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The Cake Is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements, Part 2
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The Cake Is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements, Part 2

May 11, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In the second part of his three-part series, PhD researcher and game designer Lucas Blair continues to present underpinnings in contemporary research which will help formulate best practices for designing in-game achievements. You can read part 1 here.]

Now, to recap. As I wrote in the original piece, 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.

Now, onward to the new content. In part two I will be covering the following concepts:

  • Expected vs. Unexpected Achievements
  • When Achievement Notification Occurs
  • Achievement Permanence
  • Who Can See Earned Achievements?

Expected vs. Unexpected Achievements

When a player earns an achievement, the notification they receive can come as a total surprise or as the finish line they were striving for. The expectation that a player has when starting a game stems from the design decision to let them know what they can achieve. Players either know what achievements can be earned before they play a game, or they come upon them unexpectedly during play. Expected and unexpected achievements have different effects on players and can both be utilized to improve player experience.

Expected achievements allow players to set goals for themselves before they begin. There are four well-established benefits to having players set goals for themselves. First, goals will allow the player to have objectives and allocate their resources to complete them. This could mean brushing up on certain skills, setting aside extra time, or asking a friend for help. Second, having a goal increases the amount of effort someone is willing to put into something. For game makers this will directly translate into more play time.

As someone who spent many hours pursuing the "Salty" meta-achievement in World of Warcraft -- in which a player must earn all fishing achievements -- I can personally attest to what time-sinks they can be.

Third, players who have goals are much more likely to not give up when facing a difficult task in a game, as compared to players without such goals who quit playing once the going gets too tough. Fourth, players who establish goals for themselves will acquire new knowledge and skills in order to meet those goals. This is also important to game makers, because those players who obtain new skills will in turn want to play your game more.

In addition to the benefits of goal-setting, expected achievements also allow players to create a schema, or a mental model, of gameplay before they begin. Players then refer to this schema in order to make sense of how the game is structured, and what actions they need to do in order to succeed. If a player purchases a new game and looks over all the achievements they can earn, they will develop a better understanding of the game itself. In fact, schema creation is often similarly used in training programs to help increase user performance.

On the other end of the spectrum are unexpected achievements. Unexpected achievements are relatively uncommon in video games, but can also have potential benefits to players. One such perk would be encouraging experimental play.

An extreme example of this strategy can be seen in the game Achievement Unlocked, in which players can earn quirky achievements for almost everything they do. Although the developers intended it to be a jab at the overuse of game achievements, Achievement Unlocked effectively illustrates the metagame that can be created through convincing players to run and jump around the screen randomly in hopes of earning all the mystery achievements.

Best Practice: Primarily use expected achievements so players can establish goals for themselves and create a schema of the game. Make sure achievement descriptions accurately reflect what needs to be done by the player and why it is important. Unexpected achievements can be used sparingly to encourage creative play.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Bart Stewart
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Another excellent article on this subject.

One minor quibble: "Social approval is a big part of why people play video games."

I understand the larger point being made here -- public achievements can encourage play by other gamers -- but the statement by itself deviates from reality in a couple of important ways:

1. Gaming may be an approved behavior in certain circles or age groups, but it's emphatically not a guarantor of social approval in (at least Western) society at large. There are plenty of people who see games -- playing them or even making them -- as childish.

2. Social approval may be a strong motivator for some people to play video games, but it is not a motivator for everyone. Publicly visible status markers are important to some people; they serve to help establish both hierarchy and group membership. But for others, externalized status markers can be irrelevant or even undesirable. This is why the point regarding games like Farmville that allow the player to choose what achievements to display publicly is an important one.

Kelvin Bonilla
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I just had to say, I love Achievement Unlocked, and I didn't know it had a widespread recognition to the point where it'd be mentioned here. I need to read this article when I have time.

Just wanted to suggest everyone play the game, it's extremely amusing! :P

James Youngman
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A game with an interesting take on public display of achievements is Kingdom of Loathing. Players must go to the trophy maker, and pay 10,000 meat (the in game currency) in order to receive a trophy. Once they have done so, they can decide whether any given trophy goes into their publically viewable trophy case. This can be changed at any time.

Arturo Nereu
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Im really happy to read this series, Im implementing achievements on my game and some things I was doing wrong are now fixed with the advice you give.


As soon as the game is out Ill tell you to grade how good/bad was my achievement implementation.

Again, thanks and cant wait to read the third part.

Douglas Gregory
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I'd like to suggest an additional value to Unexpected Achievements: cementing player stories.

Especially in multiplayer and sandbox games, extraordinary coincidences and emergent effects can result in experiences worth talking about - but when the game shows no recognition that anything special has happened, it can feel hollow.

My most memorable experience with achievements came from playing City Mode in Kirby's Air Ride with a couple of friends. Toward the end of the round, we'd souped-up our vehicles and were riding around on the rail around the city to avoid attack from each other before the time ran out and the challenge started.

This proved to be a bad idea because we slammed into each other in a huge crash - ending up with no vehicles at all just as the buzzer sounded!

Immediately we scored mini-achievements for colliding on a rail and ending a round with nobody on a star. By this point we were already laughing at our bad luck, but seeing the achievements had us doubled-over in amazement.

I think the fact that the sheer bad luck & coincidence was actually recognized & rewarded by the game is the reason that I still remember & tell this story today, while countless other amusing flukes in games have been forgotten.

I'd like to join the chorus and thank Lucas Blair for this excellent article series. :)