Achievements and trophies are outdated
When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005 it introduced a mechanic that would soon become one of the most important features of gaming ecosystems. I’m talking about achievements.
Achievements are a sort of digital reward you receive for completing certain objectives in games. These may vary from beating the game, to beating it under certain circumstances or doing side activities like collecting stuff, playing a big amount of matches,etc. Once you complete one of these you get an achievement (or trophy on Playstation or badge on Steam):
Achievements are important for many reasons. On one hand it allows the developer to lead the player into exploring different elements from a game they might have otherwise skipped. For example, it might reward the player with an achievement for using a concrete gun a certain number of times, or for doing a side activity of the game not related to the main story.
On the other hand it adds long-lasting value to a game, since players might not feel that they’ve beaten the game until they have earned all of its achievements. This contributes to gamers not reselling their games, since the later they try to do so the less money they’ll get for them. This, in return, means more money for the publishers and for the manufacturer as well since they sell more first hand games.
Last but not least, it creates a social layer on top of gaming ecosystems that makes gamers think twice about buying a game for a different system or changing systems altogether. The social layer comes to be because you start competing with friends on who has more achievements on a system. This makes changing to a different gaming ecosystem costly in the sense that you’ll lose all those hard-earned trophies. For this reason, many people buy a game for system X even if it runs better or has more features in system Y, just because they want to contribute to their achievements. For the same reason, they might stick with a console brand in a generational change. Console manufacturers benefit a lot from this.
Let’s now analyse how achievements work nowadays in Xbox One, PS4 and Steam:
Xbox One has by far the most fleshed out achievement program, although it can still learn some tricks from the other ecosystems. The way it works is that every achievement is worth X amount of points and players have a Gamerscore, which sums up all the points your achievements are worth. Every game has 1.000 Gamerscore points worth of achievements and DLCs have 250 Gamerscore points. Once you unlock an achievement you get a notification on the screen:
Some games have pre-set images for each achievement and other capture a screenshot of the moment you unlocked it. In the “Achievements” section of the Xbox you can see all your achievements for every game, compare it to your friends’ and see how much you’ve progressed on every certain one:
Something additional achievements have on Xbox is that each game has a specific set of metrics that compare how you are doing against your friends. In Gears of War 4, for example, it show how many headshots you’ve done, how many collectables you’ve found, how long you’ve played and other metrics and tells you how you rank in all of those against your friends. This again, is a way of keeping someone hooked to a game and increasing its replay value.
PS4 has a slightly different system. Achievements are called trophies and are divided in 4 categories: bronze, silver, gold, platinum. There’s only one platinum trophy per game, which is awarded once you’ve earned all other trophies. Some games don’t have a platinum trophy if it’s considered too easy to unlock all other trophies.
Instead of having a Gamerscore players are assigned levels based on how many trophies they’ve unlocked. It’s a bit obscure, since you can never know how many trophies away you’re from the next level.
One neat feature is that you can see what % of players have any given trophy. This is quite cool, since most people seem to not play much of the games they buy, so you end up earning trophies that few people have unlocked quite quickly.
This system lacks also the feature of seeing how much progress you’ve made in a certain achievement, making it hard to know how far away you’re from unlocking it.
How achievements/trophies should change:
It is clear that MS and Sony have to learn from each other. Both have features the other lacks. I will use the term “Achievement” for the new version as well, since it’s the most wide-spread term.
I think Playstation’s system of categorizing trophies in 4 classes makes a lot of sense, since it’s much more rewarding to unlock a gold trophy than a 50 Gamerscore achievement. It’s more tangible. It also allows for a different level of comparison, not just by comparing Gamerscores or Trophy Levels, but by comparing how many platinum or gold trophies you have vs your friends. Having more platinums give you a lot more street cred than an overall higher level.
That being said, I do believe that each category needs an amount of EXP (experience points) to be assigned to it, so that you can have transparency in terms of how many more you need to earn to reach the next level. If you happen to be close to reaching a new level you might play that “one more round” in order to try and get there, whereas if you don’t really know you just leave it as something that will eventually happen.
Same goes for the achievements per se. You need the system Xbox has of tracking progress of individual achievements to know if you’re close enough to invest that extra hour today or if you’ll leave it for another day. It basically tells you, for example, how many kills or levels away you are from earning an achievement. The more you play, the more games you’ll buy, the later you’ll trade them in, the more everybody wins.
I remember, back in the days of the original Gears of War, how a lot of players were obsessed with reaching 10.000 (yes, that’s correct) kills on multiplayer to earn the “Seriously” achievement. It was quite difficult, since kills in matches were less abundant due to its strategic nature. The reason why it wasn’t just another achievement is because it actually rewarded you with something more than some Gamerscore points, it would unlock a profile image only obtainable by unlocking this achievement.
This didn’t just keep people playing the game, but it had them put on a Gears of War profile picture once achieved that everyone else would see. Free advertising. I think all achivements (gold or above) should have such an image assigned with a border indicating if it’s a gold or platinum achievement. That way you’d be able to show off, even to people who don’t own a concrete game, that you’ve unlocked platinum medal X or Y.
Not just that, but I’d also give a wallpaper/theme for your console when unlocking gold or platinum medals to make it even more rewarding.
Games nowadays are constantly evolving. Not just in terms of the medium but in terms of individual games. If you look at Final Fantasy XIV, The Elder Scrolls Online, Destiny or The Division, you can clearly see that these are games that have evolved drastically over time after having been released. Platforms need to give developers a way of adding achievements beyond when they release DLCs. It would require a system of approval so that they don’t just create easy achievements in order to sell more copies to achievement hunters, but it’s needed. Otherwise you end up with games with a huge asymmetry between the game the achievements were made for and the game that those achievements are currently on.
There should also be timed exclusive achievements that can only be earned during a certain period of time. These shouldn’t count for getting 100% in a game, since someone might not be able to play the game during that period, but they would certainly bring some people back to games they haven’t played for a while, giving the developer a chance to show them new mechanics or content that might have been added.
Nintendo had a chance of launching a kickass achievement system along with the Switch, but once more it’s missed out on a great opportunity and is launching its console without any sort of achievement system, just like all the ones before it. Even Google Play has achievements nowadays!
I think there is a lot of room for improvement here and that it’s a win-win for everyone in the ecosystem to create and engaging and entertaining system. Hopefully someone will take the lead here soon and make achievements more rewarding.