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We don’t always agree on things within the GameCloud team, sometimes it’s just over minor things and it doesn’t really go anywhere. Sometimes it leads to drunken arguments at the bar about which is better, Fallout or The Elder Scrolls. (it’s Fallout, Dan.) Sometimes it results in what now lies before you, the first in what will be a regular series on the site: The GameCloud Battle Articles! This week Lliam and Patrick are here to have it out over whether or not achievements actually add anything to the gaming experience.
Since I was young I’ve enjoyed playing games to absolute completion. Collecting everything, completing any extra challenges, finishing all the side missions – I like to see and do anything I can in a video game (if I like it enough). For years, I enjoyed games this way and never had anything to show for it. I could tell my friends or show them my save file in person, and at the time that seemed fine, but times have changed. In the same way that multiplayer gaming has shifted from sharing a couch to playing online from the other side of the planet, the way gamers communicate has evolved. Whether it be Steam or Xbox Live achievements, PlayStation Network trophies, or even similar platforms on mobile devices, I’m a big fan of achievement and reward systems in video games.
Competitive singleplayer gaming isn’t something you’d usually think about. You’d probably think of multiplayer as being competitive and singleplayer as being an experience completely independent of others; of course, this can be true and often is. Having said that, comparative competition has existed for decades in the form of leaderboards, allowing players to compare their accomplishments against others’ without any intrusion on their solo gameplay. Games have become much more complicated though, and keeping track of a simple time or score is rarely enough to measure the merit of someone’s singleplayer efforts. Achievement systems allow this kind of comparison, and provide a platform for connected, potentially competitive one player. Who’s better? Who’s done more? Who knows more about the game? How well these questions can be answered obviously depends on what the developer chooses to reward, but with achievements, these arguments can be easily backed up.
I once killed a bear THIS big, and I’ve got the gamerscore to prove it.
What’s great though, is that you can compare not only a single game, but every game on the platform. Different games can be compared to each other, you can view your accomplishments over an entire series of games, consider your strengths and weaknesses in certain genres or just get an idea of your averages across all games. You’re left with a digital scrapbook of your adventures in video games, and always have something to show for everything you achieve, and I love that. And as well as yourself, you can learn about others’ gaming history.
Before I add a friend or accept a request on the PlayStation Network, I’ll inspect a player’s trophies. Not necessarily to judge their capabilities, but to learn what they like, and how much they like it. They have the platinum trophy in every Call of Duty game? They’re obviously a big first person shooter fan. They have a bunch of FIFA games on their list but haven’t earned many trophies in any of them? They must like playing the games casually. There’s plenty to learn from a player’s achievements. You could view someone’s achievement collection as a gaming resume of qualifications, or you could simply take it as a list of what they like to play. For me, it means I can decide whether I’m likely to enjoy having somebody on my friends list, as well as what we have in common.
I enjoy shooters, headshots, pwnage, and teabagging my opponents’ corpses. Also, puzzlers.
In the same way, developers can see what players do and don’t do in their game. Statistics can dictate players’ preference to certain game modes and styles of gameplay. In inFamous 2, there were two very different endings. When it came to developing a sequel, the series’ developer Sucker Punch looked to trophy data. Because many more players had trophies for completing one ending than the other, inFamous Second Son was written to follow the more played plot. This kind of developer insight means games can be developed according to what people evidently enjoy. After Assassin’s Creed IV’s mission rating systems and constant nagging for consumer feedback, I’m happy to see this kind of non-intrusive data collection. Developers learn about their customers without asking or annoying them, and us players get the games the majority of us actually want to play.
Revisiting games can be enhanced too. I’ve recently been playing The Sly Trilogy on PS Vita. I love the Sly games and achieved each of their platinum trophies on the PS3. I hardly need a reason to replay the trilogy, but a fresh trophy list is a great way, in my opinion, to incentivize players to revisit a game despite a lack of any substantial new content. As someone who loves completing games to their entirety, the new trophy pops along the way keep me feeling rewarded, satisfied, and like I’m making progress, despite having already seen everything all three of the games have to show. It’s safe to say that I’ve set my sights on another three shiny platinums.
I’VE HAD NO SLEEP, AND I MUST GAME.
What’s really at the core of achievements though, is pride and satisfaction. Whether it’s finishing that last little side mission, finally getting through the hardest difficulty of a campaign, finding the last collectible, or just performing a novelty act to finish off a game’s achievement list, it’s something I love.To me it feels like an obvious and suitable evolution to the 100% save files I loved as a kid: the sign of a completely conquered video game.
People often argue that these things are intangible, but I fail to understand the detriment of this. What’s the difference between a physical trophy and a PSN trophy? They’re objects to show for an accomplishment. What’s the difference between being sat on a shelf and being part of a digital list? Whether digital or physical, or earned playing soccer or playing FIFA, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in them (in moderation). Surely not being able to touch something doesn’t make it meaningless, as is the case with so many more profound aspects of life.
In the end, it comes down to two things; the developer’s implementation of the system, and the player’s appreciation for it. There are plenty of pointless achievements for just starting the game, collecting one coin, or whatever it may be, but players can judge the merit of these for themselves and disregard them. Some achievements will have players spending hundreds of hours playing to achieve them, but it’s up to them to decide whether these are worth it. If you love achievements, enjoy them, if you don’t, you can always ignore them entirely.
I remember when I first got my 360 and I saw the achievement system, it totally blew my mind. Since I was old enough to know that the controller doesn’t go in my mouth, I have loved to play games incessantly until I have beaten them to a bloody, pixely pulp. Achievements, for me, added a whole new aspect to videogame replayability, a way to keep the experience fresh long after you had beaten the game. You could compare your gamerscore e-peen online with everyone else, but the virtual measuring contest always seemed kind of silly to me; instead, it meant that every time I picked up a game off my shelf, assuming I hadn’t beaten it totally, I’d have something new to do from what I was doing before, and it would be challenging and exciting because I’d be “achieving” something outside of standard gameplay. It was the start of something great.
What’s more is that achievements kind of changed the way the industry started considering game design, as well; in order to create something to achieve, the game has to be sufficiently difficult and complex enough so there’d be something worth achieving. For puzzle games it meant that you might have to solve mind-bending puzzles in an impossibly short amount of time; for JRPG’s it could be getting hold of the ultimate weapon, from an incredibly powerful enemy, at the end of an epic quest chain. For FPS’ that meant going from “beat the guy and collect the things,” to “beat the guy, collect the things, then strap on this rocket and see if you can hit ten dudes in the face while blindfolded with this slingshot,” with tangible rewards for doing these awesome things.
Also, they’re midgets.
At least, that’s how it started out. I recently started playing FFVII after picking it up on Steam and within the first minutes of gameplay I had earned my first achievement. I thought maybe I’d accidentally triggered something that I hadn’t known about and stumbled into an achievement as a result, but it turns out I’d just used Cloud’s limit break for the first time. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the game, it is something that is literally unavoidable for a first time player; it builds up as you take damage, which you absolutely will do a lot of at the start of any RPG, and not only does it replace your standard attack command, but the font flashes rainbow colours and jiggles. No gamer who possesses even a shred of humanity could resist pressing that option, which is fine because it’s basically a tutorial, a non-invasive way of telling the player “Hey, press me and see what kind of cool shit I can do!”
So why is that being rewarded? How is that an achievement? Did the team in charge of creating the achievements for this game assume that any and all players would have fetal alcohol syndrome, and that simply not eating the controller is an achievement in itself?* Almost the entire achievement list is like this, and it’s probably the first game I’ll have 100% on the first playthrough just by following the standard gameplay route. What’s crazy is that this was just a re-release, it wasn’t a HD re-make, there wasn’t any extra content, so why did it even need achievements? It also has these “achievements” listed with stuff that’s actually hard to do in the game, like getting hold of the Golden Chocobo (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, I can’t help you).
Seriously, it came out 17 years ago. (That is, at the time of writing this; as the article ages, it’ll only get worse for you.)
So what has a game from the 90’s, and the silly achievements someone brain chundered for it, have to do with more recent games? Well, for one thing, it’s an indication of what we think an “achievement” is. FPS games are definitely the worst offenders for this, to the point where the genre has suffered because of it; Games like the Portal series, that defy the conventional FPS tropes, aren’t exactly common and hardly define the genre for many in the gaming community. Instead when “FPS” is mentioned, it immediately calls to mind games like CoD, CS:GO, or Battlefield, games which, while their fans might argue are totally different in their nuances, might be totally indistinguishable from one another to someone not intimately familiar with the games.
As dear as it is to my heart, the Gears of War series is a big offendevr for easy achievements. One example is the “Seriously” and “Seriously 2.0” achievements, which start with “Kill 10,000 people in versus ranked match” and then drops to “Kill 100,000 enemies (any mode).” This is basically “Play the game long enough until points won” and “Play game long enough until points won (easy mode),” which to their credit does change for the “Seriously 3.0” achievement, an undertaking that is nothing short of epic. On the flip-side, though, 21 of the achievements for the game are all for completing the game on all of the difficulties, not just the hardest. Sure, completing the game on the hardest difficulty will give you all of those achievements at once, but being showered with achievements for completing a single task defeats the point of having the “lesser” achievements in the first place.
The biggest problem with achievements like these is that they just encourage the same kind of gameplay over and over, particularly in games that have a big focus on online play. There’s a good portion of achievements in just about every game that has online multiplayer that aren’t even really “achievements,” you just accrue them playing normally for a long time because they’re only as difficult as “Shoot 100 dudes with gun A, then shoot 100 more with gun B.” Even the shooters with achievements that actually require you to consistently reach the top, to be the best all the time and do it with flair, when all just about ever game in the genre is asking you to do the same thing, in the same way, can you really call it an achievement after you’ve done it once already?
The idea of achievements is that they’re people-treats, little incentives along the way to make us feel like we’re doing something rad and keep playing the game. Do you know how games used to do that? By rewarding the player for doing rad things with more game. Unlocks went out the window pretty quickly once achievements came around, and is that really a good thing? Because it seems like instead of encouraging innovative design and the creation unique experiences, we’re getting cookie cutter content and less of it than we used to. If we’re going to insist on keeping achievements around, then we need to think about how we’re allowing it to influence how we play games. They should be challenging us to try and go beyond what we thought we could do, not just do what we know we can but lots of times, and that includes what we can do when actually making the games.
Achievements aren’t inherently bad, they certainly started out as a great idea with a whole lot of potential, they just didn’t really evolve or change and no they’re just… kind of dumb. With a new generation, however, comes new changes in how things are done, so maybe I’ll be proven wrong and a couple of years from now we’ll all be enjoying new, rad achievement systems. But probably not. The industry, and the gaming community in general really, just need a reminder that “Participation Medal” isn’t the same as “Achievement.”
*It is, it very much is. My parents spent SO MUCH money on replacement controllers… all those teeth marks…