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Achievement Do's and Don'ts

by Andrew Reiner on Sep 26, 2009 at 02:03 PM

Defeating an end boss or recording a high score is no longer the end game — the landscape of gaming has changed.  Many gamers spend hours behind the controller in pursuit of a higher gamerscore, towering trophy counts, and the prestige that comes with earning unique in-game rewards. Though the idea of rewarding gamers for their exploits isn’t new (remember the Activision badges?), many games still suffer from misguided or poorly developed achievements. When done right, achievements can greatly enhance a game and give developers another tool to keep players coming back. When done wrong, achievements can spoil an ending, ruin a multiplayer experience, and make players abandon a game in favor of a more rewarding title. Through discussions with gamers and other editors, we’ve compiled a list of common praises and pitfalls to give developers a roadmap to the proper implementation of achievements.


Use achievements to lure players into checking out a game’s entire feature set.
Burnout Paradise and Gears of War 2 are the perfect examples. With dedicated achievement sets for each mode (ranging from the “try it out” type of achievement to the “give it your all” style), these games effectively use achievements as a guided tour to new gameplay innovations.

Chart the player’s progress toward unlocking achievements
Like Barry Bonds’ race for the home run record, players should be able to track how close they are to reaching a milestone achievement – such as 500 headshots. Valve’s The Orange Box was the first game to introduce an achievement-tracking menu that could be viewed during gameplay. Epic copied this system in Gears of War 2. Every other developer should follow suit.

Create achievements that encourage gamers to return to your game
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway hands out an achievement to players who play the game once a week for three months. This may seem annoying, but if the game has a strong multiplayer component, this achievement is the nudge that pushes for a strong community. Achievements like these could also play a large role in games with a steady stream of downloadable content.

Lead players through your campaign with incremental achievements
This is especially important for story driven games where you want the players to see the resolution. The enticement of another 100 points can be the extra incentive needed for players who otherwise might turn their attention elsewhere.

Implement achievements that are unlocked after the completion of the game
If handled correctly, these bonus achievements would increase the replay value. Having achievements like “finish a level using only melee” and “insert your punter into the quarterback position” shouldn’t be available from the outset, as they force players to play the game in strange ways.

Gamerscore point totals should be based on a game’s content, not disc versus digital distribution
Limiting a game like Puzzle Quest, which can suck away hundreds of hours of your life, to just 200 points is a travesty. This game deserves the 1,000-point max. Conversely, a game like Scene It!, which can be completed in a few hours, shouldn’t have anywhere near the max.

Reward players for challenging themselves
If players beat Rock Band’s career mode on Expert, they also get the achievements for beating the game on the lesser difficulty levels. Just hand out the points, or change it to a single “beat the game” achievement.

Weigh achievement points to properly reflect how people play your game
If it’s a multiplayer heavy game, then make most of the achievements unlockable through competition. If you have story driven game, reward players for experiencing the story.

Make sure the achievements back up the time investment
If you can sink 80 hours into be NHL 09’s Be A Pro mode, make sure there is a commensurate amount of achievement/points to go along with it. PlayStation 3 games won’t run into this problem with trophies. As for Microsoft, an easy solution is waiving the maximum of 50 achievements per game. Some gamers will not invest time in specific modes if they are not getting rewarded with points/achievements frequently. We’d rather get one point every hour as opposed to a 50-point chunk after 80.


Force players to play a game in an unnatural way to get achievements
No one wants to play as the Miami Dolphins, let alone throw six touchdowns with a water boy-turned-quarterback. If the achievements dramatically change the gameplay in fundamentally strange ways, can you really hand out an “achievement unlocked” message or a trophy?

Kill the gamer
There’s a better chance of a gamer falling over dead from sleep deficiency than of them earning the achievement for killing 100,000 enemies or playing in 10,000 online matches. The only way we’ll back time-sucking achievements like these is if they are worth 3,000 gamerscore points. In Gears of War 2, 100,000 kills nets you 50 gamerscore points. Thanks for playing, chumpface!

Make the majority of your achievements dependent upon higher difficulties
Rewarding the hardcore player with extra achievement points is a noble gesture, but don’t do it at the expense of the majority of gamers or the default setting. EA Sports, and oddly almost every soccer game released, are notorious for this. Don’t earn the reputation of a game that puts a big, fat zero on a gamer’s résumé.

Make farm-worthy multiplayer achievements
Total kill counts work for deathmatch, but don’t create anything that takes away from the spirit of the competition. All too often we see people abandoning the team’s goals to take on a quest of individual glory. Multiplayer achievements should be created for individual modes, not just multiplayer as a whole.

Have the “achievement unlocked” or “trophy earned” message reveal the ending
For the love of god, don’t reveal that player has completed the game until the credits roll. Nothing says “buzzkill” more than seeing this message appear during a cinematic. Immersion gone!

Have the “achievement unlocked” message appear over text
Michael, I need you to go talk to “achievement unlocked” in Megaton City. Sam, the code to the vault is “achievement unlocked.” Developers have the ability to place the achievement and trophy messages anywhere they want onscreen. Sounds like an easy fix. How is this problem in so many games?

Reveal major plots in the achievement text
Both Microsoft and Sony have systems in place for developers to create “secret” achievements. There’s no reason to give bullet points of a game’s plot in achievement text. “Complete chapter 4” will suffice

Make all achievements boast-worthy/impossible challenges
For achievement farmers, nothing says game over like these achievements. A few brag-worthy achievements are fine, but don’t go overboard.

Require people to spend a specific amount of time with your game unless you have the content to support it
Are you really going to play Call of Juarez for 24 hours? Are you really going to fly for 10,000 miles in Superman Returns, let alone spend 12 hours with it?

Make multiplayer achievements if multiplayer is an afterthought
We’re talking about you Dark Sector, Overlord, Vampire Rain, Star Trek: Legacy, Stranglehold, The Darkness, Spiderwick Chronicles, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, Turok, and every Xbox Live Arcade game. If you only have a few people working on a multiplayer component, and just have multiplayer because you can, save all of your achievements for single player and the content that matters.