Achievements will save us all!

I find myself strangely fascinated by the recent trend of Achievements in games. For the uninitiated, achievements are a sort of titles that you get when you have done a particular thing in a videogame for the first time (like collect the Six Sacred Stones or run very fast into a wall, etc). So you don’t get a power-up or gold or points or extra lives or anything that influences the gameplay at all. Only the title. The reason for my fascination is that it seems like achievements can turn anything into a game!

We’re playing a bit with the concept in the design of The Path, and, depending on how we end up publishing the game, we might add more. Achievements are a very simple mechanic. They require hardly any design, are easy to implement and instantly provide the player with motivation and goals. These two, of course, being the Big Problem that needs to be solved in order to allow videogames to evolve from the toy-like things that they are today into the full-blown mature medium that we all know they can become.

Assassin's Creed

Assassin’s Creed, at least the way I play it, seems to be largely structured around the concept of Achievements. It offers you a fully explorable living world which is a joy to simply walk around in. But, typically, as such, it runs the risk of becoming too ambient to keep the player motivated. Setting your own goals and having the discipline and patience to explore is not an easy thing to continue doing for the many hours that games like these take. But just before you get in trouble, you almost accidentally collect a flag. And the game tells you that it’s flag number 1 out of a hundred. Or you climb a large tower to enjoy the view and the game tells you there’s nine of these. Instant motivation. Simple.
There’s more to Assassin’s Creed than this. It includes the traditional missions and combat and narrative progress. But I find these far less interesting.

Achievements can turn everything into a game. At least everything that is interactive.
I’ve tried to imagine a way to add achievements to reading a novel or listening to music but I couldn’t get there. Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Suggestions are welcome in the comments!
The absolutely wonderful thing about Achievements to me is that they don’t interfere with the narrative experience much. They are extremely lightweight in terms of meaning. So now we can concentrate on making our interaction design express the story rather than forcing the rigid challenge-effort-reward game structure to do so, or -possibly worse- forcing the narrative to comply with the demands of such a structure. Achievements offer designers an opportunity to finally start exploring the non-linear nature of the medium without losing the players.

For instance: would it hurt The Graveyard to add Achievements to it? Hardly. Achievement: you have walked to the bench without limping! Achievement: you have sat on the bench without getting up before the song ends! Achievement: you have turned around three times before sitting down! Achievement: 10 birds have greeted you while sitting on the bench. Etcetera. You would still get the atmosphere. You would still feel the protagonist’s melancholy. You’d still feel the weak Belgian sun on your shriveled skin. You wouldn’t be distracted from the narrative content at all. And your protagonist doesn’t need to become a hero who defeats the monster or solves the mystery. Achievements can open the door for games about all sorts of content.

33 thoughts on “Achievements will save us all!”

  1. U know? I am implementing achievements in a website about videogames that I’m doing. So, there you have it. Something interactive that is not a game, but that becomes a game if the user wants.
    Magic :)

  2. Hmm, your preview button caused an error your side, and I lost my post -_-;

    Anyway, if your post was sarcastic, which I hope it is to a degree, I think too that achievements lessen any kind of gameplay. IE: it’s either a pointless addition to an already awesome moment (finding the top of towers in Assassins Creed looks awesome for instance), or a period for the sentence “you really just wasted your time having no fun doing this activity for ages”.

    As long as they can be turned off, they’re not intruding at least.

  3. It strikes me as odd that you’d consider achievements as a good thing, in a post immediately following one where you claim there are too many elements of challenge in a game.

    For me, you’re limiting the credibility of your art by doing stuff like this. The Graveyard would clearly have suffered in its drive with the addition of achievements. It turns it into a ‘game’, where you wanted it to be considered ‘interactive poetry’.

    I have no interest in being given set targets in this sort of thing. The whole point is that it’s a free exploration of the scene.

    But then I hate the achievement culture in gaming, anyway. It’s turning everyone I know into mindless idiots who ignore the actual bulk of the game, just to beat everyone else to the ‘full completion’ posts. Silly.

  4. I had no idea people were treating achievements as such. I guess I could have known, gamers being geeks-with-no-life and all that. Personally I experience achievements as mostly unobtrusive (which is good for me because I consider most gameplay to be obtrusive and standing in the way of an enjoyable experience). And since they’re meaningless and not required for making progress in the game, they don’t add any stress or feeling of obligation.

    But I guess it all depends on how you play. If you take them seriously as challenges, then I can imagine they can ruin the experience for you. I had no idea anyone was taking them seriously. Thanks for the information, though, scary as it may be.

  5. I’ve had a brief look on the internets and it seems that you’re right. Achievements seem to be changing people’s playing habbits for the worse. Oddly, the reasons for gamers to reject the achievements seem to be the same as mine to reject all gameplay: they distract from the intrinsic value of the game as experience.


    ^ An interesting game called Achievement Unlocked. You seriously can’t make a move in this game without getting an achievement. When you get to the menu screen, you get ‘Menu Explorer’. When you move to the left, you get ‘It’s a step to the left’. Those are the easy ones. There are also harder ones (touch every touchable block), ones you honestly don’t expect (scroll through the achievments list), and ones you can only find out via the Hints link (type in jmtb02…I think).

    And even with it bluntly shoving in your face how pointless achievements really are, most people still struggle with grim determination to get everything on the list checked off. There’s probably some deep phsychological reason for that, but still.

    Anyhow, please don’t put stuff like that in The Path. As you’ve now realised, people have an annoying tendancy to take those things seriously. And I’m sad to say that I’m one of those people despite myself. The Path seems like it would be ‘better’ if the player explored it for the sake of exploring, if they were motivated by their own will to investigate rather than for the satisfaction of that little ‘Congrats!’ popup box. As you said, I also feel it would take away from the intrinsic value.

  7. But you have a pretty fresh view on achievements 😉
    Just because people don’t use them properly doesn’t mean that they’re evil . Achievements don’t kill games, gamers do :p.

    I always used to set my own “achievements” in games (although… don’t we all do it in real life?), like trying to reach some actually places, or trying silly, unplanned strategies 😉
    I love exploration, not only of space, but also of possibilities.

    Achievements, as they’re implemented in games today, are, in my opinion, inspiration for new things to try. It’s an easy, interesting solution to many problems of sandbox games.
    I don’t see how it’s intrinsically “worse” in term of gameplay than having a series of linear mandatory missions or “main quest”.

    I rarely look at the list of achievements before playing, so maybe some of them should/could be hidden. Instead of pressuring challenges, it would be a nice kind of interaction between the players and the developers, “Hey, we knew you’d try that ;)”.
    And actually, those achievements could probably be generated, instead of hard coded.
    I don’t know if you’ve heard about the gnome in HL2EP2… First, it’s a good example of how achievements can lead to original gameplay. And, with something like dynamic achievements, it could have been with anything. You shouldn’t need to know about that gnome and what to do with it, the game would just keep stats of your weirdest, most original, talented, silly actions.

    And that leads me to another positive point about achievements: they’re like a history of your game. If a “sandboxing” game allows you to make your own story, it’s good to keep a trace of it.
    Actually, the most open kind of games, strategy/SIMulation games, often have that kind of history. The Sims 2 even has some kind of photo album if I remember well. And racing games have replays.
    As basic as it is, I think that kind of things gives a little more weight to what you’re doing. It’s not mandatory, but it’s a nice addition; “Ah yes, I remember that… good time”.

    I wish for a free roaming game that would be purely “achievements” based, where the player builds his own (his)story, character, and maybe, ultimately, world, without any quest or prewritten scenario (although, of course, the rest of the game universe would write its own story – thus things are bound to happen). Someday, hopefully 😉

    OUCH that was a long one!

  8. And I’m.. still baffled how people can ask to not have in a game something that trigger their own maniacal behaviour :p

    I can pick up flowers in Oblivion.. should they remove flowers from the game because I can’t help trying to pick up all the flowers ?
    (actually it wouldn’t make sense since they regrow – and to be honest I had more fun collecting plants than killing rats, and quickly lost interest in the Prince Whatever)

    The blinking things from The Path (are they flowers now?) never disrupted the game for me. And I’m not the least maniacal player : I can’t stand leaving loot behind me :p

  9. Conflicting viewpoints… Interesting. Thank you!

    I’m not sure if I’m right, but I have a feeling that most people who have a tendency to become obsessive about gathering achievements, would not play (or appreciate) the kind of game I’m thinking of implementing them in. They would just find such a game (that puts content above gameplay form) boring and pointless. Adding achievements would simply make it possible for those people to play the game, albeit perhaps in a less than ideal way.

    And the other people, the ones not inclined to obsessive achievement gathering, the ones capable of patiently exploring a virtual space and non-linear narrative for its own sake, would probably also be capable of resisting the temptation of achievements. Simply because they don’t play games that way.

    I find it amusing that Yhancik and we interpret achievements in the same way. We both have a background as fine (media) artists. Does it take an artist to appreciate the unbearable lightness of achievements?

  10. I think there are two things to take into consideration here:
    First, if you can know beforehand what you shall achieve. There’s a big difference between accidentally turning around three times or doing so because you found it in the list.

    Second, it matters how you are informed about the achievement. When I meet a guy in Aquaria, and there’s that popup window saying “Achievement unlocked: Romance”, it just spoils the moment. If they didn’t inform me immediately but stored this (probably with a screenhot) in some list I cound check whenever I want, that cound indeed be some kind of a keepsake of what once happened in the game.

    Which leads us to the third question – how do we choose what to count and not to count as an achievement. Is it ok to have an “Achievement unlocked: Old lady died” in The Graveyard, for example? Or “Child killed” in Fallout (older Fallouts, where you had kids and could kill them).

    By the way, Fallouts (all of them, I think) had some interesting built-in achievement-like things, like it counted how many men, women, mutants and other creatures you killed (in new fallout there are also things like “Pants exploded” and “People hypnotised”), there are also “Karma” points (how are you treated in different towns), and things like “Gravedigger” (if you were scavenging graves) or “Porn star” (if you took part in some XXX movie shooting). Those serve both like extra scoring (or evaluation) system and also a collection of memories. And those things (if i’m not mistaken) didn’t pop up on the screen as soon as something was done – they just appeared in the list.

    So, maybe, in The Path, you can also give the player ranks of “Spook lover” (if they tend to go to the scariest places), or “Good girl” (if they don’t steer away from the path), and those actually wouldn’t interfere with the game if there would be a special place to check them out, and not a popup window. Or, you can rate not the player, but every girl they play separately.

    Lastly, Michael, your blog is a very interesting read which always gives a fresh but logical view of games – you actually shaped my perception of modern games into clear words. The only thing that troubles me is that I grew on “classic” games and, however tired I am od them, might not be susceptible to the new generation you are trying to create. I wonder if your goal is to make your game accessible (not by interface, but by meaning) to every simpleton.

  11. achievements…thinking about the meaning of achievements leaves a too wide open space.. it could be hunting down every little flag in the game world to accomplish nothing, it could be just the game giving you feedback for doing something.
    achievements are there even if you don´t put the message out clear to the screen.
    I am also a silly collector. I play as many games as I can and always end up chasing the ‘wrong’ objectives when given the choice. Tank racing in battlefield, collecting gnomes in fallout, becoming the best pool player in GTA, etc..
    As long as there are things to be done, there will be people doing it. You may try to entice it by hunting those things down and naming them, then giving the player some feedback on screen, or, you could just let it loose and leave the player to the experience.
    Im the kind who would like to have it somewhere -“You have done x and y..missing j and k” – Tho I cant see where this mindset fits in The Path.

  12. Some great ideas and suggestions there, Ilia.

    We want our games to be as accessible as possible. We simply consider that to be good design. And as artists, we have never felt the need to be obscure or exclusive. We have always wanted to make work for people.
    That being said, some of the subject matter we deal with is actually extremely complex and quite impossible to “dumb down”, if only because it’s so vague and can only be expressed through art. But we try to layer our work so that it can be enjoyed in several ways, including non-intellectual simply fun ways. But to really explore things as deeply as we are will always require dedication and concentration and probably also talent and life experience (in the sense of maturity but also simply having lead a life in which the issues that concern us have played a role -compatibility so to speak).

    But let it be clear that we don’t look down on people who play our games in a superficial way. That’s perfectly fine. We do it ourselves all the time. In fact, we tend to consider any way of playing our games as perfectly valid. It’s one of the core values in our design philosophy: to allow or even enable the player to be creative.

  13. Sleeping on this, and reading Ilia comments, I remembered that a couple of Nintendo games (I’m thinking about the old Goldeneye, and Smash Brothers Melee) give you a couple of stats and some “title” based on them (just as Ilia’s idea of “Spook Lover” “Good girl”) at the end of a multiplayer game.

    But I think we’re talking about something else than achievements, here. Instead of showing how good you are (in relation to challenges), they tell you what kind of player/character you are (in terms of personality).
    It’s a bit around the idea of RPG, but in a more intuitive, invisible way than the traditional D&D thing.
    (and actually, wasn’t it what Molyneux tried to visually achieve in Fable : your look influenced by your actions, or something ?)

    The funny thing is that – I don’t know about you – but I was a gamer before being an artist 😉

  14. Heh, I’m kind of surprised to find you excited about achievements… Usually you hate everything that happens to be popular! 😉

    But seriously, I do agree that achievements could be very useful to increase the “hardcore accessibility” of games that are otherwise without traditional goal structures. And perhaps even as an expressive part of the game itself. It seems that some Flash developers have stumbled upon this same phenomenon – starting with I Wish I Were the Moon, which simply tracks the number of endings you have found, out of the total, and imitated by I Fell in Love With the Majesty of Colors. Both were quite successfully the subject of a challenge on Kongregate, which is notable since Kongregate’s users are usually quick to complain if they dislike a game.

    “Adding achievements would simply make it possible for those people to play the game, albeit perhaps in a less than ideal way.”

    I think this is very valid. I support your decision to include achievements in your artistic games. I would do the same.

  15. I use to play Excitebike 64 with a neighborhood friend of mine. When you played the game how it was meant to be played it was a little. When, however, you used the level creator to make a track with a gigantic hill and you spent hours trying to create a head on collision over the giant hill, it was fantastic! If the game would have given us an achievement for a head on collision, even if though it’s such a minor thing, to realize that the creators of the game had thought about the same thing we were doing, it would have made something NOT part of the game suddenly part of the game. And somehow it would be better.
    In a way it’s as if achievements are like the easter eggs of old, for example, was it Duke Nuke’em where you could find a hidden area that said “You aren’t supposed to be here- the levelmaster.” That was like an achievement.

  16. You manage to give a very positive perspective on Achievements whilst I, and I would’ve thought you too, would be stand less positive towards them.

    But I get your point and agree with it to some extent.

    Please remember that Achievements (or PS3 Trophies) are supported by their respective platform.

    Gamers need to have a place to stockpile them, every game they play adding up to their grand total. Even if they think your game is bad they wil suck the Achievements out and drag ’em to their cave. I don’t know about any such system outside the console branche.

    Achievements are primarily a game selling motor by Microsoft, and working very well at that! They do, however, bring extra (reenforced) gameplay to a game and that is notable.

    Expect to see a lot of people quickly “mining” your game for them, but hey, you get your audience!

    Be weary of one thing though, if your player does not care about Achievements (i.e. indifferrent) I believe, by personal experience, the presence of them can leave a negative feeling of underachievement!


  17. Our games are not about achieving anything. At least not in game terms. They are about achieving something in yourself. They only way you can play our games poorly is by playing them with a passive mind, without imagination, without interpretation. But the game does not reward you for this. These things are their own reward.

    We do implement game conventions here and there, but we are very careful that they do not interfere with the experience. We like to use them sometimes because they can guide the player.

    I think people who would “mine our games for achievements” would not play our games at all, otherwise. So we don’t have much to lose here. And perhaps the candy coating of achievements lures them into something that they are pleasantly surprised by.

  18. Nice little article. Good to see someone pointing out the pluses of achievements and not just slagging them off!

  19. In fact couldn’t agree more about Assasins Creed, it made the game for me really. My flatmate got the game on PS3 and he didn’t enjoy it. I wonder if he had the 360s version and achievements, maybe it would have been different.

  20. Michaël Samyn wrote:
    “Our games are not about achieving anything. At least not in game terms. They are about achieving something in yourself. They only way you can play our games poorly is by playing them with a passive mind, without imagination, without interpretation. But the game does not reward you for this. These things are their own reward.”

    Aah, thats what I miss so much about playing computergames nowadays. I keep wondering if it is

    the games today or if it just me. I almost certain its the latter.

    As a kid I always played games like I played with toys. They were under my creative and imaginative control.

    When I play games today they feel to much like a choir. As if the only reward comes from completing the game; which is rediculus.

    I think my problem is that I have to many computer games and little alternative modes of play.

    Where I used to have toys, drawing, streetplay etc. I now am kind of stuck with videogames.

    The site is great, keep at it!

  21. Michiel, I think you shouldn’t blame yourself too much. Videogame design is stuck in a rut and insisting on gameplay purity isn’t helping. I think many videogame designers nowadays realize that they need to break with the past, that they need to free themselves from the rigid, outdated, and frankly, childlike, concepts of early game designs. But they lack the courage, the budget or the talent to do so. And the result is games that are essentially the same, but weakened, softened, easier to play. But that’s a dead end. We need much more radical innovation.

    I’m not sure if achievements are radical or innovative. But, if used in a certain way, they do offer an opportunity to escape the death knell of traditional game structure. At least as a transitional phase until we, the audience, have become creative and imaginative players again.

  22. – do action in game
    – open achievement window
    – press ‘new’
    – write a name for your achievement
    – add other parameters (number, while X, without Y)
    – share your achievement with others

  23. On a less positive note :p

    “GameWager is a service founded in 2007 and in public beta since July 2008, that rewards players who sign up with tokens for completing certain objectives in various online games. Get a kill in Team Fortress, get a token. Players can then redeem tokens for chances to win prizes, such as Alienware Laptops and Nvidia graphics cards.”


  24. When I was looking around for information about achievements, I wondered what the points were for that are associated with them. Apparently the points you get in every game are all tallied up together to form a sort of score of your gamer street credibility or something. It’s rather ridiculous. But I can’t really imagine anyone over 14 being interested in that. So it’s probably harmless (at least in as far is the games where those people get their points are not rated 14 plus…).

  25. It’s the case on Xbox Live. But not on Steam, for example.

    I don’t know about the PS3…

    But yes, achievements as points is pretty silly.

  26. I find this article’s pretentiousness to be, frankly, overwhelming. I do enjoy setting my own goals and such, but being given a little direction is always welcome, in my opinion. Games are primarily an interactive medium. Ones where you actually control what is going on. In the best games, this translates into creating your own stories through you actions. In the worst, it consists little more than taking a character down a predetermined path to feel a predetermined feeling.

    The best stories are ones that offer both direction and freedom. I’m not talking the Grand Theft Autos of the world, but rather the Dwarf Fortresses. Games where you can create a direction and follow it, rather than games that have no real direction and exist little more than existential commentary (which I don’t even consider games) or straight, fully-scripted experiences that completely limit the player. In my mind, total art-wank freedom and total gameplay-wank direction are one and the same. Forcing the developer’s view onto the player. And that’s no fun at all.

    This being said, I think achievements are a manifestation of the goals that so many gamers find themselves performing. To use your example, players will climb the huge towers simply to goof off, and then find that they offer an immediate gameplay benefit as well as a meta-game benefit in the form of an achievement. I don’t really see how this is a problem.

    On top of this, players can use achievements to gauge their progress through a game world, even if they aren’t interested in completing all of them. For example, in World of Warcraft, you get achievements for doing things such as collecting X amount of pets or exploring particular areas. For some, this means jack and they will simply ignore it as they proceed to other goals. For others, they will be getting rewarded for doing something they want to anyways! So it’s a win-win.

    I think the part that I hate most about this is the assumption that in order to mature as a medium, games have to lose motivation and goals. Without motivation, who is going to do anything? You aren’t going to read a book unless you want to. You aren’t going to listen to an album if you are apathetic about it. You do things because of a motivating factor.

    Also, books and music have achievements in a sort-of sense. Books are divided into a beginning, middle, and end, each consisting of any number of chapters. The narrative in a book provides the motivation, and the climax/resolution provides a goal for the reader to persist. In a similar sense, music is divided into songs, each of which is further divided into verses, bridges, and choruses. Listeners are motivated to hear complex musical interaction (or enthralling lyrics), and their goal is simply the end of the song (or album).

    Goals and motivation aren’t bad. Remove them from any medium, interactive or not, and you have something completely unbelievable as well as boring. Narrative can be a motivation and goal just as much as any gameplay element, but most people ignore that, including developers such as Tale of Tales.

    This is the most frustrating thing about games. Not that there are goals and motivations, but that the goals and motivations are applied immaturely. Either on the far side of gameplay, where players feel forced into a specific path, or to the side of narrative, where there is no focus and the game dissipates into boredom and drudgery.

  27. You chose an unfortunate place to criticize our work, James. Because I totally agree with you: Achievements are indeed a win-win concept (win-win-win, even!). We are not arguing against motivation at all. Or even against goals. As your post clearly illustrates, different people are motivated by different things. The things that motivate me personally to play a game are probably virtually diametrically opposed to yours. And as much as you might feel your motivations being thwarted by the things that motivate me, mine are often affected in the same way by yours. You can’t blame us for making the games that we would like to play. Nor should you for believing that this is the path to maturity of games as a medium. If we did not believe this, we would not be doing what we do.

    Of course you’re free to disagree. But on the subject of Achievements, I don’t feel we do. Achievements add an extra layer of motivation to games. And that is good because it potentially allows a new form of games to be enjoyed by a larger group of people. Or at the very least, Achievements add one more way of playing a game. And the more ways, the merrier! Maybe games will finally find a a way that motivates even me (and the billions of non-gamers on this planet) to play them! :)

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