Achievements. While they continue to set the rest of the 360 gamer community afire, I’ve never really been a fan. To me, they’re nothing more than a very shallow meta game to turn the 360 into one giant MMO grind. People who buy into achievements and the achievement score wind up playing games just to get as many points as possible in the quickest time posible. Sometimes, just getting the achievements has become the meta game. No longer is the challenge to buy and play through a game, wearing the achievements as a badge of honor; the game is now identifying which titles provide the most achievement points in the shortest turnaround time. Staying on top of the leaderboard is the game, not playing the actual games themselves.
We could even argue that the only thing achievements really drive are sales of Live memberships (to track the scores amongst friends leaderboards), as people whose sole purpose is to play for achievements are mostly renters. Sure, they buy a few of the multiplayer titles that have some longevity, but why buy a game if you only plan on playing it for 4 days to get the 800-1000 achievement points? They breed an atmosphere of competition, not one of enjoyment of consumption or appreciation for the game in front of them. They’re the worst sort of collectors. They represent an eating contest, not a sophisticated wine tasting.
But as much as I hate them, they’re here to stay. So, since we have to work with the system, how can we improve upon it?
One way would be to do away with mundane achievements. Is getting through the first chapter really an achievement? I’d say finishing the game qualifies as noteworthy, but I tire of chapter based achievements. I shouldn’t need a carrot outside of the game to compel me to move to the next chapter of your game. Your game should be so interesting that I can’t wait to see what comes next.
In general, I’d appreciate it if the achievements weren’t the carrot that got me to keep playing the game. Looking at the Fallout 3 list of achievements, I was cheesed to see that there are nine achievements tied to your Karma score and your character level score. If an achievement whore wanted to get all 9 of these achievements, they would have to play through the game ’till they hit level 20 three times in order to catch them all. Now, I feel that people who absolutely must get every achievement in a game are certifiably crazy, so I don’t pity them that much, but there’s 180G of wasted gamerpoints on what should be no more than six achievements: Level 8, 14, and 20, and beat the game with Good, Neutral, and Bad Karma. Even then, throw out the last three. The reward for seeing the three different Karma tracks should be in the game, not in the achievements.
Once we’ve thrown out the mundane character levelling or chapter based achievements, there will be more room for the fantastically interesting achievements. Give me more Testikills, or Psychotic Prankster. I want more skill based achievements such as Endo King or Unicyclist. Hell, while I’m posting about interesting achievements and PGR4, how about more Puzzle Achievements? I’d even like to see more crazy viral achievements. Like Blitz’s Burning Sensation or Shadowrun Fever (tea-bag someone who has it).
I’d even like to see many more locked achievements. Sure, they get compiled and exposed (at the Xbox360Achievements.org site I’ve been linking to this whole time) rather quickly, but I’d rather people played my game without a laundry list. I’m already firmly in the “you shouldn’t be playing games for achievements only” camp anyway, so don’t bother posting comments saying “But Spitfire, some people love that!” because I don’t feel that behavior is going to further anyone’s enjoyment of a single game, nor is it going to promote or advance the art form in general.
So how do we fix the apathetic Achievements? The problem is that for so many games (including the ones I’ve worked on), the achievements are done at the eleventh hour; they’re mostly an afterthought. Games certainly aren’t designed around acheivements, it’s nearly 100% the other way around. Developers look at what hooks they have in their games for stat tracking or focus testing, and try and find ways to expose them as achievements. Some games have exceeded my expectations with some really entertaining ones, but for the most part, they are pretty much phoned in.
The other problem is that fixing this means throwing more money and more bodies at the end of a game’s dev cycle during a time when there’s already too many people with their hands in the pot as it is. Most game teams don’t want to spend any money on achievements, since, as I said earlier, they don’t really add to sales of a title. So the task usually goes to some poor designer who’s already overworked (and underpaid) to throw together the list which is hopefully at least passably creative but more importantly to the team passes all of the TRC Requirements for Achievements.
One way to fix this is to start thinking about your Achievements earlier on during development. Have you put something unique in your level that not everyone is going to trip over? Make sure you’ve got a code/script hook there for the Achievement later. Have you found a fun way to play the game that nobody has really thought of? Make it an Achievement for someone to discover that at retail. Can you find new and interesting meta puzzles that involve using a (locked) Achievement as a clue to solving a puzzle?
Let’s actually put the word achievement into Achievements. What, as an industry, can we do to make these little morsels of saccharine mean something?