The Need to Complete: Part Two

Previously, people played games and a good time was had by all. You picked the game up, you did what it wanted, you put it down, you got on with your life. Simple. Then along came the achievement. Now, before I get angry letters, I am aware of trophies, hell, I even have a load of them myself, but rather than spend the rest of this article typing achievement / trophy, I am going to just go ahead and use the one word to encompass all forms of reward based game mechanic, thus silencing not only the PlayStation community, but the Steam world too, and anyone that uses that OpenFient thing on mobile platforms. Thank you. Anyway, If somebody did an illustrated pop-up guide to cliches and had to come up with an interesting visual for the term “double edged sword”, they could do far worse than to simply have a picture of the “achievement unlocked” box.  

Achievements seemed to start off innocuously enough, with games such as Call of Duty 2 and Project Gotham Racing 3 simply giving out points for reaching certain milestones in the game, and in the case of Call of Duty, finishing the game in the various difficulty modes. Then, as time passed, more elaborate achievements were added. Gotham Racing 4 has over twice as many achievements as its predecessor, and Call of Duty: Black Ops similarly doubled its list of challenges and added such classic achievements as “I Hate Monkeys – Kill 7 monkeys in under 10 seconds”. The most annoying aspect of this development is that I would probably sit there spending precious “Me Time” actually trying to work out how to commit mass monkeycide.

I never used to be like that. I now find myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated two or three years ago. I feel dirty for it, but its like an addiction, but instead of chemicals – it gamer points. Friends become rivals that need to be caught up with, their progress becomes the milestone needed to continue, its no longer about the journey, suddenly the destination is what matters, and its not necessarily the one that has “game over” written on it. Achievements have gone from being pointers that the player uses to plot their progress within the game, to pointers that show the lack of progress in areas of the game they might never have considered playing. Take the feathers in Assassins Creed 2 for example. The achievement requires you to collect 100 feathers, ostensibly to keep the protagonist’s mother happy for some such reason,  to naturally achieve that goal you need to have pretty much traversed the entire map during the course of the game. I defy anyone that says that they got all 100 of those things without some serious deviation and/or online guide reading. It’s like the developer feels the need to show off every inch of the game world, simply for the sake of it. But when you are sat there wondering why you can’t get at that last feather that has taken you thirty minutes to find, even though you can see it on the map you have loaded up on your laptop, that’s when they have taken the fun out of functional gameplay. which leaves you with non functional gameplay, and we all know what that means.  

I asked Brad Shoemaker about his Achievement habits, “I do go out of my way,” he starts, “[and] in a lot of cases go for peripheral achievements when they appear to be low-hanging fruit, sometimes to the detriment of the core experience or the way I’m ‘supposed to play’ the game.” Although he then added, “When it feels like my enjoyment of the game is being impacted by the achievement hunt is when I stop hunting and get back on track.”  

Simon Butler was less enthusiastic about achievements, and sums up his feelings on the subject with great alacrity, “I play the game, skip cut-scenes and couldn’t give a damn if I don’t collect all the shiny turds put in there by some slack-jawed ne’er-do-well in the design department, Trophies hide the fact that the dev team couldn’t think of any REAL content and should be outlawed.”  

Strong words, but more importantly, a strong point. For some games, achievements add longevity to the experience that would have otherwise been absent. But more time playing a game does not necessarily equate to more fun, especially if the time is spent working out how to massacre monkeys or grab feathers from 100ft poles.  

So, the question really must be, has the introduction of achievements had a positive effect on the gaming habits of players? Brad Shoemaker again, “Yes and no. In the best cases, good achievement design encourages you to play a game in ways that are outside the scope of the original design.” He then goes on to cite Dead Rising with it’s one-off challenges as being a good example of this, then added, “Bad achievements have you running out and buying Avatar or Open Season just to pad out your score. It’s a toss up.”  

The point is valid; in amongst the monkey killing and the feather grabbing, lies the kind of achievement that enriches the gaming environment you are in and rather than being the scream that demands your attention, is more like the whisper that encourages you to stray from the path. Red Dead Redemption is a good example of this, with achievements that range from pushing you towards trying different weapons to helping strangers with their side quests. For some, these additions help flesh out the game and broaden its appeal when compared to the kind of game that simply drags you along kicking and screaming, like some semi interactive Michael Bay blockbuster.  

Simon Butler, however, isn’t convinced, “No, Quite the opposite,” He told me, when asked if there had been a positive effect, “I think for the most part it has fooled the player into thinking they are getting more for their money than they actually are. Trophies and achievements are simply the developer’s way of making you stick with their game to the bitter end and revisit as often as needed to find every shiny button.” The end result of all this? “You still complete the game but now you’ve got every worthless doodad and wasted time better spent playing another title with more actual content. 

Both sides of the argument make a lot of sense, and for every lover of Easter eggs, there will be someone that’s allergic to chocolate. For better or worse, Achievements have not only massively changed the way we play games, they have changed the way developers make games. On the one hand, achievements have prolonged the journey, changed the destination, and for the sake of dragging out the analogy further, given you more miles to the gallon. But on the other hand, Achievements can be seen as a cheap and easy way to make a game bigger than it has any need to be, one that keeps you playing despite it not being fun. Whatever your view, I think it’s fair to say they aren’t going anywhere.   

Now if you don’t mind, I need to go and finish Chuckie Egg. 



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