Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some Thoughts On Achievements

I don't like achievements in games. What started out as an interesting idea to acknowledge and engage the player has instead grown to do the opposite. Achievements tend to come in two forms, narrative, thank you for playing style achievements and gameplay driven, blow up five enemies with a single grenade, achievements.

The first type is particularly bad, and is the style of achievement I think most people have a problem with when they complain about achievements. You started up the game, congrats have some points. Beat the first chapter? Here's some more points. Are you in the middle of a tense emotional scene that is the make or break moment for your character? How about a nice achievement to ruin the moment. Achievements of this style distract players from the experience, break up the flow of the narrative and with a single chime and pop up ruin your immersion and make you suddenly very aware that you are in fact not a galactic hero or post-apocalyptic wanderer of vengeance, but a person holding a controller and playing a video game. With a single mechanic the developer erodes in moments what they've spent the entire game building up.

The second type of achievements are better in that they serve as a way for the developer to acknowledge something particularly cool the player has done. Fifteen head shots in a row? Hey, that's pretty cool, have an achievement. Go through that entire boss fight without taking damage? Wow, that's impressive, have another achievement. While these work as a way for a player to feel cool and receive some outside validation for something they've done, the usage of these achievements has become perverted over time. Now players use them not as a way to receive feedback on the cool things they're doing, but as a checklist for things to do, for bragging rights and as a way to extend the experience.

Which on the surface is not a bad thing. Finding a way to give the player more enjoyment by adding a list of specific challenges has been in games a long time. This is even an improvement in some ways, integrating the challenges into the natural play experience instead of ripping them out into a separate menu. I personally found this useful when playing Civ V. After the standard gameplay became dull, I challenged myself to win a match with every civilization and used the achievements list as a handy checklist integrated within the software I was already using.

It's this that betrays the underlying problem. I went achievement hunting because I was bored with the overall experience but still wanted to play the game. We all get bored with games. They get too hard, or run out of content or the narrative no longer compels us to see what happens next. This is a natural part of all mediums. However, if we still want to play the game and enjoy its mechanics, but can no longer find motivation to play within the game, that I feel is a failure on the part of the developer. Instead of adding more quests, or missions or side activities to encourage the player to continue to engage with the mechanics they find so satisfying, they instead rely on an external checklist overlaid on the game experience.

There are two more points I'd like to make. First, one thing achievements actually do well is encourage the player to stretch outside of their normal play style or the mechanics they are comfortable with in order to get more out of the game. Again, the Civilization series does this by asking you to play as every Civ, beat the game with each victory condition, on each difficulty level and so on. Other games do this by encouraging you to use different weapons or abilities, or hinting at alternate endings and paths through the game that you can explore. Again though, I think there are better way to do this within the game without having to rely on achievements to motivate the player.

Second, achievements, at least on the major consoles, are mandatory. Games that go through the approval process to get on these platforms must include achievements, must award certain levels or points for these achievements and must implement them in certain ways. This may be the greatest problem of all, as developers who cannot or do not have the time to come up with interesting ways to implement them don't have the option to leave them out, but must instead force them into the experience anyway.

Achievements are going to be around for a long time. They remain in full force in this new generation of consoles and will likely survive long into the next. But I think it's time to take a long, big picture look at achievements and ask ourselves why we are still putting them in games, how we use them, how their use impacts the player, and what their roll is in the future.