Gamerscore is a good way to keep tabs on people and what they are playing. So when a professor or blogger writes about a game (this doesn’t work for journalists who get beta builds that might not have cheevos enabled), I always check their Gamerscore to see if they’ve even beaten the game. Sometimes they haven’t (my favorite was a professor who hadn’t beaten even half of Braid before writing about it). Also, if somebody whose ideas you respect have gone out of their way to unlock everything, it usually means you should check out the game right away.

4. Gamerscore is a good way to build teams for cooperative play online. I don’t have the time schedule to join an online guild that meets regularly to play. So I have to play games like L4D in pickup groups. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I want to play this game on Expert. In order to beat the scenarios on Expert, everybody needs to be pretty damn good at the game (especially when it comes to saving each other and not shooting each other). So you’ll get into these lobbies and ask “have you ever tried this on Expert?” Somebody will say yes, then you look at their gamer score and see that they haven’t even survived the level on any difficulty before: this is not someone you want on your team unless you really enjoy wasting four hours of your life inevitably shouting at them to stick with you, help you, or stop shooting you.

5. Finally, whenever I want to write about a game I always talk to a few achievement addicts. They know about every easter egg, every alternate route or play style, every exploit and glitch. It saves a lot of time mining forums for incorrect information.

As far as the cred goes: it varies depending on who you talk to. Some people, like me, have standards. I don’t play games that I don’t want to just for the achievements (Avatar being the exception to this personal rule). And I don’t boost with people to get online achievements. So my 45k, in my eyes, is more respectable than another 45k littered with children’s games and sports games.

What I’m getting is that there’s no objective value to them for all people. They’re a tool that can be implemented or ignored when it makes sense to do so. Making fun of them wholesale (with crap Flash games making fun of the most poorly designed achievements) or letting Gamerscore dominate your life don’t make sense.

I used to play Final Fantasy games on the SNES and find every little secret possible. It was more than satisfying enough to know that I did it, without being able to prove it to others online. It’s just icing on the cake that other people can see the games I’ve gotten 100% on now.


3 Responses

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  1. Krystian Majewski said, on February 16, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    I agree with your points. For me, especially being able to see how far my friends and contacts actually got in a game is one of the most important things. It opens up a social dimension what would otherwise be a solitary experience.

    As for Ian’s argument about achievements being an “artificial incentive” – what exactly makes one kind of reward more “natural” than other? Isn’t beating the game also an artificial reward?

  2. Simon Ferrari said, on February 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Social dimension: I remember why I bought my 360. Two and a half years ago, I was working at a Starbucks. There were these two videogame retail dudes who came in every day at the same time. I’d take a cigarette break to talk to them, because I hadn’t played a console in a few years (mean WoW addiction). All they talked about was how cool XBox Live was and how every time they got on they’d see that their friend had gotten this or that achievement or position on a leaderboard – this, in turn, would lead them to one-up or match each other. This doesn’t even have to be a competitive thing; it could just dwell in the realm of shared experience.

    Incentives: I’m not going to try to speak for Ian, but in his defense I think he’d agree with you. I’d bet that the most (and perhaps only) meaningful incentive for Ian is engaging gameplay tightly coupled with the game’s rhetoric. Beating the game for him is probably more of a courtesy than a substantive goal or experience.

    That’s probably the issue for him: achievements have nothing to do with the procedural aspects of the game. Of course there are arguments against this, but at least he maintains internal consistency in his views.

  3. Simon Ferrari said, on February 16, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    I should note, the blog GamerHate is really an exceptional location (at least back when I read it) for practical design considerations. Dude worked for Blizzard during their pre-WoW days. He goes into detail on the types of people you’ll encounter working in the industry (I remember one called something like “the snake” that will steal your ideas and then bully you if you speak up for yourself).

    The discussion of designing a single level to be played multiple ways is the best. He explains the pros and cons of difficulty sliders (the only con being really that a lot of time people are too stupid to scale their difficulty properly and the fact that most design leads just have a bias against them).

    I really like what Tomb Raider: Underworld did with difficulty sliding. I think Prince of Persia did it as well: as a game about climbing and jumping, there was a difficulty slider that controlled your character’s hit box in regard to snapping onto wall geometry.

    GamerHate would probably have this to say about the Ravenholm level: if you want people to play it with the Gravity Gun, don’t just give them an achievement for doing so. Give a narrative reason to take away their other weapons, and then make it so that a skilled player will make it through with all their health left and a weaker player will be able to make it through with just a little left. The experience will actually be more compelling for the weaker player. This requires more playtesting than just giving them all their guns to play with, but if you really want people to see the strengths of the physics weapon in the level you’ve built then you should constrain the room for player action accordingly.

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