Sunday, 25 November 2012

Designing achievements: how to unlock their potential

Ever since the announcement that the new Wii U would not be having a universal achievement system at launch, both fans and haters of such a system have been pushing their opinions on each other. Now, this is nothing new, because haters gonna hate, and fanboys gonna love. However, this eternal struggle doesn’t take away from the concept that achievements can evoke very strong emotions in players. From a game-design perspective this doesn't come as a surprise: achievements can act as a reward, which are vital for creating a motivated player (if you want to know more about rewards, check my previous blog post on Rewarding your users).

Xbox Live Gamerscore: Now others can judge your mad gaming skills.

Since the adoption of universal achievement systems (Gamerscore on Xbox 360, or the Trophies on the PS3), achievements have become commonplace in video games. Besides their role within a game, they now also play a large role out of the game. Which achievements do my friends have? How many achievements do I have? This new meta-game might be an additional reason for players to focus on unlocking achievements within games. As a game designer it is becoming more and more important to not only incorporate achievements, but also to understand how they work. That way you can ensure that achievements add to the experience, and not subtract from it.

The Binding of Isaac - In The Binding of Isaac, every new item that you unlock, unlocks a corresponding achievement, which makes it easy to compare your progress to that of a friend.  

So, what can we use achievements for? They can reward players for passing an important milestone. This is what many games do, unlocking achievements for beating bosses or completing a part of the story.  They can be used as an incentive. Players can be stimulated to try a new play style, or to focus on elements of the game they would normally skip. They can create new goals, which may be unrelated to game progress. A good example of this is having the user kill a thousand enemies for the sole reason of unlocking an achievement. They can be used to create competition between players, even in single-player games. This is particularly true for online systems, where you can compare your achievements to those of your friends.  

Civilization V - There are many different civilizations to play with, and they each have their own  special units and tactics. Achievements add another incentive to try out these different tactics, and help to explain how they work.

However, for all their merits, they can have negative effects as well. They can demotivate, when an achievement is particularly hard to achieve, such as surviving a boss fight without taking damage. They can distract the player from the game, who might focus more on unlocking achievements than the effect of their actions on the game. They can force players to adapt a different play style than the one they would prefer.

Deus Ex Human Revolution - This game keeps throwing new and interesting ways to kill your enemies at you, but only gives you achievements for not killing them. Why must you tempt me so?

Now, it’s impossible to cater for every niche, but it's important to realise that a badly designed achievement can have a lot of impact on the experience of the player. There are times that I've stopped playing a game because I was unable to unlock a certain achievement. This may seem superficial, but it has a lot to do with the goals that the players create for themselves and the frustration they might experience if they can't achieve those goals. Sometimes, for some players, these achievements can become more important than the game itself.

So, when creating your achievements, there are a few things to think about. First of all, think about different play styles that the players may have, and make unique achievements for them. Some people focus more on story aspects (such as talking to NPC's or collecting lore), others focus more on action aspects (such as beating many enemies). Make sure that whatever path they take throughout the game, there is some achievement available for them. Secondly, make sure that the achievements are tied to in-game progress and rewards. Killing a thousand enemies might sound as a funny achievement, but can get extremely tedious if the enemies are not challenging, and if there's no in-game reward for committing genocide. Thirdly, make sure that the achievements are neither too easy, so they go unnoticed, or too hard, so they might (again an issue of challenge).   

Team Fortress 2 - In this game, unlocking a set of achievements actually gives you in-game rewards; class milestones get you unique new weapons for your class. 

Do you have some other suggestions for the design of good achievements? Or do you have any good or bad experiences with them? Let us know below!