For the purpose of this article I’m going to refer to these as achievements, but everything I say is true for trophies on the PS3 or some PC games like World of Warcraft.
There have been plenty of instances when I’ve spent way too much time doing something just to get an achievement. I imagine we’ve all been there one time or another. It’s late at night and we’re trying to do something stupid over and over again just to get that achievement or trophy come up on our screen. I’m not quite an achievement whore, but I’ve been dealing with achievements on my Xbox 360 long enough to not freak out when I don’t get the achievement even though I’ve actually done it. The solution is always deleting my system cache.
Sometimes the achievement is just stupid and nobody should try to get it, but achievements fulfill an actual role in our games. Those achievements are really the developers just trying to add content without any real effort and serve no other purpose than to be a time-sink. There are a few ways to vastly improve achievements, even the ones that already produce an end product. But before we start that, let’s talk about what achievements actually do.
Milestone achievements are automatically received while playing the game. They are the achievements you get when you beat a level. I would hope that beating a level or defeating a boss would be an achievement enough already, but if we are going to have achievements this is a natural place to put them. It’s the developer’s way of congratulating you for playing and completing something. I think these achievements are ultimately unnecessary, but at the same time I see the reasoning in putting them in. Beating a level should give you a sense of accomplishment and all the achievement does is reinforce that.
Collectible achievements are what you get when you collect random things. Most games have these. They might be called packages, boxes, trophies, feathers, gems, jewels, rubber bands, horseshoes, skulls, tchotchkes, etc. Sometimes they tie into the actual game, and I think that’s an excellent way to approach these. In Batman: Arkham City picking up Riddler Trophies along with a few other things unlocks the location of the next hostage being held by Riddler. Achievements recognizing collection show you were up for exploring or that you found the gameplay inherently enjoyable enough to justify wandering around after you had beaten all the other content. I have a sense of pride when I think about how I have a few of the achievements for picking up many of the flags in Assassin’s Creed. I don’t have them all, but with as many of them as there are in the game, I think that’s quite an accomplishment.
Collectible achievements could also fall in the category of side-quest achievements, but I like separating them so we can talk about them individually. Side-quest achievements are optional achievements that you get for going off the main path of the game. In Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV there were the stranger missions. In RPGs, there are quests about helping individuals you meet in towns or other areas. Ultimately, these achievements add another level of the game outside the main quest and serve as a reminder of other things that can be done. They also encourage exploration by giving you opportunities to try tasks that may have fallen outside of the main scope of the game.
Creative or inspiring achievements are what you get for trying to play the game in a different way than you thought was possible. This would be like trying to beat a segment of a game without defeating any enemies. My favorite examples of this is are in Just Cause 2 and Dead Rising. In Just Cause 2 you can use your grappling-hook thing to string someone up in the air and melee them to death. This achievement is called “Pinata Party.” You can drag someone to death behind your vehicle: “Follow Me!” Another extremely difficult one to collect is called, “Wrecking Ball,” which is for dragging things behind your vehicle and killing an enemy with them. In Dead Rising there is an achievement for knocking down ten zombies with a bowling ball called, “Strike!” There is another one called, “Raining Zombies” for knocking down 30 zombies with a parasol. Doing these things involves some set-up and isn’t the normal way to play the game by any means. They are humorous and interesting at the same time and encourage you to play the game in a creative way that you might not have thought of before, but by trying to get the achievement you may discover something incredibly enjoyable.
Before I go into ways to improve upon achievements I wanted to discuss one very unique unavoidable achievement that most games have been using to draw us in for a while. The you-pressed-start achievement is the achievement you got in the first five minutes for doing something like watching the opening cutscene, skipping through that cutscene or putting minimal effort into starting the game. My best examples are for being born in Assassin’s Creed II, completing the animus tutorial in Assassin’s Creed, summoning the Breath in From Dust and getting the Pip-Boy 3000 in Fallout 3. This is the developers introducing us to the nice feeling we get for receiving an achievement and after we feel a minor sense of accomplishment we are encouraged to continue the game to get more achievements. In our mind, we are kind of glad and it’s a good feeling. Keep an eye out for this and you’ll be surprised how frequently it’s used. One day you might become as jaded as I am and instead view it as some kind of insult.
How we make them have more value
There are a few things that could be done to give our achievements a real sense of value. The first one is by developers creating more creative or inspiring achievements for trying things that were really outside the box. I think these are the best achievements. They become more impressive and worthy of pointing out to our friends. I figured out how to play through Halo 3 without shooting a gun. I know. It’s a really, really silly thing to do, but if I had an achievement for doing that then I would put it in my Xbox Live bio. I would post it on my Facebook page. This was a challenge and not just a time-sink. I remember fighting scarabs with a warthog full of marines and aside from being really crazy hard; it was some of my most epic moments in Halo. If developers were putting more achievement points into creative concepts like these then achievements would really become more of an accomplishment. I have a friend who has the achievement, “Little Rocket Man” in Half Life 2: Episode 2 for bringing the gnome with you through the entire game and launching him into space. That’s really impressive to me and I know that I could do it, but actually doing it is another thing.
When I first heard about Microsoft coming up with Xbox Live awards for us, I was intrigued. I thought this was going to give some value to achievements. If I get an achievement, I’ll get something from Microsoft. It could be a hat for my avatar or a theme for my dashboard or a gamer picture for my profile, but I would get something. Since then, there has been very little of this happening. I know a few games have incorporated this, but this would add real value to the games. What if you had the option of getting an achievement to get that hat or you could pay for it? What if I could pay for my character to get Ezio’s robes from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations or get the “Fond Memories” achievement for completing 100% synchronization in all the memories, then it would be a choice of playing the game or paying for the robes? I would get the achievement and I’d wear the robes with pride, but I know a few other gamers who would quickly run through the story and then pay. Right now my avatar is wearing pants I earned in Fruit Ninja, sunglasses I earned in Kinect Adventures, a t-shirt with a Portal turret on it I received from Portal 2 and is wielding a portal gun and messing with a companion cube that I also earned while playing Portal 2. I got stuff for getting those achievements, I felt a real sense of congratulations from the developers when I earned those and that made those avatar things worth more to me.
Another way to get stuff is clearly visible if you have a Ubisoft account. Ubisoft has their own achievement system called Units that you receive in Ubisoft games for doing things very similar to achievements. Each one has a point value that actually means something because you can redeem them for stuff that you want. I’ve redeemed my Units for really cool stuff. I have an Assassin’s Creed: Revelations dashboard theme that costs 240 Microsoft Points, but I used my Ubisoft Units to get it. I’ve used them to get other Assassin’s Creed things like multiplayer characters. I’ve bought new workouts for Your Shape: Fitness Evolved with my units. My wife even got a free Xbox Live account and a Ubisoft account so she could get some Units an unlock one of the workouts. If that doesn’t show you the potential good achievements has then I’m not sure I can can state it any clearer.
What if our achievements were sponsored by somebody? What if you earned a free Mountain Dew for beating Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3? How about a gift certificate for Hibbet’s Sports for burning 10,000 calories in Your Shape: Fitness Evolved? I thought an excellent way to take advantage of this would be something like a free issue of a Batman comic book by getting, “Perfect Knight – Day 2” in Batman: Arkham City. This is the achievement that you receive for completing everything in the campaign. They released an entire Batman: Arkham City graphic novel. Maybe I could get a free copy for getting this achievement, or at least a discount of some kind. I think the idea of Fruit Ninja achievements earning coupons at Smoothie King is an excellent idea. What if the “Tater Tote” achievement in Portal 2 earned you a free bag of potatoes and the “Smash TV” achievement earned you a discount off a new TV or computer monitor. This next part might be a little crazy and a little experimental, but what if you could trade your loot with your friends? Maybe my friend is looking for a new monitor and I have my coupon from Portal 2’s “Smash TV” collecting dust. He might be willing to trade it to me for his coupon he got for a free box of shells by playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and getting “This Is My Boomstick”. Okay, so maybe shotgun shells might not be the best promotional item, but then again, Modern Warfare 3 is a Mature rated game for adults and this is America and I think you have to be 18-years-old to buy ammo anyway, but I think you see my point.
I know that last part about trading loot might not quite be ready, but it’s a incredibly cool idea and I think it would foster a real sense of community on Xbox Live that could extend beyond achievements. That’s what could be possible with real effort put into these little rewards. Achievements could foster a real sense of community among Xbox Live members. They could be more than little treats that place arbitrary rewards on something. These little touches could make our games better in a really profound way that we may not have even thought of. Each achievement could represent one small piece of our gaming experience and if those pieces have real meaning to us, they could serve as the basis for a community where we each understand more about someone just by perusing their accomplishments. We may even notice a kindred spirit in another person when we see some of the same achievements from our own accounts.
Dan Hoyt has been an avid gamer his entire life. When he’s not playing games, he’s working out by walking his dog, hiking and doing martial arts. He likes to try new kinds of alcohol and discuss politics. He’s a graduate of The University of Kansas and has spent years as a journalist.