Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Achievements are Broken; Here's How to Fix Them

Fundamentally, an achievement is just a publicly-viewable checkmark indicating the completion of a particular action. The Xbox 360 added points gained from each achievement that accumulate into a total across all games. The PlayStation 3 followed suit, as did Apple's GameCenter. (Notably, Steam did not. Steam achievements have no point value and do not add to a cumulative total.)

In order for these points to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of equality across games. The 360 mandates that each full retail game must provide exactly 1000 points worth of achievements (it's a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes let's keep it simple). The PS3 has a similar rule, though its numbers are obfuscated (for convenience here, I shall refer to their point value as also 1000). This prevents oneupmanship between game developers, who might otherwise put out games with ever-increasing amounts of achievement points available, which would quickly render the running total meaningless and destroy much of the marketing value of achievements.

So what happens when a game launches with bad achievements? It's become standard for games to be patched, but it's unusual for achievements to be patched, and even then it's generally just to avert controversy via a cosmetic change. Because of the need to keep a consistent point total, you can't add new achievements without removing old ones - and removing or replacing an achievement is almost certain to upset people. No matter how ludicrous the achievement, somebody out there has it - and they don't want the proof of their hard work stricken from the record. If you leave it up on their profile but make it no longer available for new players to get, then the new players may feel slighted that the opportunity to earn it has been taken away from them.

But the inability to add new achievements is severely limiting. It means you can't fix problem achievements (of which there are plenty). It also leaves out a powerful way to grow a game - just look at how Valve has kept Team Fortress 2 fresh by adding, among other things, batches of new Steam achievements. (Steam achievements don't have points, so they can freely be added without running afoul of point imbalance.)

The Xbox One has one solution - allow more achievements to be added over time, increasing the point total available from the game.

"Microsoft won't require developers to add Achievements post-release, but it sees a steady diet of additional Gamerscore as a crucial facet of the next generation Live experience - particularly, we imagine, for big-bottomed experiences like Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles. . . .

There's no formal cap, either - players might ultimately earn 'a couple of thousand Gamerscore' and up from a well-supported title. Completionists may find this troubling - what's to stop EA flooding a game with points to boost popularity ahead of a DLC release, cheating the dedicated of that coveted 100% Achievement rating? Answer: Microsoft will take action if it feels developers and publishers are abusing the system."
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, How Microsoft's "super-charged" Xbox One Achievements - Gamerscore 2.0, Challenges, Game DVR and more

Time will tell how well this solution works, but any system that requires manual intervention to prevent abuse seems very precarious. Surely there must be a way to allow adding achievements without removing any and without upsetting the point balance between games?

Well, there is. My friend Iceman thought of it.

Allow games to have any amount of points available, but only let 1000 of those points be added to the cumulative total.

This approach presents several advantages:

  • Games can preemptively buffer against poorly-designed achievements by starting with more than 1000 points available. A couple of bad achievements aren't that big of a deal if you can go after alternatives and still get the maximum value added to your cumulative total.
  • Games can fix bad achievements by adding better-designed versions alongside them. The old version can stand as a testament to the hardcore, but poor design need not cost gamers their points.
  • Games can freely add blazingly difficult achievements that go above and beyond what could reasonably be considered normal completion. On a smaller scale, games could "stack" achievements - for example, let the player reach 1000 points with a thorough playthrough on lower difficulties, but then provide extra achievements for beating it on higher difficulties. These achievements wouldn't block anyone from saying they'd completed the game, but would still provide extra challenges and bragging rights for those capable of and interested in going after them.
  • Games can safely span genres or play modes and provide a full stack of points for everyone, even players who are completely uninterested in one of the available modes. For instance, games that have both single-player and online multi-player often have large segments of their audience who are really only interested in one or the other of these modes. Rather than splitting the achievements between what are essentially multiple games, each can have a complete set.
  • Relatedly, games can avoid much of the problems inherent in multi-player achievements (which many players do not like) simply by making sure it's possible to get 1000 points without ever setting foot online. The multi-player achievements are then still good for what they were good for in the first place - comparing directly against other people playing the same game - but players are not punished for having a bad internet connection (or none at all), lacking a paid subscription (in the case of the 360), or playing a game after its online community has waned (if it even had one in the first place) or after its servers have been shut down.
  • Games can expand their shelf life and stay fresh longer. More achievements means more things to do. They can grant extra depth to a game, and renew or generate interest long after launch.
  • Since players looking to increase their cumulative total would have no reason to keep playing after getting their 1000 points, completion beyond 1000 points is done solely based on interest in the individual game, and would thus serve as a way to show how much you like a particular game.

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