So I was reading an article which interviewed one of the founders of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR), who published a report in late 2007 about the Xbox 360 achievements system. They found that sales of Xbox titles are directly related to the quantity and quality of the achievements within the game. This got me thinking about what I think are good and bad achievement designs. I’ll start off by stating that Xbox achievements are a brilliant marketing direction by Microsoft, and while I don’t consider myself an achievement whore (yet) I sure do enjoy getting them. But as achievements are determined by the game developer, there is a lot of variance in implementations of them.
The meat and potatoes of any game is the basic story, generally called the single-player campaign. These achievements include completing levels/zones, finishing the story, and doing so on different difficulties. It is the simplest way to implement achievements. All told, I think that completing the single-player game on the hardest difficulty should net about half of the achievement points possible (500). This should include completing the story as well achievements which represent normal behavior within the game. The achievement values for level completion should be progressive, starting low and increasing as the game progresses, to reward dedication and follow-through. The endgame achievement for finishing the story should be a substantial value, such as 100 points, to represent the importance of finishing the story. Games with low endgame achievements like Perfect Dark Zero, which awards 15 points for finishing the story, are pretty anti-climatic.
Most games these days have 2-4 difficulty levels, averaging 3 in most games I’ve seen. Games like Halo 3 and Gears of War implemented a good strategy for awarding the difficulty level achievements. If you first complete a difficulty related achievement at a higher level then it back credits you the achievements for the lower difficulties. Requiring players to play a game on easy, then medium, then hard to get all of the achievements is an asshole thing to do. Whether the difficulty achievements are only seen at the endgame like Halo 3, or at every chapter like Gears of War (either strategy is valid in my mind), the achievements related to difficulty should always back credit you if you first complete it at a higher level.
Secret achievements are a tricky ground. According to the EEDAR, games with secret achievements as less profitable than those where all achievements are visible. While I think the statement is generic, I would agree that a game with ALL secret achievements is going to be unpopular. A lot of a game’s success, much like feature movies, is the initial success of sales. Initially popular games will sell better because word of mouth, as would be the opposite. While you can go online and lookup the secret achievements of games which have been out for 6 month or more, a brand new game with many/all secret achievements is certainly discouraging. Without that initial success, it can be difficult for a game to continue to sell over its lifetime. My recommendation when it comes to secret achievements is to keep them as a minority of the total possible achievements, with passing the achievement virtually guaranteed. An example is Bioshock, most of the secret achievements are the basic story achievements which are guaranteed to be accomplished if you finish the game. They are not listed up-front as they include spoilers of the plot. But there are ways to get around this, as you can try to title the achievement in a way that it doesn’t give away the plot elements. I can see that having a secret achievement that is nigh-impossible to accomplish in normal play is just evil and can discourage players from trying to figure out what it is. Sure, there’s a geek out there who will try anything to solve the puzzle, but a successful game is one that appeals to the average gamer.
Many games include achievements for side-quests, in other words optional activities which may enhance the story but are not necessary to complete the game. Example side quests include mini-games with the game, collecting stuff, and side-quests in role playing games. I think these side quests are a great system for awarding achievements, as its all very possible within the game, but represents an extra level of dedication. I’d like to point out that I really like the collection achievements in Gears of War, as you are progressively rewarded as you complete the collection. So even if you happen to miss 1 tag in the game, you still get at least something for the effort. Whereas in Bioshock, there is no reward for collecting 121 tape recorders scattered, and sometimes well-hidden, throughout the entire game. You have to get the 122nd recorder for it to pay off. All the while you have no idea how far along you are or if you missed one which will make it impossible to ever get the achievement. Whereas also in Bioshock they did have progressive accomplishments for collecting plasmids, weapons, tonics, inventions, etc. Side quest achievements should almost never be secret achievements, as it is possible that people will not be able to figure out how to get them and it is very discouraging.
A fun group of achievements are what I call play-style achievements. Similar to side-quest achievements, play-style achievements are not required to play and enjoy the game. These achievements often require more than one pass at the game, but are there as a challenge to the player to try to play the game in different ways. I think these types of achievements are great as they enhance the replay-ability of the game. Examples of play-style achievements are character choices. An example might be a fork in the story, however minor, where the player has a choice between multiple options. I read about a pair of achievements in the Orange Box game Half-life 2 where you can choose to be submissive or defiant when given a stupid order from a commander. Either choice, you get an achievement, but you’ll have to play the game again to get the other one. In Bioshock, you get an achievement for deciding to rescue rather than harvest Little Sisters, but there is no achievement for choosing to harvest them. I like the idea of being given a choice, but I’d prefer if you got an achievement for either choice, as otherwise it seems like it removes your choice. Other playing style achievements I’ve seen include perfect (no deaths), score based, and abnormal behavior. An example of an abnormal behavior might be to complete a first person shooter level/game without shooting (melee attacks only). Its tough, but not impossible.
Online game play achievements are sticky point for me. EEDAR determined that games with online game play achievements average 50% better sales than those without, however G4TV pointed out that this might be flawed logic. Online games may be more popular in general, regardless of whether there are online achievements or not. The issue that I have with online achievements comes mostly from a lack of players. Games like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, have no shortage of online players. But older games, or games that were never as popular, make online achievements near impossible to get. In many cases, it seems like the only way to get the online achievements is the cheat, where several people get together with the sole purpose of getting the achievements. This might be a requirement that you play 1000 games, so the players setup 1 minute games and don’t even try to play. Or if the achievement is to kill X people is X seconds without dying, then the players just group up all let one kill the group to get the achievement before doing so again with another player. This is cheap, and some call it cheating, but if there is hardly anyone playing the game anymore, it would be impossible to get the achievements any other way. I think that viral achievements, like the Assassin achievement in G.R.A.W. is pretty cool, but once again it can be near impossible to accomplish if the game has a low online user base.
The group of achievements which I think should be avoided entirely are the achievements which force you to play for an excessive amount of time. For example, Timeshift has an achievement where you have to turn your Xbox into a dedicated server for 48 hours (and you can’t play anything while you are a dedicated server), or the G.R.A.W. achievement for playing a multiplayer game for 8 hours straight. Kill 10,000 people online, host 5,000 multiplayer games, etc. Each of these types of achievements is a way to simply force players to waste massive amounts of time to get the achievements. This just seems like an asshole thing to do; if your game was good enough people would play that much just because they enjoy it–not to meet your insane achievement requirement. Games like Final Fantasy XI, which the EEDAR founder rated as “masochistic”, only give you 30 points for getting to level 75 (roughly 3 months of work)—now you have do it again and again for each of the 14 or so classes to get 30 point achievement for each. Why would you be that much of an asshole as to require that much time to get so few points.
On the other hand, don’t make the achievements too easy to get. Games like Avatar and King Kong are notorious for allowing players to get 1000 points in one sitting (mere minutes on Avatar). Achievements should reflect at least a certain amount of effort, at a minimum I think it should take at least 20 hours to get 1000 points.
My final thoughts on achievements: I think that roughly half of achievements should be attainable through normal game play at the highest difficulty. I think that a quarter of achievements should be for online achievements, which are possible to attain even after the player base has moved on to newer games. The last quarter (or last half is there is no online component) should be for side-quests and play-style achievements to reward players for the extra effort. Don’t make achievements which are near impossible to accomplish, or which strongly encourage players to cheat to get them. Avoid secret achievements unless it reveals the plot and can’t be obfuscated with a generic name. Achievements tied to difficulty should always be retroactive. Achievements should be designed to supplement the game, not hinder it. They should make the game more fun to play, more exciting. Achievements should reward dedication, not require enslavement. Reward hard work, don’t reward people for turning the game on.
After all of this, I still think that achievements are a brilliant marketing strategy for Microsoft as it allows users to go back to the days where you competed for the high score on an arcade game. It’s fun, but not required. If someone doesn’t care about achievements, then it doesn’t matter. They can still play and enjoy the game. But if you enjoy the satisfaction of getting achievements, or the bragging rights of a high gamerscore, then the achievements should represent an accomplishment (not mindless enslavement or stupidly easy accomplishment of inserting a disk) for the hard work of the player.