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The Cake Is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements

April 27, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this first in a new series of articles, PhD researcher and game designer Lucas Blair uses academic research to formulate best practices for designing in-game achievements.]

Achievements are a hot topic in the gaming industry. Player feelings toward them range from obsession to indifference and designers seem equally torn over their use. Controversial or not, achievements appear to be here to stay, so designers need to learn to utilize them to their fullest potential. Achievements, if they are intended to have a positive effect on players, must be a forethought, and not an afterthought, during the game design process.

In many cases they are carelessly tacked on to a game after it is already close to completion. Unfortunately, the benefits of a carefully-crafted game mechanic can be undermined by attaching a poorly-designed achievement to it.

Alternatively, if achievements are designed in the same manner as other aspects of games, they can be used to improve the player's experience and the overall quality of a game.

There is an established body of scientific study covering a wide range of topics, which should guide the design of achievements. In this article series, I will be sharing a taxonomy of achievement design features created by deconstructing how achievements are currently used in games.

The goal of this exercise is to distill mechanisms of action out of achievement designs, which have been shown by research to affect performance, motivation, and attitudes.

This taxonomy, although intended to be comprehensive, is likely to be subject to debate and future revisions. For the time being however, I think it is a good jumping off point for a discussion that must be had if we are to ever effectively harness the potential of achievements.

In part one I will be covering the following concepts:

  • Measurement Achievements
  • Completion Achievements
  • Boring vs. Interesting Tasks
  • Achievement Difficulty
  • Goal Orientation

Measurement vs. Completion Achievements

The first branch in the taxonomy contrasts Measurement and Completion achievements, which describe two distinct conditions under which we reward players for their actions.

Measurement achievements are given to players for completing a task to a certain degree. Their performance can be measured against another player's performance, their own performance, or some standard set by game designers.

An example of this would be the star rating used in Angry Birds, which gives the player a number of stars based upon how well they beat the level. A measurement achievement can be likened to feedback, because it is evaluative in nature. The literature regarding the use of feedback in training and education indicates that feedback is beneficial to players because it allows them to reflect on their performance in relation to goals they have set for themselves.

This reflection increases the player's perception of competence, which in turn increases, their intrinsic motivation -- a term used to describe a task one finds inherently rewarding. That increase in perceived competence could also mediate the negative effects of other design decisions, like overusing rewards, which decrease intrinsic motivation.

On the other hand, completion achievements do not tell the player how well they've performed the task; instead they are offered as an award once a task is completed. Completion achievements can be split into two subcategories: performance contingent achievements and non-performance contingent achievements. Performance contingent achievements require skill to complete while non-performance contingent achievements are awarded for simply being present.

Performance contingent completion achievements, like those received for finishing a dungeon for the first time in World of Warcraft, can be better understood by reviewing what we know about the use of rewards as an extrinsic motivator. Some incentive programs have been shown to have a significant positive effect on task performance. However these types of rewards can decrease a player's sense of autonomy, especially when given in excess. This decreased sense of autonomy leads to lower intrinsic motivation.

Rewards also create an artificial ceiling for performance at the reward threshold. Once players have earned the reward, they are unlikely to continue on with the task that they were persuaded to do. For game developers this translates into the replay value of their game. Using rewards makes players less likely to take risks as they do not want to hurt their chances of being rewarded. This is especially relevant to rewards used in video games where designers wish to encourage creative and experimental play.

Non-performance contingent achievements, like earning a tabard or a pet for attending an in-game event, have no negative effect on intrinsic motivation. However these types of rewards do not have a performance measure, so players are unlikely to be interested in earning them unless they are paired with some sort of social reinforcement.

Best practice: Use measurement achievements instead of completion achievements to increase intrinsic motivation through feedback.

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Alex Weldon
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Games should not contain boring, repetitive tasks in the first place, let alone instill players with a performance orientation in order to persuade them to do those tasks. The offering of rewards to lure players into a performance-oriented mindset and persuade them to waste time doing things that aren't actually fun is everything that's wrong with gaming today, social MMOs being the nadir in this regard.

I realize the author has a preference for mastery orientation and I applaud that, but in his efforts to be diplomatic and suggest that performance orientation is occasionally okay, he's condoning the exploitation of players by developers.

Gregory Kinneman
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I might agree if I thought games were supposed to be constant action and pure catharsis, but I don't feel that way. Perhaps a game designer is attempting to show tedium, or make boring tasks seem boring so as to make the exciting tasks more exciting. Maybe they are making the player understand the characters of the world by forcing the player to experience their lifestyle. Perhaps the repetitive tasks are there to provide some mindless relaxation as relief after a huge stress like say a 40 person raid. By saying that games should not contain boring tasks, you are severely limiting the range of emotions that a game can evoke and the experiences offered to the player.

Inti Einhorn
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I think what hes saying is that boring tasks should not be propped up by pitting players against each other to see who can pull that lever the fastest. That, I would agree, is exploitation, because while it may be effective to appeal to the raw competitive spirit, that motivation will not last if it is supported only by a rote mechanic.

Adam Bishop
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I suspect there's a bit of confusion here about what we mean when we say that something is "boring". I don't think "boring" and "non-action-packed" are the same thing. Activities can be relatively action-free and still be fun.

For example, running around Venice in Assassin's Creed 2 is somewhat repetitive, and there isn't very much action involved when you're just traversing the city, but the actual act of traversal is still really interesting. It may be repetitive and more slow-paced than the actual missions, but it's certainly not "boring".

Or how about Portal? A lot of the time spent playing Portal is spent just looking around the environment, thinking about what to do. That's certainly not very action-packed (it often involves no movement at all) but it's still a lot of fun. So yes, it's entirely possible to make a game that's slow and/or repetitive where the underlying actions are enjoyable enough on their own not to need external motivations.

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Carlo Delallana
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Performance Achievements could be viewed more as breadcrumbs that could be a way to nudge a player into discovery. There's definitely room for both, but ultimately they have to be rewarding for the player.

Luis Guimaraes
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"By saying that games should not contain boring tasks, you are severely limiting the range of emotions that a game can evoke and the experiences offered to the player."

While I find that an interesting point to consider, doing so well is tricky and better to be avoided unless you really know what you're striving for.

Nathan Allen
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That was a really interesting article and I appreciate looking at it from an academic perspective. Game design can always use help from established research. It's also great to have this taxonomy of achievements.

I'm really interested in this topic and I feel like this is just scratching the surface. For instance I'm curious what research says about replacement rewards, where people start doing things for extrinsic reward instead of intrinsic, and how that has shaped game mechanics.

Luis Guimaraes
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"Best practice: Reward players for boring tasks and give them feedback for interesting ones. Make achievements for interesting tasks attentional."

I have a better one, make all tasks to be interesting.

Inti Einhorn
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This might work for short, one-off actions, but what about tasks that, by virtue of being deeper or multi-stage, cannot be pure and sustained fun the entire way through? I personally enjoy rote actions when the goal is properly reenforced, and the tasks appropriately varied. Each specific step may not be all that fun, but when I look upon the endeavor as a whole, anticipation of the reward is strangely enjoyable.

These types of tasks might benefit from some roses strewn along the path, if only to remind the player that the system has not forgotten the work that they have put in, and to assure them that the reward is growing closer. The key, of course is that the reward has to be worth it; it has to impact the game itself. In an ideal situation, the interstitial reward would be more than rose petals or a badge, but would actually impact the game as well, but to a lesser degree (think "Epic 1.5" from Everquest.)

Glenn Storm
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There's the distinct feeling these terms are far too indistinct in this article.


We're talking about motivation. (check) We're associating that with satisfaction versus frustration (double-check) We're drawing examples from gameplay, and specifically what the latest industry buzzword machine calls achievements. (sort of check, but with heavy caveats) We're defining broad terms that overlap with existing psychological and interaction design concepts. (bork) We're then using these terms and examples to distill best practices. (double-bork)


We can appreciate the intent to draw from research, but let's stick with conventional terminology, and expand on what's been said on this subject, avoiding the need to invent new definitions. That just confuses the issue. One doesn't have to look far to see the definitions break down. Is completing a level in Angry Birds an achievement (as in GameCenter/OpenFient), or simply part of the game? Is that purely a measurement achievement or is it actually a completion achievement combined with measurement? Define boring. Define interesting. How valuable are these best practices if we can't define the terms distinctly?

It's unclear where to start with this. A "how to" should not be an open question.

Mark Venturelli
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This. Thank you, Glenn.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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Whew... I'm so happy to read your comment, at last.

This article draws conclusions (or "best practices") when it should rather question itself a little more on the assumption it takes for granted.

This goes exactly where I don't want game design to go, even though I think some parts of the discipline would need to be formalized.

Richard Vaught
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First, there seems to be a mistaken assumption that all repetitive tasks are boring. I know numerous players who thoroughly enjoy the crafting systems on games like EQ, EQII, WoW, and Two Worlds II, myself among them.

Secondly, I can see where using a tiered achievement system could certainly help players raise their playing ability, thus increasing their enjoyment of a game. i.e. Start with a basic Performance Oriented Tier of Achievements in order to get them to at least make an attempt at the broad range of features your game offers, then allow completion of that tier to unlock tier two achievements that are mastery oriented, then rinse and repeat. That is a gross oversimplification, but it keeps takes them from repetitive tedium to being fun building aids IMHO.

Bart Stewart
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I agree this taxonomy is an excellent starting point for thinking about how to implement achievement systems. Some specific thoughts:

"Player feelings toward [achievements] range from obsession to indifference" -- I would say "obsession to outright hostility" would be more accurate. The recent inclusion of achievements into Minecraft generated numerous negative comments. The feeling was that adding an achievement system would lead to playing for defined achievements instead of playing to discover the internal rules of the gameworld, which was held to be one of the unique features of Minecraft.

"Achievements ... must be a forethought ... during the game design process." I agree, which makes Minecraft's addition of achievements worth watching. Will it change the community by attracting a different kind of gamer?

"Boring tasks (such as trade skills in MMOs)" -- which MMOs are these? This description makes it sound as though improving tradeskills or even crafting generally are inherently boring. But not every gamer feels that way. Furthermore, nothing prevents a dev from changing the design of tradeskills to make them more interesting to more players. "Boring" is not an inherent property of crafting-related gameplay.

"Motivate people to engage in dull task[s]." As others here have pointed out, changing boring gameplay to be not-boring would probably be a better solution than papering over boring gameplay with an achievement.

Performance orientation versus mastery orientation -- what if some people naturally prefer performance of simple, repetitive tasks over mastering complex tasks? Designing a mastery-focused achievement system could be counterproductive if it's perceived as telling performance-oriented gamers that their preferred style of play is essentially "broken."

Again, overall I thought this was a very good and useful starting point for making more effective achievement systems. I look forward to reading more from this author!

Bart Stewart
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After seeing all the negative comments in this thread, I feel like I need to add a note to say that I stand by the positive comments I made in addition to the points where I disagreed.

The trouble with suggesting a taxonomy for any system is that most people immediately jump on the bits they think are wrong, ignoring any elements of value that might be there. (Do most people here really think that completion achievements are generally better received than measurement achievements?)

Most taxonomies are always going to be debatable in some parts! That's the nature of trying to find a theory that explains and predicts real-world behaviors. But being imperfect doesn't imply worthlessness. Even an imperfect model can have value. So instead of dismissing the whole thing because someone doesn't like this or that part, why do people not try to find what works in Lucas Blair's model and suggest ways to improve it?

Consider this taxonomy as a starting point, not a final word. Considered in that light, how should the author improve it? What does a better system for understanding achievements look like?

Greg McClanahan
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I disagree with the "boring vs. interesting tasks" section for reasons I describe in points #7 and #14 in my own article about achievement design:

Achievements can be incredibly powerful in directing the player's attention toward certain aspects of the game, and the game experience is made better when these aspects showcase the best content the game has to offer. It's unavoidable that games will contain optional boring tasks, but highlighting these moments with achievements is counter-productive to game design because the whole intention of the game in the first place is for the player to have fun, not for the game designer to measure how many tasks he can compel the player to complete.

Long, boring achievements for optional content have *some* place in MMOs, where a design goal is to get the player spending a lot of time with the game and feeling invested in their character, but there's really no reason to make such achievements in single-player games. It might make sense to have a Lifesaver achievement in Deadliest Catch for rescuing a crew member the first time, but having an "Ultimate Lifesaver" achievement for doing it 1000 times provides no added value to the game, the achievement system, or the player experience.

Chris Proctor
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"Best practice: Use measurement achievements instead of completion achievements to increase intrinsic motivation through feedback."

This is not best practice if you mean designers should preference measurement achievements over completion achievements.

Best practice is that more than half of the achievements should be obtainable in a playthrough without the player stretching too much, which could be things like "finish level 1", but also "get 10 headshots", "kill 10 enemies", and so forth, i.e. things that will commonly be reached regardless of performance. These draw the player into the achievement system through standard play, which is a good thing.

If you have data that contradicts this, let's see it!

Michael Joseph
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When I played Doom 2 back in the day I used to hate the fact that the level completion screen would show me how much I sucked by killing only 80% monsters, finding 90% of the items and 33% of the secrets, and finishing a whopping 5 minutes over the par time.

Seems these were an early form of "achievements" where your play was being judged in a way. I don't want my play to be judged. I'm not learning how to operate a backhoe, I'm playing a video game. Seems the arms race to stand out in a market full of me-toos is leading to things like "Now With Flavor Crystals!"

Achievements are flavor crystals. Or maybe it's like getting a shiny gold star on your paper in elementary school. "Good job Johnny!"

Hrm... and most achievements seem pretty easy to get so what's the point? "You completed your first game, way to go Bro!" Seriously? I guess at least in grade school if I got a gold star I'd know that it was a real person who was acknowledging my *ahem* excellence...

EDIT: I dunno, I guess for real OCD types knowing that there were parts of the game in Doom 2 that were designed by someone and which you failed to find provided an incentive to go back and replay a level more carefully.

ferret johnson
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Your edit sums it up. If I love a game, I want to devour it. I used to play Doom levels till I found 100% -- I think it's fantastic that they were kind enough to let you know you missed something!

I also agree that easy to get trophies are more of a 'what's the point?'.

In my view, winning the game is a trophy, winning the game on elite/impossible is a trophy, and the rest should be interesting. I don't need a trophy every damn chapter. Make me do something unexpected, please.

Alan Arias
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Dear Lucas,

I am very confused. You make many assertions regarding the motivations of players and of achievements, but do not distinguish between your assertions on the topic and those of past authors. I imagine from your list of sources that you have read much on the topic, but in your writing, I am not sure what I should take at face value from those sources, and what you are creating for outside response. It would be very useful for someone like me trying to develop an opinion to know what exactly you are arguing and how you got there.

Sorry to get all college on you, but I just thought it was worth noting.

Brandon Strong
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"Best practice: Use measurement achievements instead of completion achievements to increase intrinsic motivation through feedback."

While I agree to some degree, don't discount a line of achievements that simply award the player for playing through the game. Some people may disagree but completing a game, which is usually the bulk of what development effort went into, is a feat in itself.

Imagine player A plays through 10 games from start to finish, but doesn't necessarily shoot for high scores or side objectives. Without completion achievements (non-performance contingent), he may not have much to show for it. Now imagine player B plays one single game over a few days, and earns all achievements in the game. Who really "achieved" more? Both styles of players should be rewarded.

John Martins
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It seems much of this article focuses on the idea that achievements should be something that isn't particularly easy to achieve... why shouldn't players be rewarded just for having fun in their own way? The way the article states certain methods as "best practice" makes it sound like there's a set rule for what gamers enjoy, but there isn't. Some people may enjoy aiming for three stars in Angry Birds, others might find the whole process tedious and frustrating. Surely the best thing about achievements in general is the freedom developers have to inject a mix of -every- type into their games?

Corey Cole
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I recommend Daniel H. Pink's new book, Drive, for a well presented and easy-to-read discussion of "intrinsic motivation" as touched upon by this article. Pink quotes research results from Deci and others. The three keys to intrinsic motivation are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. He also discusses ways in which expected rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation in creative or challenging tasks, while unexpected rewards can increase motivation. If you know that you are grinding towards a particular achievement, you may find yourself resenting the grind. You will be unlikely to continue that activity once you receive the reward. Sometimes it's better not to be able to see the goal in advance.

David Serrano
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I generally prefer not to know about achievements while playing but designers frequently make this impossible. Because many big games link achievements to actions or tasks which 99% of players would never intentionally perform during the course of play. Treyarch is (in)famous for doing this. In World at War they had "The Professional" for shooting all of Amsel's henchmen, including their attack dog, without reloading, as well as "Gunslinger" for shooting Amsel at sniper rifle distance with a pistol. These types of tasks are typically in the middle or near the end of long, often difficult levels and missions. When designers do this, they are pretty much screwing any player who didn't read a guide or walkthrough in advance.

Jeff Sullivan
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Hi Lucas!

I appreciate your attempt to drop some behavioral science on the field of Achievements. However, I think the information you've presented here skews a little too heavily towards the theoretical at the expense of the practical.


On completion versus measuring. I get the point, but the problem is that the vast majority of achievements are too difficult for most players. It turns out completion is actually a way of measuring – measuring how far you got through the game for example. As a measurement of player skill, you’re going to get much more effective ranges by measuring completion than you are how many people perfected a level. Perfection (or even simply exceptionalism) is going to be attained by <1% of players, particularly if perfection/exceptionalism are being defined by a group of people that work in this industry. Completion (of the full game, for argument’s sake) will be attained closer to the 50% mark, which makes it a much more useful measurement, particularly when comparing the population of other people playing the game. In other words, it’s far more useful to understand that you’re in the upper 40% than it is to know you’re in the lower 99%.

Boring tasks – Have to say I agree with other commenters here that achievements shouldn’t incent these at all. Why encourage someone to do something they don’t want to do rather than reward them for having fun? Achievements should by lighting up the express lane to fun, not asking you to put up your own roadblocks up in front of it.

Interesting tasks – I disagree that players will do these on their own, especially if they do not know they exist or if they have or have not completed them. For example, combing the primary and alternate fire mechanisms of the shock rifle in Unreal to perform a new and unique skill. Most people never knew that was there, or even if they did know, might have assumed they already saw it. Once you put an achievement there to tell them what’s possible AND whether or not they’ve done it, you get much higher participation versus having it in a game manual or as a FAQ on a website or message board.

Making achievements challenging – this, in practice, is not a problem. The problem in the real world is that they are too challenging. Again, when far less than 1% of people are earning “challenging” achievements, you are not effectively encouraging people to get better. So, yes, challenging is good, but our industry needs to radically redefine what “challenging” is. It’s not challenging for your hardest core QA guy, or the game designer, or because you think it’s funny to see what some crazy dedicated player is willing to do. For arguments sake, let’s say you should target “challenging” for the top 10-25% of your players. If less than 1% earn your achievement targeted for 10%, it may be time to reassess who you think your players are.

Mastery orientation – I somewhat agree here. Again, most games already go too far down the path of, e.g. get a bunch of kills with this weapon, or max out this skill, etc. What they should be encouraging is not mastery of one skill, but participation in many skills, preferably at the correct time. Most games are designed with variety in mind, and not pure specialization in one skill. It’s much better to encourage someone to use a shotgun in a close range environment and a sniper rifle at long range than it is to encourage someone to keep using the pistol until they’ve maxed it out or earned the “30 kills with pistol” achievement. In other words, mastery of the game as a whole, not mastery of a skill in particular.

There’s another major segment that’s missing though – opportunity windows. As a player attempting to earn achievements, I have no idea when and where I can attempt them. For example, if there’s an achievement for taking out an enemy with his own grenade, and I see a great opportunity midway through the game, but I fail, should I reload and keep trying at that spot until I get it, or will there be other great opportunities later on? If there are more opportunities later on, it should be clear. If there aren’t, I don’t want to have to go through the game again to get back to the spot where the opportunity presents itself. One potential solution would be to let a player know as soon as they’ve gotten themselves into a situation where they can longer earn an achievement. Another aid is to tell players “somewhere in Chapter 3, attempt …”



Trent Tait
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I have to agree completely here. If I see an achievement that says I have to stay on top of the world leaderboard for a week, I know I don't have a even have a hope of doing that, and that is so disappointing (unless it's an online only game, mmo). You have to give me something I alone can do.

Sertac Picakci
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I really do agree about the idea; 'Use measurement achievements instead of completion achievements to increase intrinsic motivation through feedback.' up to a point. For example; on Angry Birds and Need For Speed Hot Pursuit iOS versions; both of the games gives you feedback about how well you did in each level. Both of them are based on 3 stars rating, if you do the best you get 3 stars. I'm a player who wants to make the best I can for each and every level so till now I did not pass to another level If i couldn't pass the current level with 3 stars. This makes me feel more encouraged for the next levels. Also on this topic game design becomes the most important thing for the game. For example on Angry Birds, you feel that for each and every level the difficulty gets increased and the game forces you to use your abilities that you gained at the previous levels in a little bit difficult way. I feel like I'm mastering if I get the 3 stars... To sum up; if you have a casual mobile game that has a lot of levels then it is a good way to use measurement achievements instead of completion achievements as you have limited content and variety in the game. But if you have a hardcore game, making the completion achievements high priority in the game could be useful as you have various content and various tools to be used in the game.