Sunday, October 31, 2010

Achievements, Their Ilk, and What They Mean to the Culture

My XBox gamerscore is 33,055. This score is representative of the hundreds (thousands??) of hours I've spent playing games on the XBox 360. For those who may not be familiar with achievements, trophies, or any similar performance-based reward system, all XBox games (and now, all PS3 games) have achievements that can be unlocked and permanently fixed to your profile if their conditions are met. For XBox profiles, each achievement corresponds to a numerical score, with more challenging or time-consuming achievements typically harnessing a higher score. Typically, high-profile achievements will unlock fifty to one hundred gamerscore, with every game shipping with a maximum of one thousand. Playstation games unlock Trophies, which are very similar to Achievements, except on a different console, and some Steam games have seen the implementation of achievements.

To put this into some perspective, beating Halo: Reach by oneself on the hardest difficulty will unlock an achievement worth one-hundred twenty-five gamerscore. By contrast, in Halo 3, killing ten enemies with headshots during a campaign mission is worth five gamerscore.

Achievements are an interesting introduction to this generation of gaming. Many gamers find themselves chasing after these achievements, with their tasks ranging from the grandiose (Seriously 2.0 - Gears of War 2) to the mundane (My Brother's an Italian Plumber - Borderlands). Gamers' fixation with unlocking achievements and trophies vary from player to player, and some players hardly acknowledge them at all. Some players are looking to increase their gamerscore and some gamers are completionists, and when playing a game simply wish to leave nothing unexplored.

Achievements have no tangible reward. A high gamerscore and a high rate of unlocking gamerpoints-per-game earn no special recognition, no early access to betas or demos, no discounts, no certificates, no printouts, no special esteem. They simply exist to be earned, displayed, and impart bragging rights. Given their lack of utility, it is interesting that they have surpassed the point of being a temporary fad, and that the implementation of unlockable achievements has taken over the industry in the past few years.

There is good reason to believe that the idea of unlocking achievements preys upon an internal, natural desire to see things through to completion. Many games have even implemented non-gamerscore related achievements and unlockable features into their games. The Call of Duty games have an abundance of multiplayer-related tasks that can be completed, called "Challenges." "Challenges" unlock points, which contribute towards leveling up one's online profile, unlocking weapons, icons and special abilities. Killing a specified number of enemies with a certain weapon, conditionally using a certain ability, and completing objectives all go towards unlocking challenges which help one level up and gain access to more gear and weapons, and the process repeats itself. Modern Warfare 2, the most recent (as of this writing) addition to the CoD franchise featured challenges with near-astronomical requirements, demanding dedication and repetition while playing, although enough variety in the challenges are present to cater to just about every style of play.

So you may be wondering by now what I'm trying to accomplish by pointing out Call of Duty's expansive opportunities for leveling up... the point is that the general populace of gamers, which may be representative of the population at large, love to see progression. We love to see filling bars, growing meters, and swelling numbers. Many of you are likely familiar with the "Prestige" option in the Call of Duty games. For those of you who are not in the know, when a player hits the highest possible level in CoD's online multiplayer, they're given the option to brand their online profile with a shiny new insignia, representing their elite rank and dedication to the game. The catch?? All weapons are re-locked, challenges are reset, and experience is reset to zero, and the player can begin the process of leveling up anew.

The fact that so many player choose to gain prestige at the cost of hours of work unlocking new weapons and gear basically proves that we love to see progress, and a parallel point is that we hate to see all those points and experience towards nothing as we sit atop the level cap.

Achievements prey upon the axiom of our completionist inclinations and it has affected the gaming industry in a few ways. Whether an achievement is a positive influence or a negative influence on a gameplay experience -and the industry at large- depends solely on how they're implemented into the game.

Achievements will positively affect a game if they reward the player for overcoming significant obstacles and trying things they normally would not bother to attempt. In these cases, the pursuit of gamerscore is a reward in itself in that a player will experience more of the game for themselves and therefore have a better perspective on the game as a whole. Mass Effect had a good achievements placed in it, with a good bit of them being unlocked through the natural progression of the game. Events like beating bosses, clearing levels, and beating the game all unlocked some achievements, and anyone who enjoyed the game enough to beat it will see the bulk of these added under their profile. However, achievements also encouraged the player to play through the game with different party members, use different weapons and to use the different special abilities that were with each of six unique classes. I can personally attest that I played through the game with the Infiltrator as my class, and ended up enjoying the special abilities that are special to that particular class quite a bit. If not for the achievements of using some class-exclusive abilities, I likely would have started another new game as a Vanguard.

Badly placed achievements are more variable in their repercussions than well-placed achievements. Poorly-implemented achievements can even negatively affect others' experience of the game if multiplayer achievements are mishandled. Some achievements are tedious, and if completed, yield no great reward. Hours and hours of gameplay to complete a mundane task is less than commendable, and is rewarded as such, and these are likely to be ignored by players. The worst sort of achievements encourage unsportsmanlike conduct in online arenas. Because of the nature of these achievements, players are discouraged from teamwork and cohesion for the sake of inflating their gamerscore.

A prime example of poorly-handled multiplayer-related achievements are the achievements in the original Gears of War. An achievement is unlocked each time a player earns their hundredth kill with any given weapon. This sounds innocent enough, but many games revolved around teammates struggling with each other for control of the power weapons, instead of supporting each other for the team's victory. And one hundred online kills in Gears of War means a lot more than one hundred online kills in most modern shooters, so it was a real time sink and demanded a lot of attention. Personally, I only netted a few of them before I concluded that they encouraged unsportsmanlike conduct and were too much of a hassle to see their unlocking.

Personally, I feel like some gamers put too much emphasis on unlocking achievements, and that they are not enjoying a game as they best could be. Achievements ought to be cut down to just a handful of tasks that unlock in-game items or abilities. I believe an ideal achievements system would include five to ten performance-based achievements, and each of them unlocked a special costume for the character, a special game mode, special weapons, concept art of the game and videos of the development team during the project. Ultimately, achievements, trophies, and gamerscore are placeholders for spare time. They could disappear altogether and I wouldn't lament too much. From the looks of things, though, they are here to stay. As long as they're around, however, they need some revision before they become recognized as rewarding pursuit, and worthy of the time and effort they require to be earned.

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