Are Steam Achievements Really Just Pointless Gimmicks?

Oct 23, 2018 · 10 min read
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“And who filters by Steam Achievements?” exclaimed TotalBiscuit in his YouTube video (20:33) where he spoke about his visit to Valve HQ and the future of Steam.

Even the top Steam curator didn’t feel that Steam Achievements were worth “a toss”. At least that was his reaction over 7 years ago to Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s open question about how much stock players put in Steam Achievements.

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The Cynical Brit, John Bain, being frank.

Technically, he was right. At least for the major part of the last several years.

Today, there is a new Steam-powered platform that allows players to unlock achievements and earn rewards. Real rewards like free PC games, DLCs, and coupons.

Still, before we dig into that, let’s take a closer look at Steam Achievements. It’s a much more complex picture than it seems at first glance.

Imagine Xbox Achievements, Playstation Trophies, and Steam Achievements as fictional characters. Now — in that same order — imagine Superman, Batman, and Johnny Bravo. (Hey, that could be a meme!)

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The hero we need?

Steam Achievements are a well-kempt feature, but you just know they’re not packing that knock-out punch they claim to be. Only, unlike Johnny Bravo, this is disappointing to several Steam players.

Gamers’ biggest gripe with Steam Achievements is that Valve doesn’t seem to have given them any proper value whatsoever. This is of course mainly in contrast to achievement systems on Xbox and Playstation.

Okay, this is part of the topic that has already been belabored to death. Gamers, game designers, and everyone in between have spewed their disdain about Steam Achievements.

It’s still mind-boggling though, isn’t it? Why should the world’s largest PC gaming portal not be able to do more with its achievements system? Just look at Uplay’s simple and satisfying achievements ecosystem too.

But there’s an answer.

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When you scratch away the surface, you’ll realize that Valve hasn’t simply been wantonly incompetent in the achievements department.

Steam is a platform where creators — both corporate and independent — can launch games in almost any form they see fit. Restrictions are minute. It’s the power that comes with autonomous use of the SteamWorks suite of development tools.

You don’t say? Why you’re just as wise as Aesop, aren’t you?

The point is, Steam Achievements became a variable too fluctuant to control systemically in such a liberal environment. It’s the principle reason why Steam’s achievement system is so subpar.

But there’s still much more to it. Quite frankly, it’s not even totally Valve’s fault.

Valve did create a monster embedded in SteamWorks. But indie devs brought it to life. Are you wondering how?

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Steam is unquestionably one of the main carriers that brought indie games to the mainstream. As more developers realized the potential, the marketplace began to do what marketplaces do. Saturate.

How does a starving — or shady — indie dev hustle to survive in the saturated wilderness? How do indie devs minimize chances of failure?

Easy. By creating what are now referred to as ‘game-shaped objects’ rife with features that Steam players love. This is the logic behind all those clones and asset flips piled with Trading Cards and Steam Achievements.

In a nutshell, some indie devs abuse SteamWorks to create ‘Achievement Spam’ games. And indeed, some of them are monstrous.

Zen vs Zombie had 10,361 achievements. You basically just needed to blink at the screen to unlock the first 1,000.

Keep steady fire on anything that moves in Blood Feed and you’ll be up to your knees in some of its 3,001 achievements. Faster than you can say “Achievement Unlocked”.

How can Valve accurately attribute uniform value to any single achievement in such an open system?

They can, they have, and they will likely continue to do so. Just in June this year, Valve capped Steam Achievements to a total of 100 for games that have not achieved a certain ‘confidence metric’.

But the question still remains: how can Valve accurately attribute uniform value to any single achievement in such an open system?

Keep in mind, this open system was probably created with the best of intentions. Creative liberty, freedom of expression, and all that positive stuff.

In fact, it’s not just about these ‘fake games’ exploiting Steam systems. Real games also differ in terms of ease of unlocking achievements.

Basically, attributing value to Steam Achievements is hard and it’s a fact you can’t just gloss over.

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And that brings us back to the TotalBiscuit question. The fact is: we all do.

Achievements are part of the ABC of why we play games and even of how games are created. Kris Graft wrote a nice article on Gamasutra about the psychology behind achievement hoarding.

Whether achievement markers and dashboards are necessary is purely subjective. Still, the fact remains that they are out there and they contribute to the gaming experience.

Then — of course — you have the ‘achievement hunters’. Groups like 100pAG (I’m a proud member) are entirely dedicated to “100% Achievement status in any, or all, SteamWorks games.”

Whether you’re a hardcore or casual achievement hunter, games with achievements will mean something to you. For some, they’ll mean more.

“On Steam, achievements can be used to decorate your profile page and create the illusion that you’re an unstoppable MLG 420 pro,” explains Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson, “…games with tons of easy-to-earn achievements make that easy to do.”

For me and my cheevo hunter buddies, balanced achievements are as important as not having ‘broken’ or unobtainable ones. We don’t care too much for achievement spam games though.

Xeinok, the founder of 100Pals, explained this sentiment nicely to Nathan Grayson.

“Getting 10,000 achievements for doing nothing in a game for 10 minutes can easily make a gamer who spent dozens of hours working on a single difficult achievement feel pretty bad.

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AStats — an achievement tracking leaderboard for Steam players

We want games with fun, unique, meaningful, interesting achievements that reward us for our skill and offer us extended replayability by demanding we play the game in a restricted or strange fashion. We want achievements that guide us towards hidden content and easter eggs, achievements that require out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving.”

And just like that, it’s plain to see that Steam Achievements can indeed be a very cool feature — if implemented well.

A very common argument and I personally agree. Still, while I imagine it could be cool to be the god of gamers, I’m not.

Achievements done well in a game that you like might kindle something in you. I didn’t care much for Steam Achievements until I played Klei’s Mark of the Ninja.

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My first 100% :) I felt like a true ninja.

When you 100% a game that you love, it brings a unique satisfaction of its own. Still, it would be cool if there was something more to it.

Bragging rights are an awesome competitive motivator and so you have cool achievement tracking sites like AStats.

If you’re a non-competitive gamer but you’re still fixed on hoarding achievements, is the coolest web app for it.

And yet, Steam Achievements have seen days of tangible rewards. Those days are now just so far away from memory. Don’t you remember?

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Where did the Great Gift Pile and Summer Camp achievement rewards go to? This is a question I just can’t answer. I can only speculate. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Wayback Machine, I might have totally forgotten.

These were promotions that gamers loved and they came with lots of pluses for game developers too. Did Valve just drop the ball on this one?

Whatever the case, the good news is that BountyMode works in a very similar fashion. You can think of it as a companion app on your road to hundred-percenting games or clearing out your backlog. (I wish I could get TotalBiscuit’s two cents.)

While BountyMode now provides a portal where Steam Achievements can be unlocked for tangible rewards, this doesn’t conclude the discussion.

Steam Achievements can still be pointless gimmicks if game designers just plop them quasi-randomly into their titles.

In fact, I can easily recommend hundreds of Steam games that don’t have achievements at all.

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Don’t Starve — 0 of 0 achievements earned. Hey, it’s actually liberating!

Take my favorite indie dev studio, Klei Entertainment, for example. They purposely decided to exclude achievements from their hit, Don’t Starve.

And that’s precisely the point. Achievements should be part of the game design process. They should either guide and challenge players to experience everything a game has to offer or even be excluded if deemed important.

Achievements can be limiting to gameplay if done incorrectly. Done correctly, they can make even a small game all the more rewarding.

Someone should probably write a book about that (if they haven’t already). In the meantime, here are three quick pointers from us.

Games that use achievements well usually combine all three of these points.

(1) Mark Progress & Engagement: Although this is probably the blandest way to use achievements, it can still be useful for players and certainly for the game developer.

With progress marker achievements, players can be cued on how much they’ve accomplished and be reassured they’re moving in the right direction.

With the timestamps that SteamWorks provides for its achievements, a game developer can see how long/easy/hard it is to reach a certain point in a game.

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As strong as you’ll get in Mega Man X

I could burn time overheating my X-Buster looking for more armor upgrades or Heart Tanks in Mega Man X. Luckily, these smart progress marker achievements let me know that I’ve hit the limit.

(2) Open Up Gameplay Options: On my first playthrough of Salt and Sanctuary, I remained faithful to ‘The Three’ [gods] for the entirety of the game. This meant I only enjoyed limited abilities in a game that provided much more.

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My achievement for taking an oath to The Three

By discovering achievements I could unlock for taking oaths to other deities, I realized that I had more to experience. Multiple playthroughs are now underway.

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So many oaths to take and break.

What’s fascinating is that I realized that there were gods and orders I hadn’t even stumbled upon in my first playthrough. It had me asking myself: how much of this game have I not played?

Ska Studios used Steam Achievements to open up more gameplay options than I had initially considered — and I love them for it!

(3) Provide Challenge: How quickly can I clear a level? Can I figure out how to get from point A to B using complete stealth and without killing anyone? (Could be a useful life skill.)

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Ahem — still working on this one, Benjamin. Will keep you posted.

Challenges like these service a game with thrill and replayability. They also provide great conversation fodder when gamers meet up.

Klei Entertainment pushed challenge achievements to a charming extreme. In order to unlock their “Meta-Hacking” cheevo in Invisible, Inc., you actually had to cheat. You had to ‘hack’ your own game files. (Thanks, Brodigan!)

(!) Time-Sink Cheevos — a HUGE don’t: Unlocking a skill-based achievement can take hours, days, weeks, months — who knows how long. But when it’s finally unlocked, the gratification of personally leveling up and mastering the skill is felt and cherished.

Time-sink achievements do not have that allure. You want me to play your game for 100 hours, with nothing interesting to do at all, just so I can unlock the achievement? Skip.

Ahh, sounds like one of those Utopian dreams. Maybe we’ll never be in total agreement. But perhaps you can take this away:

  • Don’t like Steam Achievements? You can indeed ignore them. Just play.
  • Wish Steam Achievements had more value? Check out BountyMode. We’ve done bounty hunts with awesome, and there’s much more coming. You’ll have a ton of fun!
  • If you’re a game designer, use Steam Achievements creatively to improve the player experience — or don’t use them at all. We don’t claim to be experts at BountyMode, but you can contact us to talk about it.

Finally, for the love of all GamerJuice-blooded achievement hunters (not to mention the integrity of the Steam API), will someone tell Valve to do something about SAM?

Carpe Diem!

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