The Problem With Achievements Part 1: Lose the Unlocks

It's an interesting feeling when you have an epihany about something. It might come as a consideration of dynamic difficulty and its ramifications on open-world gameplay, the experience of playing "non-game" games like Linger in Shadows, or even the wonders of the Half-Tucked Shirt. These sorts of things can fundamentally change the way you see a game, feature, or what-have-you.

In this case, I came to an interesting realization regarding achievements. Let's get definitions out of the way first. Achievements are artificial point values (or trophy grades, or titles) awarded to commemorate passing various milestones over the course of gameplay. These values are then tracked online so they can be seen, marveled at, or ridiculed.

Achievements are now standard in nearly every Xbox 360 game (where they became popularized), most newer PlayStation 3 games (as trophies), and making inroads into various PC titles. Most view them as an easy and largely painless way for developers to extend the value propositions of their games beyond simply finishing them. Obtaining achievements and the perceived value associated with them appeals to that primal hoarding instinct in many gamers' minds that drives them to "hundred-percent" all the games they can find.

On the surface, achievements don't mean much, being little more than meaningless excuses to gloat, virtual street cred for the young (and young-minded) to wave about. Dig a little deeper, however, and you may notice achievements' potential to change games in ways that perhaps not even their developers may notice, altering a game's design or its players' behavior in ways that may not always be benign.

What caused the figurative lightbulb in my head to pop on, like the belabored flickering of the vacuum tube in Fallout 3's "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" intro, were the "unlocks" being implemented Valve's Team Fortress 2.



In case you've been trapped in a time paradox for the past half-decade or so, unlocks are special weapons and equipment available for Team Fortress 2's various character classes. The new unlockables are, well...unlocked by passing certain numbers of achievements. Unlocks are the most telling example of my concern over achievements, mainly because of how strongly the unlocked content can change the way a given class is played.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. Linking unlockable advantages to achievements attached real value to them, making them worth more than meaningless points. Achievements are becoming game-changers. Let's start with the broad strokes first, mainly focusing on TF2 and the class updates. TF2 is an especially important case because of its multiplayer-only, teamplay-focused design. Achievements and unlocks, however, are entirely individual and personal, and thus self-centered. Think about how ridiculous some of the achievements are, like this one, for the Heavy:

Show Trial: Kill an enemy with a taunt.

Seriously? Your fucking taunt? Where will you ever find an opportunity to pull that off in a normal match? Whatever happened to your helping your team achieve victory?

Granted, not every achievement is this ludicrous (some are moreso, in fact), but the point is that questing for achievements undermines team play. It might be fun for you to go out and try hitting 5 enemies in a row with your Medic's bonesaw (without dying or missing, good luck with that), but I'm thinking at least some of your teammates would rather you pull out your goddamned medi-gun and do some healing.

Furthermore, tying unlocks to achievements may well undermine the fairness and balance that makes Team Fortress 2 so great (in addition to its many other beloved qualities). An article in Scientific American examined a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania which concluded that people in general would rather be fair than greedy, often willingly reducing their own benefits in order to make sure that the other guy gets a fair shake.

When selfish achievements are required to make sure the playing field is level (thus making skill and cooperation the defining factor in victory), fairness is systematically undermined. Is that fun or balanced? Not to me.

I developed this attitude shortly after I read a great write-up on Rock Paper Shotgun about the "Achievement servers" that started popping up in the wake of the various class updates. For you tl;dr types, achievement servers exist for the sole purpose of helping players grind achievements with the goal of getting unlocks as soon as humanly possible. They host custom maps designed for that selfsame purpose. TF2 players instantly became more akin to Lineage players. Ugh.



Unlocks also "unlock" a mild form of class discrimination between players. Players who ground away at their achivements became "haves", while noobs and those without OCD became the "have-nots". I've seen some teams on public servers kick or force underequipped newbs to spawn as a different class because they didn't have the unlocks necessary to be useful. Some MMO players regularly find themselves shut out of a raid because their compatriots haven't found the time to farm the necessary-tier gear. Lots of fun, that.

On a more trivial note, achievement farming renders a lot of the stat-tracking features useless. A player who loves rolling Medic but decided to grind Pyro achievements to fit in can no longer find satisfaction in seeing his stats, which would undoubtedly be newly weighted towards his farming time.

Sure, we can just choose NOT to grind the achievements and enjoy the game as a plain ol' K.G.B.-less Heavy, but hey, you're now less versatile. That Medic who would have liked to uber you in the hopes of dinging the "Blunt Trauma" achievement. Sorry, doktor, you'll have to find someone else to help you get the Blutsauger or Ubersaw. And as with the "Show Trial" achievement above, some of those goals are impossible without a controlled setup.

Granted, I might be bitching and moaning about unlocks because I just plain fail at TF2 (and life, for writing this treatise in the first place). Fair enough, I am pretty fail at TF2. But consider this: would I be failing less had I chosen not to have fun, instead putting up with boredom farming the Backburner on an achievement server, to be more useful to my team?

I'd get into some of the more insidious aspects of Achievements and their implications for game design in general, but this entry is long enough as it is. I hope to get a part two out sometime soon.

13 Comments
14 Comments
Posted by unangbangkay

It's an interesting feeling when you have an epihany about something. It might come as a consideration of dynamic difficulty and its ramifications on open-world gameplay, the experience of playing "non-game" games like Linger in Shadows, or even the wonders of the Half-Tucked Shirt. These sorts of things can fundamentally change the way you see a game, feature, or what-have-you.

In this case, I came to an interesting realization regarding achievements. Let's get definitions out of the way first. Achievements are artificial point values (or trophy grades, or titles) awarded to commemorate passing various milestones over the course of gameplay. These values are then tracked online so they can be seen, marveled at, or ridiculed.

Achievements are now standard in nearly every Xbox 360 game (where they became popularized), most newer PlayStation 3 games (as trophies), and making inroads into various PC titles. Most view them as an easy and largely painless way for developers to extend the value propositions of their games beyond simply finishing them. Obtaining achievements and the perceived value associated with them appeals to that primal hoarding instinct in many gamers' minds that drives them to "hundred-percent" all the games they can find.

On the surface, achievements don't mean much, being little more than meaningless excuses to gloat, virtual street cred for the young (and young-minded) to wave about. Dig a little deeper, however, and you may notice achievements' potential to change games in ways that perhaps not even their developers may notice, altering a game's design or its players' behavior in ways that may not always be benign.

What caused the figurative lightbulb in my head to pop on, like the belabored flickering of the vacuum tube in Fallout 3's "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" intro, were the "unlocks" being implemented Valve's Team Fortress 2.



In case you've been trapped in a time paradox for the past half-decade or so, unlocks are special weapons and equipment available for Team Fortress 2's various character classes. The new unlockables are, well...unlocked by passing certain numbers of achievements. Unlocks are the most telling example of my concern over achievements, mainly because of how strongly the unlocked content can change the way a given class is played.

I think you can see where I'm going with this. Linking unlockable advantages to achievements attached real value to them, making them worth more than meaningless points. Achievements are becoming game-changers. Let's start with the broad strokes first, mainly focusing on TF2 and the class updates. TF2 is an especially important case because of its multiplayer-only, teamplay-focused design. Achievements and unlocks, however, are entirely individual and personal, and thus self-centered. Think about how ridiculous some of the achievements are, like this one, for the Heavy:

Show Trial: Kill an enemy with a taunt.

Seriously? Your fucking taunt? Where will you ever find an opportunity to pull that off in a normal match? Whatever happened to your helping your team achieve victory?

Granted, not every achievement is this ludicrous (some are moreso, in fact), but the point is that questing for achievements undermines team play. It might be fun for you to go out and try hitting 5 enemies in a row with your Medic's bonesaw (without dying or missing, good luck with that), but I'm thinking at least some of your teammates would rather you pull out your goddamned medi-gun and do some healing.

Furthermore, tying unlocks to achievements may well undermine the fairness and balance that makes Team Fortress 2 so great (in addition to its many other beloved qualities). An article in Scientific American examined a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania which concluded that people in general would rather be fair than greedy, often willingly reducing their own benefits in order to make sure that the other guy gets a fair shake.

When selfish achievements are required to make sure the playing field is level (thus making skill and cooperation the defining factor in victory), fairness is systematically undermined. Is that fun or balanced? Not to me.

I developed this attitude shortly after I read a great write-up on Rock Paper Shotgun about the "Achievement servers" that started popping up in the wake of the various class updates. For you tl;dr types, achievement servers exist for the sole purpose of helping players grind achievements with the goal of getting unlocks as soon as humanly possible. They host custom maps designed for that selfsame purpose. TF2 players instantly became more akin to Lineage players. Ugh.



Unlocks also "unlock" a mild form of class discrimination between players. Players who ground away at their achivements became "haves", while noobs and those without OCD became the "have-nots". I've seen some teams on public servers kick or force underequipped newbs to spawn as a different class because they didn't have the unlocks necessary to be useful. Some MMO players regularly find themselves shut out of a raid because their compatriots haven't found the time to farm the necessary-tier gear. Lots of fun, that.

On a more trivial note, achievement farming renders a lot of the stat-tracking features useless. A player who loves rolling Medic but decided to grind Pyro achievements to fit in can no longer find satisfaction in seeing his stats, which would undoubtedly be newly weighted towards his farming time.

Sure, we can just choose NOT to grind the achievements and enjoy the game as a plain ol' K.G.B.-less Heavy, but hey, you're now less versatile. That Medic who would have liked to uber you in the hopes of dinging the "Blunt Trauma" achievement. Sorry, doktor, you'll have to find someone else to help you get the Blutsauger or Ubersaw. And as with the "Show Trial" achievement above, some of those goals are impossible without a controlled setup.

Granted, I might be bitching and moaning about unlocks because I just plain fail at TF2 (and life, for writing this treatise in the first place). Fair enough, I am pretty fail at TF2. But consider this: would I be failing less had I chosen not to have fun, instead putting up with boredom farming the Backburner on an achievement server, to be more useful to my team?

I'd get into some of the more insidious aspects of Achievements and their implications for game design in general, but this entry is long enough as it is. I hope to get a part two out sometime soon.

Edited by MattyFTM

Games have had acheivement-like challenges for a long time. Them being unified in an out of game system like on the Xbox 360, PS3 and steam is the only thing that's new. People seem to be making an issue over something that's been in games for years and years.

Moderator
Posted by mracoon

I think the the ubersaw is the only really overpowered weapon (maybe the blutsauger). I think Valve learned their lesson from that and the rest of the unlocks have been balanced for me.

Valve have said they don't mind how people get the achievements so you can spend like 15mins in an achievement server and get most of them if you can't do it by playing normally. The people who really want to get the achievements legitimately can do so if they wish, so everybody wins.

Moderator
Posted by pause422

Valve is the only thing that ever made getting achievements worth doing, other than everyone else that wants them for no reason.....really its no big deal, just get over it.

Posted by Jayge_

You're going about it all wrong. Unlocks have been around since long before the time of achievements. Requirements for them have varied across many games, some just as demanding if not more so than Team Fortress 2's. Not only that, but your limited definition of the achievement is a flaw. Simply because Microsoft's original parameters were to use them as records of (gasp) achievements does not mean that this defined them simply as that for times to come. Valve has tied being rewarded with different weapons (not necessarily better) with how much players have dedicated to their game. That's absolutely fine.

Achievements themselves are not selfish. It is often possible (and probable) that a player helps his or her own team while going for the achievements they want. A medic who manages to kill 5 people in a row (if I remember, that doesn't get interrupted by heals or assists) gets lauded for it. A pyro who gets a kill with a reflected crit rocket is definitely something to be considered an accomplishment. Some of them might be more unconventional (see your example of the "kill with pyro taunt" achievement) but that does not make them inherently detrimental. It's the converse of your argument- that in fact the players themselves are selfish, that is the actual truth. Someone ignoring the conventions of their class to specifically put themselves in a position to do nothing helpful or positive for their teammates are at fault; not the achievements driving them.

There is also the fact that the unlocks are not necessary to play with at all; and plenty of people plain-out don't use them. Sure- the Ubersaw is definitely a good upgrade; undoubtedly better than its predecessor. Not all of the bonuses are like that, though, and the ones that are have other balancing drawbacks. Team Fortress 2 is nothing if not the most balanced class-based shooting game to have been released in the past few years. In terms of having problems like not having the right equipment to get an achievement (like with the medic/heavy one you mentioned)- doesn't that make you just as "bad" as the achievement farmers, if that is a serious complaint? I've never even witnessed something as bad as a force-respawn happen simply for unlocks; for skill, maybe- people definitely discriminate in that manner. And those types of occurances that I *have* witnessed weren't even in TF2, although they shouldn't happen anywhere. Players not being allowed to roll on a raid is an entirely different story- being underequipped there is a definite issue, and is not nearly as arguable in terms of significance like TF2's unlocks are- better gear in an MMO is simply better gear.

Also:

unangbangkay said:

"Show Trial: Kill an enemy with a taunt.

Seriously? Your fucking taunt? Where will you ever find an opportunity to pull that off in a normal match? Whatever happened to your helping your team achieve victory? "
I've done that at least twice, in normal games, and wasn't implicitly going for it. Since when does the manner in which you kill someone matter as long as you kill someone?
Posted by AvD

I commend you on your well thought out and respectable WoT.  The thing about achievements are that when they are used properly, I believe that they are a beautiful thing.  Since the 360 came out and implemented achievements into games, the accomplishments and points have encouraged me to finish games that I may have otherwise left unfinished and improves most game's longevity after the fact, which is rewarding and makes me think that I've got more of my moneys woth.  I do agree that sometimes achievements are misused and can even hurt a game (see GoW multiplayer weapons achievements), but overall, in my experiance, they've helped get me get more enjoyment out of my video games.

Edited by unangbangkay

@MattyFTM

The problem isn't that achievements are there (though that raises questions I'll try to address later), but that they're slowly being made into prerequisites. When they become prerequisites, they're not achievements, they're hoops you have to jump through. Think of it as school. Graduating with a 4.0 GPA is a great achievement, but you didn't need to grab that 4.0 to pass. When making that 4.0 the passing grade just to get the most out of your game, that's not an achievement, that's a barrier.

@Pause22

That's the problem, you shouldn't ever have to, especially not in a multiplayer game that's supposed to be balanced. Achievement-like challenges are only worth doing when they don't have to be done, otherwise they're just arbitrary barriers to enjoyment. The exact point is that they should NEVER be made worth doing if "worth doing" means actually having access to what the game offers.

@Jayge

Actually, it isn't absolutely fine, because this kind of "dedication" leads to behavior that runs counter to gameplay. Would a medic have been more useful because he managed 5 uninterrupted kills and earning props and bragging rights, or healing his team and helping them win? More likely the former rather than the latter. Now take a medic who would rather try for those bonesaw kills as opposed to healing his team and you see my point.

Furthermore, your actually managing Show Trial by chance shows exactly how pointless tying unlocks to achievements is. Your getting it by accident in a game that's fun for team-based skill and cooperation is neither fun nor relevant to TF2's gameplay philosophy. With achievement maps and unlock farming, the entire point of achievements (i.e. achieving) is rendered moot, players simply going through the motions so as simply not be left out. Where's the fun in that?

Whenever I decide to get around to part 2 I'm going to talk about achievements properly used and potential for the future, but unlocks are not part of that future, nor are they examples of proper use.

Posted by Jayge_
unangbangkay said:
"Actually, it isn't absolutely fine, because this kind of "dedication" leads to behavior that runs counter to gameplay. Would a medic have been more useful because he managed 5 uninteruFurthermore, your actually managing Show Trial by chance shows exactly how pointless tying unlocks to achievements is. Your getting it by accident in a game that's fun for team-based skill and cooperation is neither fun nor relevant to TF2's gameplay philosophy. With achievement maps and unlock farming, the entire point of achievements (i.e. achieving) is rendered moot, players simply going through the motions so as simply not be left out. Where's the fun in that"
It was no accident. I happened upon some snipers in 2Fort and went "yes, perfect chance". An achievement is an achievement for a reason. And unlocks are definitely examples of "proper use". The bounds of an achievement, as I pointed out in my first paragraph, are in no way limited by Microsoft's labeling of "achievements" (though they existed long beforehand) and they never will be.
Posted by SmugDarkLoser

Lots of games tie unlockables to achievements.
EX) Halo, Ninja Gaiden, Dead Rising

Posted by unangbangkay

@Jayge

It was no accident. I happened upon some snipers in 2Fort and went "yes, perfect chance".


Good on you for that, and indeed, obtaining some achievements are indeed worth being lauded for, but again, they essentially force you to go out of your way for unlocks. That shouldn't happen, at least not in TF2.

And before we bring CoD4 and its own unlocks into this, CoD4's unlocks were based on XP, and came over the course of normal gameplay. Several of TF2's achievements are practically based on random chance for all the likelihood of encountering them outside of a controlled situation. Your accomplishment of Show Trial was the exception, not the rule, and still doesn't address that some players may never encounter the same opportunity that you did.

Further, I'd like to see your less limited definition of achievements. Mind you, I'm referring to a systematically executed listing and tracking of specific goals and activities, with tangible rewards (be they points, trophies, or unlocks), not just personal milestones set by the player.

To be honest, I don't have a problem with achievements so long as they remain entirely optional and unobtrusive, never interfering with a player's experiencing the entirety of the game mechanics.

@SmugDarkLoser

Dead Rising and Ninja Gaiden are primarily singleplayer experiences, and by that tying an unlock to an achievement is just fine, a good way to extend the games' value propositions. Armor unlocks in Halo were meaningless except for appearance. They changed gameplay balance in no substantial way (I don't own Halo and can't speak as to game-changing unlocks I'm not aware of).

Edited by hazelnutman

I agree that achievements and whatnot should never be tied in with experiencing the full game. However, I think this whole achievements and trophies thing is evolving into something we didn't expect initially. It's turning into a large piece of the actual meat of the game. I don't know if I'm liking this movement that much, but the reality is, achievements are getting big enough to be recognized as something more than a bunch of tasks tacked on for replay value. This is obviously going to give developers the option to incorporate achievements into the actual game.

This whole achievements thing feels a lot like making every online game an MMORPG of sorts. Playing for the sole purpose of gaining achievements to unlock something should never really happen, but it seems that it's taking over as something mandatory.

Posted by SmugDarkLoser
unangbangkay said:
"@Jayge



@SmugDarkLoser

Dead Rising and Ninja Gaiden are primarily singleplayer experiences, and by that tying an unlock to an achievement is just fine, a good way to extend the games' value propositions. Armor unlocks in Halo were meaningless except for appearance. They changed gameplay balance in no substantial way (I don't own Halo and can't speak as to game-changing unlocks I'm not aware of).

"
Oh no, I agree, I just mean that there are ways to add unlocks to games properly.
Single player games can do whatever the hell they want but mp should give you reskins.  for example, TF2's boxing gloves, but they should be the same as when you use your bare hands.

But to Hazelnut, I'm not sure how it is in the pc world which seems to be what you're referencing, but I've never felt that with console games the achievements were ever needed for the gameplay experience.  They feel more so like extra things.  The same as the old beat the game for the ultimate weapon things, whether or not there is an unlockable with it.   That's not to say they can't get you to replay the game in a different way, so dead rising for that or even Halo (finding the skulls  is like a scavenger hunt game, whether or not you are using a map for them or not)
Posted by pause422

For one, the TF2 update to even add that shit isn't even on the 360 yet to begin with, and since valve started having 'achievements', there is absolutely no problem with adding them there. No one 'had' to go out of their way to get them, most could be attained from normal play, just saying "ok now here's the change for me to do this", and then there's the servers set up for achievement farming , that they had no problem with. That's why achievements being unlocks is completely alright, I find it less alright when its just a pointless number people want to increase for no reason.

Posted by Lind_L_Taylor

Can you summarize your point?  I don't know where you're going with all that rambling.  You're saying you suck at Team Fortress 2 & you blame it on Achievements?  There are other games to play...too many in fact!  The number of games available keep me from using the same game just to get all the achievements. I'd only do that if I couldn't afford more than one game every six months or something.