Rewarding the player vs. achievements

A few days ago, me and my Art Director, Damian, were discussing rewarding games. As a flag example of game rewards done great he brought up Guild Wars 2. Since we played it together and equally enjoyed it, at first I agreed. In that game, you get a reward every five to 10 minutes. Quests pop up like crazy wherever you go. If you are not finishing a quest, you are leveling up or finding a vista point or unveiling the map or getting a new part of main story, leveling up your crafting skills, digging a herb or earning an achievement. Rewards are on every corner of every brick of every wall. 

It was later that day when I started thinking... What exactly am I getting in Guild Wars 2? Experience and levels are meaningless, as the game scales you up and down more often than you can even notice. Gear? At level 80 I still don't really care what I am wearing. Crafting skills are a nice, expensive piece of crap since I don't care what I wear. Skills are all unlockable in the first 10 minutes of the game, coins are useless as merchants have absolutely nothing I'd like to buy. Even the guilds do nothing together and server wars are just an uncoordinated free for all that do a lousy job at motivating you to get better gear. Yet still, I was playing this game with pleasure, because once in a while, for completing my dailies, I got a treasure chest containing absolutely nothing useful for my gameplay. I was getting achievement after achievement congratulating me on slaying 100, 500 and 1000 mobs of the same type, but apart from this achievement, killing these poor creatures got me close to nothing!

What kept me going here was a brilliantly executed Skinner Box technique. Our friends from Extra Credits have explained it very nicely in one of their videos:

But I wouldn't be myself if a realization "Oh, it's Skinner Box!" was enough for my overly active brain. I was naturally analyzing it further, and here's a probably not too groundbreaking theory that many people came up with before me:

Rewards tied to gameplay are cool, achievements disconnected from gameplay suck.

Let's take a look at an old RPG from way before anyone invented achievements or trophies. Final Fantasy Tactics. You could have up to 16 characters in your formation, each one could have one of mixes of 20 different jobs, using thousands of combinations of skills and equipment. Every battle was rewarding. Every slain enemy could leave skills or items. Actually useful skills and actually useful items. Every action gave you experience and job experience points. Actually useful experience points giving you stat boosts and currency to buy actually useful skills. Every job level could unlock new jobs with new skills and abilities. It got you checking your formation after every battle, tweaking gear, learning skills, assigning jobs... Every piece of reward was a pure gameplay reward. After 15 years, Final Fantasy Tactics still has one of the best battle systems of all times and there are countless games drawing from it.

Squaresoft designed Final Fantasy Tactics this way to make the game rewarding to the player to make it fun to play over and over. The game now has an impressive amount of FAQs on gamefaqs.com with people coming up with new challenges years after the release date. I never needed external motivation like trophies to get back to this game many times over the years.

Nobody can deny that the achievements are a powerful motivator. They are also a powerful tool to conceive how flawed the game actually is. Especially on PC, where achievement lists can be better organized, therefore there can be thousands of them. Thousands of achievements, popping up every 10 minutes to give the player an illusion of progress. Covering the dullness of the core gameplay.

I am far from an expert, but I strongly believe in what I will write here, so I'll act like one. So... How to do the achievements right? Achievements should always be linked to an actual reward that comes from gameplay. Is building a Laboratory in XCOM a great gameplay moment that deserves a trophy? Not really. It gives a gameplay perk, but a feeling of accomplishment? Nah. Reaching Anor Londo in Dark Souls on the other hand... You stand on top of the staircase, say to yourself "praise the sun" and a few seconds after that incredible feeling washes over you, a trophy pops up to confirm you have done something great. That's how you use trophies. To emphasise an actual achievement, not create a fake one. Or, continuing with the Dark Souls example, you can use trophies to create an additional challenge and encourage exploration: "Collect all the unique Weapons" or "Learn all the spells". These are examples from Souls series, but also found in hundreds of games. But "kill 500 monsters of this type" or "use the weapon you don't like a 1000 times" - those are not achievements. Those are artificial progress bars. A boring game's life support system.

A great example of achievements done right is Rayman Legends. This game could do just fine with no trophies whatsoever. You get lucky tickets, you unlock new paintings, you rescue Teensies, you get new creatures, you collect lums, you earn bronze, silver and gold cups, you unlock new heroes. All these things please the player, give him/her obvious gameplay perks. The fact that collecting all the creatures unlocks an achievement is just a nice additional bonus. The player wants to have them all regardless of the achievement, because they are fun to beat up and give you lums - a currency that is actually useful. Me and my girl have spent long hours with the game to collect all 700 Teensies, not to get a trophy for collecting them. We wanted to beat the crap out of every single map, because it was just fun, rewarding and unlocked more maps for us to play.

Unfortunately, since achievements have been invented, more and more games are getting away with boring gameplay. So what could just as well be about as entertaining as hitting a rock with a stick a million times? You will get an achievement after 10 hits. Then after 20. Then you will get one if you hit it 3 times in a second. Oh, and then you will get one if you keep your rhytm for half a minute. And for level two, you can use your left hand. Oh, and just so you don't notice that you are just hitting a rock with a stick all the time, here's a cutscene. Now, since you got an achievement for watching the cutscene, get back to hitting the rock.

Is that how we want the games to evolve? Even the best developers use the achievements to make up for the boring parts. Take Diablo III - it's a really good game, but think how much better it could be. If only the developers focused on introducing some new, interesting stuff to higher difficulty levels instead of scaling up mobs and giving achievements for slaying hundreds of them. Yes, exactly - rewarding the player for hitting a rock with a stick a few more times. And it's Blizzard who did such a shameful thing! The studio that did great job on achievements in StarCraft 2, where they encouraged the players to hone their skills, learn new tricks and beat new challenges instead of a mindless grind.

I am far from being against achievements. There's a fair part of me as a gamer that's an achiever. And even this part of me doesn't like being tricked to believe I am actually earning something when all I did is hitting the stone one enough times.

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