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.

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19 Comments on Achievements Let Players Get More Out of Games


On February 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Well said. I Totally agree! Achievements release the games full potential, and allow gamers to fully pwn the game. And giving them a great sense of completion and rewarding feeling.

Mark Burnham

On February 11, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Right on, man. Achievements are fun when done well, and they encourage you to master an aspect of gameplay.

Ninja Gaiden 2′s “100 Hit Combo” Achievement…what a bastard. But it made me investigate the combat system. Big sense of accomplishment.

Just passing by...

On February 12, 2011 at 10:29 am

Shot version:
1. Achievements can tease people into doing things they wouldn’t want to do otherwise. (already said by Trinen)
2. Achievements can rob people of the joy of discovery. (already said by Trinen)
3. Achievements don’t give people a sensible enought reward. There are better ways to reward exploration than taking notes of it. (already said by Trinen)

Basically I agree with what Trinen said. And I Disagree with the author.
Discovering things and finding things with someone’s direction isn’t the same.

Face it – Achievements don’t bring anything into the game (exept the ones that give in-game bonuses). In the end it’s all about good game disign and the players. When companies don’t have enought creativity to invent a decent reward for in-game actions and/or players don’t have it in them to explore games by themselves we get the achievement system.

That said, achievements are still the second best way to boast after the tube videos and one of the best excuses to kill time.

Phil Hornshaw

On February 12, 2011 at 10:46 am

@Just Passing By
I think you’re completely wrong to say achievements add nothing to the game. They add challenge and in and of themselves add “joy of discovery,” which I’m not sure I really buy either from your or from Trinen. “Joy of discovery” is a floaty and nebulous term that doesn’t mean anything. Video games are fundamentally built on rules, and while not explaining the rules is sometimes novel, more often than not, it’s irritating, frustrating and lazy. This lost “joy of discovery” you mention that achievements perpetrate on the player really is just an explanation of the rules — acknowledgement that you can upgrade your flamethrower beyond the level you thought, or that different elements in a game’s environment can be used to kill a boss. Things you might not have otherwise tried — where’s the “joy in discovery” if the cool things game developers put into their games are only discovered by accident? No, here’s a better idea: two hours of annoying, obtrusive in-game tutorials, since achievements “don’t bring anything to games.” Lose them, then, and either let the game explain how to play to you like you’re a five-year-old, or miss out on some of the deepest and most interesting (and challenging) parts of the game.

Aaron Smithee

On February 12, 2011 at 11:46 am

Nice article, Phil Hornshaw. Bill Trinen’s comments are reflective of Nintendo’s vision, perhaps why games like Battlefield 2 and Left 4 Dead were released by other companies.

Having achievements is adding some fun, some challenges, and recognition for those who like them; They can be ignored by those who just want to get to the next level.


On February 13, 2011 at 5:22 am

I agree with JustPassingBy, I do think Achievements are a good things to an extent, but ever since they’ve come into mainstream gaming, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in a game by myself, for myself.

Example: Napoleon Total War has an achievement for finishing all the campaigns at every level of difficulty. Seeing as though I was a veteran TW player, I started playing the game at Very Hard, and breezed through the Italian campaign. Finishing it within the time limit, I was shocked to learn that not only did I get an ‘achievement’ for only completing it on Hard (I didn’t, it was Very!!!), the game didn’t give me the achievements for Easy or Medium either! Turns out there’s a stupid bloody achievement on every level of difficulty, and if I wanted them, I had to complete them at their respective difficulties.

That’s just one example of terrible achievement mechanics. Not only did it diminish my accomplishment by a whole difficulty rating, it asked me to do it again on easier settings. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the game, but I’m not going to do what I’ve already done a second and third time, only less fun/challenging!

@Phil Hornshaw, I get what your saying, well implemented achievements can be a lot of fun to complete and give you a feeling of (surprise) achievement, but more often than not (as in my case) they will at best be irritating, and at worst take the enjoyment of a job well done out of anything I do well. The Gnome achievement was enjoyable, but doing it again with a plank of wood, or a soda can? Same type of challenge, but no little ding at the end, and I bet you wouldn’t do that would you?

Achievements can be fun, but they can also turns very well made and enjoyable games into a annoying collectorfest. Gotta catch ‘em *eugh*.

Phil Hornshaw

On February 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm

You raise a good point about Napoleon, and I think that a lot of developers slap achievements on their packages as an afterthought, which is generally horrifying. Beating the game over and over is not an achievement, and what’s more, it’s lazy on the developer’s part to assign them arbitrarily like that. Bad game design, like I mentioned.

But what you’re saying makes me think that we shouldn’t be ignoring achievements, like we tend to do, when we evaluate games as gamers (and as critics, say, on a website such as this one). Achievements are an implementation of game design like anything else and developers should be praised and chastised when they do a good job or drop the ball on them. It should be part of the process of determining whether a game is good if the achievements are well-implemented, because if they’re suck, by all means — pull them from the game.

A good example of this is Dead Rising: Case Zero, which is really short, a little too easy and not all that engaging — unless you throw in the fact that there are a lot of smart achievements. They give you a lot to go back and do and they get you to find and develop different aspects of the game that one playthrough might have you ignoring (combo weapons, for example). If developers are going to put achievements in their titles, we ought to be judging how well they do it, and therefore trying to encourage strong ones.

As for your comment about the gnome and the Ding! at the end — you’re exactly right. The recognition, not just for yourself but for others to see, is a huge part of it. The major reason I don’t achievement-hunt the way I used to is because I’m not nearly as active an online player with friends as I used to be. I don’t really care to bust ass in a game if I’m not going to impress my friends, or if there’s no competition between us. The points are arbitrary, but the fact that you can show people who actually care, that yes, I did it and it was fun — that’s the value of the system. But I appreciate that Valve thought enough of players to offer us the challenge of doing it. The achievement that THEY put in is a dare TO ME to try something else. I appreciate that.


On February 14, 2011 at 5:58 am

Dude, it just doesnt get much better than Nintendo!


On February 14, 2011 at 7:22 am

In my opinion, Achievements/Trophies have negatively affected the game industry. Many developers compensate for having a bad game by throwing in achievements so people can simply increase the size of their e-Penis.

I found myself being a bit of an achievement/trophy whore for a while but realized that while playing games like Uncharted 2, I was making sure I didn’t miss any treasures because I didn’t want t play through a 2nd time just to get them. Talk about breaking the immersion experience. Sure this could have been mitigated by implementing better targets but by far and large, you will find these immersion breaking games in every game.

I think they have created replayability in games but not because they are fun. Simply because people want to increase their scores. To me, that does not translate into a better game.


On February 14, 2011 at 9:07 am

“Trinen’s opinion, that Achievements impose an arbitrary restriction on players and limit their ability to explore and discover, is wrong.”

Trinen didn’t say that.


On February 14, 2011 at 9:31 am

I’m still not buying it. To me, most achievement systems just feel tacked on. I guess it depends on the game, but they seem to be showing up in EVERY game. Personally, trying to get the “Put 10 enemies heads in purple buckets” achievement is not going to make me want to play the game over and over. It’s just a cheap way to add the illusion of more content without actually adding more content.


On February 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Nintendo is trying to save face because they want to be the “alternative”. What they didn’t realize is that they INVENTED achievements. When you play most Mario games, You ever realize how many stars you CAN collect rather than HAVE to collect? That’s basically an achievement system right there. You dont have to collect all the stars, you want to collect them… just like achievements.

Phil Hornshaw

On February 14, 2011 at 1:47 pm

@Slype, @Bystander:
Good points, all. You’re definitely not wrong about lazy achievements and the breaking of immersion especially, Slype. Although I’d argue that it’s the dumbass collection quest, and not the achievement associated with it, that breaks the immersion. But I hate collection quests.
Not everybody who is into achievements cares about the arbitrary scores, though. Or at least, I’d argue that for the people I know who were into achievements — it was about the INDIVIDUAL accomplishment (like getting golds on all of the Portal levels, I was really proud of that one), rather than the overall score. Sure, there are people who take different things from achievements, and there are those who cheat them just to have a big number next to their names. Can’t be helped. But I think there’s something to be said for having that extra challenge layer available, especially when well-executed. In the choice between achievements with a lot of crap ones and no achievements at all, I’d rather have the possibility of good ones and be flooded by bad ones than never get a chance at good ones.
Of course, that’s just me, and I used to be the kind of guy who was lured into overdoing a game because the achievements dared me to. But as an option and as a possible way to develop a good game, I can’t see it as anything but positive to give developers more options.


On February 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm

I got all the achievements in one game on Steam. Felt no better about myself for doing it. I have noticed it has gotten me to play some games longer, but Nintendo games manage to make me want to play for 100+ hours without achievements. The games that had achievements got me to play them maybe 11 hours vs 5 or 6 hours. And not to single out the Nintendo love, but I’ve milked 160 hours into Monster Hunter Tri, no achievements necessary. Team Fortress 2 with over 200 achievements… 30+ hours.

So maybe developers should make better games and not worry if the game has achievements in them? Not saying they are bad, just saying they aren’t vital. Give me an online leaderboard any day over achievements.


On February 14, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Like others have mentioned, achievements can be a boon and a bane for games.. I feel that the system is devaluated by the myriad of games that reward pointless activities or make the achievements TOO easy; on the flip side, having to pull off impossible tasks for some meager points is not fun either. I know the ideal here is to boost replay value but, really, a great game will stand on it’s own without the need for added recognition.

The best games of all time engage the gamer so much that, when it’s all said and done, they are happy they got to enjoy the ride. For me, achievements rarely make me want to go back and play a game but, if the achievements make sense within the scope of the game (or it’s a really cool easter egg), I’ll pursue them. 8)


On February 15, 2011 at 9:42 am

FIRE a real helghast GUN!!


On February 15, 2011 at 10:35 pm

I could side with your reasoning; I was playing Assassin’s Creed II and I found it a bit silly how many achievements I got before I even considered the story as started.

I don’t like achievements that encourage half-assed competitive play or contrived deals to get, but I do like the ones that are reasonably challenging or give me something amusing to do. And it’s not like they’re even all that new a concept; Starfox 64 had the medals you could try to earn by shooting down enough enemies in a given level.


On February 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm

That’s because developers over-estimate the value of storyline and campaign, and don’t focus enough on making sure the game’s raw mechanics are polished.

It would be like Modern Warfare having a great storyline, but the actual mechanics of aiming, shooting, and reloading the rifle sucked. At the end of the day, gameplay > storyline, and if you have terrible gameplay mechanics, you have terrible gameplay.

You’ll derive more replay value from a game’s multiplayer (which is really just pitting players’ control of the gameplay mechanics against one another, hence gameplay mechanics are crucial) than you will from singleplayer anyway.

This over-emphasis on singleplayer is why the C&C franchise s**t the bed. The gameplay mechanics were nearly as polished or refined as Starcraft 2′s. A clunky, choppy, unresponsive engine, flat/linear strategy, boring units etc. Doesn’t matter how good the story is, the raw underlying gameplay was terrible, and the franchise tanked.


On March 7, 2011 at 7:58 pm

But we need a good experience and that is what matters a lot.