[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, and part 2 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.
In the first two installments of this series, the topics were mostly conceptual and covered a wide range of material including performance measurement, player motivation, and information presentation. For part three, I will be tying up a few loose ends by discussing some specific types of achievements and the potential consequences of their use.
In part three I will be covering the following concepts:
Most achievements are given to a player after they have done something noteworthy and positive. However, some achievements are given to players for a notable performance at the other end of the spectrum. When a player fails epically, they may earn a negative achievement. Examples of negative achievements include the Command & Conquer 3 achievement "awarded" to a player who loses a ranked game to someone 20 places below them in the official rankings, and the "Getting My Ass Kicked" trophy for repeatedly dying in PS3's God of War.
Negative achievements are the digital equivalent of pouring salt on a wound. Earning this type of achievement can cause players to lose their sense of competence and independence, which will make the game they are playing feel less fulfilling. If players know that there are negative achievements in the game, they will try their hardest to avoid them. Avoidance goals that are constantly in the back of the player's mind can be tiring and will make the overall experience less enjoyable.
Negative achievements can also make design flaws in the game a double whammy. Someone who dies repeatedly due to poor level design or a broken mechanic is not going to take a "you suck" achievement in stride. The player's response will be to blame the game and not themselves.
Best practice: Don't use negative achievements. Provide feedback within the system that can assist struggling players.
Earned achievements could be used as virtual currency in games. Players may receive such currency in the form of points, coins, or stars, and later use them to purchase in-game items or real world objects. Microstransaction-driven games like League of Legends sometimes also have an alternative currency that is earned through gameplay.
Achievements are an obvious choice for a metric when giving out virtual currency. They are memorable moments, with defined requirements, that are already important to players. Using achievements as currency, however, may have a wide range of effects on players.
There is a great deal of research on giving money as an incentive for performance. Monetary rewards have greater returns on task performance than tangible rewards. This is probably due to the fact that acquiring currency allows a player to decide what they want to purchase with it. This takes the responsibility of choosing an appropriate reward out of the hands of designers.
School systems have recently used monetary rewards with some success. In some cases class attendance, test scores, and even the likelihood of attending college all improved when monetary rewards were offered. Other studies reported similar increased accomplishment, but only when rewards were tied to inputs rather than outputs. This means that students were rewarded for things like the amount of time they spent studying, but not directly for getting a particular grade. The idea being that if students are paid for good behaviors, the grades will take care of themselves.
The other side of the argument concerning currency is the same one that is often made against tangible rewards. Currency rewards have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation for the recipients of the reward. Players will end up caring about the reward system more than the game itself. More than one game company has exploited this kind of reward system in order to keep players strung out on boring tasks. Currency systems, like other reward programs, may also lower player creativity by inadvertently encouraging a hyper focus on the reward path.
Best practice: Offer players currency for completing tasks instead of rewards to give them a greater sense of control. Use a currency system to enhance a game, but don't attempt to make currency acquisition the main reason players engage in an activity.