As soon as the Flash game Achievement Unlocked loads, praise flashes across the screen. Congratulations, you have an uncanny ability to stand still. Another notice pops up to say, good work, you've figured out how to move left. And look, you've successfully skewered your elephant on the spikes below. High five!
As the game aptly illustrates, the video game industry's rush to adopt these miracles of user engagement has left a slew of hasty implementations in its wake.
No one wants a pat on the back for simply going through the motions; it makes the whole notion of achievements meaningless. It may once have worked for King Kong, but after gamers sapped those 1,000 points there was no reason for them to return to the title.
There is a better way to incorporate achievements into games.
Regardless of whether you call them achievements, trophies, badges, medals, or whatever, these digital rewards act best as incentives for gamers to finish games, try out new features and modes of play, and experiment with the offered tools.
When deployed skillfully, achievements keep players engaged. They foster community. They are a reason to play new games. They're a new metric to prove game mastery. Hell, achievements are the new high score.
There is also evidence that they improve sales. Xbox 360 games that distribute their 1,000-point allotment across more than seven achievements sell markedly better than games with fewer achievements (although there is a correlation between a high number of achievements and big game budgets), reported Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) in September 2008.
"Ignore Accomplishments at your own peril," cautioned EEDAR's expose. "On the Xbox 360, game titles that have a larger quantity and wider diversity of Accomplishment types simply sell better."
This phenomenon is not exclusive to console games. Badges appeared in the casual space as a daily incentive to visit Web portals before Microsoft co-opted them for Xbox Live.
It was Microsoft, however, that took achievements mainstream.
They were a way to add stickiness to the community and the console, explains Aaron Greenberg, director of product management for Microsoft's Xbox division. "We never anticipated this reaction... where there are achievement fan sites and people playing games that they would never play [for the achievement points]."
Achievements are also driving incremental game sales on the Xbox 360, says Greenberg. He points out that the console's attach rate of eight games per system is the highest, ever, for any platform.
Achievements, he says, are a big part of that.
So far Xbox Live players have unlocked 2.5 billion achievements and racked up a collective Gamerscore of 52 billion points, reports Greenberg. That's almost 150 achievements per Xbox Live member.
Thanks to Microsoft's achievement success, these incentive systems have spread across consoles, handhelds, mobile devices and social networking platforms.
And without the overarching achievements concept, Justin Hall's experimental Passively Multiplayer Online Game (now called Nethernet) would not even exist. The game capitalizes on gamers' compulsion for the web -- players earn achievements while they surf.