Thursday, January 22, 2009

Get the point?

When you look at all the things Microsoft has done right this console generation, achievements have to rank pretty high up there. This wasn't always a given. It seemed like a silly and useless feature to me, and in many respects it is silly and useless. You can't trade your achievement points for anything tangible. You can't use them to download new themes or Live Arcade games, or trade them for Xbox-branded products. I don't even think there's an easy way to compare your gamerscore to that of your friends, although admittedly I haven't looked very hard. It's like playing an RPG with no level cap -- and no discernible benefit from leveling up.

Yet there's something about earning achievement points that's irresistible. Partly, I think they nailed the tactile sensation of getting one right. The little "ding" of unlocking a new achievement has always sounded to my ears a little like a water droplet exploding, which may be helped by the way the graphic blows up like a balloon. It feels organic and germane. When the PS3 implemented their similar "trophy" system, they didn't get the feedback quite right. Earning a new trophy is marked by a muffled chime, and a little rectangular graphic that pops instantly onto the screen.

I like to earn achievement points, but not so much that I'll always go out of my way for them. In fact, my gamerscore is embarrassingly low, considering the sheer number of Xbox 360 games that have spun through my disc drive over the past three years. Partly, that's due to expediency: a lot of achievements don't reward powering through the main game, which is the way I usually play. They're for those who take the time to explore every aspect of the game. They reward dedication and sometimes even creativity. And many skew toward online play.

Even then, sometimes I can't imagine who out is earning these things. I sank something like 25 hours into Burnout Revenge, the first Xbox 360 game I ever got, and topped out at 110 achievement points. Among the many achievements I missed were "True Elite," worth 65 points for getting a perfect rating on every single event, and "Celeb Status," 70 points for uploading a clip that made it onto the top-20 downloads. I would love to know how many people actually did earn the "Celeb Status" achievement.

Mostly, I'm fine with picking up whatever achievements I earn along the course of a campaign. Part of the reason why my BioShock score was so high -- 730 points -- was that nearly all of its achievements were easily accomplished over the course of a single playthrough. Researching splicers was rewarded both in-game, by making them easier to kill, and outside the game, by tallying 10 achievement points each. Fallout 3 was like this, too, doling out 20 points for each mission, although most of those missions weren't mandatory to reach the end credits.

This is when achievements are at their best: when they encourage you to play the game the right way, and to experience things you might otherwise have missed. Left 4 Dead uses achievements as an incentive to be generous with health packs and pain pills. Crackdown's achievements reminded the player to make full use out of all of his powers. Sometimes they seem contradictory to a game's goals: Guitar Hero II included an achievement for failing a song on easy mode. Hey, it was good for a laugh, and one of the easiest achivements I've ever earned.

A few games maintain a hold on me. I'm still chasing the "Free Runner" achievement in Crackdown, which is worth 50 points for finding all 500 Agility Orbs. I'm up to 498 out of 500, and I've had the game for almost two years now. Some turn me off. Every time Gears of War 2 updates me on how far I am from the "Seriously 2.0" achievement (kill 100,000 opponents), it makes me want to curl up under my desk.

No matter what Xbox 360 game you're playing, the achievements game has become its own addictive enterprise. It's single-player game and multiplayer. It's all about the score, and all about maximizing your exposure to the breadth of a game world. It binds together a library of hundreds of games. Achievements are the Force.


Anonymous said...

I'm certain Achievements have an effect on multiplatform sales in the 360's favor. Though my evidence is purely circumstantial.

For one, why would Sony bother to spend the time and money it takes to integrate their Trophy system unless they have research somewhere saying that sort of thing makes a difference?

Two, I know I have picked a 360 version of a game over the PS3 version purely because the 360 one will add to my score... and I can't be unique in that.

Julian said...

For me, it's not about the score or the RPGishness (you literally gain levels in the trophy system). It's about having incentives to do interesting things with the game you might not otherwise do. Achievements used well can expose you to styles of play or sections of the game you might not otherwise consider, in addition to giving you an official notch in your belt for difficult accomplishments. A nice side benefit is being able to see your friends' progress in games by looking at their achievements/trophies. In that sense, I can't really see trying to consolidate points on one system or another, although I definitely appreciate their value to the game.

Anonymous said...

It's really easy to compare achievements to those of your friends or even other random players in your game. Once you have selected a players gamer card from a friends list, player list or leaderboard, there is an option called 'Compare Games'. This brings up a nice crosstab list of all the games and respective gamerscores for both you and that person. From there, you can click on a single game title and see a similar comparison of the individual achievements in that game.

Unknown said...

As a completionist/completist (whatever the right term is), Achievements are both awesome and a curse.

It is obvious why they can be awesome so instead I will detail why they are a curse. As you no doubt already know, every game's list varies in how you can obtain them. Games like Fallout 3 and BioShock are fine because most of their Achievements fit within the story of the game or something you will end up doing incidentally while playing while on the other hand, games like Guitar Hero and Gears of War can be real bitches to get every Achievement from and that is just one reason why they can be a curse to someone like me.

Another reason and one that has only come up recently (for me at least) is DLC. Most of the games that came out during the holiday rush of last year are receiving new content and so are a few older games like GTA IV and Burnout Paradise. This is fine and I appreciate that I will have more content to play with in these games but because I am a completionist and someone who likes to explore everywhere, I am nowhere near finished with all these games and as such the newly added Achievements tied in with the new content is hurting my completion rather than helping it. Just another reason why Achievements can be a curse for someone like me but at the same time I do realise that it is my fault too for being the gamer that I am.

With regards to Burnout Revenge, I think you will be disappointed or surprised with how many people have the 'Celebrity Status' Achievement. Achievement sites and the fact that the game's online died down has made it a whole lot easier for people to obtain that Achievement and the reason I know this is because I have it. I also have the other ones you mentioned. Completionist, remember? ;)

Danilo Vujevic said...

I agree with Julian about achievements acting as an incentive, but to me they're not much more than that. They've never swayed my desicion on what console to buy a game or which games to buy in general, merely a nice surprise every now and again.

I read somewhere a while ago about 360 owners buying up all less popular games purely to burn through them to get an additional 1000 gamerpoints. I really don't understand the logic behind this when, as you said, they don't have any tangible value.

I'd also like to verify that Microsoft were the first to implement the concept, followed by Sony and Valve?

You can also compare points by logging in on the XBL website, as well as message your friends.

CrashTranslation said...

Though in our house we have the ability to play a game on any platform it's released my housemate only buys the 360 version of a title, because in his own words "it's the achievements".

Gary A. Lucero said...

I hate the achievements only obtainable via multipler gaming or by some totally arbitrary action. Some achievements can be a bit picky, like the one in Mass Effect that you get to discovering all of the alien races. I played through the game four times and never unlocked it, and then spent multiple sessions doing it again, methodically going through a FAQ, and still coudn't. Finally, over a year later, I tried and it came. Why? What was I doing wrong? But most of Mass Effect's achivements weren't hard to get, and some of them actually had a positive effect on your in-game character. All in all, I rarely spend time playing just to unlock achivements, but I always enjoy them. When I switched to the PS3 briefly (for 3 - 4 months), I sorely missed them.

Jonathan Mills said...

The only problem I have with Achievements is that they aren't retroactive to my gaming past. I think that I should have an Achievement posted somewhere for "Beat NES Contra without the Konami code and with no continues" or "Beat Random Drunk Girl at Dr. Mario that one night at my friend's apartment."

Luke Buchanan said...

I like achievements, but I'm sure I've seen them in other games (single games, not a platform) in the past. Microsoft brought them into the mainstream, and for that they should be congratulated.

My main issue with them is that they break immersion. When I play Fallout 3 and I'm in the middle of a tense scene inside some abandoned office building with creaking floorboards and sunlight filtering through a hole in the ceiling, I don't want that little "Plink" sound and a big message on my screen.

Unknown said...

I love trophies, for all the reasons Julian said above. I turned from achievements to trophies after I realized how fragile my 360 account really is.

Gary A. Lucero said...

John, I have had my troubles with MS too, and having went through multiple Xbox 360s, I understand why you'd turn to the PS3 in hopes of having a better experience.

Problem is, with those records stored online, there's no way to guarantee any of us is safe, regardless of the platform. We all trust hotmail, yahoo mail, or gmail, for instance, but there's no real guarantee that mail won't one day disappear.

Every site I log into is one more place where my privacy can potentially be compromised, my credit card leaked, or any number of other problems.

I returned to the 360 because it has the games. Right now the PS3 offers very little for me, and when Sony unveiled their 2008 line up at E3, I knew it was time to come back. MS is doing a better job, for better or worse.


RAGZ said...

Achievments are like a mental drug...
some people get a nice satisfying feeling from the sound they make and the way they ever so subtley appear on your page like a whisper from an angel (ARGH IM A JUNKIE).

But then you've got people who cheat to get achievements... WTF!? I can recall playing tf2 online and hearing some person say to what i can only presume is a friend "let me burn you then kill you with my shotgun so i can get the achievement (insert achievement here)." Whats the point of achieving something dishonestly... theres some moral to this story that i couldn't be arsed emphasising.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Good points Ragz.

I think as an enhancement to gaming, achievements are awesome. I hate playing original Xbox games because they don't have them, but I can't imagine only getting achievements for the sake of getting them. It's not worth playing a crappy game just to accumulate them, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

w/r/t Gary said, I've heard way too many people say they've bought the 360 version of a game over the PS3 version because they want the achievements. It makes sense that when there's so little between the two consoles currently, you start looking towards the details.