The Achievement Debacle

by Andrew Reiner on Mar 30, 2010 at 12:47 PM

In the Xbox 360’s early years, Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford waged an achievement war against me. Every day we devoted hours of our time to inflate our gamerscores. Neither of us set an endgame score. Neither of us really understood what we were getting into. We farmed college basketball games. We sunk entire weekends into awful kids games. I even canceled plans with friends to dedicate a solid day to achievements, since Randy had put in an unexpected late night to raise his gamerscore 800 points above mine.

Our foolish endeavor wasn’t a complete waste of time. Since my gamerscore is 40,000 points above Randy’s now, I’ve earned the right to openly mock him in public. Our obsession with achievements became an interesting study on game design by osmosis as well. Randy’s conclusions are similar to mine. “One thing I've learned is that achievement hunting is very compelling as a meta game,” Pitchford says. “It's so compelling that through 2008, I think I spent a lot more hours playing Xbox 360 than I should have.” 

When dissected as “meta games,” achievements can make a game better just as much as they can damage a game’s experience. I’ve already detailed my Do’s and Don’ts for achievements, but one thing that I haven’t talked about is how they can affect player behavior. When farming achievements to the degree that Randy and I did, the game itself becomes secondary. The faux meta game takes center stage, changing the way the experience unfolds.

If an achievement pushes the player to achieve 200 knife kills, all firearms instantly become back-up options in the eyes of the achievement hunter. The developers obviously thought that this achievement would be earned over time. They didn’t take into account that people are obsessive about their gamerscore. Playing the game with just the knife until the achievement is unlocked is not how the developers intended their game to be played.

When applied to a multiplayer game, an achievement like this can ruin a team’s chances of winning. I see this every time I play Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Any player going after the Airkill achievement, which can only be completed by roadkilling an enemy with a helicopter, can set your team back greatly, as the team advantage of aerial support is sacrificed for the gain of this one player. I’ve also watched players foolishly run across the battlefield with their repair drill drawn, as they tried to obtain The Dentist achievement. As much as I want to blame the player for these actions, I first have to blame the developer. The player is simply going after goals offered by the game.

On the flip side of the coin, achievements can be used to extend the amount of time a player spends with a game. Bad Company 2’s Multiplayer Elite achievement does just this, as the player must reach rank 22 in multiplayer matches. While I’ll probably dedicate a good portion of my life to this game anyway, this achievement took roughly 30 hours to secure. Achievements like these don’t change a game’s experience. Moving forward, developers need to focus on goals that don’t change a game’s makeup.

In late 2008, I realized my game-playing behavior had deteriorated. Randy and I were spending more time with games like Open Season than we were triple-A titles. We would suffer through bad games for easy achievement points. Our battle for gamerscore supremacy opened our eyes to a side of gaming that no one, other than achievement fanatics, realized was there. To some gamers, points now mean more than the games themselves.

In the following year, Randy and I both retired from the achievement hunt. “I got a lot more disciplined about it in 2009, which ultimately led me to fall much behind [Reiner] in gamerscore but direct more of my time and mindshare towards my work," Pitchford recalls. “I think Borderlands is a better game for all the tremendous energy and love that everyone at Gearbox put into it, enabled in part by the sacrifices everyone on the development team made (with many sacrifices being much more significant than mere gamerscores).”

Neither of us regrets falling victim to a point-based obsession. Part of the fun came from the battle and the taunting associated with it. Part of it was experiencing games I never would have otherwise. I also get a kick out of people commenting on my ridiculously high gamerscore. Sure, I played a fair share of stinkers that I never would have touched with a 10-foot pole, but my memory of the time is something I look back at fondly.   

Randy is in the same boat. “I think achievement hunting gave me some experiences that I might not have otherwise had, and those experiences have helped me be a better game maker,” he said. “Because of achievements, I have sometimes been motivated to play games that I might otherwise not have played. I noticed that, as an industry, people tend to copy the best stuff out there. But, in fact, the best stuff when copied doesn't always turn out as well as the original. Meanwhile, there are a lot of good ideas that are contained within games that are not considered ‘the best stuff’ and it's just the larger promise that held things back or the sum of a lot of other quality control or production value issues that hold them back. I think game makers could stand to get a lot of value from learning things from the games that don't quite hit. I swear, some of those games could've been made by better teams or with bigger budgets and have just killed in the market.”

In the wake of our epic battle, I no longer look at achievement lists until a game is completed. If I love a game and want to spend more time with it post completion, I’ll venture into the achievement list to see if there are any goals that would be fun to complete. Heed my advice: the hunt for achievements, trophies, or any other meaningless accomplishment isn’t worth the time investment. Besides, you’ll never catch up to me at this point.