Ding! Achievement unlocked: “Read first paragraph”. +5G! 1/49.
Yeah.. that’s really not all that great, isn’t it? Achievements, cheevos, scorewh**e cookies, ding-ups, other-pseudophallic-innuendo or whatever else you like to call them, they are – for better or worse – a common staple of modern ultra-connected, skill-less, instant-gratification gaming. We all hate the stupid things, right? They are a joke to any true gamer, right? Only console fanboys care about that nonsense, right? Achievements ruin the immersion and enjoyment of a game, right? Wrong. There can be a place for achievement systems, they can benefit the game, they can be a net-positive implement. The current ideas that “cheevos suck” is down to two things. a) grumpy elitist snob-nosed whiners, and b) faulty/incorrect implementation that really makes cheevos annoying. “But X2,” you ask, “has your brain completely leaked out of your ears? What is this witchery you speak of?” Well, read on and see why achievements are not yet perfect and what aspects need to be addressed for them to be.
To begin with, let’s just put it out there – if a game is going to have achievements, it better had a good bunch of them. There’s no point to including an achievement system if it is only going to be used, say, once every 4-5 hours only. Challenges are, after all, just very minor comfort-food analogues, acknowledgements that “hey, this thing you just did was pretty cool”. Having lots and lots of them helps enforce the idea that the game itself has lots and lots of cool stuff, and that it can tell when the player is doing said cool stuff – and wants the player to do that cool stuff, as well. I won’t claim to know perfectly how many achievements on average per hour is a good mark. Too many and they become trivial, too few – and the system is too sparse to be useful. And, of course, it is widely dependent on the game’s nature itself, how fast-paced and action-involved it is… Giving achievements for stuff like watching cutscenes is pretty daft, after all. Additionally, the overall count relative to game’s length is important, yeah, but so is the rate and spread of these things. If all of the achievements are clustered on the beginning or the end, then – again – it’s a faulty system. The rate of their unlocking should be stable overall, imposing a constant presence of this mechanic as a part of the game, and making the player feel as if they are constantly doing cool stuff.
This leads directly into the next point of contention – what the achievements should and shouldn’t be about. For one, they need to bring something to the game that is not already doubled elsewhere, something extra. On a more personal level, I also think that they should be about the interesting, neat, cool actions the player does, giving a steady sense of progression or improvement throughout the game. Therefore, it’s clear that the somewhat common use of these systems – to give an achievement after completing a plot mission – is pretty daft, because it is a duplication of what the game already has. Most games I can think of have very, very clear indications when a mission of any kind is complete, when a chapter ends, when a plot point advances. That is something expressed on display via text, cutscenes, event progression – there’s no need to mirror it with an achievement ding as well. Alternatively, a lot of games treat achievements as hardcore goalposts of epic hardness that only the uber-elite players can get – either due to insane unlock difficulty or an insane amount of ‘grind’ (repetitive not-fun iteration of a single game mechanic in limited area to advance some sort of score without advancing the game itself). Well… why? Why include achievements in this sort of virtual-boob-volume-sizing contests? For games that are truly competitive, there are better things than one-time unlocks: Leaderboards. That’s where the real competitiveness lies. There’s no need for achievements to double that, especially as achievements are primarily directed towards the players themselves, not their “friends”. The flip side of this is also true, though – achievements should not be awarded for completely simple, inevitable, just-start-up-the-game actions.. Having the game congratulate you for moving forwards, or pressing a mouse button as a matter of fact is just plain wrong. No matter how flashy and congratulatory the text is going to be, it won’t feel genuine.
The next issue to tackle is one of immersion. Namely, the allegation that having achievements ruins said immersion. Well, yeah. Obviously. If those achievements are presented in out-of-game context and appearance, of course they break immersion. That’s precisely why achievement systems need to be designed with the game itself in mind, and be incorporated into the game world to make logical sense as at least partial aspects of it. This means tweaking their very representation, visual and audio design and expressed thematics to fit. Consider a game like Skyrim – would a big ugly steam-card achievement popup feel as part of gameplay? Of course not. But, what could have been possible was to move the achievement system in-game. It already has stats and skills explained away as stellar/mythical aspects of the character. Tweaking the design of the achievements to present an in-game UI-conforming look and meaning, and tieing them into the whole ‘heaven as character-sheet’ idea – that’s how to create achievements for Skyrim without breaking the sense of immersion overmuch. Some game universes are already suited to achievement systems as they are.. For instance, that of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The in-game world already explains the UI overlays as part of your character’s augmented vision. Item highlights, stat screens, inventory screens, in-world tooltips – all that gives a valid mechanic for also including achievements as part of this virtually augmented layer. Some sort of software tracking systems, performance evaluators, things like that could serve as logical in-world explanations for the cheevos.
Now, onto the matter of gamerscores. Frankly – they are stupid. The numbers are more or less meaningless and invalid as a base for bragging, and yet encourage competitiveness in a system that doesn’t really support it. However – gamerscores are part of a thing that is actually quite neat: cross-game achievement recognition. If a game is going to have achievements, well, why limit them to just that game? Yeah, sure, implement them as part of the game, of course – but don’t restrict them to it. Tie them into the existing recognition systems – Xbox LIVE lists, or Steam achievement systems, something like that. That makes it easier to reference and track the achievements from outside of the game, and it allows for some nifty meta-statistics (percent of game owners who have unlocked an achievement, number of things done and so on). It also brings a sense of unity between the game itself and the supporting platform it requires by design – steamworks, origin (which to my knowledge doesn’t have an achievement system yet), xbox live, whatever. Achievements are, after all, small and nifty notifications about something done in-game; their format is already near-perfect for sharing the fact with “friends” if one so desires. A larger-that-game framework for that simply helps in that process.
One more aspect would be to provide link between the achievements and the gameplay. A properly implement achievement system should be a true part of the game, not just an artificial overlay; there ought to be a two-way feedback between the gameplay and the achievement framework. This is, naturally, easier with achievements tied to a game that reset on playthroughs rather than global achievements (though with balancing and playtesting either can be made to work well enough, I’d say), but at any rate – why not have the achievements provide a small benefit within the game? Something like an extra experience boost in games that use experience meters, or slightly larger damage on a sword by unlocking an achievement that has to do with those kinds of swords. It doesn’t have to be a major boost, not at all – in fact, it could be so slight as to be practically unnoticeable for balancing purposes. The real matter is to indicate that there is a benefit to the player, to give and strengthen the sense that these achievements truly are a part of the game.
So, that’s all the theorizing and would be-should be’s done and over with. What about some real-world examples, though? Well, one game does come to mind. A game that has its own, internal achievement system (and an external steam-achievement framework for some reason; my guess – the internal achievements were too well integrated as part of the game and didn’t seem similar enough to the ‘regular’ ones). I’m talking about Fallout: New Vegas and it’s “challenge” system. The “challenges” are seen from in-game menus and reference actual events and accomplishments that the player can achieve during a playthrough. They are reasonably spread out, so that they appear throughout the game’s length, there’s a metric ton of them all in all, they are not insurmountably difficult and yet are above the very basic motions, and they provide an in-game benefit when unlocked – not a large benefit, but a reasonably minor measure that still links them to the gameplay. This still doesn’t cover all the ideal conditions, of course – for one, these are stricly in-game only -, but it is a good example of what’s an achievement system done right, a system that is very much a part of the game, tied to the gameplay and the game’s world, and really does serve to tell the player “Hey, you just did something neat!”.
And that’s what achievement systems really should do, above and beyond all else. They should tell the players that they have done something neat, they should give a metaphorical non-condescending pat on the back. They should enforce the feeling that it is good that the game is played, and that it’s being appreciated. That the game cares.
~X2-Eliah thinks that the WordPress’s “achievement system” – number of posts, likes, favourites – is one of the more moronic implementations of the entire achievement concept.