Theory: Achievements As Communication Between Designer and Player

I’m a fan of achievements in games. That’s not because of the collection aspect; I’ve never been a completist. Rather, it’s because achievements are a powerful way for the designer to reveal things about the game to players. Done well, achievements help players find fun in the game that they might have missed out on, and thereby get lots of value out of their investment.

We should start by defining exactly what I mean by “achievements.” An achievement is a marker that the player did something noteworthy in the game. The archetypal achievement is publicly available for others to see and does not have in-game effects, but neither of those is a hard and fast rule. The discussion here applies equally to Playstation trophies that can be compared over the Playstation Network but don’t grant any rewards beyond pride, and to Final Fantasy X’s hidden Aeons which will probably only be seen by the person earning them and which confer substantial power.

Knowing what achievements are allows us to consider what they do. Think about them from the player’s perspective. What messages does the player get when she sees an achievement listed?

  1. I can do this.
  2. I will be rewarded for doing it, so I should do this.

Achievements, then, aren’t just a bookkeeping solution for keeping track of how far a player has gotten. They’re also a means of communication, an opportunity for the designer to get outside the strictures of the game to make suggestions about how to play.

Being able to talk to players in that way is very powerful. Normally designers don’t come in the box, and can’t tell people how to get maximum enjoyment out of a game. We have to rely on clues, signals, and the occasional rule to get players on the path toward the best experiences. Achievements are much more direct: they enable designers to say directly “I know where the fun is in this game, and if you do XYZ you’ll find it, too.”

Like all great power, though, there must come with achievements great responsibility. If they can point players toward the fun, achievements can also lead them in unproductive directions. How, then, can we create achievements that work for players?

Achievements Done Right

  1. Incentivize playing the game in an unusual way.

Games are often more open than they appear. Designers and playtesters might find oddball strategies that work, or there might be ways to play that don’t have much to do with the stated goals but are nevertheless interesting. Providing achievements for pursuing these against-the-grain approaches shows players the full range of the game’s options.

Perhaps my favorite examples of this are the speedrun achievements in the last-gen Prince of Persia. (Do we have a name for the PS3/360/Wii generation of games?) Prince of Persia is well-suited to speedrunning, but since the game relies more on careful observation than speed it’s not intuitive to play that way. Having achievements encouraging players to try it thus introduces them to the possibility, and perhaps even to the idea of speedrunning more generally. That’s not bad for a few badges.

  1. Reward exploring the game world.

Many games are big, much bigger than a player who just pushes from start to finish will realize. Achievements for exploring encourage players to seek out all that additional content they might otherwise miss, and to find all the fun that’s waiting for them.

Burnout Paradise is my go-to example for this sort of achievement. Normally Burnout Paradise calls on its players to race through city streets, but the game has lots of out-of-the-way areas players can explore for a change of pace: a dirt track suited to rally racing, a construction yard allowing for some truly death-defying stunts, seaside boardwalks with nice views. I can say from personal experience that finding each of those areas and seeing what they had to offer was a lot of fun, and I’m sure I would have missed some without achievements hinting that they were out there.

  1. Encourage players to achieve mastery.

Achievements can drive players to push the bounds of what’s possible and to strive for new heights of skill. Does the player know how to do a combo? Does the player know how to do a 100-hit combo? Creating an achievement for the latter pushes players to learn about the combo system and experiment with new ideas, and ultimately to experience the joy of attaining mastery.

Of course, there’s no reason why only fighting games can have these skill-driven achievements. Burnout Paradise has an achievement for getting a huge stunt multiplier by chaining many more stunts together than is necessary to win any given event. That achievement kept me wrapped up in Burnout Paradise for a very long time, and the sense of satisfaction when I finally got it is one of the highlights of my gaming life.

Achievements that take away from the fun

It’s worth noting that each category of good achievements has its dark side. Prince of Persia’s speedrunning achievements work because that game has precise controls and well-done movement; by contrast, an achievement for doing something possible-but-frustrating would be problematic at best. Similarly, achievements based on exploring will be irksome without something worth doing or seeing when the players get there.

Fortunately, both of those are rare. Much more common, in my experience, is the achievement that purports to reward mastery but actually encourages boring, repetitive play. If getting X headshots is a demonstration of skill worthy of an achievement, a further achievement for 5X headshots is probably just keeping the player from trying something new and exciting. Calibrate achievements to the point of mastery, and then stop providing them for that particular skill so that the player is incentivized to explore a different part of the game.

Achievements as a marketing tool

I’m not a marketing expert, but I think it stands to reason that players who have a lot of fun with a game, and find the game to be a good value, are likely to buy further products from the same creator(s). Good achievements are helpful in both of those areas. Players who have spent lots of time getting each and every one of many well-designed achievements, enjoying everything the game has to offer along the way, probably feel like they received good value from their gaming purchase. Hence, they’re apt to look at future works from the same person/studio/company/etc. more favorably.

It’s impossible for me to talk about this without going back to Burnout Paradise. (Yes, I like Burnout Paradise a lot.) Completing all of its in-game achievements took years; I played many other games along the way, but always came back to Paradise City to make a little more progress—and every time I did I had fun, because Burnout Paradise is a great game and its achievements do an excellent job of pointing out neat things to try. I now pay attention when Criterion releases a new racing game, because they’ve proven capable of creating something remarkable.

Achieving good achievements

Designers can use achievements as more than just a way to mark progress through a game. They are a valuable means of signaling to players what they should be doing, activities that might be fun to try, places they should take the time to visit, and areas where there’s room to explore the game’s systems and improve their skill. In doing those things achievements can help ensure that players enjoy the game and get as much value as possible out of it, which will encourage them to look for future games from the same designer. Achievements are thus an important tool, one that should be used thoughtfully.

Also, everyone should play Burnout Paradise.

The Case Study & Theory: Gates

Thinking about how to add on to Over the Next Dune raises the question of whether and how to gate player powers. Of course, that begs the question of what a “gate” is. 😉 To avoid definitional confusion, let’s hammer that out.

A gate is something that controls a player’s access to in-game capabilities. The classic example is mana, as seen in League of Legends or the Final Fantasy games. A player uses up mana each time he or she employs a special ability, and when the mana is gone the player cannot use special abilities until it recharges. Ammunition is also a gate; it limits how much the player can use a certain weapon before having to switch or seek out more ammo.

Gates do not have to be numbers. Many role-playing games, for example, control players’ power via progress through the storyline. As the player explores new areas, meets new people, and learns new things, the player gets new capabilities.

Gates can go one way or bi-directional. One-way gates result in permanent changes. For example, in Burnout Paradise access to new cars is generally gated by completing races. Once you complete the race associated with a car, you have access to that car forever. Mana and ammunition are usually bi-directional gates; you can run out and lose access to a power, but replenishing the resource takes you back through the gate and enables you to use it again.

I believe that that’s a reasonably complete discussion of what gates are. They also have some properties that aren’t definitional but that I feel are worth putting forward:

Gates can be thought of in either direction. This is kind of a weird one, and it’s usually not relevant, but it can be useful. All gates can be described as having something or not having the opposite. For example, in Battletech firing weapons builds up heat. You can think of heat as the gate (too much is bad) or coolness as the gate (not enough is bad). It doesn’t matter, from a theoretical perspective, which approach you take.

Admittedly, this can get kind of silly. You could say that “lack of mana” is the gate, and that a player can use a certain ability because his or her lack of mana has been kept below a certain threshold. It’s a lot easier, though, to say that the player has enough mana.

Basically, this is like flipping an equation to put the variable you’re solving for on the left. It doesn’t really change anything, but if you’re accustomed to a certain presentation it might help you understand what’s going on.

Out-of-game gates are ineffective. Experience has shown that players cannot be limited by resources outside the rules of the game. Money and physical difficulty are two examples of out-of-game gates which have been proven not to work.

Money. If your game is popular, you will have a subset of players who will spend whatever they need to to get a competitive advantage. Magic: the Gathering was originally designed to use card rarity as a gate, on the thinking that players would be limited by their collections. Over time it became clear that tournament players assembled complete collections regardless of the cost. Magic still uses rarity for various design purposes, but not to balance constructed-deck tournament play.

Physical difficulty. It does not matter how difficult a physical task is; if it will help players win, some of them will put in the necessary time to be able to do it reliably. Fighting games often use precise timing as a gate, demanding that players time their moves to 1/60th of a second in order to get the longest combos and the most damage. Many, many players have practiced enough to hit those 1/60th of a second windows routinely.

From here we need to think about whether OtND should use gates at all. I’ll get into that next time.