As I talked about in my last blog post, goals are a powerful design element. They provide direction, give you something to work toward, and make you feel good when you accomplish them. Overall, goals are a good thing.

However, goals also have a darker side. If they are poorly made, goals can end up harming a game.

That's different from GOOOOOOOOOOOOAL, which is proven to always make any game more fun.

Dom Camus posted a series of links in a comment on the last post that talk about some of the dangers of goals, specifically in reference to the achievements system cropping up in video games. One of the comments that really struck me was from this article. The author of the article, Chris Hecker, talks about how the wrong goals can destroy intrinsic reasons to play your game. To quote from the article:

[Here’s the] potential Nightmare Scenario based on all the implications of the research going the wrong way for games:

  1. make an intrinsically interesting game, congratulations!
  2. use extrinsic motivators to make your game better
  3. destroy intrinsic motivation to play your game
  4. metrics fetishism pushes you towards designs where extrinsic motivation works

Chris strikes an important chord: your own game, not its subgames should be priority number one.

This takes me back to when Xbox achievements first started to hit the scene. My brother was given an Xbox for his birthday, and like any good brother, I began to play through some of the games on it. I was enjoying myself perfectly well within the games, ignoring the achievement system altogether. I had just as much fun as I always did immersing myself in gameplay and story.

Then I began to watch my brother play.

In contrast to how I played, all he cared about when playing were achievements. He would only play in ways which would help him earn achievements.

In the main game, he would spend time decentralizing himself from the main concept and story to try and earn an achievement. I didn’t understand why the achievements were so alluring to him, but it was how he wanted to play the game and I respected that. Some players enjoy the game throwing oddball challenges or various levels of difficulty at them.

Where things really began to get ugly was multiplayer.

When playing multiplayer began he would do what he needed to do to help himself earn achievements. The rest of his teammates were just pawns in his achievement earning game.  If he was working toward the 100 headshot in multiplayer achievement in Gears of War, his other teammates would just have to cope with him spending the whole match doing nothing but trying to set up headshots. If he so happened to only have a 5% hit rate, well, that was too bad for them.

Now imagine what happens when everyone is doing this.

Before you know it, everyone is just playing their own game. Multiplayer might as well be free for all with some people you can’t kill. People are no longer encouraged to work together because the intrinsic motivation is no longer the main objective. Unless you’re going to be at the top of the leaderboard for that game, winning one match pales in comparison to getting further in unlocking an achievement.

That is an awful way to play multiplayer.

Imagine you’re playing in a Magic Two-Headed Giant tournament. However, there’s a catch: your teammate is trying to unlock the “draw four more cards than your teammate in 20 separate games” achievement.  Instead of focusing on being cooperative and focusing on playing as a unit, your teammate is self-focused. This kind of play hinders your chance of winning. Worse yet, instead of being punished and encouraged to help the group out in the future, your teammate is rewarded for his poor dedication to being cooperative.

This problem only becomes worse if you give yourself the same goal like how achievements do. Now you’re both racing to do the same thing, ignoring what is actually right. In a sense, your teammate is more of your opponent than your actual opponent is!

All of this doesn’t mean games can’t have multiplayer achievements. They just have to be done correctly. Look at the difference between “win 50 multiplayer matches” and “kill 50 players in multiplayer matches with papercuts from a gum wrapper.” One rewards you for good play. You are working together and doing something you want to do anyway. The other turns the multiplayer experience into a single player experience and you are rewarded for actively poor play.

All of this might lead you to believe that achievements are only a problem in multiplayer. While that might be where it’s most obvious, it’s certainly not the extent of its harm. Too many extra side projects can be overwhelming even in a single player mode.

To illustrate this, I want to talk about Quests again. Last time, I marveled at how good Quests are for Magic. This time, I’m going to delve into their darker side.

Let’s play a weird Magic variant. Here are the rules. For the first five turns of the game, each player does nothing but put a Zendikar block quest of their choice onto the battlefield.  Then the game begins as normal.

What immediately happens? The focus of the game shifts toward completing your quests instead of actually playing the game.

I could have added a clause that said “the first player to complete all of his or her quests wins the game,” but I didn’t even need to add that factor to make completing the quests more of an immediate objective than winning the game.  Quests work well because they provide you with direction during the game, but when you are handed too many quests they begin dividing your attention too far.

One last note on making good video game achievements. A great way to think about how to make achievements that fit naturally into a game is to look at Mark Rosewater’s player psychographics. If you build achievements for each one that fit into their natural playstyle while heeding the intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation above, you can create achievements that cause you to work for them without detracting from your game experience.

You have Spike achievements. They are goals such as “defeat Bowser on very hard” or “win 50 multiplayer matches.” These are tasks the players who want to win the most will try and beat to prove their worth. It pits them up against a tangible force in the game and asks them to beat it at its hardest. These are often the achievements you need to be most careful with because it is Spike who is most likely to abandon everything in favor of earning an achievement.

It seems like the best way to be careful with balancing Spike achievements is to make the achievements things that should happen if you play long enough anyway. “X multiplayer wins” is a good example. These kind of goals reward you playing more and proving your worth consistantly without actually forcing you to hinder or stop the normal gameplay experience.

You also have Johnny achievements. They are goals such as “get through the entire level without jumping.” These are the tricky achievements that force players to think about the game in new ways and create complex puzzles out of ordinary pieces. It pits players against the usual way of doing things. Making too many of these can distract from the game, but it’s important some exist so that there are a few strange challenges for Johnny players to tackle.

Finally, you have Timmy achievements. They are goals such as “kill a line of goombas by running through them while holding a power star.” These are fun achievements that just make you happy by experiencing something fun and powerful. Timmy achievements border close to the line of Johnny achievements, but the major difference is that Johnny achievements require care and setting up, where Johnny achievements feel like the ones to most naturally happen.

Goals are important, but you can’t let them overtake the main purpose of your game. If a game consistently becomes all about something other than the actual game, then you need to revisit the goals that are sidetracking people.

That wraps up this blog post. I’d love to hear perspectives from those more entrenched in video game achievement systems than I am right now. If you have anything at all to say on this topic, let me know either below or via e-mail. I look forward to reading your comments!

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