Saturday, 3 September 2011

Opinion: Achievements and Trophies

Over recent years achievements and trophies have embedded themselves firmly in video gaming culture.  They encourage competition among friends and allow you to relish in your own successful mastery of a game.  More and more gamers are embracing these digital rewards so much so that it has almost become a staple of video game journalism for achievement lists to be "leaked" and detailed online some several months before the release of the most hotly anticipated games.  In some ways it does constitute as news and I am sure that there are gamers out there who love reading these lists and find it affords them a glimpse into what the game will be like, and serves to build a greater sense of excitement and anticipation within them.  For others though, myself included, these lists serve as spoilers and for the games that I am most looking forward to I avoid them like the plague.  Joystiq, amongst others, have posted the complete achievement list for Batman: Arkham City and I debated about publishing a similar news piece here.  I decided against it; instead choosing to write a piece on why I like achievements, and what they mean to me.  There maybe some achievement spoilers but I have tried to mention ones from older games so that it is more likely that you already know of them.  
If you are interested in seeing the complete list for Bat's upcoming adventure however, then you can do so here.
Why I like achievements
Achievements in games are not something I really grew up with.  Of course the vast majority of games have had a basic objective consisting primarily of beating your opponent, the computer or the characters within the game; indeed even some early games had collectable items and upgrades for you to find.  But in general the only achievement you would receive for completing a game would be your own self pride and knowledge that you had done so.
But the achievement system that exists today is far removed from anything that existed before and as I was primarily a PC gamer in my youth I was very unfamiliar with them when I first bought my 360.  Suddenly I was introduced to a Gamerscore and quickly found myself being rewarded for successfully shooting someone in the face.  It was satisfying to say the least and the more games I played the more I began to relish that satisfying "pop" which meant I had done something worth rewarding me for.  It's also a nice break in the tension sometimes, especially when achievements are given funny names such as the "It's a Me" achievement from Mirror's Edge

I also like that they allow me to track my friend's progress of a game that I myself may have previously completed or may be playing at the same time as them.  It certainly helps you to not make faux pas in the pub by spoiling something they haven't done yet.  In addition it can also lead to a degree of competitiveness - especially when you see that a friend has gotten an achievement that you've been wasting hours on trying to get. 

I must confess that over the years I have now become something of an achievement hunter and currently have six games 100% complete.  But for me it's not really about improving my Gamerscore since it's fairly easy to do that by playing easy games or by simply playing a high volume of games.  This completion compulsion has become a way of me acknowledging how much I have enjoyed a game.   And further more my friends are able to also see that; I am in a way exhibiting how I have essentially mastered a game.  I have found every upgrade, exhausted every story thread, performed every possible combo and completed every difficulty.  I'm not doing it to show off, but because I want to. 

How I view Achievements 
As the years have gone by I've also changed the way I literally view achievements.  I used to read spoiler lists or browse through the achievement list prior to starting a game.  But I started to find that I was spoiling the experience for myself since sometimes the title or description of an achievement explicitly indicates how you obtain it.  That would leave me thinking about the achievements whilst playing the game and looking out for the parts that I may be able to get them on.  I was no longer simply absorbing the game, but playing it with a disjointed purpose - vigilant of where I could garner a particular achievement.  That forced me to play the game in a way that perhaps I wouldn't have had I been oblivious to the rewards available.  

So I made a rule: I never read the achievement lists until I've completed a game at least once.  I find that to be a much more rewarding experience.  Particularly when it involves achievements that aren't part of the main story arc, but are rewards for players who venture off the beaten track.  In Red Dead: Redemption for example I liked messing around and found it pretty funny when I got an achievement for throwing a hog-tied lady in front of the train...not that I want you to worry about my psyche, but she had pretended to be in distress and I ended up getting ambushed.  So you know, she had it coming...and I liked that the developers realised people would do that.

Of course viewing achievements after completing a game can have it's downside.  In Assassin's Creed for example I completely missed the "Conversationalist" achievement.  You get this by exploring every single line of dialogue with Lucy.  Due to how the game saved and progresses however you only have once chance to do this.  In order to get it I had to play the entire game again and, frustratingly, when I did I found the dialogue option I missed was right near the beginning, yet I still had to play through to the very end before it unlocked.  

Missable achievements are probably the sole argument against not looking at achievement lists prior to playing a game but fortunately this Assassin's Creed incident is the only one I've personally experienced.  And I think I'd rather take the risk of missing something than of spoiling the game for myself.  After all, if I enjoyed it enough that I wan't to 100% complete it, I most likely wouldn't mind re-playing it.  

Achievement difficulty
Something of an interesting point: how difficult should achievements be to get?  Well, in my opinion I think all achievements and trophies should be obtainable through skill, practice and without the influence of luck - they should also be realistic to obtain for the vast majority of gamers.  Assassins Creed: Brotherhood for example has several online achievements which you can only really get through luck, there's simply no real way to plan the sequence of events yourself or with your friends.  You have to play continuously and hope that on one occasion the exact sequence of events required to obtain the achievement play out in your favour.  Gears of War 2 on the other hand has two achievements in particular which are obtainable, they are just unrealistically obtainable.  "Party like it's 1999" requires you to play 1999 games of muliplayer and "Seriously 2.0" asks that you kill 100,000 enemies offline, online or through a mixture of both.  Sure they are obtainable...but bloody hell do you have to be committed to get them and frankly, I don't think I've ever played 1999 games of any multiplayer game.  

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (CoD4) is the game that really kicked off my achievement hunting desire.  I really enjoyed it and really wanted to complete the game on Veteran.  This was no easy task and every achievement I received as a result felt deserved.  None more than the epilogue achievement "Mile High Club".  On Normal difficulty you have 2:30 minutes to complete the mission.  But on Veteran you only have 60 seconds, more advanced AI and each bullet dishes out more damage than on Normal.  It was so frustrating and I tried time and time again to get it, often having to come back to it after a few days break.  But the moment I conquered it, I felt brilliant: I was so happy.  It was the end to a hugely enjoyable game.  Furthermore though, as frustratingly difficult as the mission was I never once felt it was impossible.  That's very important I believe when it comes to trophies and achievements.  I know that I will never be able to get the two I mentioned from Gears of War

On the other end of the scale though you have easy achievements.  If you've ever played Prince of Persia for example you'll know the ones I mean.  I got my first achievement in that game just by selecting "Start New Game" in the options menu.  Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Prince of Persia but most of the achievements were incredibly easy to get and it is probably one of the easiest games (with the exception of the equally superb Costume Quest) that I have 100% completed.  

Although completing Costume Quest and Prince of Persia was trivial, at least most of the achievements were fun.  Unlike the collectable quests I had to do to complete Assassins Creed.  Flag hunting anyone?  The only way I managed to do that was by downloading online maps and physically checking off the flag locations as I went.  This was so tedious, but since it was the last achievement I needed I felt a desire to get it.  However I found it incredibly boring and I had to often do one city at a time before coming back to the game another day to tick off a few more.  When I got my 100% I didn't really feel content, or as if I'd achieved something worthwhile - instead I felt relieved that I didn't have to search for another bloody flag.

You could argue that the difficult achievements or the ones that take time to get, such as in Mass Effect where you have to play the game several times through to get all of them, are a simple way of the developers prolonging the life of such games.  In addition the ludicrously difficult achievements in games like Gears of War could serve to encourage gamers to actually play online and get the extra DLC and map packs.  For me though such tactics won't work, especially when concerned with online play; I simply can't be bothered to dedicate that amount of time for what aren't that many Gamer Points in the grand scheme of things.    
Series Consistency
Another issue I have found recently on my achievement quest is that if I've completed one game in a series, I need and want to complete the others.  Thus after completing Assassin's Creed I had to make sure that I completed Assassin's Creed 2 (AC2) as well.  Fortunately AC2 kept a level of consistency with it's achievements but actually improved on the boring flag hunt missions by at least this time including purchasable maps in-game.   However, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood introduced several online achievements, which hugely frustrated me.  After completing the previous titles in the series I really, really want to complete Brotherhood too, but as I mentioned earlier, some of them require a certain amount of luck to achieve and to get the "Download Complete" achievement you have to reach level 50.  That means you have to be somewhat committed to playing the online component of the game for some considerable time in order to get it - something that I was not prepared to do at the time of release since the servers were quite unreliable and I was often stuck in lobbies waiting to join games for up to twenty minutes before I gave up and did something more worthwhile with my time.  

It's a shame really, I know a series must move on and make improvements upon the previous instalment, but I really wish that there was a way of keeping consistency with the achievements.  I hate knowing that I will never add Brotherhood to my completed list alongside it's predecessors.  

Online v. Offline
This brings me to another point and one that I find hugely frustrating.  I wish there was a way of segregating online and offline achievements.  I feel punished for not playing the online contingent of a game, which for some games, as much as I loved the single player I simply do not want to do.  CoD4 for example had a large multiplayer focus, one which was improved upon in Modern Warfare 2, but the achievements in CoD4 didn't reflect the online portion at all, leaving it separate and progress trackable simply through the online menus and levelling system.  However, Modern Warfare 2 introduced achievements for their Special Ops Missions, reducing the amount available just to the single player game alone.  Once again it meant that despite wanting to, I couldn't complete the next game in a series simply because of the online component.  Gears of War is a case in point.  Both games to date have had online and offline achievements and I know I will never 100% complete either game because I simply don't like playing them online.

I'd really love it if the achievement pages could be split in two, with one section solely for the single player component and the second for the multiplayer - at least that way if, like me, you enjoy just playing single player you can complete that part of the game and not feel punished for not playing online.  

Closing Comments
In conclusion then, achievements have generally improved my interaction with games.  I find I enjoy seeing the little bubble pop up on my 360 and the little tab appear on my PS3.  I feel like I've done something worthwhile in the game and that I have, in some cases, discovered some secret placed in there by the developers. 

I get a great sense of pride in seeing the games I have completed and in knowing that I have at least finished the single player portions of the game.  What's more, I like that they prolong the game in general.  Very rarely have I come close to 100% completing a game on my first play through and in cases like CoD4's Veteran mode it makes for a completely different experience the second time around.   I hope achievements carry into the next generation of consoles and that they don't get too ludicrously unobtainable or serve to essentially blackmail gamers into getting extra content, or paying to play online in order to get them.  For me they serve to enhance my gaming experience...I just wish online and offline achievements could be separated.

What are your views on achievements?  Do you like them, value them or are you completely disinterested by them?  Please feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section below.  

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