Achievements Let Players Get More Out of Games
A couple weeks back, Nintendo’s Bill Trinen spoke with Kotaku at length about Achievements, and why the company doesn’t really go with them. Nintendo has left achievements off most of its games — Wii Sports Resort had something like it back in 2008, but that’s about it — and while Trinen said the company isn’t opposed to the system of meaningless digital accolades, he did kind of disparage it in the interview.
I can understand Nintendo not wanting to take part in Achievements, especially since the system has become insanely ubiquitous since Microsoft rolled it out with the release of the Xbox 360 five years ago. You can get Achievements in StarCraft II and Uncharted 2, Steam games and iPhone games. They’re everywhere and they’re often completely arbitrary, which definitely dilutes the coolness of this once-innovative system.
But I think Trinen, and Nintendo, have it wrong when Trinen says things like this:
‘When they create their games, [Nintendo's designers] don’t tell you how to play their game in order to achieve some kind of mythical reward,’ Trinen said….
‘Basically, the way the games are designed is they’re designed for you to explore the game yourself and have this sense of discovery,’ he said. ‘To that end, I think that when you look specifically at games from EAD [the group long led by Mario and Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto] and a lot of other games that Nintendo has developed a well, there are things you can do in the game that will result in some sort of reward or unexpected surprise. In my mind, that really encourages the sense of exploration rather than the sense of “If I do that, I’m going to get some sort of artificial point or score that’s going to make me feel better that I got this.” And that, to me, is I think more compelling.’
Trinen’s opinion, that Achievements impose an arbitrary restriction on players and limit their ability to explore and discover, is wrong. Or at least, it’s wrong when developers get their Achievements right, and it’s a limiting view on the great things that Achievements are capable of: helping players learn and discover more about their games, and get more value out of them.
A whole other layer of challenge
I’m a big fan of Achievements as a concept. There was a time when my Xbox Live friends and I would openly compete over Achievements — which is the reason I’ve maxed out games like Hexic HD. Literally hours were spent by two close friends of mine and me during college, sometimes head-to-head on neighboring TV sets, as we raced to outdo one another in Black Pearl production.
There was a time when I was stupidly good at Hexic HD, and I got more fun out of that free game than I have out of titles I’ve paid $60 to play. The reason: Hexic’s Achievements gave us a goal to strive for and a challenge to master. And it wasn’t easy by a long shot.
I agree with Trinen that Achievements are useless, especially when they’re done badly. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (and even its predecessor) was largely content with pushing a bunch of Achievements that set an arbitrary number of kills with a certain ability. Lots of games, especially early in the 360′s life, basically dolled out Achievements to reward you for standard play (Oblivion’s 1,000 points of Gamerscore just required you to hang around long enough to receive them, more or less). Those are a waste of a lot of potential.
It’s a careful balancing act, between needlessly wasting a player’s time (I wouldn’t recommend tracking down all 500 or so of the stupid Templar flags in Assassin’s Creed, as it’s considered a form of torture) and genuinely adding depth to a title. My favorite example of Achievements done right is The Orange Box: 99 Achievements spread across Half-Life 2 and its first two episodes, plus Portal and Team Fortress.
Yes, I earned all 99 Achievements in that game, and Orange Box provided me with more awesome gaming per dollar spent on it than any title I’ve ever owned. Ever. And while it included its “collection quest” moments (which I hate), it did them in an intelligent way — limiting them to a single tight, tense area to amp the challenge and downplay the needless wandering.
It’s always about intelligent game design
Orange Box’s best Achievement is “Little Rocket Man” from Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It requires you to locate a garden gnome at one point in the expansion and carry it with you across the game. You know that section with the dune buggy and all the driving? That’s the portion across which you need to transport the gnome, and it’s a bastard of a challenge.
Gnome Chomski, as Valve refers to the little guy, is totally irritating. He crowds your screen when you carry him, rendering you unable to shoot. When you get into the buggy, there’s no way to secure Chomski, so any time you accelerate, brake or turn too hard, he goes flying. And trying to get him all the way to the rebel base you’re heading to is something of an insane challenge — something most gamers wouldn’t want to do, and they don’t have to. But taking the time to transport the gnome fundamentally changes the way you play Episode 2 in a very basic way. It’s the worst escort mission ever, and finishing it is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I can remember.
So Nintendo isn’t fundamentally right when it says that its games encourage exploration by giving players zippo information. Exploration isn’t necessarily fun when you’re wandering through huge landscapes and coming up with a whole lot of nothing except wasted time. Earning everything in a game just to get the privilege of going through it again, but as Luigi this time, isn’t any less arbitrary and useless than a Gamescore notch or a Trophy.
It’s all about good game design, and while Nintendo may not be on board, a whooole lot of developers are. You can achieve the same great design without Achievements as with them, but if presenting players with clear goals helps facilitate lateral thinking about what a game is capable of, then that’s a great thing and nobody should be trying to stifle it. It’s worth the Achievement overexposure for the chance to take on ludicrous challenges or dig into every facet of a game you love. And when you’re done, at least you have documentation of some kind that you accomplished what you say you did.
Or at least that you’re savvy enough to hack the Achievement.