Achievements are "like a topping on a pizza," explains Robert Bowling, community manager at Infinity Ward. They enhance the gameplay experience and reward dedicated players for their effort and skill.
That is why unlocking all the potential points in a Call of Duty game is such a grueling process. They are badges of honor -- particularly achievements like "Mile High Club," says Bowling.
Only 2.8 percent of the 10 million Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare players who have ever logged into Xbox Live have earned the achievement, which is awarded for completing COD4 on veteran difficulty.
Achievements like "Mile High Club" should be rare -- perhaps only one per game, Bowling explains. "It is one of the hardest achievements to achieve and you lose some of that weight when they are all that hard. It would be more frustrating than fun."
Players, however, complained that the achievements in Call of Duty 2 were too difficult to obtain, says Call of Duty 4 lead designer Zeid Rieke. All but three of the 13 achievements had to be completed on veteran difficulty. So the studio compromised for COD4.
"It's really nice to get a pop-up every hour or two saying that you've done something cool," says Rieke. That's why the team ensured achievements were more evenly spread throughout COD4. Points should not be given away, he says, but the player should naturally unlock them as he progresses through the game.
"The trick is you want to constantly feel like you're being rewarded," says Bowling. At least 60 percent of achievements should be achievable by the average player on one play through. That's why COD4 has achievements for consistent headshots and knife throws -- it rewards players for developing their skills.
Infinity Ward also wanted to highlight creative play. If someone found and used a rocket-propelled grenade to down an approaching helicopter, he unlocked the achievement "Bird on the Ground." "Daredevil" was awarded to players who, blinded by a flashbang, still managed to kill an enemy. These rewards, says Rieke, inspire players to try new things.
While incentives are important tools, Infinity Ward is conscious of achievement mania. That is why it chose to only distribute achievement points throughout the single player campaign.
Other games with robust multiplayer modes have been plagued by achievement whores who hijack bouts so they can complete incentivized goals, rather than the goals of that game instance. Since COD4 is team-centric, Infinity Ward thought adding achievements to online play would end up ruining the experience for all.
Achievements can also act like traffic cops, directing players toward new features they might not otherwise experience.
The Skate team at Electronic Arts built a robust community site, Skate.Reel, for its game but worried players would not naturally gravitate to the site. It used achievements to drive players to the web by rewarding the uploading of Skate session photos and videos.
EA Black Box's Skate
But some of these online achievements -- designed to goad players into joining the community -- were too far removed from the game. "Skate Celebrity," which was unlocked after your photo or footage was reviewed 20 times by other gamers, was entirely outside of the player's control.
"It wasn't necessarily fair," says Skate 2 Producer Brian Lindley. Players complained that the game's achievements were generally too difficult to get. "In retrospect, we had too many online achievements in the original Skate. It was a hard lesson."
When Skate 2 rolled around, the team decided it would spread the achievements more evenly throughout the experience, and it would be a bit more generous when it came to giving them away.
"For a game like ours, where it's a big open world and a lot of stuff to do... If a player has played through all the paths of the career, they should walk away with 400 points," says Lindley. But to get the full 1,000 points, players will have to complete every challenge in the game.