D.O.A – Death of Achievements

(I write for a site called www.7bitarcade.com, which currently specialise in music, but also used to cover videogames. I thought I’d upload the article I wrote when applying for the job)

Before this generation, when we achieved something in a game, there was little in terms of tangible rewards. Take ace side-scroller Viewtiful Joe, for example. Sure, you couldn’t help but feel all fuzzy inside when it was finally beaten and the ol’ self-esteem didn’t suffer from being completely awesome (cough) at it, but what was to show for it? Nothing, save for a lonely couple of bytes on a memory card.

So when the 360 first launched six years ago, it brought with it many a wonder. Online gameplay that actually worked, which meant we could finally hear what teenagers were bellowing at us online. Shiny graphics, which were able to render every single shade of brown and grey known to man and how can we forget DLC, which lead to a revolution in horse armour that was purchasable.

But the biggest addition to way we played games was Achievements. You play a game, you got points and those points were shared with the world. It sounds silly, but the first time I heard a ping followed by a notification popping up to assure me that I was semi-skilled at Left 4 Dead, it was love at first sight.

But in the years that followed; the flame of love that was once as bright as the glow from an arcade, began to die away like err… the arcades.

First it began with the hunters. We all had that one friend whose score was impossibly higher than our own, thanks to what must have been months spent on every tie-in and sports game they could grab.  Suddenly, the contest had descended into trickery and debasement. Was it worth tarnishing the disc tray with the sort of experiences that the Hannah Montana game had to offer?

Then there was the fact that certain achievements were less about enhancing the game’s appeal and more about keeping it away from the trade-in basket. Brother’s In Arms: Hell’s Highway- which was unfortunately not a literal highway to hell – was guilty of this crime, asking players to log into its online server once a day. For a hundred days.  Even if you had that much time, would you want to spend it on a depressingly average online mode for the WW2 shooter?

It also didn’t help when you could start earning Avatar items in games like Left 4 Dead and Red Dead Redemption. Whereas before achievements had been their own rewards, now you got – ahem, virtual- stuff for being quite decent at the game. It didn’t matter that the avatar was a faintly sinister approximation of a person that no-one over 12 really wanted to customize after their first attempt at it, at least there was something tangible for completing a non-essential goal.

Cut to 2011. The final nail in my achievement loving coffin is battered in by the sponsored achievements of Skate 3. It may be savvy marketing, but I was never the biggest fan of having moments of personal glory brought to me by Monster Energy Drink. Instead of a sense of accomplishment, there’s just the queasy feeling of being ripped out of the free-flowing skating nirvana I was in and forced into a 10-second advert spot.

Achievements are the first part of this generation’s design flourishes to feel archaic for me. The possibilities they brought have been replaced with a lazy template of “Complete mission + shoot enough people/reach a high total = 1000G”. There’s no inspiration that originally had me tweaking for my next ‘chevo. Moreover, games are evolving constantly into new forms, do we really need to be rewarded with a small intrusive number to keep us playing a story-driven game –like L.A. Noire – or the latest experimental arcade game, like Limbo. No we don’t, games are their own reward.

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