Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Defense of Achievements

In the last generation of consoles, video game players saw the rise of in-game achievements. At the time of their introduction (around 2005 or ‘06), they became popular, almost unbelievably so. So popular that users would go through nefarious hoops to accomplish these tasks just so that they were displayed on a profile. In recent years, appreciation for trophies or achievements has become more or less divided. Some people still obsess over maxing out their score; others could not care less.

So what are achievements, and why do they matter (or not)? Ostensibly, they are minor awards given to the player for accomplishing certain feats in video games. Microsoft debuted the concept with the releases for its console, the Xbox 360. PC games, including many on the Steam and Blizzard platforms, added them soon after, with Sony following suit in 2009 with trophies on the Playstation 3. While trophies did not have points associated with them, they did introduce a Platinum-level for getting 100% of the trophies in the game. It is a good way for developers to observe exactly how many players buying the game actually complete goals. Only Nintendo consoles do not have an established achievement-like system1. For the vast majority, these awards have absolutely no effect on the game itself; they are merely for a player to display on his or her profile.

Despite having no discernible value, for whatever reason, these became incredibly popular. When Xbox achievements unlock, an addictive “pop” sound accompanies them that elicits a near Pavlovian response in players. It is exciting to play through a game and have notifications as you complete an especially difficult task. Players would trade games to boost their scores or rent games with especially easy points. Gaming websites in the mid-2000s ran articles about the “10 easiest games to 1000 points!” ranking the quickest ways to get the then-maximum amount of awards. Then, players would seek to gain them with questionable motives. Tamer players wanting to “cheat” could play some games with their friends offline; the more hardcore cheaters actually unlocked achievements by unlawfully manipulating the data. For a short time, the achievements seemed more popular than the games themselves.

There is quite a wide range of tasks required to unlock the award, but most games will follow certain rules in achievement development. Story driven games will often have achievements for each mission or chapter completed. Also common are exploration goals, encouraging users to go out and find new locations. Sports games feature tiered achievements, like scoring so many points against the other team. Then there are online multiplayer tasks, as in bringing down 100 aliens with a certain weapon. Obviously, tasks vary by skill and are awarded as such. For example, most people will get the five points for completing a tutorial, but very few will get the fifty points for finishing a game without failing once.

Almost as quickly as they rose to popularity, they became passé. The many people illegally acquiring achievements were banned, but their actions still devalued the concept and people seemed to start realizing how they were actually quite worthless. There has never been a great way to look at your aggregate awards and compare them with friends, like a social network. Nearly every game that comes out today still has the same amount of achievements, but mostly gone are the hunters who work to gain every single award.

As I said, there is a fairly divided split in the favor of achievements. The pragmatic side sees achievements for what they truly are: meaningless and almost totally unrelated to the game’s experience. It is possible to play through the game and have a great time doing it without ever noticing a trophy unlock. Nintendo proves this quite well. Super Mario Galaxy is still a perfect game without an achievement for each unlocked planet2. The other side views achievements as the most important part of the gameplay experience. Don’t start a game if you can’t finish raise your completion ratio3! Nothing matters as long as you have more points than your friends! It doesn’t matter if you don’t like a certain mission: you have to do it nineteen more times to get the award! Of course, I’m exaggerating, but the point is, you either like achievements or you don’t care about them.

That is why I feel like the worst an achievement can possibly be is just pointless enough to inspire apathy. Like many people, I was very big into gathering achievements in the mid-2000s. In fact, I used to be too much into them. I definitely participated in matches where players were working together just to accomplish the inane tasks required. Embarrassingly, I might have even chose to play one game over the other simply because of the achievements. I have gotten much more realistic about them since then, but I still maintain that they are great for games.

On the contrary, the best kinds of achievements inspire new ways to play a game. If you generally play a game in one style, an achievement might make you go out and try new combinations of weapons or skills. Exploration tasks might send you out to new locations you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Some other awards may get you to play the game again at a higher difficulty. So while I still get a sense of enjoyment from seeing the announcement that I’ve unlocked a goal, and I still strive to gather as many as I can, I treat them as a fun side effect to the larger overall enjoyment of the game.

Trophies and achievements may not be that important to every person who plays a game, but they are not going away. If nothing else, they provide new reasons to dig further into games. I’m sure I’m not the only player who still looks over the achievement list before I start playing. It gives the player a list of goals to do that is, by definition, achievable. Even if some of them seem impossible. Happy hunting!

1 I should take this opportunity to highlight an amazing website called Retro Achievements. It allows users to play through emulated versions of their own classic games with user-created achievements. It gives a great new reason to replay through classic games. And it does include Nintendo games.
2 Although isn’t it fun to dream up trophies for 100 Skulltulas in Ocarina of Time, every Pokemon in Red/Blue, or escaping Zebes in less than a minute in Super Metroid?
3 Completion ratio is, of course, the percentage of achievements unlocked. Unabashedly, I still care a little bit about my ratio.