My personal take on achievements is that they can be classified in one of three ways. They are either unavoidable, optional, or inspiring. I’ll go ahead and explain the meaning of each of these three categories, as well as which to avoid and which to aspire to when designing games.
Unavoidable achievements are, of course, practically unavoidable. They “reward” the player for what they would have done anyway, such as completing the tutorial or killing their first enemy. These achievements are oftentimes utterly pointless and say more about the designer’s lack of interest than the player’s level of ability. They’re the gaming equivalent of a participation medal and, let’s face it, no one really enjoys getting a one of those once they realize what it is. What’s more, these achievements attempt to reward the player for something that should naturally feel rewarding, often trying to compensate for a bad game’s lack of real, meaningful content.
Getting a bit better are optional achievements, on the other hand, are not nearly so provocative, nor as pointless. They are quite similar to side- or mini-quests, in the sense that they provide additional content that doesn’t feature prominently in the main story or objective of the game. It’s hard to resent them because of their optional nature; while they aren’t particularly creative, and add almost no actual content to the game, they can be avoided entirely if the player so chooses. When done well, they can exhibit previously hidden or unique parts of the game the player might otherwise have missed, as well as introducing them to more challenging aspects too difficult for a first playthrough. Through this, they create replay value, extending, albeit somewhat artificially, the value proposition of the game.
The best form of achievement are creative achievements, and these will inspire the player to think creatively, and inspires the player to throw away the set of skills a game has taught them and examine the problems before them with a fresh pair of eyes. Rather than simply tacking on some extra “content” that, while harmless, isn’t particularly new or innovative, these achievements suggest alternate, creative ways to play that aren’t the main focus of the game. They force the player to reinterpret the rules of a game, to gain a new, more thorough understanding of the mechanics governing their actions. Rather than simply extending playtime, these achievements make the gaming experience a fuller, more rewarding one.
Not only can these inspiring achievements improve gameplay, they can strengthen a game’s narrative as well, causing players to re-evaluate the ramifications of their choices. Yet, as always, it’s tempting, not to mention easy, for bad developers to be lazy and put as little effort into their achievements as they put into their games. Many fill their sub-par games with even more mediocre achievements in the desperate belief that this will make them more palatable. This is rarely the case. Except in the niche case of achievement hunters and completionists, few gamers play games purely for the achievements. Rather, achievements should enrich the experience a game provides.
Important Takeaways: Achievements are great. There are the unavoidable ones, which have no reason to exist beyond their designer’s lack of inspiration. Next come the optional achievements, which, while not particularly innovative, can be completed or ignored at the player’s discretion. Then, finally, we have the creative achievements, which enhance and improve the gameplay, adding not only replay value but a new and exciting way to play the game. This last group of achievements, while the hardest to implement, are the ones to be strived for. They require creativity on the part of both player and developer, enriching the experience for everyone.