Gaming on a Timer

A Casual Glance – Achievements Vs. Gameplay


In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week  we’ll be looking into various cases of achievement implementation and how they interact with the gameplay aspect of a game, whether successfully or not. with examples from speedrun and no-death/low-death achievements.

As a subset of game design, achievements can be both a versatile and intriguing tool to use for guiding a player’s experience – from hinting at possible alternative or hidden actions (such as Dishonored‘s “Clean Hands” achievement, awarded for completing the game with no enemies or story targets killed) to providing incentives to engage more with specific parts of the game (i.e. any variation on the “Kill x number of enemies” ever), if implemented correctly, they can greatly boost the enjoyment and entertainment value of a given product.

LIMBO is a great  example of trial-and-error design….

What happens when achievements are not implemented correctly though? In a recent discussion I participated in at the 100Pals Achievement Discord server, the subject of speedrunning and no-death/low-death achievements was discussed, giving rise to some very interesting observations on the subject of poorly-implemented achievement design.


Firstly, let’s examine what a “speedrunning” and what a “no-death” achievement actually is, just to establish a baseline for our examples:

As the names suggest, a speedrun achievement is one that requires a distinct segment of the game to be completed within a rigid time limit – such achievements might revolve around a specific mini-game (such as Warframe‘s “Counter Intelligence” achievement, for completing any Cipher mini-game in under 5 seconds), a full level or extended set-piece (Legend of Grimrock‘s “Dungeon Runner”, granted for completing the dungeon’s first floor in under 4 minutes) or even the entire game (DLC Quest‘s “Man That’s Fast!” achievement, which unlocks upon completing the entire original campaign within 12 minutes).

…especially in some instant-death situations, where it becomes extremely punishing to newcomers.

No-Death or Low-Death achievements on the other hand (also colloquially called “hardcore mode”, “perma-death” or “deathless” achievements by the community) are achievements that are – predictably – awarded for completing certain segments of a game without the player character dying (or otherwise reaching the equivalent of that fail state). Good examples of these achievements are LIMBO‘s “No Point in Dying” (complete the game with five or less deaths in one sitting); or Hard Reset‘s “Resistant” (complete any level other than the first without dying (Normal difficulty)”. Note that, in this case, merely reaching a fail state wouldn’t be considered a “death” unless it requires either restoring a previous world state or otherwise significantly invalidates a player’s progress (which is why we don’t see deathless achievements in games with instant player respawns).


With that out of the way, let’s return to the actual discussion that prompted this post – the conversation began with the mention of LIMBO’s aforementioned “No Point in Dying” achievement and quickly went through a variety of other games containing no-death achievements, eventually proceeding to include speedrunning achievements as well, all with one major theme: Are these achievements fun to accomplish?

The people in favor of these achievement types argued that their major appeal lies within the challenge they offer – a way to show mastery over the game, skillful play and intimate knowledge of the game’s inner workings which would then be rewarded with an achievement. Meanwhile, people arguing against their use would focus on one common thread – it made a previously-enjoyable game “not fun” or similarly feeling more like a chore or a bore to play through. Both sides seemed to raise valid points and it got me thinking – as I might have mentioned in previous blog posts, one of the indicators I use in defining a badly-implemented achievement is the “fun” factor, i.e. does this make an otherwise fun game lose its appeal? 

Going back on previous experiences, I realized something: speedrun and deathless achievements aren’t inherently boring or bad, but rather they are not a good fit for all game types. Consider a game like Braid – slow, ponderous at times, requiring a critical eye and some amount of lateral thinking in interpreting the designer’s puzzles in each level. In other words, a slow experience. Looking back on my time playing Braid, the only achievement I remember distinctly not liking was “Speed Run”, completing the entire game in under 45 minutes – mainly because it didn’t mesh well with the core design of the game (even if I hadn’t quite realized this at the time). In contrast, achievements in Mirror’s Edge I found to be a lot more enjoyable, even though a big part of the list is comprises of speedrunning achievements.

Braid’s slow pace runs contrary to any achievement design requiring speedrunning strategies.

Why was that? Because Mirror’s Edge, unlike Braid, is built to encourage and promote a “must go fast” mentality in the player – everything in that game, from the conservation of momentum in Faith’s movements to the level design which promotes vertical over lateral traversal, the entire game is designed to facilitate speed – something integral and expected in the process of speedrunning. Therefore, any achievements that do require completion of content under time constraints work with the game’s design and systems rather than against or despite it.

Similarly, no-death achievements are a lot less effective and enjoyable if the game in question relies on what is usually referred to trial-and-error design, in which the player is expected to have some form of prior knowledge of the game in order to complete it (most frequently through dying or retrying to learn the “proper” steps in traversing the game). A good example of this is the aforementioned LIMBO, where a few sections have nearly unavoidable deaths (not factoring the player’s luck in positioning correctly), which mean that a no-deaths (or in this case, five or fewer) achievement assumes the player has already gone through (and remembers) the game at least once in order to reliably be able to earn it.

This is a major issue with achievement implementation in general – a lot of examples can be made within games, in which achievement systems and  gameplay do not mesh well. Anything from having to kill a large amount of enemies in a game with limited enemy supply and/or long respawn timers, to collecting items that provide no actual gameplay enhancement, to performing in-game actions with no bearing or consequence during regular play (what I’d call meaningless actions, aside from unlocking an achievement) – all of these are generic examples that can be found in most any game with achievements or trophies.


As to why this keeps happening, I believe the reason is two-fold. Primarily, achievement systems are in a weird place at the moment – they are recent enough to not have been fully studied and explored, but established enough that they are one of the systems expected by players, i.e. a developer’s customers. Thus, from a developer’s point of view, games must include achievements (since their customers expect and even ask for them, and in all likelihood their competition already provides the same service) while still not having the proper “know-how” and experience to fully realize their potential as engagement tools.

Perhaps, one day all achievements will feel as good as this… sans the meatball-hair, of course.

At a lesser degree, I believe that the current fragmentation of the gaming community has contributed in the players themselves not having a clear idea of what they want out of an achievements system. This becomes apparent when considering that there are a multitude of different services and digital distribution platforms currently operating – Steam, Origin, GOG, uPlay, Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and so on and so forth, all of them vying for customer exclusivity and, more importantly for this topic, all of them coming with their own proprietary achievement/trophy systems. As a result, multiple communities – each with different goals and expectations – have formed around most of these platforms’ achievement systems which I suspect have made it extremely difficult to provide consistent and focused feedback towards designers and developers.

In writing this, I realize that a certain subset of the gaming community (or perhaps even the majority) will loudly proclaim that achievements are “useless” or “tacked-on” – in a sense, they are correct. However, I feel that this is more a problem of how they’re implemented, rather than an inherent flaw of the system itself. Achievements have the potential to engage and enrich an experience – a lot of recent advancements in gamification have shown that their real-life counterparts can and do offer tangible benefits when implemented correctly – as long as they are implemented in a thoughtful and precise manner, while complementing a game’s core design philosophy.

Unfortunately, aside from a few broad observations and recommendations, I don’t think this is a “problem” that can be easily solved. The fragmentation certainly cannot (although some communities have recently started branching out, with help of multi-platform tracker sites such as MetaGamerScore, which make it easier to track progress across various platforms), and the developer side is one of those things that needs to just run its course, so to speak. Certainly, as time passes and the achievement hunting community grows, the need for research into achievement systems and design will grow as well and, with it, a greater understanding into how to better engage and entertain a player. In the meantime, direct developer feedback is probably the best solution (where applicable) – telling developers how and why achievements work (or don’t) is more than likely the best approach to improving these systems for everyone.


As an afterword, I’d like to mention that I am by no means an expert in this field. Most, if not all of my experience is based on personal engagement in the subject and thus might be skewed or insufficient. Even so, I feel that it provides at minimum a good starting point for discussion, much like the Discord channel debate that sparked this article in the first place – perhaps, with a large enough pool of differing opinions, achievement implementation can reach its full potential and truly enrich a game’s experience.

Do you have any examples of properly-implemented achievements? Achievement design that clashes with the gameplay? Drop a comment below!

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