In Praise of Being Praised

It all began in the confessionary. Graham was telling us how he almost stopped playing videogames forever (I don’t think he would though) when we started debating about how to algebraically measure a game. It eventually came down to issues related to in-game grinding, which led to issues related to grinding for achievement points. I love to make fun of Graham’s inexplicable (well, to me (and everybody else) at least) gaming tastes. With this debate I might just have just given him the ammo he so longed for to fight back.

I’m an Achievement Whore.

Pretty obvious, right? After all, I am the guy who posts fictional achievement messages into his own stuff. Coincidentally, I am also the leading writer in terms of Nightmare Mode’s writerscore. Also important: who cares? Well, I do. That’s more than enough for me to keep posting these things. And….. ooooops! I did it again!

I don’t have a Gold membership for Xbox Live. I tried playing Gears of War online only once and discovered that I suck at it. Nevertheless, I have finished both games at the Insane difficulty. Why? Because of the Suicide Missionary 150 G Achievement, that’s why. It is a pretty sweet felling to receive that little badge after all that work I’ve had defeating the lambent Brumak (well, the Brumak itself was pretty easy, but who cares? I’m trying to make a point here!). That little badge is now added to my gamer profile. By comparing my profile with Patricia’s, I can see that – despite being able to kick my ass online – she hasn’t finished the game on Insane yet. I feel a bit of pride because of that.

Receiving virtual Achievement Points for virtual accomplishments is probably one of the biggest innovations of this generation. It’s even bigger than motion sensing and 3D graphics, because the concept of granting achievements can be applied to the real-world accomplishments as well (they ARE an incentive system, after all). They are more than a mere incentive system though. First and foremost, Achievement Points are that algebraic measuring unit we have been searching for: they can be seen as an explicit and universal indicator of how much a player has played a given game.

By the way, the reason I have not mentioned Sony’s trophy system until now is because I don’t own a PS3. I have the impression Sony’s system is similar, but I’m not familiar with it. So here’s what I know about Microsoft’s system:

  1. Every game that comes as a disk MUST have 1000 Gamerscore in the base game (i.e. you don’t need to pay extra and get a downloadable add-on in order to get those 1000 points). There are, however, no rules about how those points must be allocated among Achievements or what you must do to win one of them – it’s up for each developer to determine that for their respective games.
  2. Xbox Live Arcade games MUST have 200 Gamerscore in the base game
  3. Add-on content may award the played with up to 250 extra points for a regular game and up to 50 extra points for a XBLA game.

So, at this point we must ask the following question: Why do we collect achievements?

Answer: Because they provide us value.

This is one of the first points we’ve discussed. It was said that Achievements don’t reward you. People only collect them for the sake of collecting them. I’ve heard it was like having to fight monsters in JRPGs only for the sake of being able to fight more monsters. In the end, is the Achievement collecting activity merely grinding?

There is indeed no reward system, no loyalty program behind achievements. This is not bad, by the way. If there were, we might have the ridiculous situation of receiving an Achievement for collecting Achievements! Then it would be grinding. My assumption here is that most people go through the trouble of completing game challenges in order to get all Achievement Badges or to collect all 1000 points the game has to offer – and not to merely increase their Gamerscore. The reason is that the Gamerscore itself doesn’t carry much meaning: it could mean I play a lot of games but never fully complete them; or it could mean I completed 100% of all the few games I’ve played.

The Achievement Badge, on the other hand, has value. How could it not? If it takes time, effort and skill to obtain an item, then that item has value. It’s the same mentality that makes diamonds and Mercedes so adored worldwide. My brain treats this virtual badge as if it is real… because it is! We are not talking about meta-games between people competing for the higher Gamerscore here. These cases are circumstantial. We are talking about chronicling your gaming history by the challenges you were able to surpass. Gamasutra stated that less than 3% of the 10 million Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare players who have ever logged into Xbox Live have earned the “Mile High Club” achievement awarded for beating the epilogue at Veteran difficulty. It is one of the hardest achievements to get, but not impossible. It carries the value of distinguishing the player from the millions of people playing that game.

Gone are the days you had to stay in front of a truck to guarantee your Frogger bragging rights

In my case, because I could not buy all the games I wanted, I collected Achievements as a way to experience 100% of the few games I had. The number of games I could buy, however, is also purely circumstantial. What is not circumstantial, however, is that Achievements can work as indicators for completing a game 100%, which was another debated point.

Sure, you can say that Achievements are arbitrarily defined (although I prefer the term intelligently designed) meaning it may not correspond to the 100% mark of a given game, but then again, such mark is also arbitrarily designed. Some designers may define ‘completion’ simply as getting all the collectibles and finding all the hidden spots within the game. Others, however, will believe that you haven’t really experimented 100% of the game if you didn’t change the character’s clothing or discovered the pros and cons of every weapon they’ve designed. Some games already highlight the bullet points that must be fulfilled in other to achieve 100% of a game, e.g. Rockstar. Others leave that implicit, but gave you in-game prizes for performing tasks they deemed important. That’s a developer’s prerogative.

However, whether your prize is bigger wallet you can actually use in the game or an Achievement Badge with no in-game meaning is irrelevant to the discussion. Sure, one can argue about the values of each type of prize (intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards), but that is relative to the player. The same way a badge can hold virtually no value for someone, the in-game price can also be equally meaningless. The Legend of Zelda is a good example of a game that rewards you with items. In Ocarina of Time, collecting 100 Skulltulas is no more random than any other secondary task. It’s by far the most arduous and extensive side-quest of the game. And the prize for collecting them all is… 200 Rupees. That’s it. By the time you get that, 200 is practically nothing – after all you probably have already bought all you needed in the game by then. If you are after 100 Skulltulas, you are not doing because of the reward itself. Completing this incredibly arbitrary task is the reward by itself. The Journey is the Reward and this is why whatever proof you have from that journey is also meaningful.

With the assumption that designing Achievements is designing what the player should be experiencing in order to complete the game 100% some other benefits will come along. For the gamer, the thrill of reaching that 100% mark is no longer solitary – with the Achievements it now becomes a public victory. For the developers, Achievements can be used to make use players will learn and use certain skills (Zen and the Art of Reloading 10g: performed 20 successful Active Reloads in Gears of War) and/or weapons (Thunder and Lightning 20g: destroyed 50 enemies with the Flashbangs in Alan Wake), prod them to explore new areas (Sinking to New Depths! 10g: found the lowest place in the world of Prince of Persia) and try out all the modes the game has to offer (World Traveler 5g: played a complete game on every map of Team Fortress 2).

More importantly, because the Achievements are carried outside the game and every developed must include the same number of them in a game, these points become a relevant metric system and allow developers to improve their games!

Microsoft Game Studios, for instance, regularly collects Achievement data in order to research why people stop playing games. From the data published by Gamasutra, they found out that more than 50% of the more hardcore crowd stops playing before earning all of their Gamerscore points. From that data they have also found out that about only 50% of gamers completed Fable II’s main quest and actually beat the game. It’s no wonder Peter Molyneux was upset!

There, however, is also a very ugly side to this. Like any other incentive system, there is the fear that receiving an extrinsic reward for completing a task will decrease your interest in the task itself. A dog, for example, doesn’t sit because he wants to. He sits because he wants that cookie in your hand. Sure, you can say, it depends on the type of people. Some executive might do a job he loves, while some other executive might hate doing the same job, but will do it anyways only to get some kind of bonus. That is not the problem, however. The problem is when lazy developers figure that out and start launching shitty games with shitty design, but filled with easy Achievements.

Or as Graham would say, people would grind their asses in repetitive mindless and joyless tasks so they can get a dog cookie.

Electronic Entertainment Design and Research once published evidence that games that distribute their 1,000-point allotment across more than seven Achievements sell markedly better than games with fewer Achievements; however, because they also noticed a correlation between a high number of achievements and big game budgets, we cannot say for sure whether these games sell more because they have more Achievements or because they are big games. I have a better piece of evidence, however, that proves that people are more than willing to play schlock just to gather some more points. People, I give you Sneak King!

Believe it or not, people bought that rotten slice of advergaming.

Fortunately, choosing to buy games based on its Achievement Potential is still the exception. Had it been the rule, I don’t think anyone would have bought games with impossible Achievements like Mega Man 9 or 10 (one of them requires you to finish the game without taking any damage at all. I kid you not). It would also be foolish to blame bad game design on an incentive system alone and forget about all its advantages. Besides, people who’s willing to rack up points no matter what is probably a profitable niche for rental companies and the used games market – and not publishers, thus minimizing the incentive for bad design factor.

There are Achievements that make their respective games better. There are Achievements that act as one-liner humor and oh snap praises. In The Simpsons Game, a mockery of easy Achievements can be found with the Achievement Press START to Play (5g) that awards the player… for pressing START for the first time. Its description aptly reads: Easiest achievement…ever. In Bioshock, players who photograph Sander Cohen after killing him are surprised with the hidden Achievement Irony (10g). In the game, Cohen demanded you to kill his former disciples and take pictures of their corpses. In Half-Life 2, the game grants the Achievement Submissive if you let a guard abuse Gordon at the beginning or Defiant if you don’t (5g each). Both Achievements have the same amount of points, which is a way for the game to reward players for taking an active stance, while mocking the inconsequentiality of Gordon’s attitude at the same time.

There are also clever Achievements that require a non conventional gameplay style. These Achievements can make you approach the same game in completely different ways. Ikaruga’s Dot Eater (10g), for example, shakes the genre to its core and proves how robust its game design really is by rewarding players who can beat a chapter, any chapter, without shooting AT ALL. This only works because your ship can absorb shots depending on whether the shot was black or white and because the game doesn’t really require the player to defeat the bosses. If he survives for a certain amount of time, he will clear the stage. In order to get this Achievement, you have to play a shoot ’em up, a genre that normally requires huge amounts of aggressive defensiveness, only thinking about your survival. You were playing as the Jock and now you are the Nerd. Being the Nerd is tougher.

Another great Achievement is called Little Rocket Man from Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It’s worth 30 points, which makes it the most valuable badge you can get among the 99 available Achievements of The Orange Box. It goes like this: somewhere at the start of the game, you will find a little garden gnome. At first, I wondered what the hell a gnome was doing there, but then moved on and forgot about it. However, if you carry the garden gnome through the entire game and place it inside the rocket at the end, you will get the Achievement. Well, not really. The Achievement will only pop up when the rocket is actually launched.

So, through the majority of my second playthrough of Episode 2, Gordon Freeman was carrying a gnome. If some NPC noticed it, they were kind enough not to mention anything. During our adventures, the gnome (who apparently has its own blog and whose name happens to be Trey) and I developed a symbiotic relationship stronger than any Companion Cube might provide. I discovered that Trey is indestructible but the still real possibility of losing him at the last minute was too scary for me to contemplate. Mute, but ever watching with its little judging eyes, Trey ended up being the perfect companion to Gordon – despite Trey’s irritating and illogical fear of cars. Needless to say that releasing Trey of its duty was perhaps the most difficult moment Gordon had to endure.


In the end, that 30g of an Achievement ultimately granted me the best escort mission I could ever hope for in a videogame.

I heard Left 4 Dead 2 also has the same Achievement. I have never played it but considering it’s a friggin Zombie Apocalypse and yet the game was designed for multiplayer, I figure the gnome would be a heavier burden. But then again, it’s the closest we have ever had to trying to make your goddamn child survive a horde of the undead.

Mirror’s Edge Pacifist and Test of Faith Achievements (15g and 80g respectively) actually attenuates one of the game’s biggest design flaws: it requires you to kill enemies rather than always running away from them – which undermines what a game based on FREE RUNNING (!) was supposed to do! Complete a chapter without firing a gun and you get Pacifist. Complete the entire game without a gun, and you get Test of Faith, as well as proving your own faith on the game’s design, which is not something Mirror’s Edge’s developers can also say. This is an Achievement that is not only rewarding, but also makes the game more immersive.

What not to Do

Here are a few rules of what I consider to be badly designed Achievement.

#1: Don’t give incentive to the player to undermine the concept of your game

This should be pretty clear, but we still see developers making huge bloopers while forgetting that a game’s emergent plot is consisted by the very act of playing that game. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to award a protagonist searching for redemption for placing a hogtied woman on the train tracks, and witnessing her death by train (Dastardly 5g – Red Dead Redemption). Achievements like these are out of place and undermine the game’s concept. In The Simpsons Game, the Achievement Pwnd (0g) is awarded if the player dies ten times. Now, considering the point of the game is winning, and not losing, why the hell would the game award you for that? Sure, you can say this Achievement is more like a shame badge, but getting it is still required for a completionist. What was the point of designing such achievement?

#2: Don’t incentive the gamer based on events outside his/her control

An achievement should never be something the player has no control over. You should not reward random chance, because random chance requires nothing from the player. Making an Achievement for defeating someone from the developing team online or for getting that Pokémon that can only be obtained in special event at selected cities is dumb and redundant – after all, competing against the developer and getting the exclusive Pokémon are the rewards themselves. By the way, this is why I refuse to congratulate women at the International Women’s Day: there is no achievement in being born with this or that chromosome.

#3: Don’t praise people for being still or enduring your crappy design.

Guitar Hero II has an Achievement whose badge is a pick with ZZZ written on it. You get it after viewing the entire game credits. Now, if you wanted players to look at the people who made the game in the first place, why not making the credits less horribly boring than they actually are? These Achievements add nothing to the game.

#4: Don’t use Achievements to artificially elongate the game

Viva Piñata awards the Longevity Achievement for enduring 10 hours of the game. Deadly Premonition expects you to play on an easy difficulty even AFTER beating the game on harder difficulties. These kinds of Achievements are as gratuitous as they are pointless: if the game is fun enough to be played for X hours, people will play it regardless of Achievements. People may even make an effort to get this stuff, but it will come at the expense of creating a grudge against the game and its makers.

#5: Don’t reward people for investing their times rather than their skills

While it makes sense to award people for killing 50 enemies with a specific gun, because it incentives players not to ignore that gun, it makes no sense awarding people for killing 500,000 enemies with a gun unless that gun can kill 10,000 enemies per second. This is is neither fair nor interesting to the player

#6 Be careful with online Achievements

Achievements are individual rewards for completing goals. The problem is that in a multiplayer mode, this goal can be in total opposition to the multiplayer match’s goal. This problem is aggravated in team-centric games.

This is ok if your Achievement is something like play a match in each multiplayer stage, because it incentives people to try all the scenarios included in the game, while not affecting the multiplayer match itself. More problematic is to include an achievement for getting 50 multiplayer kills with knife and then have a match where one team is in clear disadvantage because some guy insists in using the knife and keeps dying all the time.

All in all, we do love a good challenge, but there is a clear line between being challenging and being a dick. So, to conclude this text, will mention some of the worst Achievements I have ever seen so far.

  • The Inhuman Achievement (15g) – Guitar Hero 3

You get this by beating a song Through Fire and Flames on Expert. To put things in perspective, not even Dragonforce, the band who wrote the song, can do it. This is a good incentive for making YouTube videos, but for everybody else who is human, it makes no sense to award inhumanity.

  • Seriously 2.0 (50g) – Gears of War 2

Honestly, if you are naming your Achievement Seriously, don’t bother including it. You get this by killing 100,000 enemies – which is not hard, but very, very time consuming. The attenuating about this shitty Achievement is that Gears of War includes a little note every time you reach a landmark: 100 enemies killed, 500 enemies, 2000… etc.

  • Seven Day Survivor (20g) – Dead Rising

If you thought destroying 100.000 enemies was bad, what about destroying your Xbox 360? All you have to do is survive the zombie infested mall of Dead Rising for 7 in-game days, which is roughly around 22 hours, real-time. That’s not problem, you say, after all, you got a new Xbox 360 from the future that is not prone to overheating and you play games inside a chilled meat storage. Okay then, what if I told you that saving is impossible? And that bosses can respawn without warning? And that you live is constantly depleting unless you eat food? And that food is limited?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Capcomian circle of hell.

  • Gamer’s Day 20g – Mega Man 9

All you have to do is finish the game 5 times in one day. Simple stuff, really. The name of the Achievement is Gamer’s Day because it is likely that one entire day of your life will be devoted to getting 20g at one of the hardest XBLA games around.

It’s the 8-bit version of the Capcomian circle of hell

  • Level 75 [insert job class here] 30g each – Final Fantasy XI

You thought 22 hours was easy, didn’t you? What about 4-6 months? PAYING months, by the way. Assuming, of course, you can play for one third of a day …every single day. That’s roughly what it will take to completely level up ONE of the EIGHTTEEN classes available and get one of these Achievements.

Best of luck, old bean!