Saturday, July 4, 2009

Culture of (dubious) achievements

We live in a culture of Achievements. At least, we young people do.

Every game that ships for the Xbox 360 these days has "Achievements." What are they? By completing objectives in the game, your profile gets a badge that says you completed the event, and your “gamerscore” goes up by whatever the achievement was deigned to be worth. “Gamerscore,” by the way, is the Xbox 360’s way of telling the world how much time you sink into games.

The trouble is, more and more these days the achievements fall into a few categories. Walk-throughs, Multiplayer, and Absurdly Difficult are the three most common.

Walk-through achievements seem to reward doing what you’re already doing. They usually have a few small achievements and one large one, representing the narrative flow of the game. Every chapter comes to a close with the little sound effect, letting you know the game appreciates your effort and here’s 10G, enjoy it. Then comes the climactic boss fight, where try after try leaves you on the verge of a rage-quit, when suddenly the monster falls! You can hardly believe you’ve done it, but then that sound effect plays again, and bam! 50G, cold hard points, tacked on to your score. 50G that proves to the world you don’t quit what you start.

The trouble with walkthrough achievements is that they rarely prove anything. It’s just a way for companies to hook OCD players into making sure they play every minute. What does that 100 or 150 gamerscore say besides ‘I spent $50 and 10 hours on this game and all I got was this lousy achievement?’

Multiplayer achievements reward tenacity and time, more than anything else. More often than not, you’ll find achievements for every weapon in the game, only rewarding you once you’ve killed an arbitrary number of people with that weapon.

What happens then? Players who have Xbox live, first off, have the advantage. Those who don’t often can’t even get the full gamerscore available from their games. This means they aren’t playing the game to its full potential, which in turn makes them want to buy subscriptions to Live. Those who do have Live and try to earn the achievements, find hours of their lives spent with weapons they don’t like. Sure, it’s an incentive to get better at using those weapons, to develop different skills and tactics for each situation presented. More often, though, it ends up being an excuse for everyone to use the same weapon for a while. This doesn’t even take into account the scenarios where you buy a game a year later than everyone else, and either no one is playing the multiplayer, or everyone is so good you never get the chance to get the kills you need.

Absurdly Difficult achievements are exactly that; absurdly difficult. Things like “find all 100 of these well-hidden items we didn’t give you hints as to where they are,” or “kill everything in this game using only the weakest weapon,” or our personal favorite, “get the perfect score on everything this game has to offer.” These are all in the spirit of achievements: they reward skill, talent, tenacity, and otherwise dogged determination.

Unfortunately, more and more these achievements are getting arbitrary. Some of them are flat-out impossible for anyone but the best. Included there are the Absurdly Difficult Multiplayer Achievements. Things like “obtain #1 rank on worldwide leader boards” and “submit user content and have the developers praise it.” Who will get those? Only the players with the most time on their hands and the best connections.

Open-world games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 have achievements that guide their gameplay. Oblivion rewards you for completing each quest chain, but has no mention of the sidequests and subplots available. To the online community, there’s no different they can see to someone who spent 30 hours doing the guild quests and unlocking every achievement, and someone who spent 130 hours doing every sidequest, hunting every rare item, and leveling up to max. Fallout 3, on the other hand, rewards multiple playthroughs. With a good-neutral-evil Karma system in place, and achievements for hitting different levels at different ranks, it’s almost impossible to get all the achievements without playing through at least twice.

All of this just stacks up to more time spent playing games, more fanatical grinding and collecting, and less good old-fashioned exploratory fun. Sure, games have had achievements long before this, but never before has there been the social pressure to achieve. Not in games, anyways. There’s a certain arrogance that comes with obtaining every achievement. Even more so, the multiplayer achievements, which serve as a warning; this player is either very good, or very bored.

Are achievements ever going to go away? Probably not. Are they a good addition to gaming culture? We don’t know. We’re still too busy trying to get that last collectable.

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