I’m an Achievement whore. I admit it. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point the little “blip!” sound effect that heralded the unlocking of a tiny square picture in a game’s Achievement window became something I sought out in a video game. I hunt for it in games regardless of which platform I’m playing on. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as unlocking a challenging or funny achievement. There’s also nothing as irritating as badly thought out or rubbish Achievements…
Crafting a decent Achievement is something of an art. Naturally they’ve got to be based on something that’s possible within the game, but since they’re essentially a list of targets to shoot for, it also makes sense to mix up the level of challenge required to hit them. I always feel a little warm glow when I unlock one, and the harder the Achievement, the bigger the glow. Anyone, for example can score a direct hit on a Witch in Left 4 Dead with a Molotov Cocktail to unlock Burn The Witch, but how many players can get through an entire campaign without taking friendly fire (for Safety First) or kill a Witch with a single headshot (Cr0wned)? Depending on how much the Achievements appeal to the magpie in you, you could be playing Left 4 Dead well into the night.
Valve’s actually a great example of a developer who understands the primary function of Achievements: they’re designed to keep players hooked to a games for as long as possible. To that end, Valve provides balanced lists of Achievements; there are the laughably easy ones which attract players with their fluttering eyelids, the ones which require some commitment and care then the super hard Achievements which demand marriage, a ring and a honeymoon and then still may remain loftily beyond a player’s skill level. (If anyone out there has managed to unlock Untouchables, then well done you, you smug git!)
Not every developer, however, shares Valve’s understanding of the function of Achievements. Or at least that’s how it seems. How else do you explain video game Achievements which inspire eye-rolling at best, and violent swearing at worst? An obvious culprit is Ninja Gaiden II which challenged players to defeat the game using only one of Ryu’s weapons – and gave an Achievement for each weapon they managed it with! Did anyone out there do this? Did they play through this 10+ hour game around 10 times to unlock all of these? I doubt it. If anyone did, I hope they’re using their prowess wisely in beta testing. And I’ll bet they have a lot of free and time and a heap of busted controllers.
Achievements for replays are a pet hate of mine. It’s a really cheap way of enticing players to play a game over and over again. Ninja Gaiden II isn’t alone in this – I seem to recall the first Mass Effect offered a bunch of Achievements for playing it as different classes, and using different allies, which is why they are still locked in the Achievement window on my hard drive. Then, there’s EA Sports, whose Achievements, on the whole, make absolutely no sense in that you can clock entire seasons in the manager mode and unlock about four of Achievements in total. Take NBA Live 10 for example; slamdunking unlocks an Achievement. So does finishing a season in Dynasty Mode. But then you get Achievements for hitting high-scores with specific players against specific teams you may have no interest in playing with. You get an Achievement for scoring 55 points with Lebron James against New York. How many Cleveland Cavs fans have done this? How many wish they could go back and not do it? You get an Achievement for scoring a buzzer beater in double overtime. With Dwayne Wade. And no, I haven’t done it. Is anyone who isn’t a gigantic Miami Heat fan who is going to bother with this? And if so, how many times did you miss on the way to doing it? How many hours of gameplay did you go through to unlock it?
As bad as story mode Achievements are in single-player mode, they usually pale into insignificance next to those offered in multiplayer. (Once again, Left 4 Dead gets a by here, because its all about co-op play and you don’t get an Achievement just for going online). Here’s a tip; if a developer is offering Achievement candy to entice you online, it may be because their multiplayer isn’t all that great. Take a look at Modern Warfare 2 as evidence for this. You don’t get a single solitary Achievement for playing online. Why? Because Infinity Ward don’t need to offer you anything. They know you’re going online to play their mulitplayer because it’s eight kinds of awesome and besides, everything you earn is converted into assets to help you in the multiplayer on the spot.
In the end it only benefits the developers to take time to make Achievements which both entice the player and compliment their games. If used correctly, these unlockables can draw in players to an IP like moths to a porch-light and keep them playing compulsively. For proof of this, look no further than PopCap’s Plants Vs Zombies for the iPhone. I clocked that game around three months ago and I’m still playing it. Why? The recent update that removed the Michael Jackson zombie added a ton of Achievements, which got me right back playing it within seconds. If you own a copy of PVZ, you’ll notice that the Achievement screen is a pit which you can scroll down for ages. It’s far longer than the 25 Achievements listed on there require. I have the sneaking suspicion that this is because PopCap ruddy well knows it can yank back the PVZ faithful simply by tossing out ten new Achievements every other month. I mean, if it’s occurred to me, then it’s a safe bet they know this.
That, my friends, is genius. Evil genius, yes, but genius all the same. And it’s genius all developers should learn from and adopt…