Video games have come a long way from the pixelated games of yesteryear. To the kids growing up playing NES back in the 80’s, video games were a lot simpler. It was a time when the ‘next gen’ systems looming on the horizon were the Turbo Grafx-16 and the Sega Genesis. A time when ‘WIZARD NEEDS FOOD BADLY’ was about as good as it got, as far as video game dialog was concerned. A time when the biggest plot twist in gaming was when the princess was in another friggin’ castle. But video games, as a medium, have grown in ways unimaginable to those kids back then.
These days, titles are released every month that rival blockbuster movies in both presentation and production value, and gamers are being presented with stories and scenarios as detailed and rich as that of your average novel. There are times when one can look at a triple-A title and wonder how it is even possible that Gears of War 2 is descended from Space Invaders.
But through all of this change, there has been one divine gaming constant: The drive to get that high score.
Though the days of bragging rights to having the highest score on the Galaga machine at the local arcade have gone by, the urge to rack up those points has not. Of course the best example of this phenomenon in the modern gaming age is the Gamerscore.
Ah, yes – the proverbial spitting contest of Xbox Live. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed achievement whore – renting King Kong just to unlock all of those sweet, easy achievements – or the type of gamer who might go a little out of the way or try a few different ways of playing a game to unlock more achievements, that number next to your gamerpic is a constant reminder that with every new game you play you can secure a few more of those coveted points.
And that, ladies and gents, is what brings us to my rant; because as it turns out, when it comes to designing achievements, some developers are just plain doing it wrong. First off, I’ll showcase a few games that seem to have found that secret achievement formula.
The Crowd Pleasers:
Ah, Dead Space. What don’t you do well? (Hint: Turrets, but that’s about it.) Certainly the design team at EA Redwood Shores hit the nail right on the head when the were putting together the achievements for this fantastic action-horror title. In a single playthrough, not going out of my way to do anything beyond the helpful and necessary weapon and armor upgrades and the occasional ‘kill this many enemies with this gun’ type of achievement-whoring, I logged in a healthy 565 gamer points. And by cycling through the list, I could nail quite a few more with another playthrough, on a harder difficulty. This is one of the best-designed examples of achievements in gaming – the achievements are awarded for experiencing the game, and not by doing something you wouldn’t do by normally playing the game. And for the purist, Dead Space offers additional challenges in the form of multiple playthroughs using your already-upgraded equipment, leading to a very satisfying way to grab all those achievement points.
Now this is a game that really rewards players with achievements. On a single playthrough, without doing anything except for completing all the side quests provided (Which, it is important to mention, are quick and relatively painless), I logged a fat 760 gamer points. There are, unfortunately, some absurdly overbearing fetch quest achievements which only players with Marc Summers-like dedication would consider going for; but beyond those Assassin’s Creed rewards the player for simply being capable of playing the game. Kill a lot of dudes? Get an achievement. Complete each chapter of the game? Achievements all around. This is the way it’s supposed to be done. Jade Raymond, not only are you insanely attractive, but when it comes to achievement design, your studio has it on lockdown.
For the final example of good achievement design, I’ll refer to the post-apocalyptic epic Fallout 3. So far, on my first playthrough of the game I’ve nailed down a hefty 720 points. And I didn’t even finish all the side missions yet! What did I have to do to get them? Play Fallout 3. There’s achievements for completing quests. There’s achievements for reaching levels. There’s achievements for upgrading or finding items. There’s achievements for doing everything that makes Fallout 3 good. I think that is a key point in my argument here – I didn’t enjoy the achievement design in this game (or the others!) because it was easy to get them (it wasn’t!) – I am lauding the game designers because as a player I was rewarded for merely experiencing the game. By poking around every nook and cranny of the wasteland, the player is met with point after point – purely for exploring and enjoying the game. And with two still-forthcoming DLC packs, it’s only going to get better.
The Main Offenders:
For as many games with well-designed achievements there are, there are at least twice as many with terrible ones. Here are a few.
Grand Theft Auto 4
The achievement design in GTA IV is even more criminal than the acts carried out by the game’s shady protagonist, Niko Bellic. After completely finishing the game’s story, and a healthy amount of the side missions, the fine folks at Rockstar decided to award me with a miserable 265 gamer points. And that’s including my half-playthrough of The Lost and Damned. GTA IV’s achievements are plagued with the need to waste time on the worst aspects of the game – the lackluster mini games, the ghost-town of multiplayer matches, and the painfully-repetitive side missions (go here, kill some guys, go there, kill some more guys). Others are for worthless tasks like rolling your car enough times or shooting a ton of hidden pigeons through the game’s massive city-sized map. The sheer amount of time it would take to log a respectable score on this game is completely beyond the scope of something I would have time or patience for, and that’s a shame – because GTA IV is one of the best game’s I’ve ever played. It’s just unfortunate the team members Rockstar assigned to designing the achievements were such dicks.
Blue Freaking Dragon. Just thinking about this turd of a game makes my skin crawl. I’m playing through it with my daughter, as it’s a good beginner’s RPG, but it’s pretty mediocre in most respects. One aspect where it isn’t average is in it’s achievement design – it’s far below average. After logging a good ten hours of play we’ve managed to land 5 God damned achievement points. A bit curious about when that achievo-train was going to be stopping in my station, I took a look at the full list. What I found was a listing of worthless, time consuming, terrible goals for me to hit: Collect a lot of bull here, find a lot of rare monsters there, level up this class all the way, level up every character to the maximum level.. Each one a time consuming, frustrating mess. Do yourself a favor, achievement whores, and don’t even consider playing this game.
Guitar Hero (Any)
Oh, Guitar Hero. The franchise is generally quite good, and certainly one of the best series of music games there is. But if you’re in it to boost that hot gamer score, leave this one behind – the player’s ‘rewards’ come mostly in the form of piddly 5 point achievements unless you can reach the completely insane upper-eschelon of skill needed to unlock the good ones. Gold star 20 songs on Expert? Yeah, no problem – if you’re this kid. But for your average player, this is the kind of achievement design that is the most frustrating – if you can’t become more dextrous and blow hours upon hours on getting better at the game there is no hope to ever get the high valued achievements. Something that should be a reward for playing becomes an unreachable goal for most people. Screw you, Activision.
So what is a developer to do? Make achievements worth achieving. A challenge is okay, but make it a reachable one. Reward the player for the gameplay experience, and don’t send them on time-wasting quests that showcase your game’s worst qualities just for lackluster rewards. Not too easy, not too hard – because at the end of the day, video games are about fun. Stop punishing those players who want to go the extra mile to get all those gamer points, and you’ll give your players a greater sense of satisfaction and, overall, a better view of your game.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shoot a lot of stupid pigeons.