Friday, April 29, 2011

Why Achievements are important...and why they suck

If it isn't already obvious, what with my "Games that NEED achievements" articles and all, I am sold on the whole concept of a universal achievements system. Allow me to start with my first impression of achievements.

I bought an Xbox 360 on launch day, 11/16/05. The ONLY reason I was buying it was Perfect Dark Zero. In hindsight, not a good decision. This is made even more ironic, since not only did Perfect Dark Zero disappoint me in nearly every way, it also conditioned me to hate achievements. PD0's achievements are some of the laziest, ill-conceived, and utterly frustrating achievements ever programmed into a game. Being that it was the first game I ever played with a universal achievement system in place, I quickly disregarded the whole concept.

But then something magical happened. I bought Geometry Wars Evolved.

An upgraded version of a Project Gotham Racing 2's awesome minigame, not only did Geometry Wars Evolved usher in a ton of crappy twin-stick shooter knockoffs new era of high-quality downloadable games, it also showed me why achievements can be awesome. Sure, it has the standard progression based achievements (Score 100,000 points, Score 250,000 points, etc.)...but then I noticed the 'Pacifism' achievement. The achievement's description reads "Survive the first 60 seconds of the game without firing." What was this? This isn't how the game's supposed to be played! My mind boggled.

So I tried to earn the achievement, not because I was hooked on achievements (Reminder: PD0 already had me opposed to the concept), but because I LOVED Geometry Wars. But then, after finally obtaining that 10-point achievement, it hit me like a giant BLEEP BLOOP to the head...I LOVE ACHIEVEMENTS. Not for their useless number of imaginary points, nor for the bragging rights, but for the way they encouraged me to play games in a way I never would otherwise.

Sure, it can feel good to finally get 100% in a game you really enjoy, coupled with that satisfying bleep-bloop achievement unlocked sound, and it can be really fun to brag about a particularly tough achievement you earned...but 'Pacifism' taught me a valuable lesson in modern game design. It taught me that just because you are meant to play a game a certain way, that doesn't mean you HAVE to play it that way. Technically, this has always been true...but now there was a way to encourage that kind of pointless fun, except now it wasn't quite as pointless; now you have an achievement for it. If it wasn't for that achievement, I would have NEVER tried playing the game for ANY amount of time without shooting. But with that achievement there, I tried it, and it was fun.

I grew to like achievements more, even when they weren't quite as unique. I liked that people could see that I had all of the achievements in Sonic 1 [and 2 and 3 and Knuckles and HURRY UP SEGA AND RELEASE SONIC CD SO I CAN GET THEM ALL IN THAT TOO], even if they weren't all that original. I liked that I could talk to my friends about that really tough achievement I got in Alien Hominid. I liked that secret achievements encouraged me to experiment without being told specifically what to do (and that they could also simply avoid spoiling certain story elements). I liked that sometimes the text would change after you unlocked an achievement, changing to something funny (Fable 2 and 3 come to mind). And I still like all of these things about achievements, but mostly I still like that they can encourage me to play a game in a way I wouldn't have otherwise.

Now that you know how and why I like achievements, let me tell you why I still hate certain aspects of them. Firstly, and most importantly [to me] is the point system. I don't care that I have 70,000+ achievement points. It doesn't mean I'm a better gamer than you; it just means I've played more games. By the same token, I don't care how much an achievement is worth. I feel more accomplished having that 10-point achievement for dying less than 5 times in Limbo than that 125-point achievement for beating Halo 3 on Normal. I hate that Microsoft limits developers in the amount of achievements a game can have, especially in XBLA games (I'm fine with the point totals being a certain limit, I just mean the number of achievements period). I hate that added achievements can only come from paid DLC and not free DLC. Microsoft once gave an excuse that they wanted achievements to "hold value" and that they were doing us a favor by not having achievements in free DLC because it would make achievements feel cheap. Using that line of logic, I hate that developers can nickle and dime us with paid DLC (like Castlevania HD) and not have to add achievements. I hate that older games with paid DLC (before DLC had achievements) aren't updated to support DLC achievements (Outpost Koloki X, Eets, N+, Alien Hominid, etc.). Last but not least, I hate that some games have incredibly easy and boring achievements because the developers think that will make it sell better.

So if you've ever read over this blog and found my obsession with achievements odd, there's why. For the record, I still think achievements are an important tool in modern game design. I like that Sony has a trophy system, I like that Steam has achievements, and I like that Newgrounds (f'ing Newgrounds) has medals for their Flash games. Basically, what I'm trying to say is:

NINTENDO, YOU'D BETTER ADD ACHIEVEMENTS AND A STANDARDIZED FRIEND LIST TO YOUR NEXT CONSOLE UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE LAUGHED AT. Also, I would rebuy every game I've ever bought from you if it meant I got to replay it with achievements. Sad, but true.

Achievement Unlocked

UPDATE 1: Sonic CD came out: I got all the achievements.

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