Rethinking achievements, part II

I had pretty strong feelings about Age of Empires II: HD Edition’s achievements requiring you to win 1000 games with each civilization. They were strongly negative feelings, as I considered them wasteful at best and abusive to compulsive players at worst. Fortunately, the developers listened and removed those achievements, but there are still achievements requiring you to win 100 times with each civilization…and that number keeps growing as they keep releasing new expansions (don’t get me wrong, I love that they’re still releasing expansions for the game!). As of the time of this writing, the minimum number of games you need to win in order to get every achievement stands at 2,700, which while significantly less than the 23,000 it used to be is still absurdly high.

Playing 100 (or 1000) games with every civilization remains an arbitrary and menial task which quickly becomes more about the slog than about the experience. Achievements should be about exploring what the game has to offer, not about repeating the same thing over and over again until you’re not even playing the game – you’re just following the same formula of clicks in order to speed through until you get the achievement, and then on to the next civilization!

I decided to try my hand at completing all the achievements in several games, and I burned out pretty quickly. I was able to successfully complete Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode One, but then threw my hands up in frustration at Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode 2. My experience with each of these games highlights some particular aspect of achievements, whether helpful or not.

hl2 hl21 I did not have fun with chasing Half-Life 2’s achievements. Most of them were fairly straightforward, which was fine – and a few were even fun. For instance, there’s an achievement for playing through Ravenholm using only the gravity gun. That’s an example of a well-integrated and fun achievement. The challenge of using only the environment around you forces you to approach each encounter differently than you would have before. However, where I stopped having fun was with the Lambda Locator achievement, which tasks you with finding every single hidden cache throughout the entire game. The frustrating thing is that a single tweak would have fixed this achievement.

The problem is that the achievement requires you to find all of these hidden caches in a single, continuous game. This means that you cannot progress until you’ve explored every single nook and cranny for fear that if you move on and miss a cache, you will need to restart the game and go through the entire story again…without missing any caches the second time. This took all the fun out of playing, because it meant that it was no longer about playing the way you want to play, but about clearing all enemies and then running around in circles making sure you didn’t miss anything before you move on. The only tweak they needed to make was to make the progression carry over through any number of games. This would allow you to play through as you like, and then load up particular chapters to explore more thoroughly and find the caches you missed. I’ll admit, I found a guide with all the cache locations and used that to get this achievement, because I wasn’t having fun.

Half-Life 2: Episode One was tremendously fun as there were no timesink achievements – they were all progression or challenge achievements. My favorite was The One Free Bullet, which allowed you to fire a single bullet, but the rest of the game had to be completed using the gravity gun, crowbar, grenades, or rockets.

Portal made me tear my hair out in frustration, not because the achievements are poorly designed, but because I realized I’m just not good enough at the game to get them all. There’s a single achievement I wasn’t able to get, because my reflexes aren’t fast enough to complete the challenge maps in the required time frame. I could practice to become good enough and complete the achievement, but I realized the satisfaction of attaining that last goal wasn’t going to make up for the amount of time I would have to spend and the frustration I would endure narrowly failing time and time again. For someone who enjoys that kind of challenge, it may be a rewarding experience, but not for me.


Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is where I gave up entirely. The achievement in question is Get Some Grub, which requires you to find and squish 333, er, grubs in a particular chapter of the game. Like Lambda Locator, this has to be completed in a single game (once again, changing this single thing would have fixed the main problem with this achievement). I tried using a guide, but after realizing that I still missed a few (some of them are rather well hidden) I decided it wasn’t worth it. Playing was rapidly becoming tedious and without reward, and I didn’t want to ruin the game for myself as it’s one I enjoy.

My experience here led to a couple of thoughts. First, if you’re going to try and complete all the achievements in a game, it might be worth reviewing the achievements beforehand and planning out how you’re going to get them. Second, it it’s ruining your enjoyment of the game, stop – it’s not worth it. Third, it reaffirmed my opinion that developers can either enhance their customers’ playing experience through well-designed achievements, or can ruin any further enjoyment of the game and prevent customers from coming back through poorly designed achievements.

Finally, I encourage you to play first and foremost for the pure enjoyment of experiencing a game. Achievements should be simply a bonus, and if they don’t enhance your experience or enjoyment, they’re really not worth getting.

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