How gameplay achievements took over the video game industry

Gamification predates video games, but it was video games that systematised the mechanics and aesthetics that gamification appropriated—most of all, achievements.

Achievements have existed in video games for decades. As early as 1980, Activision’s games on the Atari 2600 came with manuals promising fabric patches if you reached a particular high score or completed a challenge.6 Owners of Dragster could take a photo of their TV showing a time under 6 seconds, post it to the company, and get a colourful World Class Dragster Club patch in the mail. Sew it onto a jacket and the whole world could marvel at your gaming prowess.

Ten years later, the Assembly Line’s puzzle game E-Motion offered a set of digital “secret bonuses” on completing a level “without rotating to the right.” These provided more instant feedback but lacked the bragging rights of Activision’s patches. However, it wasn’t long before MSN Gaming Zone would launch in 1996, allowing users to share “badges” they’d earned for their accomplishments in casual games like chess, bridge, and backgammon on the MSN instant messaging network. Online social achievements reached their logical culmination in 2005 when Microsoft launched the first truly platform-wide multigame achievement system in the form of the Xbox 360’s Gamerscore.

Unlike previous video game achievements which were stranded on their own separate island for each game, Gamerscore introduced a common currency, with up to one thousand “G” available for each Xbox game to split across multiple achievements. Players’ Xbox Live profiles displayed the Gamerscore for every game they’d ever played, and since Gamerscore was directly built into the console, Xbox-branded notifications ostentatiously appeared whenever players unlocked a new achievement. The new achievement system was impossible to miss, which predictably attracted a frenzy of activity and competition. Players were no longer limited to competing to being the best at an individual game—now they could show they were the best at all Xbox games.

Microsoft’s goal was clear: increased player engagement—that is, more time spent playing and talking about Xbox games—and with it, increased profit. As Robbie Bach, senior vice president of the Home and Entertainment Division, said at the Xbox 360’s reveal, “Let’s say you haven’t figured out that final achievement in [Project Gotham Racing 3]? Just ask a friend online.” Two years later, Aaron Greenberg, group product manager for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, noted, “We see gamers coming back to us because we give points, other platforms don’t.”

Until they did. Valve added a similar multigame achievement system for its Steam gaming platform, Sony introduced Trophies for the PlayStation 3 in 2008, and Apple added its own Game Center in 2010. These systems were little different from Microsoft’s—the template had been established and all they had to do was extend it as widely as possible.

At this point, it’s worth considering whether gamers actually appreciated the addition of achievement systems, given that engagement is not the same as perceived value. In theory, achievements can be helpful markers of progress, recognising how much a player has improved in skill. They can also hint at fun ways to play the game they hadn’t considered, like E-Motion‘s bonus for not rotating to the right. This kind of increased replayability can be a win-win for both the player and the game developer. But at their worst, achievements prod players into persisting at boring, repetitive, and frustrating tasks that they’d have otherwise abandoned, simply in pursuit of “finishing” the game—not by completing the final level or beating the final boss, but by collecting all the achievements. The problem is, because players differ, these two outcomes can exist in the very same game: when game designers build in too much of this “optional unfinishedness” to support extended replays, they make it hard to completely finish a game, as Mikael Jakobsson, research coordinator at MIT Game Lab, has noted.

Stories abound of players obsessively collecting achievements. On April 9, 2017, Hakam Karim collected his 1,200th PlayStation Platinum trophy after spending anywhere from 70 to 120 hours per week gaming, Karim is clearly exceptional, yet many gamers allow achievements to affect how they play despite feeling confused or ashamed of the fact, as Fruit Brute on the GayGamer.net Podcast confessed: “Rez HD is great. I’m really, I’m just so excited that it came out. I played the other day and just, like, played most of the way through it. And it’s got, you know, it’s got some achievements on there so . . . I know, I talk about achievements a lot, but I’ve turned into a complete achievement whore. It’s really bad. I crave them. Hahahaha. I don’t know why.”

Another player, Dustin Burg, explained on the Xbox 360 Fancast why he played Yaris, a poorly reviewed game advertising Toyota’s new subcompact car. Yaris‘s only virtues were that it contained achievements and was free, but that was enough for Burg: “I saw somebody on my friends list who had an achievement in Yaris. So then I suddenly was like, well, I want an achievement too. I don’t know who . . . I just don’t like Yaris but I played it and I should at least have one achievement I figure, because it’s . . . stupid. God I hate that game.” Jakobsson identifies these social comparative aspects of achievement systems as “coveillance,” a kind of peer-to-peer version of the surveillance systems so common in workplace gamification.

Many gamers clearly find pleasure in collecting achievements and can do so in a reasonably healthy way, but it’s also true that achievement systems enable gaming habits that many players find distressing. Microsoft’s Greenberg claims this was all a happy accident. Celebrating the milestone of 2.5 billion achievements unlocked on Xbox Live in 2009, he said, “We never anticipated this reaction . . . where there are achievement fan sites and people playing games that they would never play [for the achievement points],” proudly adding that achievements had driven incremental game sales. In 2013, Steam went a step further by introducing a complex economy of virtual Trading Card achievements. Sets of cards can be “crafted” into badges that themselves can be levelled up and turned in for rewards like custom profile backgrounds and store coupons. Demand was so high that in 2017 Valve was forced to remove 173 “fake” games that only existed to offer easy-to-win trading cards.

After I explained this trend to a friend who doesn’t play video games, he told me he understood precisely. He and his wife were avid board game players and fans of the encyclopaedic (and free) BoardGameGeek website. Along with reviews and forums and a marketplace, BoardGameGeek allows users not only to record which games they own but log all of their play sessions. He confessed he’d become so fixated on playing as many games as possible to increase his BoardGameGeek “score” that he wasn’t sure whether he was having fun anymore. Even as the novelty of Xbox and PlayStation achievements faded in the years since their launch, Microsoft’s achievement template transcended the digital realm.

If we find it hard to ignore achievements in video games, at least we can laugh at them. The 2008 video game Achievement Unlocked parodied the new craze, with the gameplay being nothing but collecting achievements for feats such as standing still or simply moving left. It was so popular it led to two sequels. Or perhaps we can change them: though Zombies, Run! includes achievements, we only added them reluctantly after some players asked for them. Today, we focus our efforts on story-heavy “milestone emails” sent to players from in-game characters after they finish missions. In truth, they aren’t a million miles from the real-world, personalised letter you’d receive from Pitfall Harry himself (via Activision) if you achieved a very specific score in the 1982 video game Pitfall!

Video games don’t need to include achievements to make themselves tiresome. I still recall the shudder of horror I felt when opening the map for Assassin’s Creed Unity, a 2014 action-adventure set in Paris. Previous games in the franchise had plenty of activities marked on their maps, but Unity‘s was festooned with so many icons it was hard to make out anything except the Seine. One Reddit post complained about the game’s 294 treasure chests and 128 collectible cockades: “The Unity map gives me mini panic attacks every time I look at it … I panic, because it is just clustered with icons. Just chests everywhere. I don’t know how I’m going to dent it. Getting all the chests and cockades is all I need to do for my Unity [Platinum trophy] . . . and I am scared because I have no idea how I am supposed to do this.”

Most people don’t play the Assassin’s Creed series because they like unlocking treasure chests and chasing down ribbons. Instead, they talk about the joy of traversing beautiful historical cities and landscapes or immersing themselves in the rich story. And yet Unity went further than any previous instalment with tasks almost entirely tangential to the main thrust of the game: side quests, fetch quests, and literal collectibles. More grind than ever, as one player put it: “I know the die hard fans of the series will like it because it means they have more to do. I like this game and franchise but when I saw that map I thought what have they done to me, it is taking forever to get everything, so many chests and it does feel like a grind as you need items or money to get better in the missions as they get harder and harder. this game is not easy thats for sure if you dont grind.” Sure enough, one of those die-hards pops in to reply, “I love it. I can pick up the game for like 30min to an hour and just fool around and have fun.”

Some players really do enjoy hunting down endless chests and cockades, or at least they find it relaxing (in a Vice interview, the filmmaker Adam Curtis argued it can be calming and liberating). And when games are being criticised for their high prices of seventy dollars and above, they don’t mind a bit of padding if it lengthens their potential play time; if you think that one hour spent playing a game is as good as any other hour, then a game with eighty hours of notional gameplay is twice as good as one with forty hours. Most would recognise this as a gross oversimplification that ignores quality and variety, yet gamers continue to praise or criticise games for their length and supposed value.

It’s no surprise, then, that game developers and publishers might pad out their game’s advertised duration with extraneous tasks and quests—after all, some players like them! So although Ubisoft partly reversed course after the Unity debacle, the well-received Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Valhalla were still criticised for their insistence on grinding. As Polygon‘s Ben Kuchera noted of the former, “Grinding becomes all but necessary for most players … The late game includes a brick wall that you can have to scale by leveling your character to a certain point.”

Kuchera admits this isn’t such a big deal because the game is otherwise fun to play, until you realise the game will sell you the ability to jump up levels faster. A Permanent XP Boost costs 1,000 Helix Credits, equivalent to a $9.99 purchase—and this is on top of the game’s $59.99 launch price. It’s hard to see this as anything other than double-dipping, enticing die-hard fans with promises of dozens of hours of gameplay while profiting from those who only belatedly discover many of those hours are a mind-numbing slog.

In Ubisoft’s defence, there’s a limit to how much time and money you can productively spend in its games. Not so in freemium games (also known as free-to-play), which require no upfront payment. These games earn money either through advertising or increasingly inaccurately named “microtransactions” starting as low as ninety-nine cents but ascending to as much as a hundred dollars. Though self-identified gamers tend to look down upon the biggest freemium titles like Candy Crush, Homescapes, and Clash of Clans, these mobile games are more profitable and more popular than all but the biggest console games. Most of their revenue comes from big-spending “whales”: on Apple’s App Store as a whole, 6 percent of customers accounted for 88 percent of all spending on games in 2017, exceeding a yearly average of $750 per customer. The remaining 94 percent of users still contribute revenue, albeit much less, by viewing adverts and the occasional discounted microtransaction to skip the grind of an especially frustrating puzzle or opponent.

In multiplayer games, these low-spending “minnows” make another unquantifiable yet crucial contribution: they’re human cannon fodder. As one Clash Royale player puts it, “Part of the draw [for whales] is to be at the top of a game with millions of players. If there were only a few hundred or even thousand, no one would bother putting money into the game anymore.” A Game of War player talks of playing with “two princes from Jordan spending $5,000+ daily” and his time in Dubai with a “VIP” player named Stayalive77 who “spent millions of dollars to win the most competitive event for 6 consecutive months.” These aren’t tall tales—I’ve heard the same from other CEOs in the freemium games industry.

Fortnite, another freemium game made by Epic Games, skilfully combines monetisation and grinding in its seasonal Battle Pass system. Battle Passes cost around ten dollars and include countless costumes, avatars, dances, and backpacks. These goodies aren’t all available after purchase, however—you need to “level up” your Battle Pass in order to unlock them. Of course, this process involves playing enormous amounts of Fortnite by completing challenges like “destroying 3 toilets,” “finding 3 car parts,” or gaining one hundred headshots. One reviewer estimated it takes a minimum of fifty hours to fully unlock a Battle Pass. That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider this needs to be completed within the ten-to-twelve-week length of a season and is best completed through daily and weekly challenges, plus teaming up with friends. Another journalist put the time commitment at fifteen to sixteen matches every day. True, there is nothing compelling players to fully unlock their Battle Pass, except for the Fortnite‘s ever-cajoling user interface and the nagging feeling that if you don’t, you’ll have wasted ten dollars. Battle Passes are now common throughout the games industry, with Halo Infinite‘s pass including sixteen to eighteen hours of daily challenges, helpfully leaving just enough time for a few hours of sleep.

As with Assassin’s Creed, if you have the money, you can pay to skip Fortnite‘s Battle Pass grind. And if you don’t? You can keep playing, happy to die a dozen times a day in the knowledge that at least you’re entertaining someone wealthier.

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