Achievements: The Game of Playing Games

A study on the meta-game of Achievements on modern gaming platforms

A cheerful notification for the Platinum trophy of Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Note: this was originally an academic essay produced for my university course.

When a player of a modern game reaches any milestone in progression or performs a great feat, it is a fair assumption that they will see a cheerful notification that they have received a Trophy, or unlocked an Achievement. Some of these players will see this as a simple acknowledgement, others as a pointless break of immersion. For some players, receiving this notification may be their reason for playing, even over any content in the game itself. This essay will discuss the various reasons why players may or may not be engaged in these achievement systems, as well as the benefits they can bring to developers. Context for the discussion will be provided by establishing a definition for and outlining the history of the kind of achievement being covered. Alongside discussion of the benefits, an argument against achievements will be examined and a defence offered. The essay will analyse the structure of the relevant achievement systems and compare them to games of that past, released on platforms without achievement systems. It will also compare the structure of achievements with the structure of games themselves and make observations on this. Based on these observations, it will suggest that achievements are themselves a game and suggest ways these systems could be further gamified to broaden their appeal and effectiveness.

This kind of achievement exists outwith a game itself. They are distinct from the similar concept of in-game rewards for completing goals that are not explicitly stated by the game; one of the earliest examples being the so-called “secret bonuses” in E-Motion (1990). One of the few academic papers on achievements, Framework for Designing and Evaluating Game Achievements, describes them as “goals in an achievement/reward system (different system than the core game) whose fulfilment is defined through activities and events in other systems (commonly in the core game)” (Hamari and Eranti, 2011). This makes clear that achievements are interactions between games and the platform and that these are two distinct systems. To avoid ambiguity between this and the general concept of an achievement, they will be referred to as “platform achievements”. As well as being a reward by acknowledging player feats, these platform achievements work into the highly social nature of game platforms by recording proof of an in-game achievement on a player’s profile outside of the game.

The connection of platform achievements to a player’s profile across many games meant that they were not introduced until online services became commonplace on home consoles. The first games to feature platform achievements were the original eighteen launch titles released for Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The integrated Xbox Live service introduced GamerScore — points awarded to a player’s profile for completion of in-game goals. Platform achievements have since spread to other platforms — notably Steam and PlayStation Network — and to certain publishers’ own clients, such as Ubisoft’s Uplay and EA’s Origin. Uplay is notable for being the only platform to offer in-game rewards in exchange for points earned by completing the achievements, not necessarily in the same game. The concept of platform achievements offering tangible rewards has slowly found its way to the PlayStation Network too, as players who earn all the Trophies in Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) are awarded an exclusive theme for their console’s home screen.

Aside from the potential for reward distribution, platform achievements have several useful benefits for developers. They can attract the interest of players with play styles that their core game may not inherently accommodate, or encourage competition between players even in single-player games. Furthermore, platform achievements are often accompanied by statistics on rarity — that is, what percentage of players have unlocked a certain achievement. Many games have a series of achievements awarded on completion of each chapter of a game, which can be used to assess completion rates and points of player attrition. Where information on game completion was once a qualitative matter, these quantifiable analytics brought by the achievement system can be used strategically to assess what parts of games many or few players are reaching. This can be used to correct possible balancing issues in the same game, or considered for the design of future games.

For the players, on the other hand, the usefulness of platform achievements will depend on their desires. For most players, the intrinsic motivator will be the events of the game itself and the platform achievements may serve as additional objectives to extend the play experience, or to define completion goals for the in-game objectives. For other players, the appeal may come not from with the game itself, but from the satisfaction of the achievement collecting. Whether platform achievements would appeal strongly to a player in this way is dependent on their play style. One of the most enduring models of play styles is the Bartle Types, proposed by Richard Bartle first in his paper Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs (Bartle, 1996) and then expanded in his book Designing Virtual Worlds (Bartle, 2003). He sorts players into four groups — who appreciate four different kinds of gameplay — based on his observations of a MUD community. These types are Killer, Achiever, Socializer and Explorer. An Achiever will be most influenced by a set of platform achievements, but they can appeal to several of these player types. Games like Proteus (2013) and Night in the Woods (2017) have very cryptic descriptions for their achievements, or do not define the requirements at all. Both types require significant exploration of the game to unlock achievements and thus appealing to an Explorer type. At the time of writing, nobody has completed the entire set of achievements for Night in the Woods. Games with these more exploratory achievements are rare; most will give clear descriptions to target Bartle’s Achievers, or simply because they are intended as rewards rather than hints.

Bartle’s description of an Achiever may be accurate for games of the time, but both of his texts were published before achievements existed that fit the definition being used in this essay. Bartle’s texts are highly directed towards MUDs and, in general, internal achievements within a single game. There is a newer Unified Model developed by Bart Stewart (2011), which may be more useful for examining modern achievement systems. It combines models of play style with models of personality to give a more holistic definition of an Achiever as a player whose primary motivation is security through competitive accumulation of status tokens. Returning to the example of the Platinum trophies of the Dark franchise becoming status symbols, it follows that achievements themselves can be considered the status tokens referred to by Stewart.

Platform achievements may also have appeal to Socializers, whom Bartle and Stewart describe as being primarily interested in interacting with other people. In an interview between PCGamer and one of the highest-ranked achievement hunters on Steam (PCGamer, 2016), the hunter describes the network of players that have united with the common interest of collecting achievements, to compete for achievements ranked by rarity or difficulty, or just share advice. In this case the community spans the entire platform of Steam, but such communities also exist for individual franchises. As an example, a community on Facebook ([no date]) appreciating the PlayStation 2 games Dark Cloud (2001) and Dark Chronicle (2003) was recently reinvigorated by the rerelease of the two games on the PlayStation 4, with newly added Trophies. The addition of these achievements was incentive for many members of the community to repurchase and replay both games. The pair of Platinum Trophies has become a status symbol in the community, as proof of true mastery of the franchise. However, it might not be accurate to say that these social aspects are enough motivation alone to earn the Platinum Trophies. Earning this prestige in Dark Chronicle requires upwards of 100 hours and much of this is grinding. This level of time and effort that may limit it exclusively to the Achiever members of the community, who find it a worthwhile investment.

There are developers who have negative opinions of achievements, explaining that rather than invigorate a game’s player base, they may damage it. One such argument is given by Chris Hecker in his GDC talk Achievements Considered Harmful? (2010) and summarised by Anthony Burch for Destructoid (2010). Hecker refers to psychological studies that showed that expected rewards can reduce a player’s motivation to play a game. “Extrinsic motivators can…decrease intrinsic motivation on interesting tasks”. There are flaws in Hecker’s argument, such as the fact that his examples mainly refer to experiments in developmental psychology which may not be relevant to players of other ages. On top of this, the examples used are cases where rewards are used to modify or encourage certain behaviour, such as encouraging children to read books by offering free pizza as a reward. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of platform achievements here, since there are certainly no games intentionally designed in such a way that the only motivation to play them comes externally from the reward of unlocking achievements (not counting satirical games like Achievement Unlocked (2008), where the humour could be considered intrinsic motivation). As Hecker states, a game like this would never work. There is always an intrinsic motivation associated with playing a game and this can be demonstrated by looking at new categorisations of players with relation to platform achievements. There are players who enjoy the game content, but do not care about achievements; players who enjoy the game content and also appreciate the achievements; and players who do not care about the game content as they are invested most in the wider activity of collecting platform achievements. This is discounting the fourth scenario — in which the player enjoys neither the game or the achievements — since there is little that could (or should) be done to keep this kind of player engaged. The first two types have intrinsic motivation covered as the players are enjoying the game first and foremost. The closest to Hecker’s examples is the third combination, but this again comes down to the intentions of the developer. There are no games developed intentionally to entrap achievement hunters while providing nothing for the many other players looking for enjoyment in the game itself. This does leave the question of where achievement hunters find their intrinsic motivation, since it must exist. If it is agreed that motivation in gaming always comes from playing a game, platform achievements can be seen from a new angle. In this case, platform achievements are not an external motivator, but are part of the intrinsic motivation themselves, in a completely optional meta-game spanning the entire platform’s achievement system.

The status of achievements as a meta-game can be supported by referring to the previously mentioned interview between PCGamer and an achievement hunter. As described by the hunter, Steam Achievements are ranked by rarity and difficulty and assigned a point value based on this. The leaderboards have “super enforced rules” and the achievements themselves have rules, in that they have specific requirements to be unlocked. We can compare these elements to definitions of a game; in their book, Rules of Play, Salen and Zimmerman define a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2003). The artificial conflict is gaining the achievement, the rules are the requirements to unlock it and the quantifiable outcome is the achievement being unlocked. This definition can be applied at several levels of the achievement system, replacing the conflict with competition on the leaderboards or even the act of collecting every achievement in a single game, rather than an individual achievement. Hamari and Eranti concur with the latter, describing entire games as “mini-games coinciding within the achievement game” (2011). This shows that the achievement system is a versatile game, one which has interesting potential for further gamification.

The main target market of Achievers will always be motivated by the achievement system and other player types are more likely to be influenced by changes to the game system. Given this, the most productive changes that could be made to achievement systems would be light gamification relating to the desires of these Achievers. Any tangible rewards given to players should only be relevant to the platform, as the two systems must remain separate for platform achievements to continue successfully. Xbox Live’s GamerScore seems to be the most inherently gamified achievement system, since a score is a fundamental concept of gaming, is easily compared against other players and is the very definition of a quantifiable outcome. Other Achiever communities, like the Steam Achievement leaderboards or to some extent the Dark Cloud community, are set up by players themselves outwith the platforms. The best suggestion that could be made to allow the meta-game of achievements to shine would be to integrate elements of these communities into the platforms. Achievements generally should be assigned point values within the platform based on the statistics that already exist there, allowing leaderboards to be created and maintained within the platform. Alongside this, profile space can be laid out for specific trophies, allowing communities to highlight the achievements of most interest to them and then allowing players who unlock them to easily show off their status symbols.

In conclusion, achievements have several properties that make them an important part of modern gaming. Achievements motivate Bartle’s and Stewart’s Achiever types and can help them continue to find appeal as more modern games are released with an emphasis on exploration and player-created objectives, such as Minecraft (2011). In some cases, like Night in the Woods, achievements can even motivate Explorer types who may find the core game lacking in opportunities for exploration, by encouraging the player to explore the game further to discover the rules of the achievement. The addition of achievements to a rerelease of an old game, as in the Dark franchise, can help refresh a game’s community and provide incentive for fans to replay and newcomers to join, as well as being a status symbol in those communities for players who have achieved mastery of those games. Achievements help provide analytics to developers to fine tune the user experience of their products, by assessing where players lose interest or may be having difficulty. These analytics are also used by communities of competitive hunters to rank against each other on leaderboards. Achievements tie up all games into one grand meta-game, accessed by buying individual episodes (games). Collecting all the achievements in one single episode is just a single objective in the greater game. This means that platform achievements are, and should continue to be, the game of playing games.

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