Reviews - Updated on April 6, 2022

Modern video games are hard to imagine without a system of achievements, or achievements. They became especially relevant with the advent of Steam and other online digital distribution services. Which is generally logical, when the list of achievements is built into the game itself, it is available almost exclusively to you. But after all, these are essentially trophies, confirmation of the player’s triumph – of course, they need a public showcase, albeit a digital one.

At some point, achievement points, equipped with names and icons, turned into an obligatory part of fan service. So they began to gradually add even to long-released games. For example, BioShock, released in 2007, received its set of achievements 10 years later, with the release of BioShock: The Collection on Steam.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

This picture conveys the general impression of achievements very accurately.

Those who have always had their own internal system of records have also rebuilt, transferring them to Steam, Origin and other platforms. For example, the achievement gallery in Mass Effect is available in three different ways at once: through the main menu, inside the game (in the captain’s cabin on the Normandy SR-2, click on the medal on the table) and on the personal page in the online service.

Why did this system turn out to be so popular among gamers that it turned into an unambiguous must-have, which is used by both AAA projects and indies?

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

How it all began

A little background history. Back in 1982, at Activision, someone suggested stimulating Barnstorming arcade sales with the promise of a very real trophy – an ace stripe. It was necessary to complete the game within a certain time, and then send a screenshot to the company’s postal address in Sunnyvale, California.

Similar actions were carried out by game magazines and the developers themselves, but it was Activision that made history – perhaps because they actively continued to use this strategy (here you can see other patches, including those for the mega-hit of those years – Pitfall.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

Developer tips on how to become an ace.

The second step – from real rewards to programmed in the game itself – was made by E-motion (also known as Sphericule and The Game of Harmony). This puzzle toy was released in 1990 on the Amiga, and then was ported to everything that was possible (domestic old people could see it both on the ZX Spectrum and in the MS-DOS version). Passing the level in an unusual way, for example, without rotating the pieces to the right, one of the five secret levels could be opened.

The search for hidden elements and features in general appeared regularly in quests and strategies in the 1990s and 2000s, but MMORPGs gave new impetus to achievement systems. Online, it became clear that achievements are good when they can be presented to others. Even if it’s just an opportunity, and not something that people do all the time.

With the development of new consoles, as well as services like Steam and Uplay, serious research came into the subject, which found that the received and not received trophies, scores, leaderboards and many other elements of the achievement system are directly related to the level of player retention. From this point on, achievements are no longer so much developer humor and dialogue with players as a pragmatic tool in the cold war for consumers. And so today, any browser farm has a page of achievements that motivates the methodicalness of a psychopath and the stinginess of Plyushkin.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

This could not but cause a reaction from game lovers and developers. So, games appeared that ironically or not very much offer the gamer several thousand achievements. There are 12,320 of them in the town-planning simulator Its Village, the Logistical strategy is slightly behind (9,821 achievements), there are several dozen games with a spread of 1,000 to 5,000 achievement points. A series of flash games Achievement Locked looks like outright sarcasm – this is a primitive platformer that rewards you both for simple actions (click on the field, jump) and for tricky sequences (find three specific points and visit them in order).

A more sophisticated example of the achievement irony can be found in The Stanley Parable. This parable about the hero and the player behind him is designed to bring out classic video game stereotypes. She could not pass by the illogicality or even the absurdity of some achievements. There are 10 achievements in the game, some of them are obtained by themselves: for example, for trying to jump or for restarting the game. Others, on the other hand, seem inconceivably convoluted: keep the game running all Tuesday, not play the game for five years and come back, break the game to get the Unachievable achievement. Particularly original is the fact that this is one of the few games that offers you to reset all achievements. Yeah, apparently to re-experience the genuine experience of getting these achievements.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

The psychology of the trap

Not everyone is inspired by achievements, but many are. Simply because in such an achievement several motives that are common to many people are closely intertwined. So, this is a source of dopamine that requires repetition. A lot can be attributed to such motives, but I will touch on only the most obvious ones (already well studied by psychologists and neurophysiologists).

First, it is social prestige, exclusivity. To be not like everyone else, to be in the minority or special. In general, comparing yourself to others is a powerful motivator. And modern developers know this. The key trick is to persistently report what percentage of players received this or that achievement. In fact, are you like everyone else or among the 4.9% of the elect?

Traditionally, almost every psychological typology of players or gaming experience highlights a strong competitive motivation. Unsurprisingly, since games are often built around tough challenges and competition (against the game’s AI or a real person), it’s clear that they appeal to people who are motivated to do so.

The very idea of ​​achievement presupposes one or another limitation, and hence exclusivity. Therefore, people who are fascinated by difficulty are most attracted to the need to defeat other players. On the contrary, achievements like “You completed the first episode of the single player campaign” disappoint them.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

Second, it’s curiosity. Once you get into it, it becomes interesting what other achievements are out there, how to achieve them, even just what they are called and what icons they have. After all, this is also a kind of dialogue with the game and the developers: you know that they were created for you. The key tricks are a faded, black or hidden icon of an unobtained achievement, as well as intrigue in the style of “You haven’t received five more achievements, we won’t say which ones.”

Curiosity, however, is punishable. Even in games. For example, it may conflict with your sympathies in dealing with moral dilemmas. Or the way to achieve it can be surprisingly boring – especially for quantity achievements (do a series of actions A, then B, then C, repeat the procedure 1,000 times). Compulsion and boredom are not the most pleasant sensations, especially from the game.

In fact, the loss of freedom in decision-making kills an important part of the games in which the whole point is in your own mistakes. After all, as you know, you learn from your mistakes. Do they learn from pre-read information about all achievements and endings? Apparently, yes, but something less valuable.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

An original design decision: achievements in the form of stamps, which also hints at the need to collect a complete collection.

Thirdly, it is the desire for completeness and order. Do not underestimate this thing, it is typical for many and easily turns into obsessive-compulsive behavior, that is, into an obsessive desire to get all the achievements. Sometimes it’s enough just to specify the total number. For example, 0/64 is already a challenge for someone to reach 64/64. The key tricks here are the indication of the total number of possible achievements, as well as progress bars / counters.

The reverse side is neurosis, that you will do something wrong and you will have to replay. This is especially painful for those who like to explore the whole game, to see all the options for passing. Achievements become not just a problem, but they deprive you of a full-fledged experience. The player simply cannot help but check the guides and tips for passing, depriving himself of novelty and personal, spontaneous choice.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

Sometimes it just touches: well, play another 72 thousand cards, well, what do you need for the achievement?

Isn’t there too much of a good game?

It is worth noting that sometimes the user himself cannot part with the game, looking for all the hidden details and opportunities. The creator of the game is also interested in keeping the player, therefore, offering him additional “challenges” (up to “Hit the enemy in the head with a crossbow, dressed as a bearded woman and wearing a red wig” in the famous I Did This For A Cheevo / “All for the sake of achievement” from Fable), he gives him what he wants.

In fact, we sometimes need an extra stimulus, but we also need recognition. In the first case, the achievement motivates you to search for different paths, to think outside the box, or just have fun, absurd pastime. One example is BioShock Infinite, which encourages us to use different weapons and tonics instead of the usual ones. In the second case, the appearance of an achievement is a pleasant addition to pride in one’s success, for example, with increased difficulty or self-discovery of some kind of game trick/secret.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

What’s more, it’s just the humor or subtle references of the writers that are entertaining—for example, in easter egg achievements like Hasta la Vista in The Witcher 3, “Push the Fat Man” and “…From My Cold Dead Hands” in Prey, “How Do You Like Them apples?” in Assassin’s Creed III and “You can’t just take it and…” in LEGO The Lord of the Rings. And I especially like high-quality and funny achievements in domestic games, because the language context is still important. A great example is achievements in Beholder.

True, it is not entirely clear: if the game hints at high difficulty for the sake of achievements, is it really what you need? And if you are interested in the plot and recreation? Well, perhaps achievements can teach someone to make a conscious, adult choice, in which something is often sacrificed.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

I can say from my own experience: only over the years I learned to completely calmly abandon games, go through them in just one way and leave behind mountains of lost achievements. But it’s a rewarding experience. In everyday life and at work, the methods of manipulation are often the same: finish the work, you can’t leave it like that, you could give it your all, there are little things left (for which you will spend the same amount), etc. It is useful in this regard to ask the question “Who needs ? and “Where is your pleasure/benefit?”.

By the way, some achievements encourage players to cooperate and find friends. I have read stories about finding interesting acquaintances a couple of times just because I really wanted to get all the achievements in Dead Space 3 or Portal 2. However, they can also require you to become a ripper maniac online. Either you defeat dozens of random people, or you continue to suffer from a missed achievement. I don’t think it’s worth it. No pleasure from being the best in this game (even in the whole world) is not worth hundreds of hours spent without pleasure. Otherwise, soon your achievement will be a tick or indigestion on a nervous basis.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

100 out of 100. Or almost

And although many achievements seem like forced and boring time killing, the experience itself and experiences speak for the fact that they are valuable. Almost every gamer has his own story about how he painfully achieved the desired achievement. Or, on the contrary, how he was pleasantly surprised that the game reacted to his optional action (for example, throwing the ball into a basketball hoop in one of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution locations).

Probably, the fact that sometimes we are captured by such “achievement” is a kind of price for a sincere and open attitude towards video games. I don’t see the point in blaming games for that. We’re just wired so that our brain looks for order, completeness, hidden and valuable details, ways to gain recognition and status from the background of others. And if this is not implemented in the game, it will always find a manifestation in life. And in this sense, a virtual testing ground for selfishness or experiments is still better than the real world with real people and not at all virtual harm to them.

So, as I wrote above, it is useful to learn how to quit games when they require too much. But it is no less practical to exercise in perseverance – and to transfer this experience into life where it is really needed. Which is what I wish for everyone.

Get it at any cost: how the achievement system in games works

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