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On Achievements

Over on Only a Game, Rickard Elimää commented on a seven year-old post about the Riddles of Difficulty:

I was reading about achievements the other day and how bad they are because they ruin the fun of the game, where you almost compulsory hunt for achievements. So I started to think about this post, and about dynamic difficulties. How about combining achievements and difficulties? It's not a new thing, but how about making it more obvious?

Lets say that you got a platform shooter and before each level, the user can see what achievements to reach and if has been collected for this level. Without trying to collect achievements, the game is pretty easy, but when having achievements like "Never used a submachinegun", "Never stood still" and "Collected all five achievements in one go", the user can force itself to strive for harder challenges.

I replied as follows:

Rickard: the addition of achievements overdetermines the content of the gameplay (and also undercut the narrative content of the game). From a challenge or completist focused standpoint, the achievements are beneficial - but they channel players into these play styles, even if they aren't the player's native play styles. I view achievements as potentially valuable, but I judge the requirement that all games on a platform support achievements as a significant cost of play.

Your example of the platform shooter is actually something that used to be relatively common in the space between straightforward gameplay goals (up to 1990 or so) and the arrival of achievements proper (2005 onwards), namely the reuse of internal materials conditioned by assigned goals. The paradigm case is still probably GoldenEye 007 (1997), which has three difficulty levels, each of which assigns separate goals to the same map, and within which the player also has targets to unlock secrets.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the ubiquitous achievement regime we now have on many platforms is that some players interpret this in terms of positive agency i.e. they get to choose which achievements to ignore. But the framework which enforces achievements upon everyone is a framework which partially evacuates agency of its meaning since rather than giving the player a freedom to experiment with the game world, their actions are always conditioned by the achievements - whether or not they decide to complete them.

From the perspective of the artistic value of the medium, achievements in games are as crass as product placement in movies. That they add to the enjoyment of a proportion of players, possibly even a strict majority of players, should not distract us from noticing that both player agency and creator artistry are being eroded in favour of more compulsive, addictive and challenge-focused play.

To commercial game designers I would say: you have to do what you have to do. But to artgame creators I would say: please resist achievements as best you can and continue to explore the possibilities of this great medium.


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Chris, what about the "invisible" achievements? That is, when you know that there is an achievement system, but you have no visible list of those. It wouldn't have the same "motivation factor" as the current system, but it would gently steer the players towards exploration and experimentation.

Btw, I like achievements, mainly because I don't feel obliged to achieve them all, but feel rewarded when I see a new one appearing on the screen.

LateTide: I am extremely doubtful that hidden achievements encourage exploration and experimentation: players surely either ignore them or look them up. Either way, the invisible achievements still overdetermine gameplay in the sense of making these goals more important than the player's free play.

An interesting design challenge would be a set of achievements that genuinely encouraged players to express themselves, but even then I feel agency would be undercut.

All this makes me wonder if there is any possibility of achieving the degree of role-play that was possible in MUDs in contemporary MMOs, which all overdetermine via achievements, equipment and other commoditizations.

Like refurbished zoos, we now have games that satisfy their prisoners by seeming to give them what they want. Perhaps, if you never notice that you are in jail, that is enough.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Perhaps 'suggestions' to try different game styles would be better, delivered like any hint on a loading screen?

Personally, I hate achievements and ignore them by simply not looking at the list; Basically, pretending they don't exist.

Not always possible though, sadly. In FTL you need achievements to unlock variant ships. It's a particularly terrible game to use this in too, because it's highly random.

You might be trying to win using only drones, but if no shop selling drones appears...

Ruins what might be a perfectly playable run-through and goes against the 'play the hand you're dealt' mindset of Rogue-likes.

CmdrJameson: hadn't heard this complaint levelled against FTL before - very interesting! Shows how deep into the design culture achievements have become now...

Glad to find someone else resistant to Achievements. I find them quite difficult to resist, since Achiever is one of my play styles (although one I enjoy less than certain others) and so I have had to take the stronger step of attempting to avoid games with this model. In practice, this has meant avoiding almost all games except artgames. Fortunately, this works rather well for my current relationship with videogames since I am so thoroughly sick of the mainstream games industry and am happy to support those attempting new things on the periphery. ;)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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