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  • 06/09/09 05:34 PM
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    Game Design Round Table 2

    Game Design and Theory

    Myopic Rhino

    Round Table Topic

    Everyone likes candy. Diabetics or people on a strict diet may nay-say such a statement but, for the rest of us, a bit of candy here and there is a little treat composed solely of sugar and happiness. Achievements in video games are similar class to a piece of candy. Players can gain achievements for beating a level in a normal progression of the game, beating a hard boss without using certain items, completing an entire play-through of a game without dying, or, in the case of the recently released Mega Man 9, beating the entirety of the game five times within twenty-four hours. Once these achievements are earned, gamers can wear them as a nerdy badge of honor for others to gaze in awe upon. Or something. When done correctly, achievements are a source of positive reinforcement that encourage forms of player behavior or, better still, can foster an entire metagame with the potential to drastically increase the amount of time players can get out of a single game.

    Recently, games have been experimenting with achievements as an actual in-game economic unit for progression or earning new items; the best example of this being Valve's Team Fortress 2. When Valve started rolling out major game updates which completely revamped and updated existing classes with new items, balancing, and a huge host of achievements, the dynamic of Team Fortress 2 changed completely. When the Medic class update was rolled out, suddenly players were joining achievement farming servers where they could game the system to unlock achievements as fast as possible so that they weren't "behind the curve" when it came to playing in a proper Team Fortress 2 match. This put any TF2 players who wanted to earn achievements in a more natural, casual way at a huge disadvantage. This system persisted through the Pyro and Heavy class updates, but as of the most recent update, Team Fortress 2 has a new unlock system. This new unlock system, essentially, removes the need to farm achievements for the new items and instead relies on a tuned system of "random drops" for items. This both allows and promotes a more enjoyable behavior for gamers to get achievements (in a natural, non-competitive way).

    Achievements which are completely separate from any primary game mechanics can still lead to undesired behavior, though, especially in the multiplayer arena. Halo 3 had an achievement which required gamers to get three sword kills immediately in a row and, as a result, I knew friends who would go into multiplayer games with no other goal than to get a sword and try to get that achievement despite the fact that this style of play was in no way conducive to the goals of the team-focused gameplay mode that he was in engaged in. Is this a problematic side-effect of achievements?

    The current model of achievements allow for game designers and developers to implement a relatively simple, persistent way of rewarding players for in-game activities. That said, do achievements promote an undesirable play style (in single- and/or multiplayer)? How should achievements be paired with in-game mechanics and economies (if at all)?

    Achievement Unlocked

    It is often a habit for young gamers -- or those who simply don't buy many video games and get a abnormal amount of play-time out of a single game -- to set arbitrary goals for themselves to increase the value that is extracted from their games. Can I do this whole level without dying once? Can I do this whole game without dying? Can I beat this racing game using the worst car available?

    Once the intrinsic value of a game has been exhausted, gamers come up with their own way to play a game. This is one of the principle of emergent game design (encouraging players to play their own game and be constantly rewarded for it with new experiences) being applied to games which are definitively linear or scripted. One of my personal favorite games of all time is Max Payne. I played Max Payne through about two or three times but, by the time I started my fourth play-through of the game, I had the goal of beating the game without ever using the bullet time functionality. It's a difficult endeavor, but one that encouraged me to experience the gameplay in a completely new way. And, sometimes, I've altered the way a game is meant to be played in an effort to play the game how I thought I'd find more enjoyable during a first play-through. This is how I approached Bioshock on PC when I discovered that it was a bit easier than I generally prefer so, in an effort to challenge myself a bit more than the game would have liked me to, I opted to never use a single Vita-Chamber (so, when I beat the game, in the game's eyes I beat it without dying once).

    It's out of this sense of player-set goals, challenges, and meta-games that achievements were likely born. But, having written about this before, I'll now turn the focus over to this Game Design Round Tables' contributors for further discussion (and more commenting by me sprinkled throughout).

    Luke H. Thompson writes about his grievances with games which give achievements for "just playing the game:

    I'm not sure I really care for achievements that you get just for playing the game. The Lego Indiana Jones game that came with the Xbox seems to give an achievement for each level/area of the game, something you're supposed to be doing in the first place as part of the game. However, it also rewards achievements for being a "True Adventurer", getting so many of the lego currency thingies per level/area, something that can be difficult to do in later areas. FarCry 2 seemed to have some good achievements. Accessing every safe house. Having entered every km of the map. Etc. Still, it offered achievements for performing routine/required gaming actions. IIRC, each mission completed for either of the opposing sides, something requird to advance the story, would warrant you an achievement. I suppose, though, that these are a "side effect" of MS, since they likely wouldn't want a handful of achievements dishing out a couple hundred points each. As for replay value, I think it could work nicely. If there are mutually exclusive branches for certain areas of the game(one of which must be taken), then rewarding an achievement for the branch, despite it being "just for playing the game" doesn't seem quite as bad to me. You're still going to have to play through the game again, or at least up to that point
    I am not sure how I feel about this. First, though, I'm going to attempt to categorize/generalize the kinds of achievements I've seen in most of the games I've played. This is not a formal list, and one I'm coming up with in an off-the-cuff manner (as a response to the above post), so it's by no means a definitive list, but here we go:
    • Achievements that can be earned by playing the game the way it's designed to be played. (Standard Progression)
    • Achievements which require players to play the game, exploring a little bit and doing some side-quests or some such. (Optional Progression along a Standard Progression)
    • Achievements for completing specific, hard-to-come-by challenges along the Standard Progression. (Challenges)
    • Long-term achievements for just playing a multiplayer game in a standard way. (Multiplayer Standard Progression)
    • Achievements for completing specific, hard-to-come-by challenges in multiplayer. (Multiplayer Challenges)
    • Achievements done in good spirit or humor that memorialize gameplay occurrences. (Awesome)
    And, riffing off of this list, most games that I've played on the Xbox 360 -- a system which has a very strictly adhered-to policy when it comes to achievements -- mix up their achievements across a number of these various categories. Typically, a game will give somewhere in the range of 30-40% of its achievements to players who manage to play through the entirety of a given single-player game and leave the rest of the achievements to those players who want to endure certain challenges or master the multiplayer arena.

    Simon Ferrari continues the thread with a superb, detailed, and very well thought-out post that covers a lot of ground. The quote I'm choosing to highlight doesn't really do his contribution proper justice, but it expresses a great use of achievements:

    [...] [G]ood achievement structures can be double-edged swords. My third favorite 360 game, achievement-wise, is Halo 3. I loved unlocking armor pieces to customize my avatar with (although I wish they had more-than-aesthetic affects on gameplay)--I was the only person I knew with the Security gear for a really long time, huge nerd cred. As [Trent] shared in his anecdote, though, the multiplayer achievements encourage farming and cheating. Bungie has gone through phases where they crack down on this behavior, but in the early days of the game or after a new expansion it's hard to find a match where half the players aren't trying to boost in some way. I've never played a public Grifball match where one of the eight players didn't start asking if they could farm for a Killionaire and end up team-killing out of anger. Following Petrie's comments on Mega Man 9, I prefer in-game MP challenge systems such as CoD4's; these allow designers to craft elaborate achievement structures without giving players the incentive to boost just to show off their sum Gamerscore to others. I think multiplayer global achievements are possible, but they need to be designed around aspects of play that can't be easily exploited (win x# matches with x class or weapon, for instance).
    And Mark Kalvelage wrote a good counter-argument to the one I expressed in the introduction to this Game Design Round Table regarding the Halo 3 sword-based achievement:
    Farming servers and matches are lame, I agree, but I don't necessarily see a problem with the sword example in the OP. Because of the achievement, he used a weapon and play-style that he might not normally use and therefore got a little bit of extra replay value out of the game. He also made the match slightly more interesting (at least for the other team). Maybe he jumped around like an idiot for the entire match and died repeatedly, but potentially he could have also saved the team by swording everyone in the back. The point is he tried something different. I think that's the main attraction of achievements: encouraging different gameplay. Combined with restrictions on the environment in which you can earn them (to prevent farming) and in-game incentives (different armor ala Halo 3, or 'Perks' ala CoD4), they're worth having.
    One of the first contribution of the thread came from Josh Petrie at ArenaNET and covers a very interesting perspective on multiplayer-focused achievements aside from condoning a certain, perhaps undesirable (or desirable) play-style:
    I have minor issues with achievements tied to multiplayer aspects of a game [...] Achievements tied to multiplayer components of the game are also tied to the success of the game. By which I mean, if the game flops, or is just not wildly popular, it may be very difficult to get into a multiplayer game, let alone a game with the parameters required to earn some achievement -- this hurts players, and further harms and already failing multiplayer community since it encourages farming. Anybody have the World Domination achievement for the XBLA port of Marathon? If so, let me know, we need to set up a game. If pressed I would say that I think multiplayer achievements are not a good idea, or at least that they haven't been done to my satisfaction yet. This is a pity because the multiplayer environment offers an order of magnitude more options for creating clever achievements due to the dynamics and interactions involved in having other humans involved.
    Aaron Miller wrote a succinct, well-worded post about the benefit of achievements as a means of commemorating designer-anticipated "cool moments" in gameplay:
    One good use of achievements is to memorialize extraordinary moments. The Xbox Live Achievements I enjoy most are the ones that reward lucky, odd, and crazy things. Crackdown has an Achievement for using the harpoon gun to pin three or four people to the same car. It also has an Achievement for leaping from the top of the tallest skyscraper and falling (harmlessly) into the bay below. Those aren't just accomplishments. Those are memorable moments. Trophies and Achievements can help preserve such fond memories.
    Ben Medler has a very insightful take on achievements that I, and others in the industry, have discussed before: does the institution of achievements actually diminish the experience and creativity of players? Are players less imaginative in ways to play through a game as a result of achievements than they would have been otherwise?
    It's not that achievements are bad but that they are limiting (in their current form). They are a set, finite, and objective account of a player's experience in a game. Some Gamedev posters mentioned that achievements could lead them to act in the game differently than what they normally would have done; for instance, Simon stated that the achievement to "complete Ravenholm using only the gravity gun" was something he would have never done without knowing about that achievement. But does the fact that he only completed that achievement because he knew about the achievement diminish the act of attempting to use only the gravity gun in the level? Should Half-Life 2 have made it clear enough where Simon would have been motivated to attempt that achievement regardless if there was a reward for it or not?
    Taking the discussion in another direction, Simon Ferrari makes a return to the thread to talk more about the excellent example of Call of Duty 4 which ties a number of its challenges (most of which are not Xbox-live recognized achievements) to gameplay and the game's persistent character development:
    This is why the Call of Duty 4's unlockable system was so awesome. First, all the multiplayer achievements were only rewarded in-game and not on a meta or global level. They asked you to basically display battle prowess in every way possible while avoiding things like Halo 3's Steppin' Razor that Trent cites. While the CoD4 perks gain in power as one's level progresses, the strength of the weapons you unlocked actually decreases (on average; some were superior). In order to gain experience faster you're encouraged to get X amount of kills with every weapon, which leads you to use the less powerful unlocked weapons. Then they rounded the whole system off with the prestige level that asked you to remove all your unlockables in return for a new rank and bragging rights. Really well-designed system there. I do wish that some of the milestones in prestige level were shown on as global achievements, but I understand why they did it (was a fairly risky move, as by the time the game came out many players were already saying they preferred games that awarded them with achievement points).
    To close out this Game Design Round Table, Kelly Helfenstein recounts the days when he instituted ad hoc achievements to enrich his playing of games that were already familiar to him. This is, likely, the impetus for the creation of a standard, persistent achievement system in the first place, and the most important aspect of achievements to keep in mind when designing them for your own games.
    Growing up playing video games, we used to do achievement type stuff anyway. How many points can you score in Super Mario Bros in 60 seconds, play a round of golf using only a 9 iron, or (my personal favorite) can you really play this level with your eyes closed? That kind of stuff was fun because we were trying to find new ways to play with a toy. Kinda like an exercise in creativity. When I encountered achievements that were like, "Run from point A to B in X seconds," I remembered doing that sort of stuff with games when I was a kid. I took a couple shot at one or two of the achievements, thought hey that was a fun idea, and then set the remaining achievements on the list aside so I could complete the game. And I still like doing the sort of thing where I think of stuff on my own. Fallout3, I decided I wanted a library in my home so for awhile I was determined to collect every book I could find. Eventually I got bored of this self induced quest and moved on. In Elder Scrolls III, it was shoes. Good times.
    Thanks for another great thread of discussions guys (and I am really thinking about relenting on my choice to not partake in these while they occur). If this edition of the Game Design Round Table interested you, check out the actual thread. I have some craziness with starting a new job and moving to Salt Lake City going on over the next few weeks, but hopefully the next Game Design Round Table will be posted in three-four weeks time.

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