Editorial Notebook

Achievements gone wrong

Now, I know that The Poly’s usual audience doesn’t generally include game designers (well, unless you’re in the GSAS program), but this notebook space is for whatever the author wants it to be. So today, dear reader, you get to receive a rant on an unfortunate problem in games today: achievements that restrict gameplay.

The idea of achievements has been around for a while. The first system to popularize them was the Xbox 360, when “Gamerscore” was first introduced. I have no problem with the concept of achievements (even achievements that are mind-bogglingly difficult to accomplish). In many cases, they add to the game experience by rewarding the player for succeeding or exploring.

Where I take issue is as I said earlier: when achievements restrict how I play the game, there’s a problem. Obviously, achievements don’t actually prevent you from playing the game how you want; they’re optional by nature. But I, like many gamers, am a completionist. If a trophy is within reach, I will go for it.

This presents problems in certain cases. Take, for example, the newly-released Bioshock Infinite. The game (which is great, by the way; you should play it) has achievements for defeating your enemies in a variety of ways. The player is rewarded for achieving a certain number of kills with every type of gun, performing melee executions, and just about every other “special” type of combat.

Why is this bad? Well, to a completionist like myself, these seem to be “easy” achievements—it’s not too hard to just use a shotgun instead of a machine gun. However, as I have heard quite a few people say, the plot is a bit on the short side, and there are only so many enemies to go around. This means that, rather than selecting the best tool for a given situation, I feel pressured to only use weapons that will earn progress towards the achievements—even if it is strategically disadvantageous or simply less fun. For example, I was quite enjoying a certain melee strategy, but the achievement for melee executions caps off at 20. I still had plenty of weapons to get through, so I stopped using what (to me) was the most enjoyable play style, making the game less fun. For a game in which the player is allowed to make several plot choices and then see their decision play out later (like sparing a person’s life and seeing them appear in the subsequent level), the lack of choice in the combat system
is a bit out of character.

This sort of thing can be (and has been) done better. Borderlands 2, for example, has a “challenge” system separate from game’s achievements. It, too, rewards the player for using each type of weapon. However, challenges can be “reset” once maxed out, so if I want to use only assault rifles, I can do so without missing out on the “Badass Points” present in the game.

Or one could compare Bioshock to something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Deux Ex also has an achievement that determines how one plays the game—the game challenges the player to go through the entire campaign without killing any enemies (a feat attained by only 2.5 percent of players). Despite what it may seem like, this is better than Bioshock’s weapons rewards. Why? Because of both size (one achievement compared to over a dozen) and difficulty (really hard vs. seemingly easy). I’m fine with ignoring a single trophy that is almost impossible to achieve, but when presented with several low-hanging fruits, it’s hard to resist.

Now, here is the point where I conclude this piece, because I’ve rambled too much. And what better way to conclude than by generalizing the point I’m trying to make? Here’s what you should take away from this, if you’re a game designer: optional extras should not dictate how people enjoy your game. I’ve seen far too many completionists whose experience is negatively impacted by spending too much time focusing on trophies. Hell, as the creator of an online game, I’ve even been a part of the problem before. So trust me, or else you’ll end up with angry people (like myself) ranting about nothing on the internet (or in print). And everyone cares about what’s said on the internet, right?