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An Alternative to Achievements

January 25, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Designer Keith Burgun examines the concept of achievements, looking at how they're used, how they might be used in the future, and how they might even change totally -- for the better.

Despite having strong feelings on the topic, I put off writing about achievements for a very long time. This was because I thought that the problems that I saw with the existing model would have gone away on their own by now. It's clear though that for new digital game releases, they have clearly managed to lock themselves into the "set of qualities we should all expect in a modern video game."

I know that there's a ton of writing on this topic already out there, but I'd like to hit the question from a different angle. For instance, I'm aware of what Chris Hecker has talked about at length about regarding extrinsic motivators. While I think his views make sense, I'm actually not interested in arguing for or against extrinsic rewards in general. I'm arguing against achievements themselves, and how they, specifically, work on a mechanical level.

Lucas Blair wrote an extensive three-part piece on achievements here at Gamasutra. His article essentially took the stance of, "we're going to be doing achievements no matter what, so here are some best practices for using them." I don't agree with his underlying premise.

The one thing that remains constant is that things always change. I think that in time, we'll see achievements either go away or change dramatically. If this sounds crazy, keep in mind that there are a good number of successful games coming out today that don't have achievements at all, on iOS and Nintendo consoles.

I need to clarify and explain that I'm referring to achievements as they are usually implemented. I'm sure you can think of one or two games that seem to have a sensible, inoffensive and even interesting application of something that looks a bit like what one might call "achievements." It would be impossible to speak for every single case of achievements that ever existed. Instead, I'm speaking generally.

You may feel that achievements are great as they are. If this is the case, hear me out. Perhaps I can convince you otherwise, or at least, give you some advice on how to make them better.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a fantastic example that highlights the problems that I see. Now, this is a 2012 release -- in fact, it was only released this past August. It is a brand-new game, by one of the most beloved and highly regarded triple-A video game development teams (Valve Software), and sure enough, it includes a ton of totally asinine achievements. I'll also include some achievements from the also brand-new games XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Resident Evil 6.

Before I carry on: don't worry. I don't expect achievements to actually disappear anytime soon. They're pretty well rooted into our culture now, and if they ever disappear completely, it will probably be decades rather than years from now. Indeed, you're required to have achievements on Microsoft and Sony's consoles (but notably, not anywhere else: neither iOS, Nintendo, Android, nor Steam make any such requirements). Regardless, I think it's in everyone's interest to understand the pitfalls of achievements; not all of which have been pointed out elsewhere.

I'll also pitch something that I think should replace achievements.

Major Problems

What's so bad about achievements? The mother-problem with any "achievement" system can be stated like this: at their best, they do nothing at all. At their worst, they influence player behavior.

What's wrong with influencing player behavior, you might ask? Influencing behavior is a bad thing because you (ostensibly) just spent roughly six to 12 months fine-tuning a set of game rules to do exactly that. Let's remember that a game is a set of rules that limit and motivate player behavior. You just spent a crazy amount of time tweaking, balancing, and turning knobs until player behavior was influenced exactly the way you wanted, all around one central goal and gameplay mechanism.

If you did not do this, well, that's a whole separate issue. In this case, you're simply not doing your job as a game designer, and no amount of metagame is going to distract people from the fact that your game isn't presenting players with interesting choices and dynamic, emergent and elastic strategic possibilities.

So let's assume that you have taken the time to create a balanced, dynamic, motivating set of rules for your game. Now you're just going to throw a bunch (most times, a ton) of other arbitrary motivators at the player? A great number of extra, optional goals that can be met even by accident? It's like spending years building a clock, and then just once you're done, pouring in a bag of random-sized gears and slathering over it with a dressing of industrial glue. In this way, achievements are yet another testament to the culture-wide lack of regard for the discipline of game design.


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Comments


Robert Boyd
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Love the article and love the idea of variants as a replacement for achievements. I wasn't thinking of achievements when I implemented them, but we've included some variant modes of play in our RPGs in the past like "XP x 4, but you can only have 1 character in your party" and "Get a higher score depending on how low your character LVs are when you beat bosses." They generally weren't hard to implement and some players really enjoyed them.

Keith Burgun
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If you implement just about *any* feature, "some players" are going to really enjoy it, it would seem to me.

Michael Buffaloe
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As a gamer, I've always disregarded achievements / trophies as unimportant - at best, they have acted as memory triggers, symbolizing and reminding me of my progress through a story or multiplayer experience. I don't have the inbuilt urge to collect for collection's sake and I don't really get any pleasure out of unlocking something unless it provides a tangible reward, so I've never been consciously affected by the system.

All that said, I still don't think achievements / trophies are an inherently negative system. I just think they aren't really prioritized by most developers, which results in a rather Skinner Box-esque metagame. I've encountered a few examples of clever uses of the achievement system, but on the whole I think most developers just don't view them as robust enough to integrate into their more important gameplay systems.

Look at LittleBigPlanet 2 - instead of relying on trophies, the developers quickly included a stock set and instead engineered an all-new "Pin" system. This system was incredibly similar to trophies, but it allowed for much more flexibility and creativity. They can support hundreds of pins instead of 50, they can add new pins at any time, and they can even include secret pins that have very specific unlock requirements (such as high-fiving a dev team member - which is a real thing!).

So, from my perspective, I don't think achievements are going away - if anything, I think developers are realizing that the current implementation is too restrictive for most modern games, and (depending on the title) will either develop their own more robust alternatives (such as your suggested Variants) or forego them entirely in lieu of more important elements.

Jeremy Stone
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I see achievements more as built-in commentary or voice-over. That can be at best something your brain has to work to ignore or at worst really jarring and ruining the immersive experience. Sometimes it works really well -- say a multiplayer competitive game where achievements essentially act like a scorecard to compare against others. Usually there are better ways to even do that. Most of the time (as you've mentioned) it's pretty lame. I think there could be a place for them as a non-invasive scoring sub-system, but in general I agree with you -- they are almost always a cheap trick to get face time that otherwise people wouldn't spend. The only example I can think of where they are useful is if you're looking up a friend's avatar or profile in a game and want to get a general feel of how far along they are. And that does not have to be done with the generally accepted situation you see today.

Thanks, good article!

Jan Zheng
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I think it's ok if an achievement changes player behavior if it actively encourages players to step outside their comfort zone, or if it helps encourage different styles of play. In FTL for example, certain achievements change the play styles because they force the player to make choices they would normally probably not do. The game encourages accomplishing achievements by rewarding the player with new ship types.

Axel Cholewa
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I think those achievments are variants in disguise ;) You gain something from them - ship types or layouts - and you know beforehand that you're going after it, thereby everyone involved - the player and the game designer - agrees on the rules before the game begins.

Kenneth McGonigle
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To me, it really depends on the game. In a multiplayer-only game like CS:GO, they can be pretty dumb; for another example, fighting games often feature weak achievements like "win X ranked matches" that most players will earn very quickly without thinking about it. For a lot of games, it feels like they ran out of ideas for interesting achievements long before reaching their target number, so they just threw some easy stuff in there to pad out the list.

On the other hand, many single-player games, like Bayonetta, already offer gameplay variants in some way other than a menu option, and like Jan says, achievements can be a good way to get players to try different things they may not have otherwise, not because they aren't viable options, but because they're more difficult or because what they're already doing works fine. I feel like these achievements work as an added incentive to explore a game's existing options, without forcing players to do so by, say, making certain enemies immune to a given attack type.

Tying unlocks to achievements has also had some degree of success, as Jan also mentions above. Outside of a couple of silly achievements like your Medic example, TF2's achievement-based unlocks are very nice for rewarding players who demonstrate skill playing a certain class. Unfortunately, games don't do this kind of thing very often, partially because publishers would rather charge for access to content that would've been unlockable through regular play ten years ago.

They're also useful for tracking progress, which has proven to be a good tool for fact-checking; I know there have been cases where published reviews were shown to have been faked when writers' achievement lists revealed they had only played early segments of the games in question. This also works well with the basic concept of achievements, which is being able to show your friends online that you beat games.

Keith Burgun
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Don't you think it's sort of a problem if players are choosing what their goals are on the fly, in the middle of gameplay? It seems that it turns goals into stuff that just sort of accidentally happens or something players do because it's convenient *right now*, like "oh hey, I'm up pretty high, I guess now I can get that sniper achievement", or whatever.

It seems to me that a game is stronger when the goals are very clear, fixed once play starts, and difficult to achieve.

Brian Devins
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I really enjoyed this article and I agree with most of it. As other commentors suggest, I think it depends on the game.

For repetitive games like World of Warcraft or Team Fortress 2, I love achievements. I like the idea of there being 30 grenade-related achievements, each signifying that I've succeeded in testing a new strategy. Valve described this feedback mechanism as a means for players to compete against themselves so that they feel like they're making progress regardless of whether they win a match.

For a linear story-based game I despise achievements. GTFO my immersion.

David Wilcox
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Valve is also responsible for probably the most play-altering achievement I can think of, the one where you have to carry the gnome for like four hours in "Half-Life 2: Episode Two." Keeping that thing in the car was such a chore. I almost wish achievements like that came with some sort of "second playthrough only" condition, because I can't help myself the first time.

Keith Burgun
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David - you mean like an unlockable "variant" ? :D

Ryan Salvatore
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That's an interesting point about repetitive games. Lord of the Rings Online has the "deed" system which functions a lot like an achievement system, but it's tied to their version of a talent tree. So if you kill 300 orcs (first 50, then 100, then 300) in an area, you are rewarded with the "Determination" trait (I'm making that specific example up, but that's the general idea). That trait gives you some bonus to your stats. Or they may have ones tied to using a certain ability a certain number of times. That one might give you a bonus to using that ability.

I particularly like the latter system because at first it seems to be a useless thing, similar to the Medic "going for an achievement" rather than healing, but nothing teaches you how to properly use an ability better than using it repeatedly. And when you get the "achievement," you aren't done, it unlocks that trait that makes using that ability that much better going forward.

It's not a perfect system, but I think it deserved a mention alongside these other achievement alternatives.

Luis Guimaraes
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In my definition Achievements mean Annoying Popups.

At least give an option to completely disable it to the trash bin, or replace it with something of value in the game (gold, skill points).

At best, give me a discount package for buying the game without that nonsense. Very welcome.

Roberta Davies
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You can disable achievement pop-ups in Xbox, but the option isn't obvious.

It actually disables all notifications, including multiplayer-related, so it might not be a suitable option if you need the multiplayer communication.

Axel Cholewa
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@Roberta: you can? Jeez, why did I never look for that! Just started Dead Space again, and your comment made my upcoming playthrough so much sweeter! Thanks a lot :D

Christiaan Moleman
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Sony sadly still has not added an option for disabling Trophy pop-ups to PS3.

Matt Robb
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While I do believe that achievements have gone off the deep end as far as encouraging weird things in competitive multiplayer games, I think the article misses one key point of achievements. I always felt the initial reason Microsoft included them in XBox Live was so people could compare and compete with others on a metagame level. You can use them to find people with a comparable amount of play experience, and you can use them to compete with your friends in a disconnected manner on single-player games. Microsoft supplies screens where you can show your list of achievements side by side with a friend to compare who has done what.

Alexander Symington
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When comparing individual achievements between players with similar levels of engagement, this is meaningful, although I think opt-in leaderboards would usually achieve this is a more nuanced and relevant way.

One problem is that generalised achievement systems tend to conflate a large number of distinct objectives that aren't at all comparable in difficulty or required time investment in a simplistic way, at worst into the completely meaningless cross-title Gamerscore. I think this is very much part of the reason that MS implemented the system, as this metagame encourages people to buy more software to boost their overall scores. But looking at games like Avatar: The Last Airbender, an apparently mediocre game that is nonetheless somewhat widely played because all of its Gamerscore points can be 'achieved' in five minutes flat, I would question whether that has had a good effect on either players or developers.

Jason Withrow
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I'd say this is one of the best uses of Achievements, in fact, it goes beyond a stats leaderboard (as others have mentioned below) and into useful specifity. Have I beaten the Story? Metroid Prime: Hunters used to attach this to your Hunters License for all to see. Have I cleared all the bonus bosses. A good chunk of my wanting Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD is to show off that I can club Lance Bass' Sephiroth into unconsciousness! Even under the "Variants" system I still want to share these specifics, and in that regard, a shiny gold badge is just more _special_ than a stats screen saying you "did Variant #12 6 times." Did I launch a garden gnome into space? Yes sir, I did, and it's one of the proudest, goofiest moments of my gaming career.

Corey Birnbaum
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I agree with Matt. Achievements are being abused, but the idea is to provide a social metagame, which is a perfectly legit use case, if perhaps poorly implemented. Burgen wrongly--and without rebute--blows over this. He simply complains about the negative aspects of the current (most popular) incarnation of achievement systems.

What Burgen also seems to suggest is that devs build mutators (Unreal Tournament term, just 'mod' elsewhere), which is completely different than publicly announcing an in-game accomplishment--ie "variants" are not an alternative at all!

Ultimately, I did not find this article conducive to the discussion surrounding achievements. I have no idea why the Penny Arcade Report picked this up.

Keith Burgun
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The thing you like about achievements is kind of neither here nor there in terms of my complaints of them. You could have variants replace achievements, and still have a metagame tracker to compare what you've beaten against what your friends have. In short, you don't need achievements to compare people to each other; high scores is one of the best ways to do this.

Dean Boytor
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The only time I've enjoyed an achievement is in Demons Souls and Dark Souls, specifically after you bring any of the bosses down. Most of them can be quite a pain to figure out and once you defeat one your excited and then that little *ding* appears with the bosses name, which to me feels like the PS3 is either congratulating or commending my achievement, "Well done sir".

However I do understand how it impacts behavior in one player games. Take Dead Space 1 for example, I remember an achievement which was to kill a necromorph using one of its severed arm with kinesis. It took a few tries and a died once or twice but really, why is this necessary when I've been doing fine with any weapon I've found along the way.

Especially in Multilayer, Bioshock 2 Online for example. Your experience was measure with Atom, like must shooters more exp, more perks/weapons which is a huge incentive to get Atom as quick and fast from each play. You could do this through kills, finding vials of Atom and doing "Trials", which yielded a lot of atom if you were successful

Take this one Trial, "Shotgun Takedown: Land the final killing blow on a Big Daddy using a Shotgun!"[1]. Which if your lucky comes with time when you play, however a lot of the time in Team vs Team, a player would whine or complain that they wanted to have the last hit, sometimes you would stand around and let them but majority of the time we would all get killed just standing around because they couldn't handle it.

It was fun, but like Team Fortress, people would abandon any team effort to peruse some bizarre scavenger hunt.

All in all, personally I can take it or leave it. I don't like the inevitable ones like "kill 5 people" or the coddling ones "You made an upgrade!" but on some rare occasions, they can be creative.

~Dean
[1] http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Trials

Chris Hendricks
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I imagine another reason for achievements, frankly, might be that the developers want to show off. They want the audience to appreciate all of the work that they put into some detail that took weeks for them to get perfect, but would be missed by most players. If Zelda: Twilight Princess had achievements, one of these might have been "Go Fishing in the Fishing Hole in All Four Seasons". People who only go fishing the one time that the story requires it miss this entirely, and an achievement would bring this to people's attention.

Matt Robb
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Doesn't Nintendo often do this in Zelda games by making an NPC remark offhand about such things?

Vin St John
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I think in general, most of the points in the article are much worse offenders in multiplayer games than in singleplayer games. In singleplayer games, having the player spend an hour doing something weird is okay, as long as they're not ruining the next five hours by doing it. In a session-based multiplayer game where there is usually an 'optimal' way to play, giving them motivation to play otherwise can be distracting.

Brandon Koch
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I am an achievement whore. With ***only*** 385,000 gamerscore on the Xbox 360, I am no where near the top but still probably in the top 1000 world wide. I agree with your article for the most part especially in regards to those that aren't addicted to pushing buttons for rewards like monkeys and my ilk. Achievements are a scary thing when you get into the gotta catch em all mode. Games don't feel complete unless you have that mythical 100%.

You end up playing the most god awful games to pad your numbers. If you play games on other systems or without achievements, you feel like you are cheating yourself. That being said, there are pluses. A community has formed around achievement hunting. It turns the activity into an MMO almost...where each game played is a new dungeon and your gamerscore/completed games is the level of your character. Another big plus is that while I have played some of the worst games all the way through for gamerscore, I have also played games that I normally wouldn't have touched and really enjoyed them.

Of course I am taking the view of the achievement system overall and not by the individual game or as a designer. I think a majority of multiplayer achievements should be avoided. If there is one aspect of the game that should not be influenced by achievements, it is the parts that will affect other players. Of course most of the multiplayer achievements end up being the most grinding ones out of the bunch, so I might be biased. I also think there are achievements that tend to ruin single player in a game. The player ends up juggling playing the game and enjoying with monitoring achievment lists and guides to make sure they don't miss the ones that are missable. They are also forced into playing in less fun styles because designers want you to get 100 assualt rifle kills when you really like sniping.

The variants idea is interesting because I recently experienced a pc game that had steam acheivements with this concept in mind. Defender's Quest was intended to play with players being able to form recruit 6 of each class in this tower defense/rpg mish mash. But one achievement tasked the player with completing the game and new game + with no recruitments and only using the original person in each class. This made the game much harder but involved so much more strategy. It impacted the play experience in a positive way that I might not have tried out if not for the achievement.

Axel Cholewa
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385000? Three. Hundred. Eighty. Five. Thousand???

Michael Pianta
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I agree strongly with this article. I do agree also with people pointing out that achievements are also about competition. I know people who don't really care about the achievement itself, they just want the improved gamer score. They take pride in having a higher gamer score than most of their friends. I've known some of these people to rent, borrow and buy games they have little interest in just to farm it for achievements. I find that kind of behavior insidious as well.

Todd Williams
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I'd like to know how many people double-clicked a random word to highlight it after reading the achievement.

Tony Gilmore
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I did :)

Keith Burgun
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That's not something everyone else habitually does while reading articles?

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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Tony Gilmore
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As a gamer who enjoys achievements, I also agree with a lot of your points. You bring up some interesting points about various aspects of achievements, some of which I've thought about before.

To me, achievements are a way to experience the game in other ways that you normally would not experience. I also admit being an Achievement Whore, trying to get 100% on any game I play. I admit though, some of them do distract from the game and create a sense of distraction from the immersion of the game. I think the best achievements should be the ones that come with normal play and progression of the game. Beat X level, Kill X enemies are the simplest ones, which are granted with normal gameplay and you don't have to go out of your way to get. The odd one like Kill an enemy while flipping through the air 5 times, are also fun, to an extent. This isn't something you would do normally, but as I said above, a way to experience the game in other ways you normally would not.

The least favorite type of achievements for me are the collection ones. Unless there are only a few things to collect, and they are pretty much along the main path you travel, they tend to take away from the immersion of gameplay, at least to me.

I also believe achievements have influenced behavior in games. I remember times I used to play games just to play them, to enjoy the story. Now, I feel as if I must browse over all the complete achievement list, and use a guide to make sure I don't miss any through my completion of the game. The most enjoyable achievement lists and games are the ones where I don't have to think about the achievements, and they come naturally.

Wylie Garvin
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I only try to get 100% on games that I like playing. I also don't bother with huge open-world games that require huge numbers of hours to get them all (unless I like the game so much that I would have spent that long on it anyway). I would never play a crappy game just to get easy achievement points from it, that's just degrading. Dick-waving about biggest gamerscore doesn't interest me.

I hate multi-player achievements, I wish developers of games where the single-player campaign is the primary focus, would just make all of the achievements attainable in single-player.

I totally agree that achievements have influenced behavior in games. I differ from Keith though, in that I believe the influence has been mostly positive. I think achievements are great, and I hope they're here to stay! :P

Designers who think players are "supposed to" play the game the way the designer intended, are a much bigger problem. Players will play however they want to, with or without achievements. Just make some fun toys for them, and let them get on with it!

Todd Williams
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This article is great, I had never thought about how achievements affect me. I'm the player that ignores them completely. I think I've only finished the achievements for one small XLA title, and I wasn't meaning to.

Anyway, this got me thinking about Hitman Absolution, which I've been playing lately... allow me to explain.
If you're not familiar, when you finish a level in Hitman you "check items off a list" that includes ways to kill the target, weapons to pick up, etc. Despite not being one for achievements, I played the first level over and over and over. I poisoned the target, kicked him down a shaft, sniped him from a window... but you know what? I wasn't really having any fun doing it, I was simply replaying the game to check the things off the list. You know what would have been WAY COOLER? Figuring all that stuff out by myself.
Another sad side-effect of this is that by the time I got around to playing the second level, I was tired of the game. I saw the list of things to accomplish and just groaned, thinking "this'll take forever." I doubt this is what the devs had in mind.

So thank you, Keith, for pointing this out. Maybe now I can go enjoy Hitman by closing my eyes when the list appears and let my brain do the thinking!

Bart Stewart
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Keith, while I usually don't care much about achievements myself, most of this article seems to be driven by a belief (and annoyance) that other people are "*not playing correctly*". Your opposition to the achievement concept appears to be because you feel it distorts how people are supposed to play the game.

I have some trouble with that because, with certain exceptions, I think the player should be respected as being free to play a game any way they want. An attitude of "if you're not playing it my way, you're doing it wrong" ignores the reality that different people are entertained by different things.

Collections is a good example of this. Like you, I find achievements like "ran over 20 enemies with the car" pointless. But that's me. My idea of fun is active, exploratory play -- as you put it, "Most games challenge us, stimulate us, move us." But games don't have to do any of those things to absolutely still be games, and good games.

There are plenty of people -- probably a solid majority -- whose idea of a good game is something that whiles away time without requiring active intellectual or emotional engagement. They like collections play (and achievements that promote and reward such play) precisely because it doesn't demand active engagement. It's perfectly possible that developers include collections-style achievements, not because those devs are incompetent or manipulative, but because a bunch of players enjoy simple accumulation gameplay and said so.

That specific case also applies to achievements generally. The existence of achievements does not always hurt a game, because games are played by people who enjoy different kinds of play, and some of them like chasing well-defined goals beyond "win the game."

The one possible exception might be multiplayer games where the group's success depends on cooperation. Gaming courtesy suggests that if you're not going to support the group's goals and policies, you should probably exit the group. Achievement-hunting could indeed disrupt a group's preferred play... but that doesn't make achievement-hunting inherently wrong; it only makes it wrong in that context.

If you'd advocated restricting achievements in multiplayer modes, I probably could have agreed. Trying to generalize achievements as broadly counterproductive is a much harder case to make, though. There are plenty of gamers today whose valid idea of fun is accumulating stuff without having to feel or think too much about it. Achievements can make games more fun for these consumers, not less.

That doesn't mean every developer ought to be forced to provide achievements (PlayStation/360 requirements notwithstanding). If you as a developer are determined that people will play your game the Right Way or not at all, and think achievements obstruct that experience, you ought to be free to exclude them.

But a developer who wants to provide rewards for different styles of play in their game should be equally free to include achievements as one more content mode, as long as it doesn't disrupt someone else's fun.

A concluding constructive thought: would it help if there was always an option players could select to say, "Don't show newly-obtained achievements as pop-ups inside my game"? That way they're available if you want them (as in Steam), but not actively influencing you while you play unless you like that direction. Would that address at least some of your objections to achievements as typically implemented?

Keith Burgun
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>I think the player should be respected as being free to play a game any way they want

Honestly, then, why do you even need game designers? How does a game differ, in your opinion, from a toy?

To me - and this may be a philosophical difference between us - game design is a very careful, difficult process of building a system *around* a very clear goal. The goal should be anything but unclear, and that's my big problem here.

Wylie Garvin
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@Keith:
It doesn't differ. A game designer's job is to make me a really good toy to play with. If they want to preach or teach or inspire or inform or whatever, thats acceptable too, but only as long as it doesn't get in the way of my fun!

A movie, even a serious one, has to entertain the audience enough for them to sit through it and watch it. I think games are the same way. I don't want to play your goal-oriented system, unless it happens to be _fun_. :P

In my view, the purpose of game design is to build a system where players can have fun -- the designer's job is to weed out all of the un-fun bits and pieces, and shape the experience, so that whatever makes it into the final game is fun. As a player, that's all I really care about.

Bart Stewart
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Keith, I agree that clear design goals are appropriate. But design goals to what end?

Our philosophical difference may be more about who a game is for. I do think commercial games should emphasize what the people buying that game enjoy, not necessarily what the designer personally likes. Doing both is optimal, but the customer's interests have to come first in a commercial game or you're excluding potential customers.

That said, I believe it's important to have an intended play experience and a good idea of how to get it. Otherwise you're just throwing ideas at the wall and hoping something sticks -- generally not an effective strategy. You do have to do it in a mindful way, understanding the likely effects of secondary features. A lot of the stuff I've written on game design has been specifically about understanding and applying what gamers want.

So I actually agree with you that just slapping achievements into a game is unwise (and probably especially so in a multiplayer game). If the game's not already Achiever-heavy, then adding achievements -- pretty much by the definition of the word -- will tilt the demographics of who's playing the game and what most of them want toward Achievement. If the playstyle content of the rest of the game doesn't match, you're going to have some unhappy players.

That doesn't mean supporting alternate playstyles is always either impossible or a bad idea, though. It's harder, certainly. But let's turn your question around: if at a reasonable development cost and without detracting from your primary play experience you can offer some features (possibly including achievements) likely to attract a larger number and variety of customers to your game, why in the world would you not at least consider doing that?

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Scott Sheppard
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http://bitly.com/W8vPFf

Yup, random word achievement unlocked.

Wylie Garvin
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Some achievements provide some positive encouragement to players who only just started to play the game (made it through the tutorial, or first level, etc.) or tried out certain game mechanics for the first time (kill 5 enemies with explosives).

Some achievements provide more positive encouragement to players as they progress through the story (such as achievements for finishing each level, or beating each boss, or each quest chain...)

Some achievements are probably intended to reward players for thoroughly exploring the space of a certain game mechanic (upgrade one of each type of weapon all the way to max, or learn all spells in the game, or kill 10 enemies with every type of weapon...) but in practice they are just there to give OCD players like me, something abstract to collect.

Some achievements reward dedicated players for playing parts of the game with a high level of skill (finishing the game on the highest difficulty) or in unusual, sometimes unusually-difficult, ways (finish the game without killing any enemies). In extreme cases you get achievements that force you to play the entire game through in a bizarre way, such as with a garden gnome tucked under your arm.

Some achievements are even just an expression of the developers being goofy, such as "viral" multiplayer achievements (play a co-op game with a member of the developer team, or with someone who already has the achievement. Or a Call of Duty achievement I vaguely remember getting, "Purple Heart" or something, for being killed 20 times in the same part of a level...)

Of course there's also achievements for playing way too much of the game (killed 1000 fire ant enemies, won 1000 online matches against other players, etc.)

Basically I like having this variety of different developer-suggested "meta goals" I can pursue at any time, if the game's own story/quests/gameplay is not keeping me entertained at that exact moment. I usually don't bother unless I'm enjoying the game, but for games that I am having fun playing anyways, I usually make an effort to get 1000 achievement points in them. Which is why I get really frustrated by single-player games with a tacked-on multiplayer component, in which I have to actually play their crappy multiplayer modes in order to get the multiplayer achievements (which are usually much more annoying to get than single-player achievements). I've played through Call of Duty games on the hardest difficulty just to get the achievements, which I would otherwise probably not have done. I've played through great games like the Mass Effect games multiple times to get all of the achievements--I might have done that anyways, but at least the achievements encouraged me to play those games through using all of the available classes. I've collected every weapon in games like Dark Souls in order to get 1000 achievement points in that game. I would probably play good games compulsively anyways, but I guess what I'm saying is, I like having developer-suggested compulsive goals I can choose to pursue. And I think a lot of other AAA game-players like them too. :P

Jeremy Reaban
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That's one thing that really bugs me about Steam, you can't really turn off the achievements, unless you turn off some other stuff as well.

I really dislike being manipulated like I was a gerbil in a cage, clicking a mouse a certain way just to get a pellet.

John Flush
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When I first started into the X360 realm I was a big fan of achievements - especially because gaming sites started to link your online profile to your gamercard. I found that people complaining about this or the other, I could easily open up their card and see if they deserved to even be talking about the game like that. I found the achievement system highly valuable in that case. Playing online, back when I paid for it, I could easily if the people I was playing with knew better or not as they played... it changed how I interacted with people (or didn't).

There are people that will complain about the 'you will unlock this' achievements - the ones I found most valuable in talking to people. "Those aren't 'achievements' they only mark progression." - so be it. At least I know the person bashing the game online either has played it or not and as such I can dismiss or confirm whether or not their opinion might matter.

I used achievements to measure people around me more than myself playing the game. I'll get them when I get them... it will prove to people that I devoured a game, going to the limits of following walkthroughs online (people with 1000 GS on a game), or if I was only mostly serious about a game (most of the achievements except the tedious ones), or someone that barely touched it and then moved on (smaller score, probably only the campaign ones). When I see someone with a really high gamerscore I'll actually take that to mean they don't care about the games they play, but rather about the "achievement game" itself - something I find boring and tedious.

For myself, I look at achievements when I still want to play a game, but want a little direction on how to change things up (why would I even need to change it up if I already enjoy the game?) - other times I look at them and get demotivated that to get them I would have to invest a lot of time into a game I don't really like or a game I do really like, but not the way the achievements are telling me to play - it usually makes me feel like I can't complete the game despite me really liking it - it hurts the chances I'll buy a sequel until I "finish out" the first game. I have even avoided games simply because I didn't like the achievement list as they seemed more complex than what I wanted to do with the game and I didn't want the negative score on my gamer card (this last one has mostly gone away as I don't give a trash about achievements as a whole anymore as it hurt my interest in the hobby as a whole).

Some games I use the achievements only to give me a conclusion to sinking more time into them - such a Minecraft or other open world games. Yep, that's like I used them to abandon a game that I probably could spend more time in (and money if it was one of those games)... What happens if the game later gets a patch or expansion? meh, whatever, I finished the achievements anyhow.

This day and age I just try to ignore them, they hurt me as a gamer more than they help. I'll play what I want to play, how I want to play it, when I want to play it, for how long I want to play it, and I'll hope the game wasn't broken by trying to design with them in mind.

John Seggerson
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The other missing aspect about why achievements are the statistical analysis used from achievements.

Each platform has a backend to expose how many players have achieved each achievement. For the effort of putting in a function call of awarding an achievement, an analytics system from front-end to back-end is put in place. From there, you developers (and the public for Steam) can see how far a player has progressed or how many players did certain actions. It's way easier than putting the investment of rolling your own statistical system running independently of the platform for each platform.

I know this article is focusing on the design aspects, but wanted to add the additional factor of why achievements on a developer perspective.

Alexander Symington
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Metrics-based design is a whole other can of worms, but even for that purpose achievements seem to be of limited use. The mere fact that the metrics are publicised is likely to affect player behaviour in a very complex way that is difficult to correct for, with some players being attracted to perform actions that they clearly otherwise wouldn't (as described in the article), and perhaps others being put off further play partly by the various drawbacks of achievements that many have listed. It may be cheap data, but it's also pretty tainted.

John Seggerson
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Re: Alexander [[ Can't nest on comments. :/ ]]

Metrics can be good or bad, depending on how the data is gathered AND how the data is interpreted. On the bad spectrum, games can be purely adjusted on a feedback loop which spirals quality down the drain. On the good spectrum, it gives an understanding of how players play your game outside of controlled QA or play testing environments.

Maybe that place you hid away for people to discover is being discovered too quickly. Maybe you discover that people are missing what is seems to be an obvious area of the game, only to discover a bug that no one would know was a bug.

With Achievements, it's a cheap data that is ultimately limited. But it's also the most standardized system across platforms. Course, the real solution is to have a Google Analytics of game systems (which FTW.co is starting to do, sorta). But I'm derailing the topic as it is...

Alexander Symington
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I take your point.

Pierre Xavier
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Good article. I must admit too that achievements have affected the way/behavior i choose and play games. I have mainly been playing on PS3 and i have quite a few trophies there. I used to play on 360 a few years ago but kinder stopped as i don't play online games as much as i used to, hence no more subscription to Live and well basically was just playing more exclusives on Sony's console.

Recently i have got back into 360 gaming again this is mainly due to exclusive games being on the system. At that point the achievements didn't bother me anymore it was more of going back to enjoying games than anything else.

Good incentive for achievements for me is that when you buy a bunch of games and play them for bit, you may not finish all of them or any of them, with achievements in place, they draw you back to completing them.

When it comes to choosing games on any platform with points/achievements, i always check the list first to see how many trophies/achievements the game contains over other titles i'm interested in, if it contains less than others i will move it down the list.

Now, there is another issue, i'm a great fan of tablet games on the iOS platform and when it comes to new products such as Android phones etc i always will favor iOS as it has Game Center, Android has no main achievements system that i know of. So, i will spend time looking at iOS titles first to see if GC is implemented and then see if they have achievements as some games just have leaderboards only.

I love gaming from way back, but see since achievements system have been in place on numerous system and platforms, it's just made me become this way, i can't help it and thats the bad thing, i know that i should just play games as they are and as they should be: for FUN!...

Laura Stewart
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I like Achievements on the first play through, and for me they don't lessen the happy chemicals from whatever I was doing to get them. But their abcense in subsequent play throughs make playing the game again less and less exciting.

I think the reason for that is the extravigently easy Achievements that you pile up in the first 30 minutes that you remember so clearly. For instance, You Picked Up a Shotgun.

Christiaan Moleman
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Despite being a proponent of achievements you basically just described how extrinsic rewards destroy the inherent (intrinsic) fun of a game, once rewards are no longer given.

Alexander Symington
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Terrific article!

Previously, I had thought of achievement systems as mainly having the drawback of damaging immersion in single-player games. A particularly memorable failure for me was the the cheery trophy pop-ups displayed after felling each boss in the PS3 version of Shadow of the Colossus, not merely completely disrupting the game's minimal interface and melancholy aesthetic, but the crass encouragement clashing horribly with what is otherwise presented as an act of deep morally ambiguity. Yet the arguments made in this article against achievements that distort behaviour in team-based multiplayer games perhaps show them to be even more inappropriate there.

For the games that might benefit from achievements pointing out alternative playstyles, etc, bespoke systems like the Little Big Planet example given by Michael Buffaloe seem like the best approach, as these can be tailored to that objective and the specifics of the game. In cases where that isn't affordable, having first-party APIs to fall back on is helpful. But first-parties actually *requiring* the implementation of achievements under these systems, when there are examples for which they are clearly inappropriate, is surely a needless limitation on design.

Roberta Davies
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I'm ambiguous about achievements. Basically, I can take them or leave them. But since they're there anyway, I find myself paying attention to them and trying to achieve them (and then feeling guilty about it).

The inevitable ones -- Complete Level 1, Complete Level 2, etc. all the way up to Defeat Final Boss -- are pointless, really. If the game is enjoyable at all, each level completion is its own reward. BUT a list of inevitable achievements can be useful as a road map. How far have I got? How much more game is there?

I've been persuaded now and then to explore games in ways I wouldn't normally. I don't think I would stick with a playing style I absolutely hated, just to earn an achievement. But there's nothing wrong with trying something outside of your normal rut.

My main gripe about achievements is that, as a purely solo player, I don't have a snowball's chance of ever making 100% on any game. It would be useful if the system didn't include multiplayer achievements until the player begins a multiplayer game.

Roberta Davies
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...And I have to admit I deliberately went out and earned the "Lazy Bastard" award in Fairytale Fights by hanging around in the start-menu area for 15 minutes. I'm so embarrassed.

Vinicius Capiotti
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While achievements do influence behavior, I think that's not their only purpose. Their main function for me is to register my... achievements. I don't have to "kill the last boss with the wooden sword", but if I manage to do so, having it registered in my steam account is a feature I enjoy a lot.

Perhaps there is a better way to provide that service, but I don't see how it would not influence the player. I think throwing achievements aside is not the only solution, we just have to design them better.

wes bogdan
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To ne trophy/achievements are a competive meta game with friends however "call a doctor" play disgaea 3 -10 hours straight are stupid to include or expect people to achomplish for a mere bronze not even silver or gold. Haveing games with achievements and others with trophyies i prefer the trophy system which always had a leveling up meta game and wasn't just 10,9999 without a big level # and progress bar as well as having bronze-easy,silver-harder and gold -hardcore levels of dificulity.

Don't make stupidly hard or unrealistic achievements or trophyies and perhaps reward players with digital goods,wallet funds or something for hitting xx level overall rpg levels reward why not acomplishments as well?!!

Jeremie Sinic
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Good food for thought, but I would not be so negative on achievement.
Sure, they are not always implemented in a very constructive or interesting way and I also quite dislike when their popups interrupt the flow of the gameplay, but they have their utility.

They are a tool to keep track of your progress in all of your games (at least on a given platform) and can be a good way to compare not only skills but also tastes between players: if I see a friend of mine is into racing games --because their gamercard is full of racing games achievements--, I might play Forza 4 and throw them a challenge or invite them to play.

It's also honestly a good way to steer competition between friends and provide ground to brag about one's skills. Although I don't care as much about achievements as some of my friends and certainly don't care about the "25 kills" achievement, I am happy to have a proof that I completed Halo 4 Solo on Legendary difficulty. As simple as that.
If you don't have those achievements, you might have completed all possible RPGs at 100% or merely tried a few, there is no way to tell.

To conclude, my main gripe with achievements is when they spoil the story, so I usually prefer when most achievements are hidden, so they remain a happy surprise without me having to "play the achievements" instead of playing the game.
Another way to make achievements less distracting would be to simply integrate them better to the game ("white labeling" them) or, as others have said, hide the list and even lock them during the first playthrough.

Christiaan Moleman
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Adding achievements to Shadow of the Colossus on PS3 was an act of vandalism.

Adam Bishop
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I really enjoyed this piece. And things are getting even worse with all the games that try and work progress toward the system-level achievements directly into the game interface. I started playing Fable 3 recently, and it's constantly blasting information on the screen about how close I'm getting to completing various achievements. I don't want meta-game information constantly popping up on-screen! I really like the world of Fable and at least at this early juncture the story is interesting and propelling me forward and these constant notifications are a harassment. They're actively degrading my experience.

The obvious solution to this kind of thing is to allow players who don't like achievements to turn them off, but platform holders aren't going to let us do that because the major draw of achievements from their end is that it's a way to tie players into their system. They want players to feel invested in their platform, and allowing players to turn achievements off runs directly contrary to that goal.

Addison Siemko
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Let me turn them off. Please.

Mark Schaffner
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Keith, I'm curious if you understand the concept of many achievements (the good ones, I mean). A lot of times they are stating that you must perform an act in a certain way. It's a challenge, to the player. The reason that it is always "on" as your variable suggestion would be is that if the player ACCIDENTALLY achieves an achievement, they've still earned it. I often, and easily, forget achievements once I've read them, acknowledged them, and moved on, but I think they do have a place. If there is an achievement for dodging a rocket fired from a rocket launcher by mere inches, and I achieve that when the "variant" isn't on I would be extremely annoyed, saying "why the hell didn't I turn that on!?" That being said, I think the variant concept DOES work, and can be used to great success, but I feel that they are two significantly different things. It was a very big deal in FPS games back when you could host your own server in your mom's basement. We would play UT (not 2k4 or UT3, just UT) and turn on a ton of what they called Mutators that altered the way the game was played. It was great fun, but it is not the same as the concept of an achievement (again, ones that are GOOD, and done right).

I think your real problem is that many developers don't make good achievements. They make ones that, as you say, you'll earn without any effort. I LIKE the ones that pop up, say, when you finish a chapter. It's kind of nice if I ever delete my save file on accident, or my 360 dies to know I got to a given level. Other than that, I agree the "25 kills" and "walk 1000 steps" type achievements are pretty ridiculous.

Rob Lockhart
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'You may as well have a timer that doles out a random nonsensical compliment every 15 minutes, such as "you are attractive" or "you've got a great sense of humor."'

This is going in my next game.

Curtiss Murphy
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Hahah! Fantastic!

Jeanne Burch
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For some people, the achievements are greater than the game. I was stunned by a comment on a game board once; the player said that his understanding of when a game ended had "evolved," that a game wasn't finished until 100% of the achievements had been achieved. I can't convince myself that's truly "evolved" thinking.

Rindel Ryan Ibanez
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I never aimed for achievements for playing a game. I think it ruins the fun and makes you do things that are not really part of the game. However, it does not distract me or ruin my game experience if a pop up appears saying "achievement unlocked - etc", I just ignore it.

I understand why some people like having achievements though. Like what Jeanne Burch said, some people consider a game to be finished only when they finish unlocking all the achievements. My brother does this to all the games he plays. This also increases his number of trophies / gamerscore that he uses for bragging rights to his friends who does the same thing as him.

Nick Harris
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Whilst not being a 'hyper-competitive' player, I do appreciate the fact that Halo 3 multiplayer celebrates my success by awarding me Medals. I prefer these as they don't accumulate from one match to the next. I certainly wouldn't want to have a big banner announcement that I had achieved something arbitrarily decided upon by a developer as I feel the game is perfectly balanced and wouldn't want the pursuit of achievements to warp the motivations of some members of my team.

http://halo.bungie.net/Stats/GameStatsHalo3.aspx?gameid=191759451
7&player=Uncompetative

That said, I entirely agree with the article with respect to single player, as achievements break immersion. There is always the opportunity to track your competency as in the Hitman games.

David Espinoza
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Personally I like achievements and I am not an achievement #$%#@. The thing I like most about achievements is exactly that, the things I was able to achieve. I was able to qualify for an online tournament after a few failed attempts, I managed to get 100,000 points in geometry wars, or I was able to get a ridiculous killing spree. Its the small things in the game that you should feel proud of are basically made into a virtual trophy for you. Something that you can look back at in a few months and say, damn, I can't believe I did that, instead of, yea, I beat this game on hard... I think....

I don't like when games have the stupid "congratz, you are conscious enough to complete the first level" achievements but I love the ones that I am able to achieve after trying to get it for a while and the only reward being a 2 second audio clip that says "Monster Kill". As far as variants. What about when you set out to do something and by a strange turn of events you end up on a different path, should you ruin what you had planned because a better opportunity presented its self? If I wanted to get a sniper "variant" but since my team needs me to be a medic should I continue about what I was doing because my plan doesn't coincide with theirs? I feel like variants will be more hindering to online then achievements as long as the developers continue to not care about how they are doing it.

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Dan Jones
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While there are certainly plenty of examples of types of games that don't require (or shouldn't have) achievements, there is a time and place to use them. Dismissing them outright comes across as "because I don't enjoy this thing, you shouldn't either." Part of what makes games so great is that can appeal to such a wide range of players, each of which will play for different reasons, enjoy different things, and take away different experiences at the end of the day. If one player plays a game for the story, and a second player plays the same game only to collect achievements, but they both have an absolute blast doing so... who are we to say one of them is "doing it wrong?"

Or a different example: we can agree a lot of careful work went into crafting the excellent horror game "Amnesia: The Dark Descent," can we not? We also know how the developers prefer it to be played, because the game itself actually urges you, before you begin, to play in a dark room with headphones on and to take your time and allow yourself to experience it rather than trying to "win." And that's great! (And there aren't any achievements popping up, which I'm sure we can all appreciate!) But you know what? People are still going to do speed runs of Amnesia, which is the polar opposite of what the developers intended, and they're going to have fun doing so. And while I would never play it that way, who am I to say that someone else is wrong for doing so? If they're having a different kind of fun, even one that the developer never intended? "More power to them," say I.

Now, I agree that it's a shame Sony and Microsoft decided to make achievements (or "trophies") mandatory on their systems, for many of the exact reasons you mentioned. Achievements, when done lazily, (or included purely because it is required) can break a player's suspension of disbelief and ruin the moment. But I'd never universally chide all developers who have ever included achievements in their games, because the best achievements can inspire players to do more with a game than they otherwise would, often with a wink and a nod shared between player and developer.

I wholeheartedly support your right to make achievement-free games, and even applaud you for doing so. But there are plenty of players out there who have genuine fun earning achievements, and plenty of developers who have fun dreaming them up and implementing them, and I think that's okay too.

Neeraj Kumar
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Very nice read :D i like achievements partially, at times when i feel like stopping a game session, it makes me go a little further. Some achievements which feel like a chore which is very annoying, i hate them. Although i am not a Achievement hunter, i like to earn most of them :)

Edit: Perhaps the developers can give an option to the players to enable or disable achievements? (Based on the point you said that not all players like achievements)

Daniel Carvalho
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Back in 2009, I also questioned achievements, from the the top down. From why we have them, to why I think in general they're badly implemented into games.

It's called, "What Have We Achieved", do give it a read: http://danielcarvalho.com/articles/what-have-we-achieved/

In my opinion, it's been a problem for a long, long time. And it's really sad that everybody just went with the flow.

Finn Haverkamp
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I think Bastion's Idol system is an example of variants. Idols are self-imposed challenges to make the game more difficult. They serve both as a difficulty adjuster and a signifier of accomplishment, though there is no record stored for Idol use except for a number of achievements, ironically, that require them. My favorite use of achievements is to track game progress. The Walking Dead is a perfect example. All 40 achievements are earned by simply playing the game. Players' decisions do not affect the earning of or loss of achievements.

I think achievements were originally envisioned by Microsoft as status symbols for their players. Particularly, achievements are tied to Gamer Score, which players use to garner respect or to gloat. However, Steam has no such pan-game scoring system. And the PS3's is too obscure, such that nobody actually cares about profile levels. Hence, achievements have lost much of their original value, in my opinion. Not that I think gamer scores are a good thing; in fact, achievements really bother me, but by amputating the gamer score from achievements, achievements have become even more harmful.

Diego Cathalifaud
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My guess is that achievements will shift from "extrinsic" to "intrinsic." Smart achievements that add replay value to games are always appreciated. Like collecting the stars in Braid or even the golden eggs of Angry Birds.


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