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Designer Keith Burgun examines the concept of achievements, looking at how they're used, how they might be used in the future, and how they might even change totally -- for the better.
Despite having strong feelings on the topic, I put off writing about achievements for a very long time. This was because I thought that the problems that I saw with the existing model would have gone away on their own by now. It's clear though that for new digital game releases, they have clearly managed to lock themselves into the "set of qualities we should all expect in a modern video game."
I know that there's a ton of writing on this topic already out there, but I'd like to hit the question from a different angle. For instance, I'm aware of what Chris Hecker has talked about at length about regarding extrinsic motivators. While I think his views make sense, I'm actually not interested in arguing for or against extrinsic rewards in general. I'm arguing against achievements themselves, and how they, specifically, work on a mechanical level.
Lucas Blair wrote an extensive three-part piece on achievements here at Gamasutra. His article essentially took the stance of, "we're going to be doing achievements no matter what, so here are some best practices for using them." I don't agree with his underlying premise.
The one thing that remains constant is that things always change. I think that in time, we'll see achievements either go away or change dramatically. If this sounds crazy, keep in mind that there are a good number of successful games coming out today that don't have achievements at all, on iOS and Nintendo consoles.
I need to clarify and explain that I'm referring to achievements as they are usually implemented. I'm sure you can think of one or two games that seem to have a sensible, inoffensive and even interesting application of something that looks a bit like what one might call "achievements." It would be impossible to speak for every single case of achievements that ever existed. Instead, I'm speaking generally.
You may feel that achievements are great as they are. If this is the case, hear me out. Perhaps I can convince you otherwise, or at least, give you some advice on how to make them better.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a fantastic example that highlights the problems that I see. Now, this is a 2012 release -- in fact, it was only released this past August. It is a brand-new game, by one of the most beloved and highly regarded triple-A video game development teams (Valve Software), and sure enough, it includes a ton of totally asinine achievements. I'll also include some achievements from the also brand-new games XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Resident Evil 6.
Before I carry on: don't worry. I don't expect achievements to actually disappear anytime soon. They're pretty well rooted into our culture now, and if they ever disappear completely, it will probably be decades rather than years from now. Indeed, you're required to have achievements on Microsoft and Sony's consoles (but notably, not anywhere else: neither iOS, Nintendo, Android, nor Steam make any such requirements). Regardless, I think it's in everyone's interest to understand the pitfalls of achievements; not all of which have been pointed out elsewhere.
I'll also pitch something that I think should replace achievements.
What's so bad about achievements? The mother-problem with any "achievement" system can be stated like this: at their best, they do nothing at all. At their worst, they influence player behavior.
What's wrong with influencing player behavior, you might ask? Influencing behavior is a bad thing because you (ostensibly) just spent roughly six to 12 months fine-tuning a set of game rules to do exactly that. Let's remember that a game is a set of rules that limit and motivate player behavior. You just spent a crazy amount of time tweaking, balancing, and turning knobs until player behavior was influenced exactly the way you wanted, all around one central goal and gameplay mechanism.
If you did not do this, well, that's a whole separate issue. In this case, you're simply not doing your job as a game designer, and no amount of metagame is going to distract people from the fact that your game isn't presenting players with interesting choices and dynamic, emergent and elastic strategic possibilities.
So let's assume that you have taken the time to create a balanced, dynamic, motivating set of rules for your game. Now you're just going to throw a bunch (most times, a ton) of other arbitrary motivators at the player? A great number of extra, optional goals that can be met even by accident? It's like spending years building a clock, and then just once you're done, pouring in a bag of random-sized gears and slathering over it with a dressing of industrial glue. In this way, achievements are yet another testament to the culture-wide lack of regard for the discipline of game design.