Friday, May 23, 2008

On How Not To Use Achievement Points

I love the XBox Live Gamerscore system. It's great. A persistent and public souvenir system was a wonderful idea and one of the reasons that my XBox 360 gets so much love.

It just frustrates me how little thought goes into the system by some developers.

Gamerpoints are not separate from a game. They are a surprisingly well integrated part of the 360 experience; you can't consider a 360 game separately from its points system. Each and every 360 game has this list of goals, with a point value next to each goal.

These are not sub-goals. This is the first place developers go wrong. These goals are not subordinate to the goals set by the gameplay. The player experience is not about reaching the end credits first and earning gamerpoints second. This is because of how achievements are worked into the 360 interface. A player can view the list of achievements for a game at any time after they have first launched it; if they have a friend who's played it, they can see the achievements by accessing the friend's gamercard, whether they've played the game themselves or not. The achievements, and the overall number of points earned for the game, display every time that a player reviews their own gamercard.

Achievement points are the over-goal in a 360 game. Finishing the core game experience is a stepping stone in the task of getting a perfect point score. Achievement goals are reinforced before, during, and after gameplay, and persist after a player loses interest in the game.

What that means is that each core gameplay goal should be reinforced with an achievement. There should be an achievement for completing each level, one for finishing the game, and one at the end of any collection task. For large collection tasks, there should be achievement points at each meaningful milestone along the way.

Achievement points should not reward the player for bucking the core game experience. Don't give out points to players for playing in a non-standard way. You may be rewarding a small percentage of players who like doing this stuff, but you're also encouraging a much larger percentage of players to spend time experiencing your game in a sub optimal way.

Examples: Guitar Hero III gives out points for playing through campaign with a standard controller instead of the guitar. Dumb. Penny Arcade gives out points for finishing the game without having any of your characters knocked out during combat (necessitating a huge number of unnecessary reloads). Dumb.

I'm not saying don't encourage the player to experiment with new play styles. That's great. Just don't ask them to sustain those play styles if they're not the strength of your game. In the above examples, GH3 should have given the points for finishing a single song with a regular controller, and Penny Arcade should have awarded the points for completing, say, three consecutive battles without a death.

Weight core gameplay goals higher than ancillary ones. The lion's share of rewards should be doled out for playing the game in the way that was intended. Esoteric or very difficult challenges should have only token rewards. Let's look again at Guitar Hero 3, which gives out only a token number of points for finishing the Easy and Medium difficulty campaigns, while shelling out the big bucks to the 0.05% of players able to finish Through The Fire And Flames on Expert. Let's face it - a player who spends the time to overcome GH3's nigh-on-impossible upper echelons is no longer motivated by achievement points. From my experience with the game, the biggest milestone for most players is finishing Medium, and that's something that should be appropriately rewarded.

Achievement points can be a fantastic tool for directing and focusing player effort on the best experiences that your game has to offer; using this system to funnel players into your lame sidequests and hokey minigames is just plain stupid. Think it through, people.


Phrancq said...

Hear Hear!

I thought Bioshock handled achievement points perfectly. All were core game of similar. None of them made me play the game too differently from how I would normally.

Greg Tannahill said...

Halo 3 has some very good achievement systems too. As does Viva Pinata.

I just can't get over how badly Guitar Hero 3 does it though.

Jon said...

Just another one of the dumb-ass decisions made in GH3, I guess. Call of Duty 2 did something similar: most of the big achievements are only gotten on the hardest difficulty setting, presumably for masochists.

Oblivion had the most friendly achievements I can recall, all gained doing the main storyline or through the factional quests. No grinding required!

Greg Tannahill said...

GH2 was pretty much perfect for guitar-related achievements. One for each difficulty, one for five stars on each difficulty, a few related to fairly achievable streak and point goals, and a few gimmes that rewarded you just for trying.

I'm looking at the forthcoming Guitar Hero 4 and I'm going to tentatively call it as being rubbish. I just don't trust Activision's stewardship of this franchise.

Nismo said...

Old post is old but hey, I'll comment anyway. Whether you read it or not, well, who knows.

First and foremost, I agree completely about Guitar Hero III's achievements. Obtaining most of them requires you to beat Through The Fire and Flames, Expert, 5-Star Expert, Gold star 20 songs on Expert and so on and it's just ridiculous. I have only just recently gotten into the Guitar Hero games (read: this year) and as such, I can't play that well on the higher difficulties just yet. I'm at the stage where I'm easing myself into the Hard difficulty.

Anyway, because of this I have limited points from the game and while I respect having achievements for finishing the career on Expert and even 5-starring Expert, I don't respect having to basically be a god to get more achievements from it. Now that makes me sound like all I care about is the points. Not true, I may be an self-confessed achievement whore but I certainly do not do it for the points like most seem to; instead I do it because I'm a completionist (always have been) and I guess the achievements have just added onto what I would do already with the difference being, everything is public now.

Back to Guitar Hero, the limited points annoys me because I see the little achievements I have and know that I can't complete the game as much as I want to until my Guitar Hero ability improves. I do plan on practising until I get there but for the moment, it annoys me to no end. I agree that Guitar Hero II has the better achievements but even then, both games' achievements annoy me for having co-op ones. I can understand them but the fact that they can't be obtained over Live means they are another set of achievements I probably won't be getting anytime soon due to not having anyone locally here in Canberra to co op the games with.

And on achievements as a whole, I agree with the most part with the post. Games like BioShock, Viva Pinata and so on are examples of achievements that are done right. I personally would also like to see developers be a bit more creative with achievements, with my current example being Project Gotham Racing 4. The game had a few puzzle achievements and while the internet makes this achievements free points (in the sense that it's not too hard to find out how they're obtained), the idea in theory is a good one as far as I'm concerned. I like the idea of having a few subtle hints towards the criteria and then being left to figure it out myself. I think we should see more of that.

Long post but one more thing, zero point and secret achievements are pathetic and shouldn't exist as far as I'm concerned. Secret achievements are a mixed bag, I can understand why they are used but to me it defeats the purpose of the point system (rather than the actual achievements within themselves) when it comes to being a public display of what you have and haven't done in the games you have played. Zero point achievements also defeat the purpose and to me just seem like a waste. Not to mention they hurt the completion percentage (something I care about)...

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm working daytimes but you can always try hitting me up on weekends for co-op. My gamertag is GregT_314. has a facility where you can see what percentage of its members have achieved what numbers of points on various games. Last time I looked at GH3 there were only 4 people out of a population of over 100,000 who had achieved full points for GH3. That tells you there's something wrong right there.

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