Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Achievements in Games

Remember back then when you played your good old Starcraft, Baldur's Gate or, for those super old schoolers, Asteroids or Rogue, achievements were defined by you and those around you. Back then, winning was the only goal of the game.

Possible History of Achievements?
Along the way, some genius thought that to keep their games going, player-defined achievements and goals are not enough. So this guy, whoever he is, went ahead and place achievements in his games. Then suddenly, consoles have it compulsory for every game to have it. It wasn't until I got my X360, and a couple of "ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED"s popping up to make me feel really really good, when I realized what an elaborate trap it was.

Achievements are like drugs
That year I was rather hooked onto achievements. It tempts your inner perfectionist self. If you are a casual player, seeing your first virgin "ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED" makes you curious. It's like a hook; you might search all the possible achievements and when you look at ALL the empty spaces, something inside you will feel empty as well. It's like a hook. Casual or not, you will be tempted. If you fall into temptation, suddenly you will leave your life behind and join the ranks of the hardcore players. Thinking about it, it's no different from drugs, just that they shove the cocaine right in your throat before you can start protesting.

Networking made it worse. From a board perspective, it's like an MMO. You achieve -> you show someone -> that someone acknowledges it -> you feel GOOOOOD. As far as PSN or XBL is concerned, well, they saved everyone the trouble since achievements are stored in their server, so everyone can see what everyone else has achieved at all times. You might think they are simple-minded. Well, I would say you are just jealous, elitist or couldn't be bothered. It's natural, not all products are for all consumers, but heck achievements are something most people in the world like. It's like a luxury item...just that it's not so material, so it might not get gals for you. Maybe give gaming a few more decades to grow and we'll see how that turns out.

Utilizing the power of Achievements
I looked through some games' achievements. It became obvious that some games do not fully utilize the system. Ninja Gaiden 2 or Devil May Cry 4, for instance, have almost all their achievements ridiculously hard. It is obviously catered for hardcore players, which is what I don't get. The game is catered to (semi) hardcore-players, so why must ALL the achievements follow suit? Achievements are the easiest bait to draw in the casual audience. Just set maybe 1/3rd of the achievements to be relatively easy to obtain and you are probably set to draw them in. Tweak them a bit (like making all your achievements progressive, or separating them into easy/medium/hard to get) and you are good to go. The opposite can be said for hardcore gamers. They want challenge? Let them have some, but not ALL. Idealistically, this will merge the casual and the hardcore audiences.

The system is so powerful, yet so underused. At this point, I believe that a video game designer should seriously take a look at 'Achievements'. Even better, reward them for it. Rewards are soooooo powerful. EVERYBODY loves to be rewarded. "You killed 1000 orcs, now you get +5% bonus to kill orcs!". Think about that. Would a hardcore player be tempted sink time to kill 1000 orcs? I would. Would the casual players be tempted? They would be tempted. At least they would be tempted. Better than NOTHING. In psychology, this is called 'Positive Reinforcement'. Suddenly those stupid orcs you probably randomly designed as some random encounter would become a key creature to your game. From here, there is another dimension to explore about a designing creature.

And it's not just creatures or mobs alone. Levels, items, weapons, NPCs can all do the same thing. "Talk to NPC_X 10 times? You unlocked a mini game!". This example makes player feel that the world is bigger and more interesting. "Hit 9999 times with a cursed weapon that drains your health? It's now upgraded to a super item!". The possibilities are endless. Knowing this, I do not how FF13 came about in this age and time but that's another story for another time.

My thoughts on an interesting read
Here's an interesting read which talks about how to design achievements:
The Cake Is Not a Lie: How to Design Effective Achievements, Part 2

To dumb it down, the designer who wrote this broken achievements down to two kinds: Unexpected Achievements and Expected Achievements. Basically Unexpected Achievements come about as a surprise to players, especially new players. This is precisely the type of achievements needed to draw casual audiences in, the 'hook' that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. From there, you might want to lead them to easier 'expected' achievements and subsequently harder ones.

In the article, he mentioned having delayed feedback, as players become more experienced. This basically means you should not spoon-feed all your achievements. Give them some, let them work for the rest.

He does raise a good point about games that cause people to 'zone' though, or in my words, enter Flow; a state of mind where an individual is so focused on his task that he forgets the world around him. It really depends on the game. The article mentioned temporary achievements like DOTA's "MONSTER KILL!" which actually doesn't break the flow of the game. On the contrary, the feedback is integral and builds up adrenaline of the player, building up on the state of Flow the person is in.

Aside from that, the others DO break the flow. I still feel that Starcraft 2 shouldn't inform the player of the achievement they unlock in-game; it should be done AFTER the game is over. Immediate feedback, as the article mentioned, is not always good especially for experienced players going for greater challenges. And as far as I know, PS3 lags a bit when an trophy is unlocked while playing MVC3 and that's annoying as hell.

So when do you show the feedback? Does it break the flow of my players? It is annoying? Is it helping? Are they really needed? What am I trying to obtain with them? What message am I conveying to the players? Is it too hard? Too easy? How do I draw players in with that achievement? Is it placed at the right place? Am I expecting the player to achieve this at this time? The questions just go on and on. These are important points to consider when you design achievements into your game. There is so much you can do and if there's one thing I learnt for the past 2 semesters about making a game, is that the most important ingredient in a game is FEEDBACK.

And this one simple flash game simply illustrates some of my points:
Achievement Unlocked

Cheers and happy designing.

EDIT: fixed some grammar @ May 12th 2011

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