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!

Attack of the Backlog! – Intro and September 2018 Round-Up

In Attack of the Backlog!, I’ll be discussing my attempts at tackling an ever-growing backlog of games, from both a campaign/story and an achievements completion point of view. For the sake of keeping track of things, I’m only going to mention games I’ve actually finished and/or completed that month, as otherwise it will quickly become quite confusing.

As the games industry grew over the last few years, so too did the means and avenues of acquiring said games. Through a multitude of sources, there seems to be no end to all the games one can get. Be it sales, bundles, freebies, special promotions, free-to-play games and so on, the entire industry has never before reached this high of a ratio between content frequency and availability.

One of the games we’ll be looking at today and possibly the most aesthetically pleasing of them.

Which, in turn, has led to an unprecedented growth in peoples’ backlogs. No longer do we buy a game or two per month, playing them to the exclusion of anything else until they were beaten and mastered – nowadays, thanks to the fast-paced marketing of it all (and helped along by some basic human impulses of the “get it now, while it’s cheaper” mentality), it’s not uncommon to have tens, hundreds or in some cases, even thousands of games waiting to be played on a shelf, a drawer or (more commonly) a digital storefront library.

I undertook a personal challenge at the start of 2018, following the realization that (at the time) the rate I was buying games at would effectively mean I’d be in my 70’s before managing to complete most of what I own. Thus, I would limit myself to the below rules:

  1. Complete at least three games per month – “completion” in this context being either “seeing all main story content” or “completing that platform’s achievement list” – there are certain games where the time commitment is too big for a realistic 100% achievements completion, so in those cases I’ll count completing the main story as sufficient.
  2. Only buy games at a ratio of one new game per six completed ones. This was chosen to limit my backlog growth, help me prioritize my purchases and still allow me to get any games I truly felt were must-haves.
  3. Work on as many platforms as possible. This goal was more loosely defined as, at time of writing, my backlog spreads across multiple consoles – the PS3, PS4 and Vita; XBox 360; Nintendo 3DS and Wii U; and of course, PC (which is divided between several digital retailers such as Steam, GOG etc.).

As of time of writing, this “challenge” has been successfully going for nearly ten months – a summary post will be made at the end of the year but, for now, I’ll discuss some highlights from each month, starting with September.

September saw my backlog limited substantially, with no less than seven games finally being completed:

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Special Edition (Steam)
  • In Verbis Virtus (Steam)
  • Splice (Steam)
  • The Marvellous Miss Take (Steam)
  • Cortex Command (Steam)
  • Babel Rising (Steam)
  • Severed (PS Vita)

Of these, we’ll be having a closer look at two cases I found most interesting – In Verbis Virtus and The Marvelous Miss Take. Please note that in this context, “interesting” does not necessarily equate to “good” but rather that it can allow for in-depth analysis and discussion.

The Marvellous Miss Take

This game was simultaneously one of the most intriguing and most disappointing games I’ve played in a while – a stealth-based isometric puzzle game of sorts, which follows the titular Miss Sophia Take, heir to her aunt’s collection of art exhibits which were appropriated by the game’s antagonist, in a series of heists carried out to reclaim said art pieces. Joining her are suave gentleman thief Harry and street-wise pickpocket Daisy, with each character having unique abilities and play styles.

The initial excitement

The game is presented in a charming, slightly exaggerated art style which immediately feels fresh and cheerful, with a certain 80’s vibe being readily apparent. This is further reinforced by the game’s soundtrack, which does a good job of giving the game a heist movie feel, a la Ocean’s Eleven.

As seen here, the randomized pathing can sometime make things too easy…

The game takes place across five chapters, for a grand total of 25 levels, where players are tasked with guiding their character of choice through multi-floor art galleries with the aim of stealing various art exhibits and making it to the exit unnoticed. As mentioned, each character has a unique ability set and specific objectives built around those abilities – for example, Daisy’s levels focus on using her abilities to pick guards’ pockets for safe keys, while Harry’s are designed around his slower movement speed and superior capability for causing distractions and manipulating guards’ patrol paths.

Initial impressions of Miss Take were very positive. The retro aesthetic feels fresh and unique, the dialogues are well-written and provide a good balance of levity and exposition to break up the heist parts of the game, the level design and its slight alterations depending on which character you’re visiting a level with keep things fresh and exciting – the list goes on with how many things the game gets right.

So, then, why did I describe it as being disappointing? Well, about that…

The game’s central mechanic, stealth, is for the most part pretty standard as far as isometric games go. As seen in other genre classics like Commandos, you can always see an enemy’s visual (and in the case of guard dogs, olfactory) range, shown as cones or circles originating from each enemy – simply put, standing in these means that their respective guards can see you. This is combined by a noise system, where running characters produce loud noise which can attract nearby guards to investigate, as well as a cover system (where you can take cover behind obstacles to avoid detection).

As a system, it works reasonably well, simple to use and easy to combine into more complex strategies (such as deliberately using running noise to re-position guards to more advantageous locations or using cover to skirt around camera placements and so on). Unfortunately this is where the game’s first big flaw, the camera, makes a mess of things.

So, what went wrong? 

Due to some weird design decision, the overhead camera is tethered to the character you’re controlling, meaning that exploration is limited to their immediate surroundings – this, coupled with an extremely zoomed-in view of the game, leads to a lot of situations where guards that are just a few steps off-screen can spot your thief before they have time to react (and yes, there are indicators for nearby guards but, lacking any information on how far away they are or what obstacles are in the way, these indicators are largely a distraction more than anything else). This camera tethering further complicates things when you need to move quickly, either to slip through guard patrol paths or to escape pursuit, since it has the annoying tendency to “bounce” when panning around too fast.

…or quite hard, if you’re unlucky.

This is further exacerbated by the controls, which are in many cases imprecise – a fatal flaw in a game that requires timing and precision to avoid detection. In several occasions, mostly while trying to get close to walls or cover, the game would register movement commands slightly offset from the mouse pointer’s actual location. This often led to the character attempting to go around the wall or obstacle in question, and inadvertently into a guard’s cone of vision or a surveillance camera’s detection range.

Even so, by themselves these would be easily-forgiven issues. Sadly, the third (and most egregious) issue the game has is what really ruins the entire experience: randomized guard pathing AI.

Guards and NPCs in Marvellous Miss Take do not have preset walk and patrol paths (with a few exceptions for stationary guards and CCTV cameras). Instead, they are coded to move in a certain direction until they reach a wall, obstruction or door, in which case the game chooses a random new direction for them to take.

I found this to work extremely poorly in most cases, with guards often getting stuck in a path between two doorways (as their AI would randomly decide to go back the way it came from at each door) for minutes at a time, or in some cases causing multiple guards to converge from across the level into the room I was hiding in, leaving me boxed in and trapped with no way to escape (and through no fault of my own, such as drawing a guard’s attention).

This becomes even more problematic when considering that, for two of the three thieves, the game also has timed elements – there are usually three objectives in any given level level: steal all story-related loot (the only mandatory one to complete a level); steal any optional loot available; and depending on the character you control, either stay unnoticed for the entire level (Harry) or beat it under the level’s par time (Sophia and Daisy). The third objective can (and will) often go awry if you’re looking to complete it, as the random nature of the pathfinding AI often means you’ll be stuck waiting for guards to randomly get into a more advantageous position, which either costs a lot of time or several retries.

Wishful thinking

The most disappointing thing about this game is that it has so much potential – a more fluid camera system and preset guard routes would be all it took to have made it feel more like you’re planning a grand, daring heist and less like just waiting for the randomness to swing in your favor. While on the subject of changes, I also believe that the addition of a custom level editor (something that the more recent stealth offering Aragami did post-launch, much to their fans’ delight) would offer the replayability that (I assume) the developers had in mind when implementing the random factors, while also allowing for a more involved and active community to form around it.

Distractions are a viable tactic, at least.

As it stands, while the game is still competent in its execution of the core stealth aspects, it is weighed down by a series of design choices that don’t mesh well together and therefore lead to much frustration.

On a final note – What about achievements?

The game’s achievements are, for the most part, straightforward. There are a certain few which are awarded for displaying mastery of the mechanics (such as successfully keeping a guard suspicious for a full minute, which requires clever use of the sound distraction mechanic and the level layout), but the majority center around either completing all objectives with every character and collecting all optional loot.

Like mentioned above, the frustration potential is apparent and often noticeable, but even then it’s a short game to complete – my time to 100% ran just a bit over 14 hours, a couple of which were definitely caused by randomness-induced level restarts.

And speaking of frustration potential…

In Verbis Virtus

Another of my long-overdue games, In Verbis Virtus is an interesting experience, again marred by  some really weird design decisions. The player takes on the role of a wizard exploring an ancient ruin in pursuit of hidden knowledge, with only their voice at their disposal – quite literally.

Let’s talk magic 

Design-wise, In Verbis Virtus is for the most part a typical physics-based puzzle FPS. During the game, the wizard gradually unlocks a variety of spells which can affect their environments in a variety of ways – lighting rooms; pushing and transporting heavy objects; melting ice; freezing water; and so on and so forth. Thus, puzzles have been built around using and combining said spells, ranging from simple “carry the object to its correct place” to more complex “combine spell effects to navigate treacherous environments” deals.

Some puzzles are as simple as just lighting the way.

Unique to this game, however, is the means of activating these spells, which is solely via voice control. Each spell is activated by its component words spoken into the PC’s microphone, usually two or three words in length, with choices of English and the game’s own Maha’ki language.

For the first few hours, I found this quite interesting – the ruins are cleverly designed, with a series of interconnected rooms and puzzles, each requiring smart application of the (initially) limited toolkit of spells at the player’s disposal. Having to speak the words for each spell is novel enough to keep things interesting for a while. However…

Speaking in languages

While the core mechanic of the game – voice-recognition used to activate in-game abilities – is an interesting innovation, the majority of the game (anything past chapter 1) is not properly built to complement it.

Combat, for example, often relies on casting a series of spells in quick succession while simultaneously avoiding any incoming attacks with very precise timing, something that voice controls are not particularly suited for.Similarly, a lot of the latter puzzles often center either around precise and fast casting (such as having to navigate swinging platforms by teleporting on them while freezing them to stop their movement briefly) or by repeatedly using the same spell in quick succession (such as having to rotate several items around a room with the Telekinesis spell).

Some weird lens flare effects, likely a problem of the engine.

These elements would not be problems when utilizing a more traditional control scheme but when every spell requires a two- or three-word phrase to be spoken out loud (and with a lot of the spells sharing words between them) it becomes very easy to mispronounce or say the wrong word or get the timing wrong while under pressure. In turn, this leads to frustration, mistakes and eventually makes the whole experience feel more like a chore to get through. Of course, similar issues also arise if you carry an accent that the game doesn’t recognize – something which I’ve thankfully not had happen to me too often, but even so, the voice recognition is not always accurate.

Voicing questions

I feel that in this case, the game would have been better off by including an alternate casting scheme, where players can bind spells to the keyboard/mouse rather than have spellcasting being controlled solely by mic. Yes, it would defeat the whole purpose of the game but as an option it would be hugely beneficial to anyone with an accent; non-English speakers; people without microphones; or even just to provide players a less frustrating alternative to the oft-imprecise voice controls.

Alternatively, I would have loved to see the game do away with all the time-sensitive stuff and combat, and focus more on the puzzle aspect, preferably emphasizing multi-segment solutions (a good example of which is a sequence in chapter two, where the player is called upon to solve a few single-room puzzles that unlock elements in a third, overarching one).

At least the work put into the environments is obvious.

As is, while the core mechanics are extremely enjoyable and novel, I would only recommend this game as a curiosity or as an interesting case study in voice-controlled mechanics.

Achievements, you say?

As an achievement game, In Verbis Virtus is more or less a run-of-the-mill affair. Aside from the “end of chapter” usual fare, it also boasts a series of collectible-specific ones (which can become unobtainable if you trigger a chapter change too soon), a few that unlock on each spell’s first use and a couple of grind-based ones (weirdest of which is one that requires that the player saves at least 50 times). Happily, there are also a few less conventional (and therefore more interesting) ones, usually awarded for creative use of certain spells or locating certain hidden interactions. Rounding up the list are also two for getting each of the game’s endings, as well as a couple linked to the game’s various enemies.

At the close, the game took around 17 hours to fully complete, including a few hours’ worth of frustration and reloading a previous save once I figured out I had missed one of the collectibles – all in all, not a particularly interesting list but, as mentioned previously, it does the job competently.

Which games did you play in September? Got any backlog-related horror stories to share? Tips and tricks for keeping it in check? Share below in the comments section!

So, Let’s Talk About That Hiatus and Future Plans.

Part One – What On Earth Happened With You, Dude?!

This post has been a long time coming; to be precise, around five months give or take a week. My main issue with the majority of my drafts was how to explain the whole hiatus thing without coming across as overly defensive or apologetic – some drafts felt a bit too aggressive in tone, others too dramatic.

In the end, here’s a brief summary of What Happened In The Last Year™, so humor me for the next few paragraphs before we talk about what’s in store for this blog:

Overtime at work: This was the major cause for initially stepping away from blogging (and a couple of my other projects, like streaming and expanding my internet presence, such as it is) – as I might have mentioned, since October 2016 my workplace had been in a constant state of crunch due to severe issues with our database (the initial migration from physical to digital was done… poorly, to be charitable).

This in turn led to 12-14 hour workdays during the week, with additional weekends of paid overtime; in itself not a bad situation from a financial standpoint (every extra hour got paid at a premium) but it also meant that a lot of fatigue and stress got built up – especially since the project’s timeline estimate of 6 months eventually became around 17 or so months (October 2016 to February 2018).

During this time, I also went through a few changes in domestic status. Back in May 2018 – and after nearly a year of extensive research and inquiries with realtors – I finally managed to start renting on my own (where previously I had to rely on roommates to make rent, due to the ludicrous discrepancies between wages and rent prices).

The new apartment is better location-wise, much more recently-built than any of my previous ones and came with a series of perks, such as gated parking lots, solar panels for heating, climate control and various other quality of life improvements, which were certainly welcome.

As a result of the move (and subsequently having to actually furnish the place), I had to invest a large chunk of my free time into the apartment – which naturally came at the expense of updating the blog and other projects.

Meanwhile, I had also tried to keep up on my streaming schedule – this will of course be familiar to any of my readers that found out about this blog from my Twitch channel, but due to the above-mentioned reasons, my stream schedule went from a regular 2-per-week (plus Fridays for Gallant Gamers, a charity stream group) to a more irregular schedule of “whenever I felt I could be entertaining” – this manifested mostly once or twice per fortnight (or even less sometimes).

So, there you have it. There were certain times where I could maybe push in an update or two but the thing with a hiatus is that, the longer it lasts, the harder it is to get things going again. Therefore, we should now discuss what’s to come for this blog (and the various projects attached to it).

Part Two – Getting Things Rolling Again… Probably.

The plan, insofar as the term can be used in this case, is to aim for the following (yes, I like lists):

Update the blog at least once a week – subjects may vary so those little pithy taglines below the post header will be a bit more vague than they used to be. I remember getting quite into the whole “Let’s Play” aspect so perhaps more of those will be forthcoming (assuming I find a suitable game). Expect more achievement talk too, as I’ve always been quite fond of that particular facet of gaming (even though I preferred to not mention it as much in this blog).

Get a regular streaming schedule going again – I’m looking at two or three times a week, but no promises until I can figure out how to work it around my other obligations. I’d also love to get involved with the Gallant Gamers team again, though that is admittedly a bit further down the line… for now

Look into rebranding the blog. This is a major decision for me, as the domain name is not set to expire until May 2019, but it all boils down to a simple issue: the whole premise of “gaming on a timer” is problematic for me; I can’t quite sustain the entire blog around the idea of not having enough time to play games (ironically, being forced to adhere to a single theme each week ended up wasting a lot of time on thinking and planning topics and blog posts, whereas writing something that had currently piqued my curiosity/interest was a much faster affair).

The main idea is to fully embrace what I do best: being indecisive (or rather, having a few interests too many). For now, the site will remain under the GamingOnATimer domain, but eventually I’ll have a look into better alternatives. As always, suggestions are more than welcome below in the comments!

…and there it is. A whole new series of promises to keep (or break, possibly) – certainly not the most impressive of plans but, as I mentioned way back at the start of this, the proverbial ball is now rolling – perhaps it will keep rolling a bit further this time around, perhaps it will come to a stop after a couple of weeks. The important thing, though, is that it rolls – for now.

If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to watch.

Arguing The Point – The Use of Achievements

In Arguing the Point, I’ll be taking a look at interesting debates regarding gaming, discussing my personal take on the subject at hand. This week, achievements and the usefulness (or lack) thereof.

In recent years, achievements have been enjoying a steady increase in popularity; from big-budget triple-A productions to one-man indie passion projects, new game releases with at least some achievement functionality have become the norm.

Naturally, this increase in implementation has also resulted in the appearance in a fairly new category of player, which I’d call the “achievement hunter” – these are players that have made a meta-game out of achievement completion, often dedicating hours upon hours into getting every single achievement a game has to offer (and, in certain cases, competing against others in the sheer amount of games completed thus).

This blog post topic was partially inspired by a Twitter exchange between Dave Gilbert (founder of Wadjet Eye Games, which have been steadily publishing amazing point-and-click adventure games since 2006 or so) and Richard Cobbett, freelance journalist/writer/game designer (whose most recent work is featured in the procedurally-generated choose-your-own-adventure sci-fi game The Long Journey Home by Daedalic Studios West and who has also done extensive work for various gaming publications such as PC Gamer, RPS, Eurogamer and so on), seen below:

Now, while I’m personally a big fan of achievements – or at least, I used to be, before family and work obligations cut my free time a lot shorter – I can see where comments like these come from. Achievements, at a first glance, are mostly extraneous in nature; usually dependent on client software (such as Steamworks or PSN) and often added as an afterthought or with the intention of padding out a game’s length by having arbitrary requirements (such as the ever-present “Kill X Enemies” achievements).

However, I’d contest that this is mostly a symptom of bad design on the developer’s part, rather than an inherent flaw of these systems. In fact, I would go even further and argue that achievements are at least as valid a focus for players as graphics, story or gameplay elements are. Here’s why:

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that, when done correctly, achievements can provide additional entertainment and value to a game. This added value might come from giving the player hints as to alternate outcomes to in-game events, acknowledging the player’s ingenuity, adding developer commentary to in-game actions and so on – there’s a lot to be gained with achievements, if implemented properly.

I believe that achievements should be seen and judged as features of a game, same as with any other gameplay mechanic, rather than the tacked-on annoyance that a certain part of the gaming crowd currently views them as.

Further, aside from the “added value” argument, there is also the question of implementation cost – arguably, even with the minimum of time taken to design, implement and maintain achievement systems, I’d argue that there is some effort required, which in turn means extra costs incurred during development (or rarely, during the post-launch update cycle).

Regardless of the length of time taken, there will be the need for a programmer to code the achievement triggers, an artist to create their icons, a writer to write, edit, proofread their names and descriptions (sometimes the same person for all three disciplines) – at the end of the day, any developer that makes use of achievements in any extent will have to allocate someone’s time (and consequently spend money) to make the dang things work.

In-game achievement tracker from the excellent Gemini Rue.

Therefore, if achievements do impact development through their time/money costs and provide at least some value (however small), in the same way that story, graphics or gameplay features do, why not judge them in a similar way? Why not at least consider that some players will and do value a game’s achievements more than other, more traditional elements?

I believe that the “achievement hunter” tag should carry at least as much weight as other player categories; eventually, with more and more developers learning how to properly design and implement them, I would argue that they can become a major enough aspect of games to be included in the reductionist view of “graphics vs. story vs. gameplay”.

Of course, not all features are created equal; achievement systems are, by design, an extraneous, optional feature (as they depend on the existence of other features to fulfill their intended function), but as argued above, there is untapped potential here; I feel that, with time, these systems can mature into a feature that can complement and perhaps augment a game’s overall user experience.

What are your thoughts on achievements? Do you aim for 100% completion in games, or do you view them as unnecessary additions? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below!



Time’s A-Wastin’ – Achievements on a tight schedule, part 2

In the previous “achievements on a tight schedule” post,  I talked about one of my biggest pet peeves regarding achievements – specifically, how they are becoming a crutch for developers to inflate their game’s playtime through forced repetition or by relying heavily in otherwise out-of-context or out-of-place RNG events.

While I’ll admit this was less of an issue back when I could afford the time investment required, they still felt boring and uninspired, something that was implemented by the developer with the sole goal of padding out a game’s run time – in short, in otherwise perfectly good, engaging games I felt like I was wasting my time by going after 100% completion.

Achievement Get
Getting 100% can be a way of life…

As a counter-point to the above, let’s have a look at the way some games make good use of achievements that extend your play time without being boring. For example, let’s take Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and the way it handles class achievements (and yes, I know there’s a lot of RNG or grind-based achievements in that game as well, but bear with me, I’m trying to illustrate a point).

In Team Fortress 2, each of the playable classes has a series of achievements that the player can unlock by utilizing their chosen class’s capabilities beyond shooting enemies; in essence, they are achievements that reward the player for learning the intricacies of each class.

In this example, let us consider the Heavy, the game’s “tank” class. Heavies come with the highest base health of all classes in the game, as well as a moderate-to-high damage output and rate of fire, while suffering from the lowest base movement speed in the game. Consequently, this makes them ideally suited to defend locations against other players, where their low movement speed does not matter as much.

Valve has worked these mechanics into the game’s achievements, positively reinforcing the good practice of Heavies defending objectives; by awarding players that stay near or on control points with the Purge and Gorky Parked achievements (killing opponent’s that are capturing their team’s capture points and killing opponents while standing on a capture point, respectively), Valve ensures that players are subtly clued in on the Heavy’s main function without so much as a tutorial message displayed.

Another good example comes from the Scout class; Scouts are generally the most fragile class in the game, with medium damage output and high movement speed (plus the ability to do a double jump) – this makes them ideal for… well, scouting and hit-and-run tactics. For example, the player is encouraged into adopting this playstyle with the Brushback (stun 50 enemies who are capturing points) and Closer (destroy 3 teleporter entrances) achievements, again without the need for overly long tutorials or loading screen tips to inform the player of their options; just for taking advantage of their chosen class and its strengths.

One of the less-known side effects of Pacifism. Inventory Clutter!
One of the less-known side effects of Pacifism. Inventory Clutter!

Achievements that reward mastery of the game’s systems aren’t the only good examples, though; if done properly, they can give the player hints on how to play the game in a non-standard way (and also acknowledge the player’s ingenuity). A good example of this kind of achievement comes from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and by extension, its DLC The Missing Link.

In particular, the Factory Zero achievement is awarded for completing the entire DLC campaign without upgrading your character, firing any weapons or using any explosives. While restricting exploration somewhat, this achievement also encourages the player to rely on the game’s non-combat systems: mainly stealth and melee takedowns/kills. This makes a Factory Zero playthrough feel significantly different than a “regular” one (also partially due to how the game is designed), which increases playtime significantly without resorting to mindless repetition.

For a Factory Zero run, hope you like the "bloodied" look.
For a Factory Zero run, hope you like the “bloodied” look.

In The Missing Link there is also a great example of how achievements can provide hints on progressing through the game; without wishing to spoil much, there is a certain decision you need to make in the latter part of the DLC campaign which forces the player to choose one of two groups of people to save – saving the one dooms the other to death.

However, for players that have been thorough enough, the All of the Above achievement can be gained by finding the hidden third option, which enables you to save both groups. For players that have discovered this in-game, it is a great way to acknowledge their ingenuity; for players that have read the achievement description, it is a good way to hint at other outcomes they might not have considered.

So, there you have it! A couple ways where achievements can be both fun and beneficial to do (at least in-game), which also tend to be somewhat lighter on time requirements – or at least, they make time spent not feel like time wasted.

Do you bother with achievements in games? What are some fun achievements you’ve done, or which ones did you have the most trouble with? Let me know in the comments below!



Time’s A-Wastin’ – Achievements on a tight schedule

I have always been fond of achievements; even back before their actual appearance (be it Gamerscore, Steam Achievements, PSN Trophies etc), I’ve had fun competing with friends for high scores, scouring games for 100% item completion, trying to find easter eggs or secrets – in essence, the exact same things achievements are awarded for nowadays.

It's all about the percentages...
It’s all about the percentages…

Fast-forward to the present, however, and I find that I don’t have the time required to actively hunt achievements any more, at least in most modern games. This, of course, is in part due to tight schedules and the ever-dwindling amount of free time I can spare nowadays, but another, not quite as important (but by far more annoying) reason is the increasing popularity of what I like to call  “filler” or “padding” achievements.

In my mind, the biggest offenders that fall under the “padding” category are ones that require that the player(s):

  1. Play through the exact same content X amount of times to unlock,
  2. Perform a certain in-game action for X amount of time to unlock or
  3. Do in-game actions for a random amount of time, until the achievement randomly unlocks.

The first type is usually prominent in most (if not all) modern games; they usually go a bit like Kill 1000 Enemies or Collect 100,000 Resources – forcing the

player to replay content long after it’s stopped being fun in order to fill a bar with an arbitrary number of kills or items collected and so on.

I don’t mind this type if the game is built around content repetition (i.e. MMOs, competitive online or Diablo clones), because when going into those, I already have the understanding and/or expectation that I’ll be replaying content multiple times (the reason for which this expectation is OK is best left for a future blog post).

Take achievements like Batting 500 in Diablo 3, for example; this requires that the player completes 500 bounties, randomized mini-quests that have a chance of awarding certain, otherwise unavailable pieces of gear. As Diablo 3 is built around repeating the same content constantly, in the hopes of receiving better items to improve your character(s) with, this achievement feels less like an arbitrary inclusion to extend play time and more like a means of acknowledging the player’s efforts.

In sharp contrast, I recently completed the achievement Temper, Temper in Typing of the Dead: Overkill, an on-rails typing/rail-shooter hybrid. In this achievement,  you are asked to kill 30 Rage mutants across all playthroughs, but with your average playthrough only having 8 or so of these enemies, what you are actually asked to do is to replay certain levels multiple times in order to accumulate enough kills. Seeing as there’s little to no reason to replay the game, achievements notwithstanding, this achievement felt a lot like a slog, something that the game’s developers might’ve put in to pad out game time.

A few games do this type better, though. When these achievements happen naturally (i.e. can be completed in a single playthrough i.e. during the regular course of the game), they are just fine in my books – perhaps pointless in a way, but otherwise harmless. Even better? Some games might use this achievement type to encourage players to experience content they wouldn’t have otherwise seen; for example, having an achievement that requires just enough enemies and/or items to be found including the ones hidden in secret or out-of-the-way areas would (hopefully) make the player want to explore the game world, getting more out of the experience without having to replay content they’ve already seen.

The opposite of time-wasting achievements: Speedrunning ones!
The opposite of time-eating achievements: Speedrunning ones!

The second type, however, has little redeeming value – while at first glance the “X amount of time doing Y” achievements might seem to be a subset of the “Kill X” or “Collect Y”, their key difference is that they require specific amounts of time spent rather than certain content (re)played.

One of the most egregious examples of the above achievement kind is One Year in Universe Sandbox, where the game requires that you spend an actual year’s worth of time playing it (for reference, that means an approximate 8,640 hours playing a game which is basically a a set of physics models and interactions between planets).

While I can’t think of any good examples of this type of achievement, the inverse kind is usually fun, if no less frustrating for a casual player: speedrunning achievements that ask the player to complete certain parts (or the entirety) of the game in as little time as possible. At their best, these achievements are doable in less-than-perfect times, as long as some research and critical thinking are applied – see as a great example DLC Quest’s Man That’s Fast! achievement.

The worst kind of achievement for the starved-for-time gamer, however, is the third type; achievements that are in some way or another have criteria affected by randomness. For a great example of this, let’s take a look at Borderlands, specifically the Claptrap’s New Robot Revolution DLC. In this DLC, there is a series of achievements that are solely luck-based – specifically What A Party!The Lubricator and It’s So Realistic!

These achievements require that the player collect a series of nonsensical items with no value, gameplay or otherwise (such hilarious examples as panties or oil cans) until a certain, arbitrary amount is collected. Setting aside the fact that these are not shared between team mates (thus penalizing people that play multiplayer over those playing single player), the main issue is that the rate that these items appear is utterly random, if not downright atrocious; from personal experience (back when I could afford such time-wasters more comfortably), it is quite possible to spend upwards of an hour just to get one out of all the above items, and even then, you’re not guaranteed to get the ones you’re missing instead of duplicates of ones you already have.

But it’s not all doom-n-gloom for the achievement hunter on the clock…

Up next: How developers (sometimes) get achievements right.