Monday, 29 September 2014

In Defence Of Video Game Achievements - The Problem And How To Fix Them

Since their introduction, achievements have frequently come under fire from fans and video game critics alike. Even now, over a generation on since they were first brought into the industry as accounts were popularised and online community aspects were pushed, the backlash against them remains ever strong. 
The very idea of them seems to be scorned by a lot of major figures, especially John Bain and members of Polaris, with the very idea of them often being ridiculed. Many are argued to be unnecessary, to be a pointless addition which ultimately adds nothing to the experience and something which the industry never needed before now. However, I personally believe that this is not entirely true. While achievements have been mishandled certainly, there is a definite reason for them to exist and benefit developers of all titles.

The real crux of the problem behind achievements today is not their presence so much as how developers use them. It seems that, especially in the AAA scene, achievements ultimately come down to one of three things - Complete a sidequest, complete a chapter of a story, or complete a certain objective a certain number of times. This certainly isn't universally true, but even in outstanding titles these shorts of things show up a lot. 

War for Cybertron and Fallout 3 might both be outstanding titles, monuments to the successes of their own franchises, but both featured every one of these problems when it came to their achievements. Things are often even worse in the multiplayer scene, with achievements near endlessly boiling down to either unlocking all the items, killing countless people in a certain way, or sometimes just switching to a different class.

There's little real imagination to these and nothing rewarding which truly comes from accomplishing them. They just come down to one more tick-box to check off marking your progress throughout a title or are one small pointless addition to something you can more easily prove. Unlocking every weapon? You can prove that to friends either by just showing them your profile or unloading some ungodly advanced doom cannon into their face during the next Call of Duty deathmatch.

However, despite this it's clear what the intent on the part of the developers is: To keep players going through their game and coming back to it long after they would otherwise be done. It's the same reason that progression systems are such a big part of so many multiplayer titles these days, force a player to work his or her way up the ranks and they'll invest hundreds of hours. On the other hand if you give them everything at once, and the game isn't Quake, there's a good chance the community will be smaller or only occasionally invest a couple of hours per week.

This is not mentioning the other issue that, on the whole, the average age of a gamer tends to be older these days. These aren't the glory days of the 90s here, video games aren't a brand new media which is mostly played by teenagers with free time. The average age these days is estimated to be somewhere between a person's early to mid thirties, and naturally people have far less free time. As a whole, achievements seem like a bonus supposed to add that small additional jolt of pleasure, that feeling of accomplishment to keep a person going. While developers might currently be doing this wrong, I personally think that this is the angle they need to focus upon.

Rather than simply tacking on achievements developers need to actually start thinking of them as trophies, awards, signs of real accomplishment and reasons to be proud of them. Some games already feature this halfway between the aforementioned problems, but they need to be taken a step further. If developers truly wanted players to invest hours at a time into their title, they need to push things to the next level and use achievements as incentives to play titles in ways they would never consider.

To give one example of a title which did do this right, take The Last Federation by Arcen Games. If you really read through its list of achievements on Steam, what you'll see is a long list of accomplishments and rewards which can only be won by playing through the game multiple times, often pushing a player outside their comfort zone. Some are fairly basic ones as you'd expect, achievements for completing a title on a certain difficulty, but many others emphasise keeping certain races alive or very specific approaches. There's an achievement for winning a game while a pirate empire still exists, another for effectively uniting the galaxy under an axis of evil, another for never breaking your word, and even more for allowing only one race to emerge victorious.

Each of these forces the player to go through with a certain very unique approach and carefully cultivate a certain outcome, often spending dozens of hours at a time on each one. Some can be accomplished simply by playing the game a few times over, certainly, but the really big ones require skill, luck and careful planning on each player's part. They're not treated like minor rewards for simply beating the game, they're treated like monuments to a player's skill and determination with this game.

Others which work in a title's favour are those which require a player to really go out of their way to accomplish. The Banner Saga features a few such moments and, while it might be something of a repeat offender for this list, a fair number of its achievements require players to really go out of their way to attain them. The achievements Innocent, High Spirits, and Quartermaster all require players to really push themselves to accomplish them, with the first making one character effectively useless and the latter two severely hamstringing a player's development, making them focus heavily upon one aspect of the resource management system. Forced March is the same, adding a time limit onto an already harrowing test, and none of these four are likely to be completed alongside one another. 

These ones are what really push the player to accomplish something else, and if anything they reward skill far more than the usual choices. Murdering five hundred foes with headshots is going to be a grind no matter how capable you are, but keeping several hundred starving people alive in a northern wasteland can be accomplished first try with enough talent. Again, it's far more like a reward and they're treated as a true accomplishment rather than a 

Do all of them need to be like this? No, but even those which aren't could definitely benefit from a little creativity in the part of the developers. Some can be pointless, but so long as they force the player to go a little out of their way to do them, or get a humourous chuckle out of their players. For all the problems War for Cybertron might have had, it and Fall of Cybertron both featured a fair number of funny additions, and High Moon Studios do tend to throw a few gems into the mix. In particular, both sequences where the player takes control of Megatron in these games offer achievements for in-character behaviour, executing masses of prisoners, ripping down monuments to Starscream and the like.

There's no real skill to performing these acts, no real additional benefit in-game to doing so, but it's a small bonus for either acting in a humourous manner or even just roleplaying a little. Some can even serve as call-backs to the series they are a part of and better appeal to the demographic the developer has targeted, as is easily the case here. From there word of mouth can help to spread news of the title and convince others to spend more time on it, give it a look or even build hype. It's certainly a healthier way of doing so than just throwing multiple achievements at the player just for starting the game a-la Ryse: Son of Rome.

There are plenty of other titles which could be brought up as examples of this done right, but by now the point is clear: What's really causing such a backlash, at least in my personal opinion, is that developers aren't treating achievements with enough creativity or difficulty in accomplishing them. 

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