As anyone who has ever tried to get all the achievement points in an Xbox 360 game can attest to, there will always be those two or three achievements that seem to take up the most time for the worst reasons. Collect a third of the COG tag in Gears of War, and you earn the “Time to Remember” achievement. Find every single flag in Assassin’s Creed, and you earn the “Keeper of the Lions Passant” achievement. Visit all the graveyards in Two Worlds, and you earn the – wait for it – “Visited All Graveyards” achievement. An unfortunate majority of 360 games have at least a few of these lazy, needlessly completionist goals that require far more effort than their relatively small rewards warrant. They’re the kind of goals that anti-achievement crusaders whine about and achievement apologists grit their teeth and tolerate against their better judgment. So how could developers improve them?
For me, the best Achievements – or at least, the least irritating ones – fall into two distinct categories: those that require essentially nothing more from you than making your way through the game, and those that ask you to engage in an interesting or unusual activity that has no effect on your progression. Problems only arise when achievements both stymie your advancement through a game and require unimaginative, typically repetitive actions.
Most games award achievements for simply advancing the story. You might scoff at getting an achievement for completing basic training in Call of Duty 2 – after all, you have to finish the training just to move on to the next level. But really, is that such a bad thing? Awarding achievements for completing these humdrum tasks may seem like pandering, but they’re actually some of the most logical and seamless achievements currently in use.
For better or worse, it’s inherently rewarding to get an achievement. Though I’m loathe to admit it, I always feel a bit of excitement when I hear that little “bloop” as the window pops up, telling me how much my Gamerscore has increased – even if it was only for making it to the second chapter. You could easily accuse such achievements of being unimaginative, but they ask so little of the player that it’s hard to feel too put off by them. Sure, COD2‘s “Completed Training” achievement and those like it are forgotten almost immediately after the pop-up fades from the screen, but they serve a clear and simple purpose: to increase your enjoyment of otherwise unexceptional activities.
Even better, achievements can take advantage of your potentially negative reaction (“I got an Achievement just for that?”) and turn it into something interesting. Guitar Hero III‘s “Blowin’ It” achievement gives the player five points for failing a single song 10 times, turning what would have been a disheartening experience into something ironic, funny and oddly consoling. “Blowin’ It” does not reward spectacular play, dedication or skill, but pleasantly surprises the player in a way that only an achievement could. You kind of suck, the game says, but here’s an achievement for sucking so bad – it happens to the best of us.
In the same vein, Vicious Cycle’s Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard grants the player achievements for events as mundane as simply pausing the game, deriving humor from challenging your expectations of what actually constitutes an “accomplishment” in a videogame. It wouldn’t be enough for Eat Lead to make an in-game joke about pausing – that innately satisfying achievement pop-up makes these one-off jokes that much more effective. So what if they’re not really “rewards”?
On the other end of the spectrum are achievements that reward you for doing something external to the game’s progression. The best of these achievements are satisfying on multiple levels: Extrinsically, you’re getting achievement points for something that, while perhaps difficult, doesn’t take much time or require much repetition. Intrinsically, these achievements deepen your experience of a game by asking you to play with the game mechanics in a way you probably would have never considered in the first place.
The “Costume Party” achievement in Dead Rising, for instance, requires you to put novelty masks on at least 10 zombies. Far beyond the relatively meager reward of 20 Achievement points, Costume Party elegantly encourages you to do something unique with the game’s mechanics while letting you feel like you did it of your own volition. Since novelty masks tend to appear in large quantities in Willamette Mall’s toy stores, it’s easy to mask all 10 zombies in a single sitting, giving you the remarkable sense of glee and accomplishment that can only result from watching 10 members of the living impaired shamble around while wearing massive yellow Servbot helmets. Because it’s an achievement rather than an actual in-game objective, you can enjoy accomplishing the task on your own terms. Where mandatory mission objectives grab you by the neck and force you to do a very particular thing if you want to see more of the game, achievements are merely suggestions.
It’s a delicate balancing act for designers to craft achievements that are creative, attainable without much repetition and intrinsically gratifying. As mentioned earlier, seven of Assassin’s Creed‘s 44 achievements reward you for finding every single flag in each of the three cities Altair visits. Finding these flags is optional (good) but remarkably difficult (less good), and the act of finding them isn’t particularly rewarding by itself (bad). The flags only exist to give you something – anything – to collect. Many of Assassin’s Creed‘s achievements suffer from this malady, but even otherwise imaginative games like Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness grant achievements for finding randomly hidden trinkets with no in-game utility.
When developers spend a bit of extra energy on achievements, however, it can have a profound effect on the final product. Perhaps the greatest achievement set in recent memory comes from Geometry Wars 2. A few of the achievements like “Unlocked All Modes” and “Game Over” are the sort of modest goals that you would reach after a few hours of play regardless of your skill level, while achievements like “Smile” are spectacularly imaginative and satisfying. “Smile” asks you to complete the game’s Sequence mode by winning, losing and timing out of rounds in such a way that the level completion grid looks like a smiley face. It’s difficult, totally superfluous and not deep enough to justify its own play mode in the game itself, but Smile requires such unusually strategic thinking that it’s a blast to attempt after unlocking all the regular game modes.
Contrast this achievement with those of the first Geometry Wars, which almost universally reward the sheer amount of time you’ve spent with the game (save for “Pacifism,” which subsequently spawned an entire game mode in Geometry Wars 2). Score 500,000 points in one life; collect nine lives; collect nine bombs; earn a times-10 multiplier. These achievements are irritatingly hard to get, yet they require the same skills and strategies it takes to be good at Geometry Wars in the first place – they ask the player to do nothing new, and are generally too difficult to be worth the small reward of 10 or 20 achievement points.
In an ideal world, developers would follow Geometry Wars 2‘s lead. The developers went from offering a slew of difficult, uninteresting and tedious achievements in the first Geometry Wars to giving players new and imaginative ways to play their game in its sequel. They understood that achievements are at their best not when they force players to engage in difficult, mindless, long-term goals that can only be completed by the obsessive-compulsive, but when they surprise us, inspire us or even just make us feel better about things we would have done anyway. Geometry Wars 2 and games like it understand that achievements are about improving players’ enjoyment with – and understanding of – the game itself. And that’s worth more than all the tediously gotten achievement points in the world.