There’s no denying that achievements are a major part of modern gaming. I’ve first started seeing them with the Xbox 360. Then Sony got in on the act with trophies, a similar system, but it instead used a “bronze, silver and gold” system for the significance of the achievement itself, as well as a platinum trophy for earning all of the other. Nowadays, I’ve seen many places using them, including Steam, Blizzard games and even Flash game sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds.†
The idea of an achievement is quite simple: do something awesome in the game, and get a little blip on your screen congratulating you for what you did. Not only that, but there is also a list that keeps track of what you did so that you and your buddies can see how awesome you are. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Well, there are several problems with achievements. One is that, many times, it doesn’t feel like I’ve achieved anything. On more games than I can count, there is an achievement just for completing levels, especially the tutorials. That’s not an achievement, that’s normal gameplay. It’s understandable to have one for when you beat the game, but not for every single level (additionally, achievements like that tend to spoil how much more content there is, even when hidden behind the “Secret Achievement” tag). This is especially annoying when these are the only kinds of achievements that are in the game.
In contrast to that, there are also achievements that cause more frustration than they are worth. In Dead Rising, there is an achievement for lasting seven days of ingame time in infinite mode. Each day ingame lasts two hours in real life, assuming you don’t pause the game or go to new locations (which you’ll have to in infinite mode to stay alive). In total, this is over 14 hours of gameplay, but here’s the catch: you cannot save. There is no saving the game, quitting for a bite to eat and some errands, and then turning the Xbox a few hours later to continue your test of endurance. You have to leave your Xbox360 on and dedicate 14+ hours for an achievement. Better hope the power doesn’t go out or your dog/small child mistakes the cords for a snack. If I actually had completed this achievement, instead of feeling accomplished, I’d think “Wow, I just wasted an entire day and money on my electric bill just for a congratulations message and a pair of boxer shorts. There has to be more to life.”
Another key factor is, especially in horror games, the earning of achievements breaks my immersion. I could be walking down the foggy streets of Silent Hill, trying to stay alive and when I do something, I get the message “Achievement Unlock: Blah Blah Blah!” Not only does it stand out among the stuff on the screen, but the sound played helps ruin any tension by reminding me that I’m in a video game and not fighting for my life against feral dog abominations and killer nurses. It doesn’t make for a spooky atmosphere when the game is patting you on the back every time you do something.†
In many games before achievements were big, whenever you beat the game or do something special, you tend to get an unlockable bonus, whether it is another playable character, a secret level or even cheats to play with. Although unlockable content still exists and often coincides with earning achievements, it is being replaced with achievements. So instead of extra content I can use and enjoy in order to make the game last longer before going into the game retirement home that is my shelf, all I get is an achievement. This is especially annoying for any sort of task where you have to collect/destroy a certain amount of something (Crackdown and Assassins Creed, I’m looking at you). Already, this in itself is a tedious task, though at least in most other games, you’d unlock something cool, or at the very least, concept art or some other development-related stuff that most gamers wouldn’t bother with. However, these days, most of these scavenger-hunts net to a pat on the back and a few gamerscore points. Ohh yeah, and the feeling of regret for wasting my time.
Achievements are commonly used as a way of tracking amazing feats performed by the player. For example, in Halo 3, you can get several achievements for doing awesome things such as killing many people in a short amount of time or headshotting 2 people with the sniper rifle at the same time. This would be fine if not for one simple fact: a lot of people simply deliberately set conditions up to earn an achievement easily, rather than earning it through natural play. Additionally, in terms of other multiplayer achievements, this leads to people playing games for the sole purpose of getting achievements. This same principle also applies to any game with leaderboards and/or an experience system. Essentially, this makes achievements and leaderboards meaningless as a measure of accomplishment (this applies moreso to leaderboards, but several achievements can qualify as well).
With all the flaws with achievements, there are still some examples of an achievements system done well. I like the way Steam does achievements because it does not add any sort of numerical or other kind of value to each achievement. It just exists on it’s own and the value of it can be interpreted by the player, not by some arbitrary number. Additionally, it covers a much smaller and out of the way area of the screen and doesn't make a sound, making it a lot less intrusive than it's Xbox counterpart. It’s not perfect by any means and it’s even easier to create conditions designed to get easy achievements on Steam than on console, especially if you have any knowledge of modding tools. Still, if achievements are here to stay, I think the way Steam does it would be a decent compromise.
However, do achievements harm your gaming experience? After all, many of them are optional to go for and don't affect your gameplay experience. In my opinion, it's the same deal with cheats: if someone wants to cheat in a single player game, that's their experience and more power to them. However, if they clog up multiplayer games and don't allow other players to player a normal game, there is a problem. Infinity Ward was wise not to include any multiplayer achievements in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
There's a good article somewhere in the idea of multiplayer etiquette. However, that's for another day.