All About Achievements

No, this isn’t a post about setting goals, or life hacking, or arranging things into 43 neat little folders. While I love reading about-and even practicing-that kind of stuff, I’m not so big on writing about it. This is a post about Achievements, with a capital ‘A’, as found on the Xbox 360. Yes, another video games post.

For the uninitiated, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (and the original Xbox before it) utilizes the Xbox Live network for playing games online, downloading new content, and so on. In order to play games on the 360, you have to create a gamertag. This is your avatar, your nickname, and your registered account for Xbox Live with Microsoft. Attached to that account is a reputation, a five-star rating which is voted up or down by other gamers on the service. This tells people whether or not you’re a dick when you play online, basically. There are also Achievements, which are awarded for completing various activities within the games. Every full retail game on the 360 is required to have exactly 1,000 Achievement points, and every game on their Xbox Live Arcade download service is required to have 200.

This weekend I got my 10,000th Achievement point, so I got to thinking about them. How important they are, what kind of impact they have on the game and how it’s played, and whether or not they actually add any value. For some people, they’re some kind of badge of honor. Something to be taken very seriously and worth spending a great deal of time working towards. Those people are generally called “Achievement Whores”, which has both good and bad connotations, depending on who you ask. Others completely ignore them and only ever obtain the achievements that come from playing the game normally.

So where do I fall in the Achievement spectrum? Somewhere in the middle, I suppose.

On one side, I’ve never gone out of my way to play a game I wouldn’t have otherwise just to get some Achievements. There is a list of notorious Achievement Whore games that have very easy Achievements, most of which aren’t terribly good games otherwise. They include Avatar, which you can get all 1,000 points in about 15 minutes, King Kong, which you get all 1,000 just for finishing the (fairly short) game, and Madden NFL 2006, where you can apparently set the computer to play against itself and get all 1,000 in a matter of hours just by hitting the start but every so often. That’s not my bag. I’m not going to play a crappy or uninteresting game just to score some points.

On the flip side, I do read what the Achievements are for a game before I start playing it. Anything that’s outside the normal game play but would only be a minor detour to get, I’ll do so. Otherwise, I play the game just to play the game. If the game has any interesting Achievements that sound like they’d be fun or challenging to go back and get, I’ll play through again to try and get them.

A perfect example of this would be the infamous “Little Rocket Man” Achievement from Half-Life 2: Episode 2. To get this Achievement you have to launch a garden gnome into space. No, you didn’t misread that. You have to take a little garden gnome and place him in a rocket that will launch him skywards. Thing is, the only garden gnome in the game is towards the very beginning, and the rocket you have to stick him in near the very end. So you have to play through the entire game carrying this little garden gnome with you. Much harder that it sounds, and so ridiculous that I just couldn’t help but try it. I grew to hate that little bastard by the time the end rolled around, but then found myself missing him after I’d blasted him off to his ultimate demise. All for a lousy 35 Achievement Points. Well played, Valve.

I wouldn’t avoid a game because it has a bad set of Achievements either. Oblivion, for example, is one of my favorite games and it has a very uninspired set of Achievements. You get all 1,000 for just finishing the main quest and all the major side quests. No real challenge at all. Gears of War, which I also enjoyed quite a bit, has some of the most difficult Achievements around. You get practically nothing for finishing the game, unless you finish it on the most preposterously hard difficulty level, and most of them require a huge amount of time spent on the multi-player portion of the game. I enjoyed both regardless of the Achievements. One I nailed all 1,000 points for, the other less than 100.

So am I an Achievement Whore? No, I don’t think so. Okay, I’ll confess that I’ve even been known to go to one of the several sites that list Achievements and print out a list to check off from as I go. But I’m not going to knock myself out trying to score them all. When Avatar or King Kong turns up in my gaming history, you can label me so. Until then, I think not. Still, there is something extra satisfying to hear that little “bloop” sound effect and watch “Achievement Unlocked” pop up on the screen. Good times.

So there you have it. Are they important? Sure, to some level. A good set of Achievements can add a new dimension to a game. Offer new challenges, give a reason to play the game again, and encourage you to try things you might not have otherwise. They can even encourage good teamwork in multiplayer. That they add value can’t be argued. Sony has watched gamers who have both an Xbox 360 and a Playstation 3 choose to buy a cross-platform game for the 360 just because it has Achievements. They’ve recognized that value and are adding their own version of the Achievement system to the PS3 later this year.

And that 10,000th Achievement? “Daredevil”, from Burnout Paradise. Got 25 points for doing a double barrel roll. And yes, I was explicitly trying to do a double barrel roll to get the Achievement. Maybe I am a whore after all.