Friday, February 19, 2010

Achieving Nothing

I'm never gonna give you up, Rick Astley. The current generation of videogames place immense significance on arbitrary markers of success.  No longer are we content to boast, “I got past World 3-1!”  Now we need constant rewards, constant reminders of our progress, available in the form of digital merit badges.  And we need these things in the way we ‘need’ an iPad: we need Achievements because Microsoft told us so.

Achievements originated on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, part of what the Xbox team dubbed a ‘meta-game’ (more on that later).  As players took to the concept, it quickly infiltrated Valve’s PC-only Steam service, Sony’s Playstation 3 in the form of Trophies, and even World of Warcraft.  The concept: accomplish a specific in-game task, receive an Achievement as record of said accomplishment. 

I’ve written before about how Achievements can reinforce a game’s aesthetic, whether it be through clever titling or thoughtful assignment to narrative or thematic touchstones.  This is the best-case scenario for Achievements, at least on a game-by-game basis.  Worst-case, they’re entries on a meaningless checklist.  Parts of a bland, paint-by-numbers breakdown of what a game has to offer.

Outside of their impact on a single game, Achievements (at least in Microsoft’s system) exist to pad one’s overall Gamerscore.  A boxed, retail title offers a potential 1000G (G for Gamerscore), often divvied up among 40-60 Achievements.  Currently, the Gamerscore is devoid of value save that with which one’s OCD infuses it.

I recently crested the 10000G plateau.  And what does that mean?  Absolutely nothing.

Microsoft refers to the whole Gamerscore thing as a ‘meta-game.’  What does that mean?  It means they envision the entire system as a means of competing with your friends.  Some ‘in touch with the youth’ exec probably had wet dreams of teens gathering at lunch, talking heated smack about which Achievements they’d unlocked:  “Oh snap, I got 300 more points in Halo 3 than you!” “But my mom wouldn’t let me buy the new map packs…” “Well why the fuck not?” “Well ever since my dad got laid off last year—” “Pussy!”

Or something like that.

But I can’t believe that was all they dreamt of when the idea first popped into their heads.  I can’t believe it, and yet it’s true.  Here’s Aaron Greenberg, Xbox Live group product manager, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2007:

"The idea was that every time you'd unlock an achievement in a game, you'd be rewarded with a little badge or icon that was added to your gaming profile… As your Gamerscore increased, so would your reputation within the community."

That’s it?  No overarching scheme?  No plan to reward people with anything real?  It’s nothing more than what Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski dubs in the same THR article ‘nerd cred’?  Greenberg goes on to cite the 360’s impressive 5-1 (games/console) attach rate (as of ‘07, of course), citing Gamerscore as the main reason.  I’m almost appalled by the brazenness with which Greenberg flaunts the fancy chinchilla coats Microsoft bought after dealing digital crack.

Why take umbrage at a sound, if not mildly insidious, business plan that’s clearly worked out for Microsoft?  Because it could be so much more.  Rewards should be doled out for Gamerscore milestones.  Reach a certain tier, receive a pittance in Microsoft Monopoly Money.  Nab all the Achievements in a popular Microsoft-published title, win a chance to participate in a closed beta.  This isn’t hard, guys.  I’ve got plenty of ideas on this track, and I’m not even a slick-haired marketing genius.

Some cursory research explains why Microsoft has refrained from attaching any sort of real meaning to Achievements.  It’s apparently remarkably easy (caveat: by easy, I mean set-up-your-own-wireless-network-replete-with-firewalls-and-printers-in-every-room easy – nerd easy) to hack the hell out of your Gamerscore.  Some programs let you dig your grimy, thieving fingers right into your Gamer Profile and flick on Achievements like so many tripped breakers.  In dank alleys all along the information superhighway, gamers hungry for an Achievement fix trade game saves and rips, illegally pooling their efforts.  Microsoft’s taken to cracking down on and branding those caught cheating, but the budding Achievement community on Games for Windows Live (the PC equivalent to Xbox Live) can only mean more PC-fueled piracy.

Then there are the games no one would play were it not for the points.  No one, I repeat, no one played more than an hour of Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie (great name, there) because they liked it.  They did it because the game had nine Achievements, each worth at least 100G.  According to Giant Bomb’s Achievement page, the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Burning Earth’s Gamerscore can be obtained in “about two minutes (including menus and skipped cutscenes) by running to the side of the first screen and spamming the B button.”  These games break the system by ignoring it.  Easy Achievements have their place, but if the system’s to have a purpose beyond nonsensical bragging, 1000-point freebies like these can’t exist.

In a similar vein, the current Achievement system shuns the Wild West that is the Xbox Live Indie Game realm.  I can’t say I blame them on this one.  To preserve even the minute degree of integrity Gamerscores now possess, Microsoft simply can’t allow exquisite crap like Don’t B Nervous Talking 2 Girls or Remote Masseuse to bestow Achievements.  Were those floodgates opened, you know there’d be a Lolcats game that’d just be a photobook with Achievements like “U Saw All Teh Pixorz.”  Effectively, it’d create an Achievement store.  Scores of college kids programming cheap indie titles that give you 25 points because you just gave them beer money.  The Indie tab of the Marketplace is scary enough; it needn’t get any worse.

For the time being, we’re stuck with Achievements that are no more meaningful than a high score on a Frogger machine.  And I can see the reasons why.  But I can’t help thinking they could be more creative, more meaningful.  Now that everyone (and I do mean everyone) is aping the Achievement game, Microsoft needs to kick it up a notch.  Throw a bone to the people with Silver accounts.  Do something to justify the man-hours, the carpal tunnel, the not-so-good games we beat for the Achievements.  10000 of anything can’t be this pointless.