Sunday, July 26, 2009

Achievements in Design

As the XBox 360 achievement system has matured, it's become clear that designing worthwhile achievements is a challenge in and of itself. (The same applies to any game with a goal-oriented trophy or medal system, of course, but as Microsoft requires that all released games support its achievement system, the 360 library provides the richest set of examples.)

To my mind, achievements have two primary goals -- to reward the casual player for completing the game at all, and to reward the hardcore player for spending intense time with the game and seeing everything it has to offer. Earning ALL the points on most games is a challenge, and well-designed achievements provide worthy targets AND a tangible sense of accomplishment for the player.

Achievements should be fun to strive for in and of themselves, of course, and the game itself needs to have a certain level of quality, or trying to satisfy its demands becomes a pointless slog. A good game is made better by achievements that are challenging and interesting, but aren't required for a basic runthrough. GTA IV does a nice job in this area -- there are achievements that come with steady progress, achievements that will occur for many players in the normal course of activities, and achievements that serve as a kind of extended play within the game world. As an example of the latter, there's an achievement tied to blowing up a certain number of cars within a time limit -- not likely to occur in the course of normal events, but certainly possible within the game's framework. Doing it requires rounding up some number of vehicles, piling them together, avoiding serious police attention while doing so, and then blowing the whole mess up. It's an achievement that works in gameplay terms, and at the same time it's something cool that you might not bother to do without that achievement carrot dangling in front of your nose. Conversely, bad games often have lame achievements, like "Play this game for 10 hours" when it barely deserves 10 minutes, or insurmountable goals that prove unrealistic for most players "in the field."

Scaling the point values is another challenge. The harder a goal is to achieve, the more points it should be worth, but while Microsoft provides high-level guidelines (200 total points for an XBLA download game, 1000 for a retail game) there's no prescribed way to scale across the whole library. This leads to unfortunate situations like Rapala Fishing Frenzy, which offers only 9 achievements totaling 1000 points -- completing the easy tournament, which doesn't take more than an hour or two, yields a whopping 100 points, while earning 100 points in most other games is a considerably more significant accomplishment. There's also a built-in disparity between XBLA games and retail games, as some XBLA games are full-length titles, but remain limited to 200 achievement points; methinks the price of the game factors in somewhere in Microsoft's math.

The achievement system is also subject to promotional conflicts of interest. At their best, such goals are still fun, as is the case with many games that encourage XBox Live Gold membership subscription by including online play-only achievements, or the Wolfenstein 3D achievements that also unlock upgrade points for the upcoming retail sequel. But some downloadable games provide an overly easy achievement early in trial version gameplay, as a hook to encourage purchase, with little thought for the bigger picture. Space Giraffe is an offender here, as that easy achievement is still the ONLY one I've managed to accomplish, and the others remain way out of reach of my feeble skills. And some games go too far in the other direction, like the free Doritos advergame Dash of Destruction, which hands out its 200 achievement points like they were, well, corn chips.

Of course, we're still not really ACHIEVING anything at all, really, other than nudging our Gamerscore up for our XBLA friends to see. But I'm a fan -- achievements have many times encouraged me to get the most out of a game, and when it's a game I enjoy, I'm always up for another crack at that next elusive goal.

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