Achievements: do all games really need them?
Posted at 23:00 on 22nd November 2008 - permalink

Achievements. Trophies. Badges. They go by many names, but the concept of doling out meaningless (and yet strangely compelling) “meta” rewards for completing a catalogue of in-game tasks (ranging from the trivial to the impossible, the obvious to the obtuse) has become practically mandatory for any new game or platform.

Xbox Live popularised the idea and laid out the modern blueprint that most subsequent systems have followed. Playstation Network, Steam, NGAGE, World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online followed with their own systems. Most casual web games (and in fact, many “Web 2.0” sites, even some with no direct affiliation to gaming) have implemented similar systems, rewarding community interaction. (Interestingly, Nintendo haven’t jumped on this bandwagon yet, although Metroid Prime 3 had it’s own discrete award system, and it could be argued that games like Super Smash Bros have offered achievements in all but name for years.)

In all seriousness, I would be surprised if the next version of Microsoft Office didn’t have a medal to collect for successfully completing 20 mail merges.

There have already been lots of discussions about the effect that achievements have on player psychology, and whether the bizarre practice of buying unappealing games with the intention of ‘farming’ them for easy points has any wider negative impact than on the idiots wasting their time indulging in it. I’m not going to retread that ground here.

The aspect of achievements that doesn’t sit comfortably with me is the expectation that all games should implement them. To focus on Microsoft’s system (purely as it has popularised the concept the most – few people are bragging about their NGAGE achievements just yet), I don’t know if their technical requirements demand that each game must dish out 1,000 “Gamer Points” worth of achievements, and stipulate the amount of time and effort demanded of the player to earn them.

But even if participation in the whole system is optional (and I hope this would be the case), consumer expectations and publisher pressure might still force games to have Achievements, simply to be seen to be keeping up with the Joneses. (Similar to how the majority of Xbox 1 action games featured online play, even though it seems incredibly unlikely that the additional development costs could ever have been directly recouped from the trickle of subscription revenue that made its way back to developers.)

The reason that I find this blind rush to implement achievements worrying is that we are essentially allowing an outside party to meddle in the creative direction of a game. I strongly believe that the facilitators of games platforms (whether in hardware, or software like Steam) should be as neutral as possible. If they spot a gap in their platform’s portfolio, then it’s perfectly fine for them to focus their resources on filling it (by subsidising third party marketing, for instance), but when this escalates to imposing rules that define what they view as a ‘valid’ game, a line has been overstepped.

I can think of several historical cases of this sort of meddling behaviour, none of which reflected well on the platform vendors. Obviously, we can point to Nintendo’s policies on “objectionable” content in the 8-bit and 16-bit generations, which purged games of any drink, drugs and religious references, and reached the end of the line with a bloodless SNES version of Mortal Kombat and the subsequent consumer snubbing of that game in favour of the claret-splashed Mega Drive version.

A few years later Sony in the US took it upon themselves to block the release of 2D games from their platform, robbing US gamers of various Metal Slugs and other exceptional games which have aged a lot better than their 3D contemporaries.

While the achievements concept hasn’t (to my knowledge) caused any games to be cancelled, the way that it has been imposed uniformly on all games could have more insidious effects.

For once, a film analogy is appropriate. The crowbarring of achievements is similar to the diktats passed down by studio executives during the Studio System era. If a modern film studio were to impose a policy across their entire output in this way (say, every film must use a slide-whistle sound effect each time the protagonist appears, or feature a cameo by Mr T), regardless of it’s appropriateness in specific cases, there would be uproar. Directors would storm off, demanding to be allowed to do the directing that they’d been paid for. Evidently most game developers aren’t quite so concerned about encroachment on their artistic vision.

I shouldn’t expect to be taken out of the game’s fiction for any reason, especially not for what is essentially the gaming equivalent of those obnoxious animated network idents that are so distracting when watching downloaded American TV shows. (A trend which is eloquently argued against by Ken “not the Bioshock one” Levine.)

I don’t want to see a VH1-style message pop up when I find a secret area which I might otherwise have thought (naively, but still strongly enough for the trick to work) that I’d been alone in finding. I want the mixture of excitement, anger and relief stirred up by defeating a genuinely evil and dangerous enemy to be conveyed through the animation, performance and music cues, without a tooltip telling me to CHEER NOW. Knowing that I’ve done something out of the ordinary in the context of the game should be enough reward, I don’t need a scorecard for that. Playing games shouldn’t be a chore, and we shouldn’t need to be constantly patted on the head to encourage us to keep playing.

Of course you can turn the pop-up messages off, but just knowing that a game has been dissected and measured and demarcated into a set of known values cheapens it artistically, and at worst systematically strips out much of the joy of discovery.

A version of Toejam & Earl that came with a checklist of all the enemies, all the interactions, and all the secrets would be spoiled before you even pressed start. A version of Elite with no achievement (even a dummy one) relating to “Generation Ships” would be a little less magical. The playful subversion of games like Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness would perhaps be rendered ineffective by the presence of an external layer of communication that the developers couldn’t touch.

I resent the implication that games are incapable of offering good enough rewards through their internal worlds.

I realise that this is quite an extremist position, and perhaps one that makes me sound like an awful David Cage-like ‘auteur’. I recognise that in the vast majority of cases, achievement systems are completely benign. All I’m saying is that every decision made in development affects the end product, and even having a seemingly quite trivial design decision imposed on a game could have unforeseen consequences.

Anything that sets out rules and conditions on what constitutes a game should be approached very, very carefully. With the benefit of hindsight we laugh at consoles from the 1970s whose controls and hardware were based on the assumption that every future game would be a variant of Pong, but it’s just as easy today to neglect to ask fundamental questions about what we’re doing and what else might be possible.

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