Ark: Survival Evolved is getting some proper achievements on Steam in next week's big update, most of them pulled directly from the console versions. That's great, kind of. As much as I love this dinosaur-themed survival time waster, it can lack direction, and achievements can give a bit of direction to an open-ended sandbox game. But Ark's achievements are pretty blah.
One of my biggest problems with Ark is its mid-game slump. By the time you're halfway to the Level 100 mark, you'll likely have unlocked all the game's genuinely useful core equipment (with just the fancy-pants upper-tier variants to go), and you'll probably have enough decent creatures to get around the map mostly unscathed. There is not, until the higher levels at least, an awful lot to do. This isn't so much of a concern on PvP servers, where you have the constant distraction of having your crap messed with, but it's certainly an issue in single-player and PvE.
Ever wondered why PvE bases have all the aesthetic restraint of a Las Vegas casino? It's because -- other than grinding a few caves, breeding the crap out of dinosaurs, and furiously expanding your base like some kind of prehistoric Winchester Mystery House -- there aren't a lot of in-built activities to keep mid-level solo and PvE players amused, which is where well-designed achievements would be an enormous boon.
One of my favourite old-school features of Ark was that you used to receive a special commemorative dossier every time you tamed a creature. It was like catching 'em all in Pokemon, a secondary incentive to tame every animal that gave the game a bit more of an overarching goal. That system was eventually replaced by dossiers that were scattered across the map, presumably intended to add a bit more substance but ultimately too divorced from the game's central mechanics.
Good game achievements are like that dossier feature, encouraging and incentivising you to think about, explore and exploit a game in interesting ways. Less interesting are the ones that Ark has adopted: They're divorced from the core of the game, merely ticking off inevitable milestones.
These achievements, which replace the event-specific ones Steam had previously, range from the very straightforward ("Tame a dinosaur", "Ride a dinosaur", "Survive a full day and night") to the far more involved ("Unlock all achievements", "Reach the maximum survivor level". "Defeat Ark's third Guardian").
But they completely fail to exploit the awesome unpredictability of Ark's sandbox game, one loaded with scope for experimental tinkering.
My favourite game achievements are the ones from Valve's Orange Box, which largely build their challenges around exploiting familiar gameplay mechanics in new and creative ways: "Kill 30 enemies with thrown physics objects", "Kill an enemy with a toilet". To this day, my proudest gaming moment is carrying that damn gnome from the start of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 all the way to the rocket at the end. It's a preposterous achievement, but it works because it forces you to look at familiar mechanics with fresh eyes. You need to reconsider your route, your approach to combat, and even your driving, unless you especially want that gnome to go flying out the window, never to be seen again.
These are the kind of achievements that can inject new life into an otherwise spent game, or revitalise an experience when things start to flag, so it's a shame that Ark's achievements are so routine. So much of that mid-game void could be filled with a bit more creativity.
Let's have achievements that reward your acts of bravery, your reckless stupidity or your pure survival instincts. Let's have achievements that encourage a sense of adventure: Reward me for finding a way to survive at sea for a month without ever touching land, or for surviving on a purely vegetarian diet. Reward me for poking a giganotosaurus with a stick and living to tell the tale, or for completing the deadliest cave without any pants on.
Or use achievements to incentivise experimenting with Ark's less popular mechanics. For flying an overburdened quetzal from the northernmost tip of the island to the very south, for instance, or for drawing the ire of 30 eels at once.
Of course, I'm just spitballing here, but if a creative shake of Ark's achievements could add a different kind of value to the sandbox experience, wouldn't that be a lot more fun?