By unangbangkay 14 Comments
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.