Podcast Summary – Episode 2 – Achievements

This is the summary of our podcast episode: Episode 2 – Achievements

Achievements are trophies that players unlock through gameplay by completing a certain task or fulfilling an objective. They are sometimes connected to a rarity or score and are usually awarded with a pop-up icon somewhere on the screen. There are many different kinds of achievements available through platforms such as Steam, PSN and XBOX Live or through games’ interfaces themselves. These were included with specific intentions in mind, on the developers’ or publishers’ behalf, ranging from showing off more of the game area, paying homage to cultural reference points, rewarding challenging gameplay or pushing more microtransactions. In this article we explore these different types of achievements.

Progression Tracking

Perhaps the simplest form of achievements are those that reward regular game progress, i.e. completion of the game’s story, narrative, level sequence, etc. These reward players for progress that is inevitable on the path towards completing or finishing a game and its putative narrative. Examples of this style of achievement are numerous and it is manifest in most games you play, ranging from Halo: Combat Evolved to Diablo III to Red Dead Redemption 2. These achievements do not really fill any other major function than that which the overall game experience already presumably aims to fill; to prompt the player to continue progressing through, and to ultimately finish, a game that they have started.

Prompts to Explore Other Content

Contrasted with this simple form of achievement, included almost per default in most games, are those achievements that prompt the player to explore and experience areas, aspects or mechanics of the game that they might not otherwise have done. Achievements with this aim fulfill their function in a variety of ways. One way, present in games with more complex story structures such as Divinity: Original Sin 2 or Fallout 4, is by elaborating on the general game progression achievements mentioned above and adding achievements that are obtainable only through certain, often mutually exclusive, choices in the game’s narrative. This serves the function of acting both as a record of a player’s specific path through a game offering a multitude of different ones as well as prompt for players to play through the same game multiple times, to discover achievements tied to different narrative arcs.

Yet even in games without branching storylines, or indeed without any storyline at all, achievements can still be used to promote different or expanded game experiences. A kind of achievement commonly employed in open-world or sandbox games like the Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed series are the map-scattered collectibles. These are awarded to players that successfully manage to scour the game’s map for specific objects, such as the flags spread across the Holy Land in Assassin’s Creed or the pigeons that Niko Bellic needs to hunt down in Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City. Achievements awarded for finding all such objects usually require a player finding all of them, and consequently exploring all of the map. This can lead to players discovering areas they might have overlooked in the absence of missions playing out at them, or discovering hidden parts or tricky-to-reach locations in areas already visited. This kind of achievement is extremely common and indeed was present in the two biggest games of 2018; Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War.  At their best these achievements guide players to exciting new areas, but run the risk of becoming a chore if the environments explored are not sufficiently interesting, or the objects too difficult to find.

Another common way of using achievements to show off content that players might otherwise overlook is by awarding them to players for engaging in specific or optional game behaviour. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt utilises this approach to encouraging varied gameplay by awarding players achievements for such objectives as killing 10 enemies by propelling them somewhere high, or making an enemy suffer from bleeding, poisoning and burning simultaneously 10 times.  Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, for example, tasks players with defeating ten enemies in a row with single punches, after first having damaged them with gunfire. These achievements are in other words rewarding specific tasks, which prompt more players than might otherwise attempt them to do so. While these tasks ideally help players discover new fun content by encouraging them to interact with optional game mechanics, such as DOOM’s achievement for killing 50 enemies using the Chainsaw (very optional but extremely fun), they can also easily become tedious if the mechanic they promote is insufficiently varied or rewarding or the task too random (rather than skill-based) in nature. Some achievements in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End are examples of erring somewhat in this direction, e.g. needing to defeat enemies with a pistol, followed by a machine gun followed by a grenade with 15 seconds. Or needing to defeat 10 enemies in a row alternating between ranged and melee kills. While these tasks are examples of optional actions that a player might reasonably execute through their gameplay, their reliance on stochastic circumstances in order to be achieved risks making them an annoyance to complete, rather than an enjoyable game experience.

A similar approach to the above is using achievements not to reward specific tasks but specific play styles; asking a player to interact with a game in a fundamentally different way. Kingdom Come: Deliverance rewards players that manage to complete the main questline without killing anyone (except that one guy who really deserves it). Achievements such as this encourage the player to approach and experience the game very differently to how they might otherwise have done. Sometimes these play styles pose the player the challenge of playing the game in such a way that it becomes more difficult, such as Stellaris tasking the player to play as a pacifist Empire and remain at peace for 200 consecutive years or XCOM: Enemy Unknown requiring you to complete the game without ever expanding your squad from its initial size of four soldiers. These kinds of play style-based achievements interact with the mechanics and design of games and challenge the player to find new strategies given the new circumstances or limitations.

Feats of Difficulty

Similar to the above but somewhat separate are the achievements that ask players to complete a specific challenging task or feat in a game. These can range from simply completing the game on higher or extended difficulty settings such as DOOM’s Ultra-Nightmare mode or completing the main campaign in Total War: Warhammer II on the very hard or legendary difficulty modes with each faction to completing bonus challenging objectives in the game to performing difficult bonus objectives such as in Left 4 Dead 2 where players are tasked with retrieving a garden gnome (Chomsky) from the second of five levels in a campaign and transporting it safely to the end. The challenge is that players are unable to fire any weapons while holding the gnome, reduced to rather pathetically fending off zombies with the gnome itself! This kind of achievement rewards players for playing a game sufficiently well to succeed at these difficult tasks and is perhaps the type most deserving of the title achievement; it certainly isn’t easy to win a game of Civilization V on the hardest difficulty setting, Deity, nor is it easy to complete the challenge of defeating every other Civilization as Alexander the Great before 350 BC.

The Civilization series is a good example of yet another kind of achievement – the highly circumstantial and sometimes weirdly specific pop culture reference achievements. These range from awarding the achievement Rock the Kasbah for players who perform a concert tour with a great musician on a Moroccan Kasbah improvement in Civilization V, or awarding The Origin of Species to players in Civilization VI who activate Darwin next to the Galapagos Islands. These achievements and references are presumably not intended for players to pursue deliberately, but rather appreciate when they happen upon them incidentally through their regular game experience. They are hard to achieve not because of their intrinsic difficulty but because of the rarity of the circumstances necessary to complete them. Deliberately trying to unlock Here’s Looking at You Kid, awarded for airlifting a civilian unit from Casablanca to Portugal’s original capital as Morocco, is not a fulfilling game objective by itself, but rather a shared nod and chuckle between you and the developers. These achievements work well in games that are expansive in their mechanics and open-ended or sandbox in gameplay style, thus facilitating many unique and particular outcomes such that they are not all awarded to players too quickly.

Paradox’ grand strategy games are therefore ideally suited to this form of achievement, and indeed it is employed in for example Europa Universalis IV, where the punny achievement Forgive me for I have Sindh is awarded to players who play as the Indian Sunni Sultanate Sindh yet convert to Christianity. Likewise Stellaris awards the Blade Runner reference Like Tears in Rain to players who succeed in evolving their biological citizens into synthetic beings. These games are also interesting in the context of terms of achievement design in that they only permit players to unlock them while playing in ironman mode, a game setting in which only one save file that is continually overwritten exists. We wrote up an in-depth look at ironman mode last week, which you can read here. The decision to make ironman mode a requirement for achievements to be unlocked makes them a lot more difficult to achieve as players are unable to backtrack and avoid gameplay choices that turned out to be detrimental in the long run, or indeed to avoid costly errors in the short-term. Starting Europa Universalis IV as Granada and reconquering Iberia to form Al-Andalusia, for example, is an extremely difficult thing to do, and especially so when you cannot save the game in order to reload at certain points if things should go wrong. Other games, such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown also include ironman modes, but instead of tying all achievements to this mode have specific ones for players that complete certain objectives, usually completing the game, using this setting.

Feats of Endurance

Contrasted with these feats of difficulty are feats of endurance; achievements that reward players not for doing anything necessarily difficult, but for doing something many times over. Empire: Total War tasks players with killing 1,000,000 enemy soldiers across all their campaigns and battles, CS:GO asks players to play 5,000 matches of its Arms Race or Demolition modes, and Mount & Blade: Warband rewards players for killing 50 enemies with throwing axes in multiplayer. These achievements are not particularly difficult to achieve in terms of challenging gameplay, but instead require you to just keep playing the game for a sufficiently long time to unlock them. This kind of achievement rewards long-term play if the demands are sufficiently aligned with general gameplay, but can also end up being repetitive if they task the player with using less enjoyable, or potentially random, mechanics to achieve. For example, Sea of Thieves on release had an achievement asking players to deliver 1,000 banana crates, which were a very rare thing to find, with some players reporting 2,000 hours as the estimated time to complete this task.

Because these endurance-style achievements take such a long time to complete, you can’t help but wonder who actually stuck with it and delivered those 1,000 banana crates? To which kind of gamer are these achievements appealing? Sometimes the terms completionist or perfectionist are used to describe gamers that aim to claim all achievements in the games they play. Surely this could be the only reasonable motivation for playing 2,000 hours solely to unlock an achievement? Yet if it is the case that players are driven by this motivation, then why do developers create achievements that reward players for tedious tasks repeated ad infinitum (even if delivering the first 50 banana crates was fun, it surely quickly gets tiring waiting to randomly find more thereafter)? In our podcast SLEEVEmonkey rhetorically asked if self-styled completionists would strive to achieve even an achievement requiring the player to press the Z key 500,000 times?

Purpose, Platform and integration

This brings us to the pertinent question on this topic: what is their actual purpose? What do players “get” for them and what ought their purpose be? The answer to these questions is obviously as varied as the different kinds of achievements outlined above. It is notable, however, that overall achievements today are only poorly or loosely integrated into the games in which they feature, or sometimes not integrated at all. With the rise of Platform Achievement Systems, i.e. PSN’s trophy system, Steam’s achievements, etc., games have included achievements increasingly per default, rather than by design. There is an assumption in the gaming industry today that games should include achievements, and it is surprising when they are absent. Of course, in the past, games pre-dating Platform Achievement Systems still included challenges. Grand Theft Auto III, for example, still posed the player the challenge of finding 100 hidden packages, awarding the player equipment and finally money along the way. However, there was no icon or ding connected to the completion of this challenge. Notably, challenges such as this were integrated into the game. Completing the challenge rewarded the player using in-game mechanics and items. Today, with dominant Platform Achievement Systems, the risk is that games include achievements that do not interact with, i.e. are not at all integrated into, the game in which they feature. Completing Dragon Hunter by absorbing your 20th dragon souls in Skyrim does not reward you in any way in the game, nor does unlocking Bomb Squad by defusing 100 bombs in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Your 20th dragon soul has the same impact mechanically as your 19th, and your 100th bomb defusal doesn’t alter your game state any more than your 99th did.

Today there is a spectrum of achievement integration into video games, with the lowest level, wholly non-integrated and existing in a separate system, exemplified by games such as the Total War series, where your achievements do not interact with gameplay or mechanics in any way. Basic integration is seen in games such as Grand Theft Auto V where in-game rewards are awarded together with some achievements; finding hidden packages and nuclear waste award the player cash while locating spaceship and submarine parts unlock extra side missions. Of course, as mentioned above, a majority of games award achievements for regular game progression, yet despite these being integrated into the game in a similar way, they are not optional and so exhibit less deliberate design; an achievement prompting players to explore optional content should be considered as more deliberate integration than simply awarding achievements for regular content – at least in the former case its function is to direct players towards extra content, whereas the latter cannot be avoided on the path towards game completion.

Making sure that achievements are mirrored by in-game benefits mitigates the risk of collectible-based achievements becoming a chore. The aforementioned flag collectibles in Assassin’s Creed do not reward the player with anything else other than an achievement, and consequently feel disjointed from the overall game experience. While collectibles with no other function and reward than to be collected for an achievement may appear to be a dying trend, the extent to which games are integrating them is certainly still limited. For example, the 2018 game of the year God of War asks players to collect artefacts spread across the game world and hunt down Odin’s spectral ravens also hidden across the world. While the former grants a minor income of the game’s currency and the latter award a small amount of experience each, this minor benefit is not in balance with the high cost in time incurred by players who actually set out to complete these achievements. Tom Clancy’s The Division features six achievements awarded to the player for gathering all the different kinds of collectibles in the game. The reward for each of these achievements in-game is a jacket cosmetic item. Considering the time investment required to locate all these items, this is a rather weak reward. So while it is fair to say that games are increasingly integrating some kind of in-game reward for achievements unlocked, the are still frequently underwhelming in relation to the time or difficulty involved in unlocking them.

So why not integrate a system of challenges and rewards mirroring that of the achievements into the game? Doing so is, after all, not mutually exclusive with the Platform Achievement Systems of today. Beyond the above-mentioned weak integration of low-key rewards and cosmetics, games such as Warhammer: Vermintide 2 award players in-game chests containing equipment for completing the game’s achievements, and an in-game interface is viewable to look over these achievements (and many more challenges beyond them). Some bigger publishers have implemented their own digital distribution and rights management platforms with their own achievement system,such as Blizzard and Battle.net. This platform integrates the achievement aspect of games more closely into the games, rewarding more frequent cosmetic items and titles and providing players with in-game interfaces to browse unlockable achievements and rewards.

Part of the success of the Battle.Net platform may perhaps be attributed to this good integration of achievements and Blizzard’s recognition and consequent facilitation of the large social aspect of achievements. The cosmetic mounts and titles unlockable in World of Warcraft and the wings and banner cosmetics available in Diablo III are examples of games awarding players a merely cosmetic, but also very social, reward for completing achievements. While Steam allows players to display or share their achievements through public profiles, similar integration of social cosmetics is uncommon in games on this platform platform. This social aspect of achievements in the form of “bragging rights”, i.e. the display of unlocked achievements through profiles or in-game cosmetics, is clearly also a motivating factor for many players in their pursuit of achievements. The industry must be wary moving forwards, however, of publishers and developers attempting to capitalize on this motivation by providing easier, or even unique, access to such social cosmetics through microtransactions. While not precisely this design, For Honor awards an achievement to players for equipping a different effect, emote and execution on each hero – all cosmetic items available to purchase through the in-games economy. Notably, however, the same currency, steel, is used to unlock these cosmetics as well as new playable characters. Given the fact that steel can be purchased through microtransactions, the ability to unlock this achievement through no other action than a real money transaction is clearly there.

Summary

In summary, we hope to have shown that achievements across games are very varied, and in fact the majority of games include a mixture of different types of achievements, unlocked through a variety of objectives ranging from regular game progression to gathering collectibles to succeeding at difficult challenges. These different kinds of achievements offer different appeal to different kinds of gamers, but are overall only infrequently properly, or even at all, integrated into gameplay and mechanics. We think that achievements ought to be integrated into games by awarding not only an icon in a separate system, such as Steam or PSN, but also rewards in-game such as bonus equipment or new mechanics. Socially, awarding cosmetics and titles for public display is an excellent, and clearly very popular, implementation of such integration, although cosmetic rewards in single-player games are not quite as lucrative.

In our view the best achievements are those that encourage players to explore and discover new content that they may otherwise not have found. This ranges from using game mechanics in innovative ways, exploring extra areas or even adopting a particular play style. Equally challenges that task the player with genuinely difficult tasks, such as completing hard objectives with ironman mode or winning a game on a very high difficulty setting, are very rewarding uses of achievement systems, and are closer to the true meaning of the word achievement than feats of endurance, i.e. doing the same relatively easy thing over and over again or waiting for the same random occurrence to repeat itself many times over.

Ultimately, until achievements are more closely aligned with overall game design, i.e. not just measures of inevitable progress towards completion or essentially meaningless gathering tasks, and until they are more properly integrated into games, i.e. not existing in a separate platform, we believe players will do best by resisting “completionist” urges. It is only when achievements are thoughtfully and carefully implemented and represented in-game as well as socially on a platform achievement system that they reach their potential to expand and improve players’ gaming experiences as surely is their intended function.

The Critical Mess aims to return to this topic in the future and crystallise this analysis into a more formal hierarchy or structure of different kinds of achievements.