Video Games Should Have Fewer Achievements

Video Games Should Have Fewer Achievements

SOMA is a standout game, and one of the many ways it distinguishes itself is through its restrained use of achievements. There are 10 on Steam (or 10 trophies on PlayStation), and each is nothing more than a progress marker. They come infrequently and unexpectedly. I wasn’t sure when one would pop up or why. They weren’t typically bestowed after especially dramatic moments in the game. Their main purpose, as far as I can tell, is to let players know how close they are to the ending.

The result of this restraint is a game that feels like its own reward. Because there are no gold stars or letter grades for scouring rooms for pictures and documents, or for listening to audio messages on computer terminals, the player — or, at least, this player — feels freer to explore and discover for, well, the sake of exploration and discovery.

The flushable toilet in the game’s opening sequence is a quiet (and, when flushed, noisy) example of this approach to game design. The game does not reward you for flushing it, although it is pleasing to do so. The reward for flushing the toilet in SOMA is hearing and watching the toilet flush. The game is its own pleasure.

Nor does SOMA introduce a metagame that awards you a special badge for flushing 20 toilets throughout the game. If an activity is dull — and flushing 20 toilets seems pretty dull — then you shouldn’t encourage players to do it. If an activity is rewarding — and flushing this one particular toilet is, I concede, quite rewarding — then there is no need to give the player a ribbon or trophy for doing something that was worth it for its own sake.

A few years ago, Chris Hecker, a game designer who worked on Spore and is now indefinitely designing Spy Party, gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference about his fear that achievements were hurting video games. Hecker worried that achievements — then a relatively recent phenomenon — were rotting the medium from the inside, replacing the intrinsic pleasures of play with the hollowness of extrinsic rewards.

Psychological research suggests, after all, that giving people extrinsic rewards — gold stars, money, letter grades, and the like — for interesting tasks tends to backfire. People will stop doing the activities — whether hobbies, or schoolwork, or flushing virtual toilets — for their own sake once the gold stars are taken away. Worse, the research indicates that people will willingly perform dull tasks for the very same extrinsic rewards: They’re now motivated by the blue ribbons and trophies, not the work (or play) itself.

Game designers, like pop behaviorists entranced by B.F. Skinner, think they can introduce achievements and other extrinsic rewards to motivate their players. “Do this and you’ll get that,” is how Hecker put it. Then, quoting the writer Alfie Kohn, Hecker warned that designers didn’t understand the inevitable outcome for players: “You end up hating the this and liking the that.”

Five years later, with a video game landscape dominated by Achievement-heavy checklists of wearying, make-work tasks (undoubtedly motivated by data showing that players are grimly working for the smiley-face stickers that designers hand out for completing them), Hecker’s doomsday scenario seems to have arrived on schedule.

Achievements aren’t inherently evil, mind you. Like collectibles, they have their place, and it’s possible for designers to use them thoughtfully and creatively. They’re very rarely used that way, though. SOMA has me considering whether I should turn off the notifications for achievements and trophies on all my systems.

By using achievements so judiciously — so judiciously that they might as well have been eliminated — SOMA allowed me to play through it at my own pace, and for my own enjoyment. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t have any regrets about it, because no one even pointed it out to me. I wouldn’t even know if it was there. SOMA does not present itself to the player like a set of annual goals for a corporate employee to accomplish.

I want to play games because I like the interactions in them, because I like the jumping or the shooting or the reading or the listening or the deciding or the watching or the exploring or the hiding in a corner, hoping desperately that the monster will leave the room. I don’t want to play them for the empty feeling that comes when a total stranger congratulates you with a condescending pat on the head.


  • YES OMG YES – Achievements have killed so many games to me – Including World of Warcraft – It got so bad just seeing them add hundreds each patch or expansion – In the beginning they were kind of unique and ok but eventually they became overwhelming and you just realized there was no point doing them any more – I am much happier just playing games ignoring them now.

    • I swear with WoW when I came back to Draenor for a month every time I clicked something I got a god damn achievement. I remember when getting an achievement in WoW was cool and rare. Now you expect it every time you do something, it sucks. Same with titles.

    • In saying that if you finished off all of the content then it gave you something to do. The only reason i completed almost all of the quests was due to the achievements since i find story lines boring. Each to there own though as i do find alot worthless to get, and pointless.

      • well those acheesements actually give you something to work towards like a title or a mount.. you know a reason to do them.

  • Don’t really agree with this. As someone that generally loves doing achievements, I really can’t stand when a game rewards me for doing very little to actually earn it.

    Progressing through a game and being rewarded an achievement doesn’t really feel like much of an achievement to me since its something just given to me for the sake of giving it to me. It didn’t make me do anything special, its just rewarded for progressing through the game as i would have already normally done anyways.

    You even go so far as to say this in your own article; “there is no need to give the player a ribbon or trophy for doing something that was worth it for its own sake.”

    I have similar issues with collectibles and achievements tied to them but that’s also due to my own hate of collectibles that are often uninteresting and pointless.

    The best achievements to me are the ones that make me try different things that i wouldn’t have normally tried in a game. Examples like completing those levels in the Halo games without using vehicles or the one where you have to protect the ghosts for the entire level so that everyone can ride one to the finish or even protecting your squad of marines and helping them all survive the encounter.

    Both of these are things i probably never would have bothered trying if it wasn’t for the achievements. Some of these achievements are usually somewhat more challenging, require some skill and are certainly more memorable because of it.

  • I don’t mind achievements, I do mind when they are tied to a need to spend 100s of hour playing the multiplayer component on a game with a priority on single player. Collecting all of the things or doing all of the stuff for a 100% file I don’t mind in achievement form. If you have a single and multiplayer component that are separate, having the achievements as separate entities is nice too.

  • Trophies and XB achievements are overall fine. it’s just Steam achievements that are ridiculous.

    • steam acheesements are the extact same as the ones you get on an xbox and playstation. which is to say they mean aboslutly nothing. The only games where acheesements are actually worth doing are fallout new vegas and wow because some of them give you an ingame reward like a mount or title or small but noticeable buff

        • the acheesements on steam are the exact same ones that on the 360 and ps3 unless you use the mod called “achieve that!” that gives ingame bonuses for completeing rather meaningful things in the game like reach level 10 within 2 game days or kill the first dragon at level 5 or less

  • Achievements/trophies ruin the immersion of modern games like pulling the controller out of my N64 did in the old days. Turning them off is the first thing I do with a new system!

  • I’m not sure I understand what this article is praising SOMA for. Progress achievements are the most useless kind of achievement, a pat on the head saying “Yay, you played the game”. The only thing worse than being praised for doing a mundane thing is when you get an achievement for just booting up the game. If you get a fanfare and a gold star every time you finished reading a chapter in a book you’d start to get really annoyed or bored.

    Honestly, if you’re congratulating someone for doing the things they would be doing anyway then there’s no point in having achievements. Which may be what SOMA is trying to point out? Perhaps it’s achievements are a subtle commentary on the state of achievements today?

    Personally I find most achievements are pointless unless they encourage me to try new things or present a clue/mystery that needs to be solved. If you want to tell me how far I’ve come through the game, do it creatively with a journal or a chapter index.

  • They just… are. I get more psyched that I achieved something cool in-game that extended the life of the title than any real joy of “trophy hunting”. I rarely go for all of them, but still… they matter in heir own weird, gamified kind of way.

    As someone advised above, why not just turn them off and opt out completely if they rub you the wrong way?

  • I think for me at least, achievements can add replay value while obviously being entirely optional. For example i finished Final Fantasy 7 on PS1 many years ago, due to it’s Steam re-release and nostalgia i completed all of the achievements minus the max all materia one, similar story with Final Fantasy 3 on there.

    I see it as a nice bonus to games personally =)

  • In this particular kind of case, they also have the added bonus of allowing the Devs to see how far people get in their game. Feedback without the need to ask for it ;P

  • I don’t know what PC gamers are like, but from what I see console achievement/trophy hunters are by far the minority – most people appear to play video games coz they want to play the game. Consoles (at least the ones I currently play) actually come with the ability to disable these notifications from showing on your screen while you’re playing, so that they don’t break immersion from the game.

    The real issue with many games is time sink collectible hunting (another topic). The reward for spending however much extra time getting them all is often minimal at best, sometimes not even having a reward. If these collectibles came with valuable or even meaningful rewards/contributions to the game, then perhaps I wouldn’t see them as an issue – all opinion by the way.

    • “The reward for spending however much extra time getting them all is often minimal at best, sometimes not even having a reward.”

      Sunset Sarsparilla Stars.

  • Proud Achievement / Trophy Hunter right here. I remain completely baffled why people have an issue with achievements – If you don’t like them, turn off the notifications where they’ll then have no bearing on whether you do a speed run, go for a 100% completion or are a casual gamer looking to squeeze a quick 10 mins in before the kids wake up.

    Then STFU and let me go collect one last widget.

  • I couldn’t care less about achievements/trophies honestly. I’ll just play the game without going out of my way to earn them, so usually by the time I finish it it’s only about 30-40% of them.

  • I’ve never really been bothered one way or the other with achievements. Most games I don’t care about them at all and don’t even check to see what they are but others, like with Killing Floor and L4D, I went well out of my way with a friend to get them and I had a lot of fun doing it. I think it’s fine as is.

  • Couldn’t disagree with the article more. Not only do achievements add a form of reward for doing certain things in game, they are a way for you to explore the game further to hunt down things you wouldn’t normally do on a regular playthrough. Not to mention the achievements you are referring to are the most pointless kind, I want to unlock them for doing something challenging, not for just progressing

    In the end, if you don’t like them, then it shouldn’t matter whether they are in the game or not. Let the people who enjoy them, enjoy them, and if you don’t, then ignore them. You’re not forced to unlock them, they don’t restirct anything by being there, so whats the harm?

  • Simple solution would just be to turn off achievements/trophies if you don’t like them, and everyone else, who does like them, can continue to do so.

    I personally like ones that are rewarding, but I just won’t bother with ones I find boring or tedious. Final Fantasy VII is a good example, I want the world to know that I kicked Ruby weapons arse. I don’t really careto spend hours upon agonizing hours farming monsters to hit 99,999,999 gil.

    And then there’s some games that I enjoy so much that I simply HAVE to get 100%, if nothing else than to feed my addiction. Assassin’s Creed II/Bloodborne come to mind.

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