#124: Sense of achievement

Write slightly too much about the problems with platform-wide reward systems. (25G, Very Rare)

#124: Sense of achievement

Years ago, in an ancient issue of Edge, we mentioned in passing that whoever had come up with the term ‘cheevos’ as shorthand for ‘achievements’ should be fired into the sun. A few months later, I took my seat on the flight to E3 and got chatting to those around me. When I introduced myself, one of them raised an eyebrow at me. “I hear you want to fire me into the sun,” he said. I tensed up instinctively, fearing a punch, but it turned out that Dan Webb, founder of xboxachievements.com, was an absolute sweetheart. Our paths crossed several times over the years and we always got along well. But still. Yeesh. For a moment I thought I was in for the most awkward flight of my life.

I’ve never really understood the fervour with which people chase achievements, though I can certainly admit they are a fine invention. The speed with which the idea was pilfered and implemented across rival platforms is obvious testament to that. But I have never felt competitive about my Gamerscore, or been drawn to a game because of its ‘easy 1000Gs’. I have played hundreds, probably thousands, of games since these things came along. I have only got the full set of achievements five times.

  • Costume Quest, which my wife and I played in co-op and we wanted an excuse to keep playing after the credits, when only a couple of trophies remained and they were easy enough to mop up;
  • Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting on XBLA, because I played the game exclusively over a period of several months and they all unlocked organically;
  • Slay The Spire, which I’ll come back to later;
  • Dash Of Destruction, the actually-quite-good XBLA Doritos advergame which infamously coughed up all its achievements in about 40 minutes, that a friend and I burned through while bored/high one afternoon;
  • Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Episode 1, which I had no idea about until I just looked it up on trueachievements.com (sorry, Dan. Not your website, I know).

So, yes, not really my vibe, this whole achievements business, though I bear no ill will to those who are motivated by such things. My problem, I think, is that to the extent that achievement design best-practice exists, it appears to be built on a foundation of first rewarding me for doing things I was going to do anyway — complete the tutorial, ding; beat a boss, ding  — and then once the credits have rolled, getting me to play a game for longer than I’d like while doing things that feel either arbitrary or unexciting. Seeking out every collectible; clearing every map icon; finishing the campaign on the highest difficulty; racking up outlandish numbers of kills with certain weapons, that kind of thing. The first Gears Of War had an achievement that required you to get 10,000 kills — ten thousand kills! — in online ranked matches. I mean, come on.

To me the best achievements are those that encourage you to play a game in a certain way, whether by nudging you out of your comfort zone or by setting you a challenge you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. To my mind the classic example is Pacifism, an achievement in the seminal 360 shooter Geometry Wars that tasks you with surviving the first 60 seconds of the game without firing a bullet. It’s pretty difficult — while it feels simple enough to start with, it turns out that enemy density scales up pretty rapidly when you’re not shooting anything — but according to trueachievements.com (sorry Dan) over 72% of Geometry Wars players have both sought out and unlocked that achievement. I think that speaks volumes.

Another favourite is Hit The Trail, from Red Dead Redemption, which asks you to journey from Blackwater, in the far northeast of the game’s sprawling map, to Escalera in the far southwest, between sunrise and sunset. This sounds simple enough, on the face of it. But you have to do it in a Free Roam session, where gangs of online arseholes have long since learned that the route is ripe with easy pickings, and spend their evenings lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting achievement-hunters. This is just brilliant, I think. It gives structure to something that is inherently open and sprawling, gently funnelling groups of players together for impromptu deathmatches. And the very concept is as close to the cowboy fantasy — forming a posse at sunrise, heading out on the trail with loaded guns and no idea of what lies in wait, but a grim certainty it will not be pleasant — as Red Dead gets, online or off. I never got the achievement, you know. Too many gank squads. Perhaps I should give it another go; I assume the servers are a good deal quieter these days.

Then there’s Slay The Spire, an outlier here because I’ve somehow played over 3,000 hours of it, and you might bloody hope I’d got all the achievements by now. But Spire is a bit special in this regard, just as it is in so many others. Sure, there are the industry-standard dings for beating bosses and completing the game with each character. But beyond that lies a deep well of challenges that, on first inspection, appear impossible, and take a great deal of thought and experimentation — and luck, yes; this is a Roguelike, after all — to surmount. But the fact that these things exist in the game show you that they are possible: you can, indeed, complete the game with a deck of five cards or fewer. You can complete the game in less than 20 minutes, beat a boss on turn one, and play 25 cards in a single turn. I’ve got them all, and in the process I learned a lot about how the game works, and got better at it as a result. Individually, none of Slay The Spire’s achievements rival Pacifism or Hit The Trail for sheer brilliance. But taken holistically, as a suite of optional challenges that show how well this sort of thing can be done with a little creative thinking, it is hard to top.

That aside, the fact that the two achievements that stick most firmly in my memory are from games that are now, respectively, 16 and 12 years old says everything about my lack of engagement with these things. I think it also says a lot about the extent to which most games design their achievements at first around basic critical-path progression, and then rapacious completionism. At their worst, achievements break games down into some pretty boring component parts, stripping away the magic of the developer’s craft and turning them into a series of rote, repetitive activities. What should be a way to express your devotion to a beloved game too often feels like an act of submission to it instead.

And in a way, the very concept of achievements feels a little out of date. While they might have worked in the 360 days, when most games were designed around trackable verbs — kill, collect, complete — they are poorly suited to the new breed of thoughtful, explorative, or narrative-driven works that are less likely to be filled with activities your console can tally up in the background. Hence Sam Barlow’s opening lament up top, and the fact that the litany of ‘easy achievements’ guide posts to be found across the more SEO-obsessed parts of today’s games media are dominated by short, experimental puzzle games and artful narrative adventures.

Developers of such things have no choice but to include achievements — it is mandated at the platform level — and so naturally they breadcrumb them out along the critical path in games that are typically designed to only be played through once. These games deserve better, I think, than a system that was designed without them in mind, and has failed to keep up with the tremendous rate at which the medium has evolved since achievements were first introduced.

Still, if you like this sort of thing, more power to you; I am not the type to judge. Unless you call them Cheevos, of course, in which case I’m afraid you still should be fired into the sun. Sorry, Dan. Please don’t hit me.


Another quiet one! I think perhaps industry readers were wary of piling on the subjects of Wednesday’s edition, which is fair enough. Today’s edition feels ripe for discussion though, does it not? It was, after all, first inspired by a MAILBAG entry. Hit reply or furiously mash the button below, and let’s pick things up on Monday.


  • Embracer Group, the poster child for the current wave of game-industry consolidation, lost $431m last year despite sales revenue almost doubling. “Our growth model is unchanged,” CEO Lars Wingefors trumpeted. The firm expects the coming year to be much improved, and points out it that across its sprawling studio and publisher network it has 223 games (!) in development.
  • Xbox has outsold PlayStation in Japan for the first time in eight years. Series S alone sold 6,120 units last week, while sales of both the digital and physical PS5 totalled just 2,693. This is seemingly more about supply than anything else — the previous week Sony shifted almost 50,000 PS5s — but still, a win’s a win.
  • Blizzard is facing a potential class-action lawsuit over the sale of card packs in Hearthstone. Arizona resident Nathan Harris filed suit after his child spent $300 in the game using his credit card, and Polygon reports that “the complaint takes issue with Blizzard Entertainment not disclosing odds for these packs, as well as its failure to implement ‘parental control features,’ and the right for minors and their parents to get a refund.” One suspects Blizzard will just point to Hearthstone’s user agreement, which of course a minor should be reasonably expected to have read in full before accepting, but we’ll see.
  • Untroubled by such things is Ben Brode, Hearthstone’s original game director, who quit Blizzard in 2018 to set up on his own. The first fruits of that endeavour, the superhero CCG Marvel Snap, was unveiled this week and seems destined by its very concept to be absolutely enormous.
  • Take-Two’s purchase of Zynga will complete on Monday, after shareholders of each company voted to wave through the deal. This is the biggest acquisition the game industry has ever seen, a record that is unlikely to stand for long.
  • A great investigation here by Hit Points chum Rishi Alwani into the troubled development of the Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time remake at Ubisoft’s studios in India, and what it means for the future of the country’s game industry.
  • The new-gen tart-up of The Witcher III will be done before the year is out, according to CD Projekt Red. The company took the project off original developer Saber Interactive last month, saying it would complete it in-house but declining to offer a release window, suggesting it was in a right old state. I quite fancy playing this again, because I mainlined it for review and barely remember any of it, and have been watching the (vg!) Netflix adaptation recently. But I loaded it up the other day and thought it was rather showing its age.
  • Max Hoberman, CEO of Texas studio Certain Affinity, has told staff that the company will cover relocation expenses for any employee whose healthcare rights are impacted by the potential overturning of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court. “This is all incredibly concerning on a personal level, and also as a business owner and leader,” Hoberman wrote in a company-wide memo. “Naked politicisation of private health matters is hurting our business in tangible ways, including our ability to recruit staff.” Chapeau, sir.

You’re all caught up! A warm welcome to the 100-plus new readers to have joined the crew this week. For the uninitiated, shares are the absolute lifeblood of a newsletter: with no algorithms to game, the only way for Hit Points to grow is for those that read and like it to spread the word to other people. Whether it’s a share on the ol’ socials, an email forward, or weirdly formatted, syntactically questionable flyers glued to local lampposts, every little helps. Whatever works for you.

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Have a tremendous weekend, whatever it has in store, and I’ll see you all on Monday.