Friday, July 28, 2006

What have you achieved this week?

You can see my gamercard on the left side of this blog. I like the idea of gamercards, points, and achievements. I've been a competitive gamer since childhood and I've participated in several gaming competitions. I also used to keep lists of games I had completed along with a tournament resume and personal high score lists. I submitted some of my high scores to GamePro magazine back when they published them.

While much discussion has already taken place around the issue of Xbox Live and its associated gamercards, I've been thinking about them a lot lately and really gotten into the spirit of snatching up as many achievements as I can. When I first heard about the idea of the gamercards I was pretty excited but somewhat skeptical. I figured that they would be a short term gimmick that only a handful of people cared about and that they would be used primarily to drive sales of games and the Xbox Live service. While that may always be true, I'm presently concerned about how achievements and gamercards motivate gameplay choices.

For me personally, the achievements have modified my play patterns. I think about how I am going to play a game ahead of time to optimize my achievements. I do this to minimize the number of times I have to play through the game. For example, Call of Duty 2 gives you the bulk of points for finishing the game on veteran difficulty so I skipped normal and started out on this harder mode. Tomb Raider: Legend also offers a healthy amount of points for finishing the game on hard but I forgot about it at first and played through it a second time to get that achievement. Fortunately the hard mode of both of these games is not insanely difficult and especially for Call of Duty 2 it has an impact on how aggressively you move forward in the game. I think it's more interesting on veteran because it heightens the realism, but there were plenty of times I had to reload after missing the grenade icon and being blown away.

Achievements have also motivated me to play on Xbox Live more frequently. This has been a mixed experience. It reminded me of why I dislike playing on Xbox Live in general. Kids with a foul mouth, lack of players, and insufficient matchmaking all turn me off but I really want those points so I end up playing online anyway. Some players even arrange to trade online achievements at forums such as I don't really see this as being good or bad but I'm certain it goes against the intention of the achievements. To be honest, the online achievements should be the easiest ones to achieve since there are already a lot of barriers to motivating players to hop online.

One of the great benefits of online achievements is that games that don't sell as well have a potentially larger pool of players to match up with. I've managed to find some co-op games of Joust and I enjoyed playing this game with others. The downside of online achievements, and especially the ones that require you to play lots of games, is that it can encourage some annoying behavior. For example, I've played games of Ridge Racer 6 and Burnout Revenge where players sit in matches without actually playing. What this means for those games is that if you are behind them in the race at the beginning and they don't drive you may end up losing because you are unaware they are not actually playing and you madly fumble to get around them after having lost your initial speed burst.

Many achievements also rely on the player finding all of the hidden goodies in a game. While some gamers may not need any motivation for doing this, it will probably encourage others to be more thorough in their exploration. The thing that gets me about achievements like this is that hidden goodies are usually stuffed in obscure places and in order to unlock the achievement you usually need to find 100 percent of all the hidden items. I rarely ever go after all the hidden items in a game, even before achievements existed, because I don't like the idea of being rewarded only in the case of total completion. It seems like 80-90 percent should suffice. Oh well, I guess I could always check GameFaqs.

I guess one could argue that the best strategy is simply to go after achievements you actually care about. It's hard for me personally to check out my gamer profile and see uncollected achievements for games I enjoy. In the end, it means I will either play more overall or simply spend more time playing a single game.

What do these gamer cards mean for developers? In theory, it can give us a better picture of gaming habits and tell us more about what motivates players. I think this is a great benefit. It would be nice if achievements favored different types of gaming choices. I have a friend that plays a lot of the original Ninja Gaiden on the NES. He has set several goals for himself such as finishing the game in under an hour, beating it without getting hit, or trying to beat it using only a specific weapon. I always thought his goals were interesting and it was fun to watch him play. I hope to see achievements that reflect more diverse goals such as the ones my friend sets for himself when playing Ninja Gaiden.

So what would I like to see in the future for gamercards and achievements? For one, it would be nice to customize your gamercard to show off specific achievements rather than defaulting to the last game you played along with the most recent accomplishments for that game. For example, I bow down to players that can get the achievement of reaching wave 100 for games like Joust or Robotron or for anyone that can complete Smash TV without continuing. In addition, it would be cool if the community could "vote" on additional achievements to be added to games. While it would be great if developers came up with a diverse set of achievements, I'm sure players are motivated by some things the developers didn't think of. Every game also has a different community, and some of them may favor different styles of play.

I'm looking forward to the evolution of gamercards and I hope that the other gaming services implement them in some form.