Before Xbox introduced the achievement system in 2005, which revolutionized how some people play games, there was only progress made within the game. The idea that something you do in games could be carried around outside of those games and be shared with an online community was quite foreign. People completed games and performed all the side missions because they wanted to get the most out of those games. They didn’t do it for a little number beside their online alias to move up or a collection of little JPEGs accumulate on their player card. They did it simply because they loved a game or because they didn’t have another game to play. But with the launch of the Xbox 360 and the advent of achievements all of that changed.
Achievements are essentially the gamification of progress made outside of the game. It is a really brilliant idea when it’s broken down. Xbox essentially gave players a reason to keep playing games long after they’ve beaten them, a reason to buy more games for more (or even easy) gamerscore (don’t scoff, it happens) and most importantly a reason to stick with the Xbox ecosystem. It’s almost a guarantee that huge majority of Xbox fans stuck with the Xbox community when Xbox One came out primarily because of the investment they had in their Xbox live profile. They couldn’t lose the thousands of hours spent pouring into accumulating gamerscore. So they purchased the Xbox One when if they looked at it and the PS4 objectively it could be argued the PS4 was superior (or at the very least cheaper).
PlayStation followed up shortly after the launch of the PlayStation 3 with their own version of achievements which they dubbed trophies. They are essentially the same as achievements and many accuse them of straight up copying Xbox. Regardless it was clear to the gaming community that these out of game reward systems were here to stay. Every game that comes to these consoles nowadays has the same list of objectives on both consoles with a different value attached to it depending on where its being played. But they are essentially the same. Whether you absolutely love gathering those digital goodies or couldn’t care less by that pop up in the corner of your screen it’s hard not to see the huge effect that achievements and trophies have had on gamers.
Interestingly enough Nintendo has shied away from having an online presence on their consoles at all, much less having an extrinsic reward system like achievements. Many argue they would benefit from having such a system and that not having one is actually a turn off for people wanting to dive into their ecosystem. And now having shut down previous initiatives like Club Nintendo there is really no way to measure a Nintendo fan’s accomplishments through an online presence whatsoever. Some might say it is not an issue for Nintendo but now that even third party companies like Ubisoft and Square Enix are creating digital reward systems for their games it’s clear that players want these systems and are using them. Nintendo’s failure to keep up with other companies is indicative of a company slow to adapt to a changing industry.
But unlike Nintendo Valve has done an amazing thing with Steam and its online ecosystem. Players not only earn achievements that they can show off to their friends and the online community but they’ve also created something called badges. Badges are crafted through collecting cards earned by playing games. It’s a really interesting idea and one that has really taken off since launch. Steam players buy and sell their cards on the market and use that money to buy cards from a set they’re missing or even more games if they make enough. It’s a really great way to reward the Steam faithful, one for which Valve should be applauded and other companies should take careful notes.
There are several problems that have developed with the integration of achievements and trophies into games as a medium. As games made the move online they started to come out with online specific achievements and trophies that were tied to performing certain online objectives. Sports games in particular have quite a few of these. But when publishers started taking the servers down for these games the achievements and trophies became unattainable. Old FIFA, NBA, NHL and Madden games are impossible to fully complete since the servers are no longer active to earn those achievements and trophies. This isn’t so much a concern for sports games as the fans move onto the next one and aren’t too concerned with completing old ones.
Where it does become an issue is with games that players may come to a while after release for a compelling story or interesting gameplay only to discover that they will never be able to fully complete this game due to its server being taken down. Games like Need for Speed: Pro Street, Army of Two or Guitar Hero: World Tour all are now impossible to 100% as the servers have been shut down so players will never be able to complete the game if they decide they like it.
Another problem with achievements and trophies, which is also just an extension of problems with games, is glitches. There are dozens and dozens of glitched achievements and trophies that developers either don’t know how to fix or simply don’t care to fix. Games like Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number and Dead Island Riptide have glitches that players have encountered where a trophy is simply unattainable. This is super frustrating for players (like myself) who care about trophies and achievements and use them to get the most out of their games. There is nothing more frustrating then getting to 70% game completion and realizing that one of the trophies you need is glitched and unattainable. It’s super frustrating and turns a lot of people off of the game, leaving a bad taste in their mouth. Even if it’s an incredible game a glitched achievement or trophy will forever tarnish that game in the player’s mind.
The last problem with trophies and achievements that even if they are glitch free and able to be attained is that they may just be poorly designed. Extrinsic systems like trophies and achievements are meant to enhance a player’s experience and add to their enjoyment of the game. But when an achievement is thrown into a game without any thought they can often cross that fine line from engaging to egregiously tedious. Achievements that require the player to collect hundreds of meaningless collectibles that don’t add to the narrative or the gameplay in any meaningful way (looking at you Ubisoft) do not enhance the player’s experience at all. They simply make the player spend hours running around the world with their laptop and a guide on their lap wondering why they are still playing this game.
While they might not work great all the time and may not serve a purpose other than to check a box on a publisher’s requirements to put a game onto a platform when they do work well they are wonderful additions to a game. I know I’m not the only one who checks the achievement or trophy list as soon as I start a game. A lot can be learned about the game your about to experience by its trophy list and often the player can tell what kind of game they’re about to experience. There are several examples of trophies and achievements that do enhance the player’s experience.
inFAMOUS has a trophy that requires the player to complete a list of stunts in the game. These stunts are things the player might not attempt to do otherwise and add a lot of challenge to the game for players who want to test their skills and become proficient. Trophies like this one that create separate, meaningfully designed objectives aside from the in game objectives that enhance the player’s experience are examples of smartly designed extrinsic awards. That is the mark of a truly well designed trophy or achievement. A truly well designed extrinsic reward pushes the player to experience something they might not have otherwise or is given meaningful and enjoyable objectives in addition to the ones found in the game.
So whether you enjoy them or not achievements and trophies are here to stay. Hopefully the glitched ones become fewer and farther between and the thoughtful ones rise to the surface as shining examples of gamification done right.