Achievements: game makers or game breakers?

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Nearly nine and a half years ago, the Xbox 360 console was released to the retail shelves. The release of the second Microsoft console generation introduced a feature that eventually became the staple of the entire gaming culture. That feature is the achievements. Their popularity grew steadily over the years as other platforms followed suit. Playstation 3 introduced the trophies, Steam added the achievements into games that were released years prior to the achievement era, and even Apple’s Game Center has an achievement system established for the mobile games. The achievements were introduced with the sole purpose of adding replay value to the Xbox 360 games. Back when the achievements were born, many gamers alike played their games repeatedly with a goal to earn as many achievements as possible to improve their gamer profile and earn bragging rights. However, as the games evolved over the years, so did the achievements that reflected the game. However, evolution never guarantees greatness to those that underwent evolution.

Back when I played Guacamelee (as I covered it in my backlog game review), I was awed by the wonder that the game brought me from their combat system and the art style. The feeling I had from the moment that I started playing felt like a feeling I would get when I turned on the system for the first time after a temporary hiatus from video games to play a game where the quality of the experience is comparable to Shadow of The Colossus. This feeling felt real despite the fact that I would play video games often. After my first half hour into the game, I managed to destroy my first Choozo statue, and from that, my character learned the first new move of the game. I proceeded to use the new move for the first time to break the red block, only to see a familiar grey box appear on the screen with the following text that reads: “Achievement Unlocked! My First Power Move!”

 

Achievement

Umm thanks for the achievement?

 

At that moment, that excitement that I had diminished quite a bit. Even though the overall experience of the game was stellar and exciting, a good chunk of the excitement that I had at that particular moment disappeared within in a split second. I wanted to be happy for what I’ve earned, but at the same time, doing something for the first time didn’t really feel like an achievement. It felt like a tiny victory, but it didn’t feel like that victory would be worth bragging about to my friends.

There are many types of achievements out there that bring this similar effect to many gamers alike. What is the purpose of these achievements? I’ll go over a variety of them along with reasons why (or at least I think why) they exist, and why are they bad for our games.

There are achievements that award players for doing a task related to a game mechanic for the first time, or doing just a simple action. There are a range of achievements that fall into this category such as doing a newly acquired move, jumping, or even something as easy as this. They exist with the purpose to reward the players for learning something new (usually in form of tutorial rewards). The insultingly easy achievements cater to the people who are not good at video games. For the achievements aim to reward players for completing tutorials, these are not necessarily bad achievements, but they don’t serve a great purpose for either enhancing the game play nor fulfilling the purpose of being achievements. For the achievements rewarded for simple actions, it could be a variety of reasons. However, none of them are beneficial for the game experience. For all of these achievements, getting rewarded for doing something new or doing something simple, they all share something in common. These achievements, give the patronizing feeling to all of the players alike.

There are also achievements that are awarded to the players for merely completing parts of the story. “Hey, did you just finish Chapter 2-1? Awesome! Here’s an achievement!” “Chapter 5 was such a doozy for you! You died a hundred times? Thats ok, you get an achievement for finishing that chapter! Here ya go champ!” There are possibilities on why these exists. They may serve as milestones for the player. They may motivate the player to finish the game. Or possibly both. There may have been more that I’ve missed. Why are these bad for the games? My reason behind this is that…well..anyone could earn these achievements. No matter how skilled (or bad) you are, if you can complete chapter 4-3, that’s all you need to do to earn the achievement. To me, it almost feels like I’m getting awards for participating in a science fair regardless of how great or how terrible my science project turned out.

You get an achievement! And you get an achievement! Everyone gets an achievement!

You get an achievement! And you get an achievement! Everyone gets an achievement!

If the worst gamer could earn these particular achievements, then can they really be called achievements? Earning achievements by going through the game or doing the simpler tasks is almost an unfair way to rack up your gamer score to the more skilled gamers. I don’t know about you, but I am not sure if earning achievements through these methods would be a way to make your gamer score worthy of bragging rights.

On the other hand, there are achievements that require a good amount of investment of some sort in order to earn them. All of these achievements require  a lot of time and patience. There are some achievements that require a lot of skill with some luck. These achievements consist of collecting all of the 100+ items in the same category (like collecting flags in Assassin’s Creed, or pigeons in GTA IV), beating a level (or even the entire game) without taking any damage, winning a higher number of consecutive rounds without losing once, or doing something that seems impossible like killing an elite in Halo Reach, while falling, and having that kill save you from death by falling all in that particular order.

Yes, I am comparing apples to oranges here, but I’ve grouped them together because they share certain things in common. They aim to reward you for your hard work and investment. Which is the purpose of achievements right? Because collecting all of the white-tailed salamanders in Shadow of the Colossus would be an better achievement (or trophy) to brag about than an achievement earned by pressing start to start The Simpsons Game right? They would be, if they didn’t require a lot more investment from the player than one would deem as reasonable in terms of a reasonable challenge, which is an another thing that these achievements share in common. Some of these examples include: Completing Through the Fire and Flames on Insane difficulty on Guitar Hero 3 (take a look here and see for yourself), playing the entire game of Mega Man 10 without getting hit once, and becoming the top ranked player in the world in Quake 4 or Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, to name a few. Last but not least, they all evoke the same feeling from the player once they earned that achievement, which is the feeling of dissatisfaction knowing that they have invested many hours only to boost their gamer score by 50 points. Talk about satisfaction (end sarcasm). These achievements don’t enhance the game because these achievements set the expectations too high for a player. Would any normal player be willing invest hours to earn an achievement for being the #1 ranked player in the world? I wouldn’t think of investing that much time. It would be more fair if the payout was much greater, like 10000 points for being the top player in the world, or 1000 points for collecting all of the flags. Otherwise, the achievements can be compared to earning $5 for biking from Sacramento to San Francisco without taking a break.

All of these examples mentioned above are the most common achievements seen in games. However, that’s not all of game-killing achievements that exist. However, as I haven’t been current on the types of achievements existing in games, these achievements may no longer exist in the more current games like Goat Simulator or Titanfall (or are they?), but they have existed, and I have seen them. And they made me wonder on who decides what achievements go into the games.

The first type of the miscellaneous achievements being mentioned in my list are the achievements that require you to do something that is rather counter-intuitive to playing games in general. I am referring to achievements like hitting A 2037 times in Command & Conquer 3 or watching through the credits in certain games. These kind of achievements are rather counter-intuitive because they rather encourage player to do a certain action in order to earn it rather than reward the player. It’s one thing if you can reward the player for playing the game the way it was meant to be played (more on that later in this article), but is the game meant to be played by jumping 2037 in a first person shooter? Unless the game is a puzzle game like Portal with the jumping mechanic as the only mean to get through the game, I highly doubt that achievement would belong in a game like Command and Conquer 3 or in any other game for that matter.

Another type of miscellaneous achievements are the achievements that are more common in today’s games: the achievements that reward you for performing below par in a game. Here are the examples of this kind of achievement: If you performed so poorly at God of War that the game would suggest that you would play the game at a easier difficulty, you earned an achievement. If you failed a song in a Guitar Hero game, congrats, you earned 0 points towards your score. I hardly see the appeal of having these achievements in games. These are bad for the games because they destroy the purpose of achievements themselves. Achievements are supposed to reward the player for their efforts, not for their terrible performance. Or add salt to the wound like Guitar Hero’s 3 achievement for failing a song after completing at least 90% of the song. That is just downright wrong.

What kind of achievement that could possibly worse than earning achievements for sucking poorly? How about earning achievements advertised by companies like Tide? Or Serta? This final kind of miscellaneous achievement do exist in games. NCAA 08 Football is the only game that comes to my mind for these kind of achievements. If you manage to win a game if you were down by 14 points in the fourth quarter, you would earn an achievement that is sponsored by Pontiac with the logo on the achievement image. If you managed to shut out the other team, you earned an achievement that is sponsored by Old Spice. I have myself earned one of those achievements since I have NCAA 08 Football. These achievements provide dissatisfaction to the game play because we play games as an alternative to watch video on TV or online, where we would be content to see advertisements. We gamers are not a big fans of having advertisement in our games. We would rather play games to enjoy playing games rather than being enticed to purchase Doritos from earning achievements.

Brought to you by big corporations looking to earn bigger bucks!

Brought to you by big corporations looking to earn bigger bucks!

Over the years, achievements have received quite a bit of stigma due to the abundance of these achievements. It’s a shame that the potential of achievements is rather being wasted due to lack of thought that goes into these achievements. However, this is not to say that it is impossible to fix this mess. I’d like to offer a solution to give the achievements a better name and restore the true purpose of rewarding the players.

During the years that I made games, one of the things I learned is that the best way to ensure that your players are getting the experience that you aim to provide is to have players test your game and ensure that the game evokes the players the way you intend the game to. Why can’t the same be done for achievements? It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure that the players will feel a great sense of accomplishment by testing achievements as well. While the players are testing the game, why not give them some physical rewards for accomplishing a certain feat and see how they react. Like giving them candy? Or maybe some money? Coupons? Other free goodies? Because who could say no to free stuff? I sure wouldn’t.

If it feels that it may be a bit of a task, I could offer another suggestion to help make this task easier. May I offer a suggestion on gauging on how the players would react in prior to testing achievements? This could be done by simply asking questions. Making a questionnaire would help to get specifics on what they feel what rewards are worth challenging themselves for. Or perhaps creating a survey on SurveyMonkey would help out as well. Anything that gains some evidence on what people feel are accomplishments would come a long way. This may help you gain a better idea on how to design achievements that reward the player the proper way while evoking the experiences for your players the way that you want your game to.

I’m not sure if this would reverse the bad reputation given to achievements, but it would sure give a great place to start. I personally like the idea of being rewarded for playing well and challenging myself to earn these rewards. It is rather obvious that the achievements are here to stay in the gaming community, so why tarnish something that may stick around until the end of time? It would make things more rewarding (pun intended) for the achievements themselves if proper measures are taken to ensure that the players feel properly challenged and rewarded. As long as the rewards are not sponsored by Gatorade of course.

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Nostalgia Review: Crash Bandicoot

The new Xbox and Playstation generation is well underway, with Titanfall, Outlast, and Assassin’s Creed IV (along with other games) getting praise and attention by gamers and critics alike. Gamers today are enjoying the glory that these new next gen games bring to our living rooms.  As amazing as these games are, sometimes it is beneficial to get a good dose of nostalgia and head back to the past. For the first Nostagia Game Review, we are heading to the early years of the first Playstation generation. We’ll jump into one of the first mascots for the Playstation ever existed and explore the first game featuring the mascot that is still in the hearts of older gamers today: Crash Bandicoot.

Who...me?

Who…me?

Two years after Playstation debuted as a console, Naughty Dog decided that it’s time for the 3D platforming to make its debut on the scene, and that’s where Crash Bandicoot was born.  The story of the game puts you as a quirky marsupial named Crash, who was mutated in result of a failed experiment made by Dr. Neo Cortex and Nitrus Brio in attempt to create a army of mutated animals to take over the world. After the Crash made it’s escape, Dr. Cortex wanted nothing more than the demise of that darn bandicoot (aside from world domination of course, just like any old evil scientist). You must navigate Crash through three Australian-based islands in order to get back to Cortex’s lab to save the world and save Crash’s girlfriend.

During the years where Mario and Sonic are dominating the platforming scene, Sony decided to have a platforming mascot of their own to try and go toe-to-toe with the platforming contenders by having the first 3D platform mascot. Like Mario and Sonic, Crash Bandicoot had its own basic platforming mechanics: run, jump, break cubical objects, accessing bonus levels, and jumping on enemies. These three mascots are the same in those aspects, but they each have something that sets them apart. Mario had some power ups that can enhance him in many ways to aid him on his quests to rescue Peach. Sonic had the speed to blaze through levels to get defeat Dr. Robotinik (or Eggman excuuuussee me). What did Crash have that differentiates him from the other two? Having the ability to break boxes and push away enemies by…spinning? As odd as the mechanic sounds, the designers managed to make the mechanic mesh well in the game. I’ll get more into that later.

Aside from the spinning mechanic, the developers decided to add a few more things to make the platforming game a bit more unique. Throughout the game, you’ll find boxes that you’ll break in order to obtain Wumpa fruits (aka the rings and coins of this game) and lives. In some boxes, you’ll find a floating mask companion named Aku Aku who will aid you in your quest as he protects you from enemy harm (as one-touch-can-kill rule also applies in this game). If you manage to collect three of the masks without getting hit, you are given brief invulnerability that’ll give you the ability to decimate anything in your path. Another thing that the developers decided to do for this major platforming mascot is to reward players for completing levels without dying and breaking every box to earn a gem. What would you get by getting all of the gems in the game? A secret ending that is accessible by a certain level. Of course, if you are ever so curious, you’ll have to find out for yourself!

As far as controls are concerned, you use the directional pad to control Crash’s movement. An odd choice of movement controls considering that Playstation had…you know…joysticks to use. Pressing X makes Crash jump and Square or Circle buttons makes Crash execute his spinning attack. That’s all there is for the controls. Why did they not add more to Crash’s movement is beyond me.

If there is anything good that came out of the lack of controls, it would be that the lack of action forced the level designers to be creative. They played with the idea of easing the player into the game with shorter and simpler levels before increasing the difficulty and length of the levels. Even in the later levels, the designers turned up the knob on their creativity and kept the environments in mind along with the spinning and jumping mechanics. Their creativity allowed the players to give adequate challenge in each level in the game based on these factors and it shows! Even in certain sections of the level that could be only accessed by certain colored gems, the developers carefully curved the difficulty of those special sections according to the what colored gem you used to access the section of the level. If I couldn’t say it enough, they have given a lot of thought into each and every level. And it shows. They even had the decency to implement some tutorials in the game without using text at all! Then again, text based tutorials are not as common as they are today.

If you compare the graphics of Crash Bandicoot to Titanfall or GTA V, you couldn’t help but to think that this game may not have the best graphics. But considering that this game is made in the era where 3D games are brand new, it is rather impressive. Old graphics, yes, but in the early 3D game era, the work done to make the environment flourish was amazing. For graphics being in 1996, they managed to make the water look impressive. They went into great detail for every entity added to the game, from the plants that serve as decoration into the piranha plants that can make you into their next meal. From the jungle levels to the cave levels to Dr. Neo Cortex levels, each environment is brilliantly colored to match the differentiating environments.

This is the graphics from 1996. Verryyy niiiccee!

This is the graphics from 1996. Verryyy niiiccee!

Geez Jake, it looks like you really enjoy the game so much! Is there anything that you don’t like about it? Well actually there is something that they could have done more to enhance the game play. Despite the fact that this is the first 3D platformer to feature a mascot and that the levels are well designed for the difficulty, the game play became a bit stale after a while due to the fact that the jumping and spinning became a bit boring. If Crash Bandicoot had one more move or two in its arsenal, the level designers could have had a field day making the levels even more memorable.

With all of the criticism aside, it felt great going back into this game years after I first played it at my aunt’s house. I never owned a copy of the game on my own until recently when I bought the PS3 at Black Friday and remembered that I could buy PSOne games at the PSN store. This was one of the first games I purchased, and it was worth the $6 that I spent on that game, and the experience I got from it was almost as magical as when I first played the game years ago. The level design and the graphics truly made this game impressive despite the lack of controls. I’d give this game 8.5 out of 10. If you have a PS3 and if you have yet to get Crash Bandicoot, do yourself a solid and pick up this game. While you are at it, why don’t you get Crash Bandicoot 2 and 3? They are both available if you are so curious.

Thank you guys for stopping by. Until then, don’t be strangers!