Achievements or Not? (Dev Diary 4)

The past week I’ve been digging into the stuff that most game developers loathe: UI design and data management. I’ve uncovered some really pesky problems with the existing mobile menu system, and as a result I’ve rewritten almost every class and included support for sliders (for volume bars) and tabbed screens. Hopefully I’ll be able to share this code soon, but for now it’s a complete mess :-P.

But the subject of this post is achievements. In my opinion popularized by the famous Xbox alert, achievements have become pretty much standard fare in video games today. I can recall a few occasions when I stumbled across a game without achievements and immediately thought of it as “primitive”, even though some of my favorite games are ones over a decade old that are completely without them.

Why achievements in the first place? One answer is that they’re easy. Take a game that’s mediocre at best gameplay-wise, inject a few achievements, and suddenly you can capture a player’s attention for at least another half hour as they try to 100% everything. Achievements, at least in their heyday, were about forcing the player to think outside of the box and take alternative routes. They gave a reason for players to do something other than blast through the game as fast as possible, and in many cases I think I’ve come to appreciate level design the most while hunting for that last coin or intel pack.

But…why not? This popular game explains it pretty well — nowadays game designs are prone to including a horde of achievements that don’t even make sense, that don’t really add to gameplay, that do nothing but force the player to not play the game. Instead of taking in the campaign story or having fun with friends, we’re raking in kills and running into holes and crevices just to up our stats. And that’s not what gaming is about.

Well, at least not entirely (hint hint: moderation). So when I sat back in my chair after finishing half of the levels in my game, I got to thinking about achievements. My game’s pretty simple: it’s a ball rolling around in a world filled with doors, death tiles, giant crushing blocks, etc. Think Mario in a hamster ball, except Mario has traded his jumping skills for complete control over 4-directional gravity. Simple is good, especially for an iOS game, but an extra layer of gameplay is sure to add polish. And achievements can do that.

When thinking about adding achievements into your own game, consider a few points:

  • Do achievements add to gameplay or detract from it?
  • What is the reward for getting achievements?
  • What is the punishment for trying?
  • How much will achievements change the reward system?

In my case, the biggest bullet point was the third one. What is the punishment for trying? You should ALWAYS have a punishment for trying to get achievements so that the player thinks twice about doing it (after all, they’re supposed to be a challenge). Many games overlook this, giving players free rein to go off on crazed side quests, but I didn’t want that.

In Never End, players are trying to get through each level as fast as possible, with as few deaths and restarts as possible. At the end of each level, their stats (time, deaths, restarts) are turned into a point value using a secret formula. This point value is what really matters, and it’s what the Game Center leaderboards will show. Of course, players are unlikely to get every achievement the first time through, so they can opt to replay levels as many times as they want and try to lower their individual level scores, get more points, and snag those achievements.

However, the game also keeps a running total of all deaths, restarts, and total time playing, which also affect the total game score (albeit less drastically). As a result, if you replay a level your time for that level may decrease (increasing your point total), but your total time playing the game will go up (decreasing your point total). It’s a delicate balancing act.

If a player decides to try for achievements, they’ll have to contend with the fact that their point total can decrease. On the other hand, once they get the achievement their point total will increase (the prize for grabbing any achievement is big points). One example is the “A Good Cat” achievement, which you can get by dying 9 times; for your troubles you’ll get 100 points. However, each death subtracts 10 points, so the total net gain is actually 100 – (9 * 10) = 10 points. Another balancing act.

In the end, the balancing act should work out in the players’ favor (that is, they’ll be rewarded for trying), but that depends entirely on how well they play the game. Start replaying levels before you’re ready, and your point score will go down too far to make getting the achievement worth it: thus, it’s not a side quest thrown in just because everyone else is doing it, but an evaluation of core gameplay. There’s a reason for the achievements.

So remember: moderation, purpose, and balance.

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