Gamers love achievements. They're fun, they add an extra layer of content, and they let you show off your gaming skills. It generally doesn't take much extra effort for developers to add them, so it's not surprising that games without achievements are now in the minority. Unfortunately, achievements are still often poorly implemented; whether this is a result of lazy developers, or because achievement design is still a relatively new aspect to game design, we often see achievements which simply aren't fun. In this article, we'll look at how to make the most of achievements and ensure that they don't detract from the game.
Before we begin, it's important to clarify what we mean by an achievement: everyone is familiar with the traditional achievements common to Xbox, PS3 and Steam which have little congratulatory messages (and sometimes a points reward). Throughout this article, this is what we will be looking at, but it's important to note that there are many other types of achievement as well: from becoming the most feared PVPer on an MMO, to building the perfect house in The Sims, to speedrunning your favourite platformers -- all of these are achievements of a type, yet the game won't acknowledge your success in these in the same way.
An achievement is simply a goal, and all games have goals, whether set in code or left to the player to determine. We often can't quantify these sorts of achievements, but it's important to realise that players will aim for them and that many aspects of achievement design will still apply.
So what can we do to make achievements better? First, let's divide achievements into three main categories: challenge achievements, tutorial achievements, and progress achievements.
Challenge achievements are the "traditional" achievement. Find a set of legendary weapons. Blow up 10 zombies at once with a grenade. Max all your combat skills. These are objectives that let the player test their skills, and give the "true" gamer an additional layer of challenges to sink their teeth into.
The infamous "veni vidi vici" challenge from VVVVVV
One of the best example of challenge achievements is "pacifist" runs, in which you complete the whole game without killing anyone. These are often incredibly tough, require a deeper understanding of the game than a simple "run and gun" approach, and - most importantly - add a completely new approach to playing the game. If your game takes 10 hours to complete, then this simple achievement immediately adds another 10 hours of additional, optional content.
The Lego series handles this "increased challenge" concept incredibly well. Lego games are firmly aimed at a casual audience; you can't die, and you can repeatedly jump into lava or off cliffs with practically no side effects - you simply respawn moments later. So what stops the Lego games from being tedious? The added challenge of collecting studs (Lego's equivalent to coins). Every time you die, you lose some of your precious studs. If you manage to collect a certain amount before the level ends, then you are a "true hero", and you get a special gold star for being awesome. If you don't, then you can still progress, albeit without that additional pat on the back.
What this means is that Lego games are enjoyable both for five year old children and for serious gamers. The game is as hard you want it to be.
In Lego games, players can choose their favourite characters and kill each other repeatedly with no consequence.
Nethack is arguably one of the first games with an achievement style system (called "conducts"). It rewards the player for a variety of optional self-imposed challenges, including never reading a scroll, never asking the gods for help, and even never eating.
There are risks with challenge achievements, however: make them too easy, and people will see them as trivial. Too many trivial achievements, and players may feel unrewarded. Make them too hard, and people will become frustrated and give up. Worse, if one achievement is unattainable, then many players will stop caring about the rest of the achievements -- for many, there is a "collection" mentality of sorts, and an impossible achievement ruins that.
It is also important to note what a challenge achievement is not: it is not collecting 100,000 gold. It is not slaying 3,000 orcs. It is also not collecting every single one of 500 hidden objects. None of these are good achievements; they simply measure your tolerance for grinding and tedium. Any player can do these with enough time (and an online walkthrough).
If making tough achievements is representative of good challenge design, then the epitome of bad challenge design would be random achievements: achievements over which the player has little to no control, such as winning a race by exactly one millisecond, being headshot by two enemy snipers at the same time, or hitting an enemy for exactly 1337 damage. There is no way for a player to influence these events with any sort of reliability. If the player is awarded it, then there is no real sense of accomplishment. If the player doesn't get it, they may feel cheated.
Secret achievements will often fall into this category: if a player has no indication that performing a certain set of actions will provide rewards, then what is their motivation for doing those actions? If the player knows that a secret achievement exists, then dropping hints in books, paintings and other background items is a good way to reward players who explore the game world. But without these hints, you simply force players to use walkthroughs.
That's not to say that it's bad to reward players who aren't specifically hunting achievements: in Team Fortress 2, there are over 400 different achievements. If a player is doing well, it's inevitable that they will meet some achievement requirements without trying - the distinction being that these achievements should still be feasible to unlock normally.
These "unexpected" achievements can actually be incredibly beneficial- if a player pulls off a difficult or clever move, such as a spy tricking an enemy medic into healing them, then not only will they feel good about pulling it off but an achievement will reinforce the reward. If the player wasn't expecting it, then it might also show them something they hadn't realised was possible - which brings us to the concept of tutorial achievements.
Tutorials are boring. Players want to get involved in gameplay as quickly as possibly, which is why many games use an introductory level of some sort to let the player get their feet wet and introduce them to gameplay elements one at a time without overwhelming them. However, tutorial levels can only last so long, and eventually players will need to be set free into the "real game".
So what happens when you want to teach advanced tactics to players, mechanics which players may not immediately recognise, or ways of doing things that aren't obvious? You can't just throw them into another tutorial - but teaching achievements cover this perfectly.
Lets look at a few e-sport quality games, and imagine some possible achievements:
Starcraft/Warcraft: Win a game in less than five minutes - this is possible using tactics such as 6-pooling, a fairly basic but effective tactic:
Dota/HON/LoL: Last hit every creep in three consecutive waves. When a "creep" dies in these games you get gold, but ONLY if you deal the killing blow; high level play requires a high level of effectiveness at this "last hitting", as the additional gold boost provides a massive bonus.
Quake/TF2: Keep an enemy in the air with rockets. While rocket jumping is a fairly well known skill, being able to keep a high-health enemy afloat with rockets (known as "juggling") requires a lot of practice, and is also a very important skill to have at high levels.
Killing enemies while midair in Team Fortress 2 is tricky, but rewarding.
While none of these skills are required to play the game, or even necessarily play the game well, they lure players out of their comfort zone and encourage them to be more efficient at the game.
So if the tutorial achievement is designed to encourage good gameplay, then the opposite of it would be the "anti-gameplay achievement" - achievements which, while seeming good on the surface, actually encourage negative gameplay experiences.
There are many ways to do this. Bioshock offers a moral choice system throughout the game - do you save the little sisters, or do you harvest them for power? Unfortunately, there's an achievement for completing the "good" path, and no achievement for completing the "evil" path. If there were an achievement for each path, this would be fine: but putting an achievement at the end of only one of these actually restricts gameplay, forcing players into a certain playstyle. Through bad achievement design, its possible to detract from a game.
Its also possible to teach players bad habits. Team Fortress 2 also has this problem in Mann Vs Machine mode (which is basically players vs. zombie horde). One of the achievements for the Pyro class is "reset the bomb". To explain why this is a bad achievement, you need to know certain things:
- When you shoot a robot, it dies and drops money. (which can be used to buy better weapons)
- When a robot is pushed into a pit, it dies and doesn't drop money.
- You lose the game when a robot carries the bomb into your base.
- Pushing a robot with the bomb into a pit "destroys" the bomb it is carrying.
You aquire this achievement by fulfilling the fourth point, pushing a bomb robot into a pit. While on the surface this seems like good gameplay (because it resets the bomb), due to the money system its actually best to try shooting the robots and avoid pits. This achievement teaches habits which players may not realise are detrimental to gameplay. Worse, because this is a team game, you hurt your teammates as well as yourself.
Whether this is a flaw in the money system, the pit mechanic or the achievement is arguable - but the end result is a negative gameplay experience.
Progress achievements ("congratulations, you have completed the first chapter!") occupy a strange spot in the world of achievement design. There's nothing necessarily wrong with them, but they don't really add anything either. In a linear game like Halo or Half-Life 2, the achievements are unavoidable and will be picked up by the player just by playing the game. If an achievement is unavoidable, can it really be called an achievement?
Pick up the portal gun for an achievement, and to be able to progress.
There is, however, one interesting side effect to progress achievements: player tracking. You can look at how far a player has progressed, by checking their achievement status. Steam even lets you browse global gameplay stats.
It's interesting to look at some games and see how far players get. In Portal, only 75% of players who own the game get as far as acquiring the portal gun. This statistic does however count players who have bought the game but never installed it, which is why many games have "stupid" achievements such as "pressed the start button" - it lets the developers track how many players have tried the game.
Note that, to a certain extent, this can contradict what was said earlier about avoiding grind: an achievement which marks 3,000 orcs killed is fine if the orcs are killed through normal gameplay, and the player is not required to specifically grind. Orcs Must Die does this well; by the time the player has completed the base game and the bonus levels, it's unlikely they will not have killed 3,000 orcs. In that regard, this really boils down to another progress marker.
Other Types of Achievement
There are a few other types of achievement that bear a quick examination.
Fun achievements, which don't necessarily add any challenge but add a little silliness to the game, can be a good way to break up the "seriousness" of gameplay with an interesting little diversion. Things like "kill an enemy with a rotten egg" or "kick a chicken a fair distance", while hardly deep and meaningful, can - used sparingly - make a game a much more enjoyable experience.
Expert chicken kicking skills win top prizes.
Marketing achievements are a relatively new and insidious addition to games. Have you liked this game on Facebook? Bought our DLC? Joined our YouTube channel? Arguably the worst offender is Alan Wake's "Boob Tube" achievement, which rewards you for watching in-game product placement adverts. None of these are achievements in any real sense of the word, and exist solely to pander to managers and marketers of the company.
Limited time achievements are generally bad. Players like collecting achievements, and while giving all your current players a reward is good, it hurts the long-term potential of your game. If an achievement is only accessible on a certain day (such as playing on Halloween), then a player can always try again next year. If an achievement is only accessible on Halloween 2013, then players that join after that are going to have a negative gameplay experience.
This also includes ingame-limited achievements. In Fallout 3, you begin the game in the vault. Once you've left this "tutorial area", you can never return. If you miss the collectible bobblehead doll, then you cann't get the "bobblehead" achievement without playing through the whole game again. This doesn't add replay value, it just forces the player to do something they've already done. If the doll was somehow accessible after, then this wouldn't be a problem - but it's not, and it is.
Multiplayer achievements need some special attention. League of Legends was released in 2009 with an in-game "achievements" section - yet to date, no achievements have been released. The reason for this is that multiplayer achievements lead to sub-optimal play, and in a competitive game like LOL, the playerbase take good gameplay very seriously. If you're too busy hunting achievements to help the rest of your team win the match, then they would have every right to get annoyed with you.
This isn't to say that achievements can't exist in multiplayer, but it has to be with the knowledge that they will most likely negatively effect gameplay, or simply be reduced to a simple grind function such as "win X games". This is because a player is either playing to the best of their ability and trying to win, or they are not. In online gaming, where getting team mates to co-operate can be challenging at the best of times, it can be incredibly frustrating having some team members who just aren't trying.
At the end of the day, your game should be fun. Achievements should enhance a player's experience, not trap them into decisions or limit their options. Players should feel like acquiring an achievement is a reward, not something that's been handed to them on a platter. And achievements can be used to expand players' minds, to show them how intricate and complicated your game is, rather than to just reward them for repeating the same old tasks over and over.
Most importantly, like any set of rules in game design, its important to know when to apply them, and when to break them. The free Flash game Achievement Unlocked breaks most, if not all, of these rules, and is incredibly successful - but largely because it is a parody of achievement systems in games, and plays upon the tropes and expectations of the player.