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What's the Point of Steam Achievements Anyway?
by Mike Rose on 09/10/10 10:05:00 am   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


achievementsHowever you feel about achievements, they are by far one of the largest additions to gaming that we've seen in the last decade. Achievements extend the play time on games, and give us that warm feeling inside whenever 'ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED' pops up.

I'd be the first to admit that Xbox achievements and PS3 trophies are a huge deal in my everyday gaming, and have affected by play style considerably. For example, I used to play games on either Easy or Normal difficulty, since I had no reason to test myself with Hard mode. Now the majority of games offer extra achievement points for completing the game on the toughest difficulty, and I'm more than willing to go that extra mile for another 100G.

Yet while I'm madly in love with both Xbox achievement points and PSN trophies, there is one type of achievement that doesn't interest me at all - Steam achievements. Awarded during certain PC games available via Steam, they mean absolutely nothing to me, and are really quite pointless.

There's so much wrong with Steam achievements that it's hard to know where to begin. First up, the Steam community service is such a royal mess that it's hard to know where to find your unlocked achievements in the first place! There is no single place where they are collected together, and instead you need to view your games list, then scroll down until you find the specific game you want.

Once you've found the achievements you're looking for, there's no way to measure how well you're actually doing. Steam achievements have no worth, and instead your specific game will simply state that you have unlocked X number of achievements out of a total of Y. It's not at all interesting, and doesn't make me want to jump into the game and achieve the rest.

It's also an utter pain to compare your unlocked achievements to that of a friend, and even when you finally manage to do so, it doesn't exactly make great reading, as the issue of worth rears its head again - since none of the achievements have points attached to them, you're simply looking at a string of boxes and text.

This is the main problem - there is no overall score you're supplied with. While Xbox has your gamer score, and Playstation gives you a level based on your trophies, Steam doesn't bother with anything. Hence, you have nothing to show for your hard work, and no total score to feel all warm and fuzzy over.

It doesn't help that Steam achievements aren't available on the majority of games. While both Microsoft and Sony make it mandatory for developers to implement achievements and trophies in their games, Valve doesn't push this feature, meaning the majority of games don't even have anything to unlock. When only a handful of games on the service actually use the achievement system, is there really any point in it at all?

In all fairness, Steam does have one decent feature in the achievements department - the ability to check out global statistics. Checking which achievements have been unlocked by players of the game and which are rarities is enjoyable reading, and it's clever that you're also able to compare your own achievements to the global totals.

Other than this, the entire system just feels utterly hopeless and in dire need of a reboot. Steam has a huge userbase, and it's essential that it provides proper achievements that players will actually want to engage with. Achievements not only prolong the life of a game but also act as an extra selling point when a player is considering a purchase.

The following steps need to be taken. Firstly, the 'Steam Rating', which is currently based on how many hours you've played in the last two weeks (and is yet another completely pointless feature) needs to be replaced by an achievement score, based on how many achievements a player has unlocked. This way friends will be able to visit your Steam profile and see how skilled you are (or simply how many games you've got!).

Valve then need to push the bigger developers to include Steam achievements with their games. It would be silly to ask every single developer to include achievements, as this would potentially put smaller indie outfits off releasing their games via Steam. However, huge releases happen on Steam all the time, and every single one of these should come with achievements, no exceptions.

As it stands, there is no real reason to care at all about Steam achievements, and in fact you'll find that certain gamers will buy a multi-format game on a console rather than PC just so they can bag the achievements available. Surely this is reason enough for Valve to make the necessary changes to their currently broken system.

Achievement Unlocked

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Michael Meyer
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This all seems so bizarre to me. It's difficult to see how xbox achievements are any less pointless.

Apparently I'm in the minority, but I actually find that they make the games harder to enjoy. I'm playing something for fun, and this thing pops up and tells me I get points for it. It's like if I was hanging out with a friend and then he tried to pay me for doing so. It almost feels like an insult, you know?

Armand Kossayan
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I'm with you Michael. I can't figure out the purpose of achievements. The points you get through Live don't mean anything other then an "extra" set of points. I don't need to qualify my game play by something that you can add to a game long after it's completed.

I'd rather developers used quality gaming and interesting writing to bring me back for more. Worthless points for pulling off some banal task just doesn't make sense when I have a back log of other games.

And seeing the "you unlocked BS achievement" in the middle of my game is mostly a distraction that breaks immersion.

I wouldn't advocate their removal, as a lot of people seem to like them, but they just aren't for me.

Maurício Gomes
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There are one game in Steam that behave like X-Box games (Beat Hazard), and it annoys the hell out of me.

The game is a arena shooter, really hectic, I am there, fighting a huge boss, zillions of bullets in the screen, and then suddleny a HUGE thing pops in the screen:

"Achievement unlocked, get 10 million points"

And then I die in the swarm of bullets from hell.



Adam Bishop
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I agree that they make games harder to enjoy, which is why I've completely turned off system notifications so they stop popping up. Unfortunately, it's not possible to turn achievements off without turning ALL system notifications off (like game invites) which is incredibly annoying and a stupidly antagonistic way to treat your customers.

Owain abArawn
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I ignore them - no value added for me. Like Michael Meyer, above, I tend to find them a bit condescending.

Tiago Costa
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Well... thinking about achievements, I recognize something we had in game for decades and played our games just to obtain it.. we called it highScores... Its was the first form of achievements, so I cant bash one without bashing the other and since I like highscores, I have to like achievements.

And I like them, even tough their a bit for bragging rights to almost everyone, I like to see achievements as something that dedicated people, to that game, may obtain. For me seeing a 100% in trophies show that a person has a sort of dedication to that game, nothing more.

Also I dont find it more game breaking seeing a trophy appearing as that of seeing a "new highscore" message appearing in game.They do not add or remove more of the game to me, as much as high scores do not add more to the game...

As for steam achievements, I have to concur with the poster, its a general mess, comapred with teh Xbox and Ps3 counterparts...

Livingston Datkowitz
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I agree with Owain and Michael on the thought that achievements are pointless and distracting overall. Once in a while though, a game that I really enjoy will have them and I'll become hooked on unlocking them in the beginning. By the end of the game though, I won't feel the need to go back and get the remaining achievements.

Sean Monahan
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I think we're just seeing the beginning of achievements. They're obviously here to stay and when well designed they add a lot of depth to a game.

StarCraft 2 does an excellent job of implementing achievements as they encourage you to explore the game and check out stuff you might otherwise overlook. They also challenge you to play and win at harder game modes. Blizzard did a truly great job of making achievements part of the StarCraft 2 experience rather than just tacking on points for doing stuff.

All of this is to say that I agree that achievements can be pointless and detract from the experience of playing a game, but there are a growing number of games that make great use of them to enhance the game experience.

Jakub Janovsky
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1. I dont care about ANY achievments at all

2. To me assigning points to each achievment across many games and overall gamer score is IMO retarded.

3. Compared to Steam, both PSN and XBL sux

Anne Andres
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Jakub - you need to check your attitude. 'xbl sux' isn't exactly constructive criticism.

I feel about achievements the same way that I feel about commencement ceremonies for grades 1-11. They are meaningless and remove the actual achievement that comes from graduating high school. The majority of achievements get unlocked through standard game play. Such as HL2 - get the crowbar. Are you kidding me? One of the fundamental game mechanics gives me an achievement?, Achieve, def 2 - to get or attain by effort.

Simply loading the game and taking a step forward isn't putting in effort. It is insulting. High scores mean that a person put in time and effort (see definition, re: effort). Getting the crowbar didn't take effort. It took walking around in invincible mode with the combine shooting painless bullets at me.

Unlocking 100% of the available content, that is achievement via effort. Getting the high score, that is via effort.

Farhan Anwat
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I didn't get it. He thinks that XBL and PSN achievements are worth getting, while Steam Achievements are not??? Why, just because of GAMERSCORE. What is gamerscore then??? Does it give you anything. I play Team Fortress 2 and it has 325 Achievements. And after a specific set of achievements i accomplish, I unlock new items and weapons used in-game.

Maurício Gomes
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I like TF style of achievements :) They are mostly meaningfull stuff, and they reward you, and doing them is fun... It is not like those games that has a achievement for doing nothing for 3 hours, or a achievement for not skipping the intro video...

Ty Burks
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Achievements are simply a modern version of the high score. Its a way to compare your playing habits to your friends and others. They entice the player to adventure into parts of the game, or mechanics in the game that they might not normally try. They give some players a sense of accomplishment, and a faux sense of "level" for their gaming abilities. That's it, they don't mean anything unless you WANT them to. Some people enjoy the competitive high score side of gaming, some just want to be immersed in the story. If you don't care about them, then ignore them and play your game. Although, being able to hide their popups would be a good option to have.

Ty Burks
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In relation to the main subject of the article, I do agree that Steam's achievement system isn't implemented as well as XBL and PSN.

Angelo DiPaolo
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I find achievements useful in a social context. It's fun to share and compare achievements with friends to see how they are progressing in a game or how they chose to play the game. It creates a fun sense of competition without the need for a multi-player mode. The points don't seem to matter as much as the individual accomplishments each achievement provides so I will agree that the points metric is mostly worthless.

Rick Kolesar
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While I don’t set out to get achievements, I don't mind them because I know a lot of people like them. The problem with Achievements is that developers are making terrible decisions on how to give them away. Don't give me an achievement for beating a level or unlocking a weapon in the game, that’s already the achievement (a new level, a new gun). You are rewarding the player twice for the same event. And please stop the "Watched Credits" or "Started a new Game" achievement... that's just laziness.

Instead, figure out ways you can reward achievements to players by extending your game and make the gamer play the game in a different way. Portal had two additional modes; Timed and Step Mode that made you play the game differently (and both made you better at the main game by making you look at the game a little differently). Or how about a fighter game that has achievements for only use weak attacks or kicks attacks. Learning more weak or kick attacks would also strengthen your fighting skills.

Achievements are good, but that are being bastardized by developers to get more people to buy/play their games (games with easier achievements do sell a bit more). And I'm sure usability people are making achievements a bit too bland.

Raymond Domingo
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I think they need to make a website that ranks the hardest achievements ever made. Make people obtain achievements or trophies based on skill. Then have them compare there list with other gamers. This is a list worth fighting for to get recognized.

Jonathan Jennings
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most of the " hardest" achievements to get are unnecessary time sinks though. my two favorite examples are rumble roses and DOA x2 which both essentially ask you to collect anywhere from 100 - 500 different outfits for at minimum 8 different characters. throw in the fact to gain currency a player must slog through poorly implemented mini games and have achievements that are more based on investing a ridiculous amount of time than having anything at all to do with skill.

Raymond Domingo
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To: Jonathan Jennings

I understand that some of the hardest achievements in games are time sinks. My favorite or should I say most pointless time sink achievement was getting ranked 4 on World of Warcraft. I had alot of skill to win most of my PvP matches but I could only play for 8 hours of the day. The players ranked 1st,2nd,3rd had 3 people playing one character, so I couldnt keep up with the amount of time they were playing. Was not a skill based achievement but more a time based one.

This hardest achievements list would be voted on by the community, so to avoid any time based achiements to make the list. I totally agree time based achievements pointless, only skill based achiements allowed.

Theshigen Navalingam
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The way I see Steam achievement:

1) I don't actively try to get them

2) When I get them, I find them a nice surprise. TF2 achievements are hilarious, always cool whenever you get one of those even if you don't earn anything(or unlock something).

Jason Schwenn
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I think the main problem with achievements is they are completely arbitrary. Someone here compared them to high scores of yesteryear, but high scores were a completely subjective way to determine who had higher skill in a game and had, literally, achieved a better overall game.

Achievements are "boredom with a purpose" most of the time, and the model that most systems use seemed to have been developed by marketers and not game designers.

Dylan Woodbury
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I think steam has waaaaayyy to many achievements. You play the first five seconds of TF2, and suddenly youve got like 20 achievements (like, less than a percent that is offered). On the other hand, some games use it infrequently and when it doesn't mean anything (infamous comes to mind). Beating a level doesn't need an extra achievement every level, as progression is reward enough. Doing extremely well on a level, or discovering something new, is worthy of an achiev though.

Jamil Versi
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From what I can remember of when Xbox started their achievement system, a few developers used the them as a way of collecting data on how far players progressed in the game. I doubt if that's still the case, though, and it's unlikely Steam achievements were ever used that way.

Personally, I enjoy them most when they encourage playing in a way that normally I wouldn't but I see other benefits as well. When a friend unlocks one that I don't have, I strive to earn it as well, and vice versa. It's an excellent form of competition when you can't actually play with friends because of conflicting schedules.

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I'm pretty sure they data mine achievements there's too much useful data there on how their games are played to ignore.

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My only complaint about achievements is that they're not really achievements much of the time. The only achievements I have that I think are good achievements are: Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 beating master ninja and Demon Souls Platinum. A few "beat the game on hardest" are decent as well, like the Call of Duty games.

Two that I think are good, but that I couldn't do is Street Fighter IV beat all hard trials (I could probably do this with enough practice) and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 beat the extra missions (co-op), while some of the NGS2 extra missions were easy there were a few that seemed impossible like beating 4 bosses on master ninja at the same time. If you've played that stage you know what I'm talking about. I really don't think that stage is possible. I couldn't find a video of it on Youtube just now, but I did forget exactly what the extra level was called.

Tiago Costa
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I agree.

Achievements to be relevant (to me) should be like highscores, it should be tought to get them.

Chris Teresi
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Steam achievements upset me. I work super hard, and I get the chance to get every achievement in TF2 (not kidding, I have them all) but I don't get a reward. All that time, gone to waste.

James Castile
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achievements do two things for me... one is annoying, one is satisfying
the annoying bit is that I play a game I decide I don't like but I have one or two achievements out of sixty or more and it makes my game completion rate go down.
But it's satisfying when I play a game like with the HL2 series and I get "The One Free Bullet" or "Little Rocket Man" because I feel it shows how much I respect the game that I'm willing to get that 100 per cent on it. Or in some cases it's purely ego driven to be part of a subjectively "exclusive" club like finishing Torchlight with a hardcore character. I personally could do without that whole process. I'm doing Van Helsing 1 on heroic hardcore right now and it's bugging the hell out of me. I'm on my fifth or sixth try lol... Game is much more enjoyable on a lower difficulty and not hardcore. Since all of my deaths are due to what I consider to be bad game design.
Anyway, /rant
I could do without achievements altogether but I do find at least enough enjoyment from them to find them acceptable.