I want to discuss something—well, rant would be the most appropriate term, but let’s go with discuss—that has been on my mind as a gamer for a while now: achievements and their apparent devolution in the past decade.
Achievements have always been around, we just only recently given them names, points and kept track of them. From defeating the super bosses in Final Fantasy to obtaining the Street Fighter moves in Mega Man X, there have always been extra challenges in video games for us to discover and pursue. These are achievements as much as those we see listed on our Steam Pages.
But at some point, the nature of the achievement begun to change, their value diminished. The above examples of older achievements all had a bit of “gamer cred” attached to them, with harder such accomplishments having different values.
The most common form of achievement devaluation I’ve experienced in the past years is how games award these vaunted rewards for carrying out basic tasks, such as completing chapters in the game, executing the title’s basic mechanics for the first time or in general do something that is completely unavoidable.
I have played point & click adventure games, I can name the remake of Gabriel Knight Sins of The Fathers, where my Steam popped up with achievements for completing each of the game’s puzzles. Puzzling and conversations are the core of the point & click adventure genre, why is playing the game effectively an achievement?
At times, it feels as though the developers patronisingly hand these out with a pat on the head, saying “Good boy!” for doing something you can only describe as a menial task in the grand scheme of things. At no point should the basic execution of the game mechanics have an achievement attached to it. You aren’t doing that merits the reward. It’s almost as if developers underestimate their player-base, thinking them incapable of performing even the most basic of tasks effectively and so when they do, they hand out a little prize to them, a treat for a trick performed.
Now, context is king and it all depends on the title. For example, a game like Dark Souls could hand you achievements for normal game progression in a way that a story-driven choice-based game cannot. There is nothing but mindless button pressing for choices to complete Episode One of the latest Telltale Games adventure, while in the aforementioned FROM Software title, to vanquish Ornstein and Smough is such a harrowing task that completing it feels like a real-world achievement.
Challenge though, is subjective, and in the end both above scenarios stand for normal and natural game progression so they shouldn’t have achievements because you aren’t accomplishing anything beyond playing the game as you’re supposed to. You’re not doing anything extra that calls for a reward, a recognition of your skill.
Though its model changed slightly in the past couple of years with a few progress achievements, overall World of Warcraft handles achievements beautifully, especially for its raids. You see, when raiding in World of Warcraft, you receive one big achievement at the end of the raid—with sub-achievements added for each wing/section—but not for individual bosses, as you would see in many other current video games.
If you want to receive an achievement for a specific boss, you’ll have to kill them in the highest raid difficulty, as the fight then is extremely difficult compared to the general content. The other way is to complete the boss’ specific achievement, a challenge that is the video game equivalent of balancing plates on your head while fending off Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li at the same time. If you manage to do it, you get your shiny achievement.
But as I said, the model changed slightly and now even World of Warcraft has the “progress” achievements, though WoW disguises them as being sub-achievements to a major one, such as the questing achievements that are part of the Loremaster achievement, which is completing most if not all quests.
But perhaps the issue doesn’t lie with developers, or solely with them, but with the many social platforms built around gaming, from Steam’s community to the PlayStation Network. These platforms revolve around player connections and the ability to check other people’s accomplishments in games, which then forces developers to create achievements for their titles.
How many times have you seen updates on Steam for games where the big announcement is the inclusion of Steam Achievements and game cards? The game might not have had achievements when first conceived, nor needed them, but relevancy on the release platform drives their creation.
Last year I played a very short adventure title called Midsummer, and I remember that by the time of its release and updates, it had more achievements than content. This was a short point & click adventure game you finished within an hour and yet it had achievements for every little thing you could do in it.
I first noticed this trend of adding achievements upon coming onto a platform that supports them with the few Nintendo exclusives that later made their way to other platforms. Since Nintendo’s consoles and online networks do not support trophies or achievements, they had to be created just for the new platform and in most cases, they were of the type I mentioned in the earlier section, simple progression achievements instead of actual challenges.
An interesting point now that I mention Nintendo is that the Xenoblade games on their latest platforms do have achievements, you just don’t see them outside of the game. But when you sort through them you’ll notice most of them are for content you can miss, such as fighting unique monsters, meeting all NPCs in each location or dealing humongous amounts of damage.
Like the examples above with World of Warcraft, I think they main difference between proper achievements and the simple and empty progression ones we’ve seen in many games across platforms is that they’re all for extra content, for things you can miss or don’t have to necessarily experience as you play through the game.
Extra bosses, hidden locations and completionism are the basis of proper achievement design. Achievements by their hidden or difficult nature should incentivise replay, should inspire players not only to return but to continue exploring, which is becoming rarer in this age where developers chop games up before release just so they can sell you the missing chunks as “premium” items.
Those precious secrets become just another pre-packaged downloadable content pack with vacuous progress achievements. They’re still optional, but instead of being up to the player to experience them, there’s pay-wall in between. And let’s not even get to the ones sold back to you as “gifts” for pre-ordering with a specific retailer, that’s another topic in its entirety.
Those powerful attacks of weapons that once had complex requirements to obtain, lost in some deep part of the game world are now part of the preorder bonuses, with clear indications of where to acquire them. You’ve seen it already in Bioware games: “Preorder now and receive the super shotgun, with its questline starting in this one town.”
The sense of wonder and discovery slowly eroding, replaced by the notion of pay to win, or in this case pay to achieve. In these scenarios, no matter how good the questline is, it won’t have that sense of accomplishment that should come with achievements, because you already knew it was there, you paid for it to be there.
And as more major developers look towards games as a service, something they can keep charging on well after the release date, this trend will surely continue. It’ll become rare to find an achievement that doesn’t relate to some obligatory part of the game.
It’s a bit sad to realise that the only things that are achievements, in the truest sense, in a Bioware RPG are the relationships with crew members. They’re optional, and you might feel some accomplishment for it, even if it is just watching two plastic dolls flail at each other on a bed.
While some of the above points are broad generalisations and it’s still down to the individual developers—and there are still some out there who make sure to add these extra challenges for achievements—it is undeniable that the glorious achievement, the big gaming accomplishment, the mark of skill, dedication and completionism is giving way to the achievement as a checklist, a requirement a title must meet to stay relevant among its peers and competitors on their chosen release platform.
As someone with over three decades of gaming experience, I can’t do anything but reject the achievement as a requirement, the one that at best feels like a patronising participation award and at its worst an empty collectable, because I know what it’s like to obtain a true gaming achievement, what it’s like to do that one thing in a game you once thought impossible until you took the time to work it, improving bit by bit.
I still remember the first time I obtained the Mega Man X Hadouken, it was amazing, a moment of elation for unlocking this secret move. And that’s what achievements should be about, those moments of pure gaming joy you get by doing something you didn’t think or even know was possible.
What are your thoughts on achievements, their design and where the industry is heading with them? Let me know in the comments!