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Achievements and Insecure Design

Achievements do a lot of things, but one of them is to direct player attention. This can be a safety net - say you’re making a game that includes fishing as an important source of food and materials and you’re worried the player might not realize it’s an option and thus have a harder time than intended. In addition to putting in signposts pointing to the fishing hole and having friendly NPCs talk about how great fishing is and such, you could add in an achievement for catching a fish. Like with the signs and NPCs, it won’t solve the issue for every possible player, but it will for some and won’t really affect anyone else. It’s basically just an additional guard rail.

Suppose you instead set the achievement to require catching ten fish. There are a lot of reasons you might do this - maybe catching one fish feels insultingly trivial to reward. But once the player has caught a fish, they definitely know that fishing is an option. They should be able to decide whether it’s something they want to invest time in - maybe they enjoy the minigame enough that they’d fish for fun, or maybe they dislike it enough that they’d rather avoid it in favor of other sources of food and materials, or maybe they’re somewhere in between and will do it when it’s an efficient way to meet a particular goal.

For players who care about achievements, some of them would have gotten ten fish anyway and the ones who wouldn’t now have to either forgo an achievement or spend time on an activity they dislike, making the game worse for them. All because the game wasn’t content to let the player try it once and then decide for themselves.

I’m sure there’s a better name for this, but I call it “insecure design” - game mechanics that use extrinsic rewards to encourage the player to spend a lot of time with certain game modes or content as though the designer is worried that content isn’t enjoyable enough on its own for players to want to bother with it. And much like using engagement rewards, I think it almost always backfires.

The first time I thought about it in these terms was when I played DuckTales: Remastered. The money Scrooge collects in that game can be spent to unlock stuff like concept art for an in-game gallery. There’s an achievement for buying all of the art, which costs more money than can reasonably be collected in a single playthrough of the game. I remember doing the math after I beat it once and calculating I’d need roughly three full playthroughs.

This seemed weird to me. Once you’ve played through the entire game, you should have a pretty good idea whether you want to play it again. It’s hard to imagine gallery items making a major difference in that calculation - if you like the game enough to play it several times, you don’t need them, and if you don’t want to play multiple times, it’s hard to imagine the gallery items making the difference.

Being charitable here, I suspect that the reasoning was that DuckTales is a game that can be replayed to improve your score, and doing so would result in collecting a lot of money - so why not give players something to spend that money on for a greater sense of accomplishment and reward? And having it just be gallery items should hopefully prevent the other players from feeling like they’re missing out.

And that’s… fine, as far as it goes, though my instinct would be to provide the score-chasing players with online leaderboards instead. The trouble is the achievement which now suggests you haven’t completed the game unless you grind out the money. For players who care about achievements, this has a mild positive effect on those who already wanted to play enough to get that much money, but others are now being encouraged to do something tedious that is likely to leave them liking the game much less than they otherwise would have.

More recently, I noticed that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate actually has a couple of achievements (well, “challenges”) of this sort. Most of that game’s challenges are about doing a particular thing once - sometimes a difficult thing so that it’s a badge of honor, sometimes an easy thing to make sure you try a game mode and understand how it works. But there are also three challenges for completing 50, 100, and then 200 online Quickplay battles. I had all the other online challenges completed by my 65th Quickplay battle, leaving the 100 and 200 Quickplay challenges as a pure grind with no skill required. And it’s not like I don’t know whether I like Quickplay after fighting 50 battles.

In this case, I do see justification for the design choice. Smash’s online is better if there are more players, so using incentives to drag players online does make some sense. But I’m sure this still backfires for some number of players. The 100 and 200 Quickplay challenges are the only ones in the game that I haven’t completed, and I’m confident that if I made myself power through them I’d get quite sick of Smash by the end.