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Last week I ended up in a discussion about the use and abuse of achievements as a progression support instead of offering challenges that either changed the players approach to the gameplay or that allow for extra –more difficult- goals. My fellow Vlambeer Jan Willem Nijman tweeted to point out that Assasssins Creed II hands out three different achievements or throphies before the game actually starts – you’ll have moved the left and right analog stick, pressed a few buttons as instructed by a giant, flashing prompt and you’ll have climbed a building to get that far in the game.
It’s a discussion that has been raging on and off – ridiculing the achievements and trophies that games hand out so easily for the most trivial of tasks and normal progression. It's also a minor subject within a broader discussion on whether games have dumbed down too much to cater to non-gamers. Slowly paced tutorials walk players through everything with command prompts and sequences and cutscenes queue up to teach players how to move their analog sticks and how to jump. At the end of every step – how trivial it might be - an achievement is unlocked.
It’s a sentiment commonly heard amongst ‘core gamers’ and it’s a sentiment that I agree with on many levels – a lot of contemporary videogames simply do not dare to offer challenging gameplay anymore in fear of alienating a rather significant portion of their audience. The relentless difficulty Demon Souls or Super Crate Box offer is a concrete risk when you’re gambling with tens of millions of dollars. Thus, the lowest common denominator reigns, actual challenge locked away behind difficulties that are hopefully available from the start of the game.
A few months ago my girlfriend decided to check out what this medium I rave about all the time entails. Together, we decided she should start with Assassins Creed II because I felt it had a well-paced and expansive tutorial. She’s someone that has played every Angry Birds game, The Sims and Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego. I had suggested Sword & Sworcery before hoping its relaxed nature would ease her in, but instead its reliance on gaming tropes and perceived monotony shunned her away.
As every gamer knows, it’s tough to sit back and watch someone walk into walls endlessly. She did exactly this in her first ten minutes of Assassins Creed II, frustration levels rising slowly to the point where she would just give up and never try again. After minutes that seemed like hours of desperately trying to steer a character straight ahead, she finally succeeded.
I used to argue that just achieving that goal in itself should be an adequate reward to motivate new gamers to continue playing, but I did not take into account that new gamers are fully aware walking should be a trivial tasks; they know that it isn’t a tough challenge to walk straight in a game, even if it is fully reasonable for them to find it difficult having never used gamepads before. They realize it is not an accomplishment by any standard and thus the argument fails. She was already tired of playing and about to quit when the console played that unmistakable notification sound: achievement unlocked.
She noticed the pat on the back and gave the game five more minutes of her attention - whereas if the game had just continued without the achievement, she would've been likely to just give up. The three achievements my colleague was quipping about were exactly the ones that kept my girlfriend's attention and motivation up for the twenty minutes she played that day.
The reality is that ‘non-gamer’ as a concept has changed from what it was. Where previously, ‘non-gamers’ were people without any gaming experience, the recent rise of casual games has ensured ‘non-gamers’ practically don’t exist anymore. Where it used to be that non-gamers were a blank slate that would learn to deal with the oddities of the high barrier of entry in videogames through practice, nowadays they are anything but a blank slate. They have years of gaming experience – only the games they play are Angry Birds and Farmville.
One of the things that sets casual games apart is their short feedback/reward cycles, rewarding players for pretty much every action through exaggerated feedback. These are games that are accessible beyond anything the mainstream industry can ever hope to achieve through their simple pickup-and-play designs. While playing, the games will carefully detail every step of progress through little popups. When done, players are bombarded with over-the-top scoring systems with clear ceilings and values. The goal, of course, is that players might feel good about themselves.
Achievements and trophies can take the place of such feedback in mainstream games. While the ease of achieving such goals seem trivial to more proficient gamers, for many new to the medium they are actual achievements that they’ve been conditioned to expect reward for in a measurable way. These games are not simple to control and they are far from pickup and play – Assassins Creed II takes several hours of slow introduction and half a dozen achievements before feeling confident enough to let players into its wonderful world.
The longer I mulled over the problem, the more I realized that an achievement is actually an extremely elegant solution to easing new players in. They’re unobtrusive, they’re measurable, they do not affect or corrupt the design of the game and they can be handed out in abundance at the start of a game. They do not require attention or interaction – they can simply be an indication of progression that is concrete instead of abstract. They're exactly what a casual gamer needs without negatively influencing the core experience more seasoned gamers are interested in.
I started reading websites dedicated to achievements to see what the objections were to simple achievements. This being the internet, I found an unquantifiable amount of complaints about achievements being ‘too easy’. As I started digging deeper, a realization set in: the problem these people were having wasn’t so much with the achievement being too easy to unlock for them – the problem was that others could unlock it just as easily. It’s the idea that if a ‘non-gamer’ can do it, things can't be an achievement. At best, it's a cry for more challenging games - at its worst, it's an attempt to safeguard the exclusivity of hardcore gaming from newcomers. The underlying thought is simple: achievements are supposed to be for 'real' gamers.
It is often wrongfully assumed that accessibility means sacrificing challenge or complexity, but it is neither – it is a way to allow people that otherwise couldn’t to experience the challenge and complexity that a game can offer. Such considerations are even – or more so – relevant to indie game developers. Whereas mainstream game developers have to deal with the consideration of non-gamers playing their game, indie game developers do not have the luxury of necessity – they might simply not consider the possibility of non-gamers playing their games.
My girlfriend and I are now playing through Halo 2. Last week, she suddenly backed off when overwhelmed by two Elites and strafed sideways into cover, proving she has succesfully mapped the actions on the analog stick to movement in the virtual world. She has rapidly evolved a sense of battle flow in Halo and will shout at me to help her or jump into the fray when she hears my shield depleted sound. If she had quit Assassins Creed II for not rewarding her with a concrete, measurable reward - she might've given up on gaming beyond Angry Birds altogether and miss a wide spectrum of amazing things.
So if I may recommend something that'll take thirty minutes of your time, just to get some new perspective as a game designer: sit down and watch your parents, partner or friends struggle through all the trivial tasks in any game that you consider absolutely great. If anything it’s amusing, at best it’s a great way to challenge your assumptions of accessibility. With that new perspective, take a look at what your games do to usher in new players. No-one says you have to implement your findings if you don't want to, no-one says you have to dial back on the challenge in a game or sacrifice complexity. Maybe your game isn't meant to be more accessible, maybe you'll find that it is a good idea to reconsider. There might just be an argument for your game to hand out a concrete and measurable pat on the back if someone does something that might – to you and me – seem trivial.