Introduction: I was clearing out my Google Drive when I came across the following. I had typed it so long ago (September 2010) that I had forgotten completely about it. I even stared at it for a couple of days wondering if it was mine. I figure it is, as it contains a couple of my repeated in-jokes and I think it was put to one side while I created the graphics. Having found it and re-read it, I found I quite liked it. So here for reasons best kept to myself is a massively out of date blog entry.)
(A quick aside for non-gamers. Every XBox game has a Gamerscore, out of 1000 or 1250. Points are awarded for completing specific tasks in each game, called “Achievements”, so you might be awarded an Achievement worth 5 points for completing a level and one worth 50 points for completing the game. You can also earn Achievements for performing specific tasks, such as killing three enemies with a single shot. Developers can pretty much make anything an Achievement, they are individually named and are awarded with a little noise and an “Achievement Unlocked” message and the points added to your own personal Gamerscore. At time of writing, I have a Gamerscore of 3900.)
I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with XBox Live Achievements. On the one hand, it appeals to the challenge side of gaming, a way of tracking progress that reaches beyond merely a high score or reaching a certain level. Gamerscore can show how far you have got into a game or just how good you are at it, in a way that a traditional high score tables sometimes can’t. Also they appeal to that slightly OCD sense that many people have and stuff like Pokemon rely on – though they are a bit short of being a Skinner Box.
For every pro, there is a con. Gamers can be a teeny bit obsessive, in the same way that Katie Price is a teeny bit attention seeking, and there has been an entire cottage industry set up around Achievements. For a subset of gamers, Gamerscore is the only true measure of how good a player you are – it doesn’t matter than you have mastered a difficult, intelligent puzzle game when you can rack up 10000 points in a single day. And of course, some people prefer not to actually work for anything, think the world owes them and cheat like absolute lunatics.
I’ve recently been playing a couple of games that get Achievements right and also horribly wrong, Deathspank and Lara Croft:Guardian of Light. Both are well worth the money paid for them, full of content, intelligence and in the case of the latter, some really well thought out puzzling. Having had my Funsquare Super Plus for about six months now, though actually playing it for far, far less of that time, I’ve started to get to the end of games and noticed a few things about Achievements. Basically, they can be broken down into the following categories.
The most obvious achievement type of all – reward for progress through the game. Beat the bad guy, get a reward. Fair enough. Never quite as high as I would like it though – if I’ve ploughed 30 hours into something, I want more than 5% (50G) for the effort you tight wad bastards. DeathSpank is the best example of this I have come across – all but two Achievements are gained naturally through playing the game – and one of them is more likely than not (though see later).
A particularly satisfying reward is one where you come up with what you think is an ingenious idea, only to find that the developers are a step ahead of you. This can be solving a puzzle in a novel way or simply utilising the game environment. The wonderful “Dastardly” Achievement in Red Dead Redemption is a great rewards for a bit of lateral thinking. All I’m saying is it requires a woman, a rope and an oncoming train.
Open to Abuse
I think the first widespread use of collectibles was in Grand Theft Auto III, where there were 100 packages in various locations around the city. For every ten you were awarded an unlimited supply of a certain weapon. Collect all 100 for a special prize. It was a tough ask, but do-able.
Games have built on this idea – Forza Motorsport 3 wants you to own a car from every manufacturer. A big ask, but possible especially as cars are awarded to you as you progress through the game. The act of playing gets you closer to the goal.
Unfortunately, in this industry of “same as that, but MORE!”, this collectible idea has got out of hand. Take Crackdown 2 for instance. The collectibles list is 500 Agility Orbs, 300 Hidden Orbs, 15 Driving Orbs, 15 Renegade Orbs, 42 Audio Tapes (break down). As mentioned, collecting Agility Orbs powers up your character Agility stats, which is all well and good until you discover that you will be maxed out by about the three hundredth Agility Orb. So another 200 or so to go and worst of all, you have no idea what you have collected and what you haven’t. Crackdown 2 helpfully displays a map of all the orb locations, but with 800 it is impossible to figure out where to go and what to do next. You are left to sit there, painstakingly making your way from one building in 1000 to another, hoping to stumble across that vital item – and when it gets down to the last 20%, you never [i]find[/i] these things, you just happen across them. Just reward the player by updating the map once they hit a certain level or something.
Rewards for reaching a certain character level, again, pretty obvious stuff. It is possible to beat a game without reaching certain stages – in RPGs you can generally defeat Xxrath the Infernal God of Cliche without maxing out any of statistical categories. It just takes being close enough to the requirements plus a bit of luck. However, reaching a stage of character development can rewarded as long as one isn’t reduced to endless grinding, repeatedly killing baddies just to get to a certain level – Deathspank, I’m narrowing my eyes at you right now, because Mr Tough Guy was (holds fingers a small distance apart) this close to being a grinding pain.
There are some Achievements that you read the requirements for and just say what? I’m telling you, 20G is not worth rounding up four mates at a specific place, at a specific time to do an insanely complicated task.
At the other end of the spectrum (oh-ho) there is the Achievement that is insanely, mind numbingly, patronisingly simple to get. Case in point Forza Motorsport 3 gives you 5G for merely playing the game. What kind of Achievement is that?
“Hello sir, I wish to spend £40 on your new game.”
“Why thankyou, have fun!”
“Fun? Why would I have fun? I do not intend to play this my good man, merely to gaze upon it from afar.”
There is a naughtier kind of Moron Achievement – Lara Croft:GoL has 5G for simply playing in co-op mode. Which on XBox Live requires a paid-for Gold Membership. And for you to come back to it a month after release when the co-op mode is actually made available. So, basically, it costs you to get this one and you can’t get it on day one anyway when everyone else is playing.
Ah, dear Deathspank. You get so much right, but the Menu Hero Achievement is a kick in the nads. 10G for setting some option sliders. I mean, come on. Achievements are supposed to be for accomplishing something, not for pissing about in a sub menu.
One of the worst things about modern gaming is that many of them seem so endless. Way back in the day, a game would be done and dusted in a couple of hours. Now, any game worth its salt feels it must provide 20, 30, 100 hours of stuff. And boy, are those developers going to make you see it.
(Incidentally, this need to pad out storylines is largely why plots in games are so laughably bad. Stanley Kubrick did the evolution of man from ape to Star Child in two hours 36 minutes. Metal Gear Solid 4 has nine hours of cutscenes. The plot eventually becomes a twist, which is a twist, which has a betrayal, but then a triple cross where they give you the thing that in a twist they… um… would have given you anyway? I digress and this guy does it so much better.)
A variation on this is in Rock Band 2, where to earn the Bladder of Steel Achievement you have to play all the songs consecutively, without a break, without pausing and without failing a single song. 8 hours. I’m sorry, I have a life. And a need to go to the bathroom occasionally. And an aversion to RSI.
Ugh. Tying Achievements together, so that completing one Achievement cascades into others. Again, to take Crackdown 2 as an example, you have an Achievement for collecting all Agility Orbs, for all Hidden Orbs, for all Driving and Renegade Orbs. And then another one for doing all three.
The worst type of Achievement above all else, relies on sheer, outrageous luck. Nothing is more frustrating that setting up the conditions to accomplish something and then be foiled by something utterly out of your control. I’m going to cheat slightly and use an example from Lara Croft: GoL. The “Hole in One” reward in the Temple Grounds requires you to put a ball, which is spinning on a pole into a flame pit. To do this, you set a bomb at the right point and then time the detonation so that the ball flies off in the right direction.
At this point, the game materialises enemies at you. One of which explodes. The upshot is that you spend five minutes battling to a certain point, set everything up perfectly and then fail to complete the task. Then spend another five minutes getting there and fail again. Repeat and repeat through no fault of your own.
I want to be the one that determines the success of my actions. If I stack up 1000 dominoes and they fail to fall, at least let it be through my own mistake. Don’t let me set up the dominoes and then come in and kick half of them away.
Obviously, when I rule the world then I’ll allow on Achievements that are sensible and rational. Hardcore gamers will get a free kick in the head. I’ll even award them I’ll add 100G onto their Gamerscore and award an Achievement. I reckon they would be queuing up.