Achievements: Blessing or Curse?


It’s undeniable that Microsoft’s introduction of Achievements into gaming, with the advent of the Xbox 360, has had an impact on the way games are played. So much so that Sony felt they had to respond with the addition of Trophies to some Playstation 3 games, and even some iPhone and PC titles are getting in on the act.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the idea of Achievements, Microsoft have mandated that every Xbox 360 game must include between 5 and 50 different unlockable Achievements that are gained by performing various tasks. As well as providing a permanent public record of your gaming accomplishments, they also reward the player with Gamerpoints, which accumulate in a universal Gamerscore that spans all titles.

There are 1000 points available on each retail boxed game, and 200 points up for grabs on each Xbox Live Arcade game. These points can be split over 5 to 50 individual achievements. (There are exceptions to these rules of course.) It’s up to the developers to decide how these are allocated, and it’s here that that the real potential of this system is either proven or ignored completely.

In the beginning, developers clearly treated achievements as an afterthought. Something that had to be done, a box that had to be ticked. This is how we ended up with titles like Perfect Dark Zero providing such imaginative goals as Play 10 Deathmatches, Play 100 Deathmatches, Play 1000 Deathmatches, Get 10 Kills, Get 100 Kills, Get 1000 Kills etc..

It took a while for game designers to realise that the desire for achievements could directly influence the way that people play games, and sadly it seems that many of them have still not had this epiphany. There is certainly still a place for “Get XX number of kills” and “Complete level X” achievements, as it’s always nice to have something to work towards, and also to get rewarded for natural game progression. But, many companies don’t seem to realise that more originality with creating achievements could bring its own rewards.

The dark side of achievements is when the quest for arbitrary points overrules the actual point of playing games (i.e. fun). Bad games with easily-gained Achievements (Avatar, TMNT and the like) have now been trudged through by thousands more people than they otherwise would. People who could have spent their time actually enjoying playing a much better game instead.

Many titles with online achievements will now provoke players into ‘Achievement Boosting’, with whole games being filled with one team obediently lining up to be shot in the head, like some insane nightmare of a concentration-camp survivor.

I’m not about to moan about how cheating to gain achievements that provide no actual sense of achievement is the most pointless thing since Wii Music (although it is). Gamers are free to waste their time however they want, but when it starts to affect the enjoyment of other players’ gaming experience then there’s something wrong.

The wonderful contrasts to the tedious achievements are those ones that inspire and encourage players to attempt gameplay that they may never have done otherwise. Fable 2’s achievements are a great example of this, as they require the player to perform a wide range of acts from murdering fluffy bunnies, to having a threesome, to becoming a Goth.

As with most things, Valve seem to understand the power of achievements better than most. The Orange Box has a fantastic range of achievements, including my favourite achievement ever, Little Rocket Man, which tasks the player with transporting a Garden Gnome through the entirety of Half Life 2: Episode 2.

These kinds of achievements can serve as suggestions from the games developer that may point out to the player the possibilities of that particular title. Without achievements players may never have self-imposed gameplay restrictions on themselves for the sake of challenge and fun. Playing through the Ravenholm level of Half Life 2 with only the Gravity Gun, playing through the whole of Half Life 2: Episode firing only a single bullet and playing through a campaign of Left 4 Dead without using a health pack are examples of the challenges that achievements can encourage players to attempt.

Achievements can also push people to get more value out of their existing games. I personally know that I never bothered to attempt to play through many games on their hardest difficulty setting in the previous generation, but I have enjoyed challenging myself to Veteran and Insane modes on certain Xbox 360 games. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Achievements are big business now. Several sites have been set up to solely provide guides and tips on getting achievement points, and there are even services that allow lazy gamers to pay other people to get achievement points for them. Achievements have become so integrated with the idea of gaming in some people’s minds, that the idea of playing a game without them, on the Wii for example, feels empty and pointless.

Achievements give us a goal, but can sometimes make us overlook the importance of the journey. So, what is your opinion on Achievements? A valued component of the evolution of gaming, or a deformed offshoot that should be removed to save us bother?