Game Editorials Features Comics Reviews Previews News
Trophies and achievements – a source of motivation or frustration?

FeatureJan 22, 2018 at 5:30a PSTby Hank

Trophies and achievements – a source of motivation or frustration?

Some players decide to investigate trophy lists before playing a game so that they can unlock as many trophies a possible with only one playthrough. Is this what the trophies are for?

“OK. If I let him live, will I get an achievement? Or will I have to complete the game again and decide otherwise, as the trophy is unlocked only if I kill him?” I faced this exact dilemma when playing Bioshock: The Collection, and it encouraged me to rethink the issue of gaming trophies. Feel invited to accompany me as I dig a bit deeper into this issue.

A little bit of history won’t hurt anybody…

Before the platform-based achievements became a thing, developers tried to come up with a way to motivate players to experiment with their games and reach high completion ratios. This idea dates back to the 1980s when Activision decided to award the highest-scoring players with physical iron-on patches. All you had to do (apart from achieving a really high score) was to take a picture of your TV screen and send the photo to Activision, who then responded with a letter containing a patch. I wish today players could receive a physical reward for their in-game achievements…

I can’t see why these are not a thing anymore… Even in times of digitalization, such physical rewards are so cool… - 2018-01-22
I can’t see why these are not a thing anymore… Even in times of digitalization, such physical rewards are so cool…

Did these patches do their job and succeed at motivating players? Yup. So what happened next? Naturally, other companies incorporated a similar idea. Developers working for other companies implemented into their games autonomous achievement systems to encourage players to experiment with a given game. A very good example of such independent achievement system, which can be still seen in action, is the one featured in World of Warcraft. Players can see all the trophies they unlocked on a dedicated website and share them with their friends.

The first platform that supported multi-game achievements was the 2005 Microsoft Xbox 360 Gamerscore, extended to support Games for Windows in 2007. I remember playing the first installment of Gears of War when suddenly an achievement popped out. I was like, “Cool! What did I get for it?”. I immediately rushed to Xbox 360 Gamerscore website to learn that apart from a “digital form of recognition” I also got… well… nothing at all. Just a sense of satisfaction. Yay, I guess?

Share the newly-unlocked achievement with all your friends just to show off how good your reloading skills are! - 2018-01-22
Share the newly-unlocked achievement with all your friends just to show off how good your reloading skills are!

The very same year, Valve released their own platform-based achievement system that reached an even wider audience, as it comprised games for PC Windows, Mac, Linux, and SteamOS. In 2008, Sony introduced their own Trophies for games available on PlayStation 3. Since then, each gaming platform (including mobile devices) has implemented their own achievements. Interestingly enough, a single game available on different platforms (e.g. PS4 and XONE) has similar achievements to unlock.

What kinds of achievements are there exactly?

Now we know how this phenomenon started, so let’s move on to the achievements we can unlock today. Allow me to start with the most basic ones, namely the story-related (tutorial) trophies. As you play a game and complete consecutive sections of its campaign, you are bound to unlock new achievements. Every time you hear this familiar pop sound and see that you have managed to unlock a new trophy you feel a surge of satisfaction. This type of achievements aims at rewarding players for their progress with the game’s campaign; it also reminds them of the progress they have made so far. A subtype of these trophies are the tutorial achievements. Everyone can agree that in most games tutorials are boring (the best exception of this rule, in my opinion, is the tutorial featured in Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Who’s with me?!). To make them more entertaining and rewarding, developers often implement additional trophies for completing a given training section. These achievements do not alter the mechanics – they simply make the tutorial section feel worth playing.

The achievement you get for starting the aforementioned Far Cry: Blood Dragon. I already feel rewarded and appreciated. - 2018-01-22
The achievement you get for starting the aforementioned Far Cry: Blood Dragon. I already feel rewarded and appreciated.

Then there are the so-called challenge achievements that encourage players to develop their skills when playing a given game. A 100-hit combo, killing dozens of enemies without being injured, or beating the game within a specified time limit are only a few of all the available challenge options. The fact that these are difficult to unlock makes them even more rewarding and reserved for those most dedicated to a selected title.

On the other hand, we have all the annoying achievements. These include making a specific choice like the one I have described in the introduction. The game gives you a choice to make, however, you can unlock the trophy only if you decide as the trophy expects you to. This is not motivation. After I complete a game and see what trophies are left for me to unlock I feel irritated and think to myself, “Do I really have to complete the entire game again only to make a different choice? And what is worse, do I need to make a choice that does not feel natural to me?”. Playing video games should be about immersion, assuming the role of the protagonist and creating one’s own story… not the story that people behind the trophies had on their minds.

Other trophies involve e.g. acquiring all the collectibles in an open-world game. The reasoning behind the collectibles has many flaws itself and many players don’t feel like wasting their time on countless items hidden across the map, yet the developers feel this urge to encourage us to collect them anyway: “Get them all and you will get a trophy! Without this trophy, you cannot complete the game 100%, right?”. And here’s another point – are these items really hidden, since at some point you can see them on the in-game world map?

OK. Just one more Animus Fragment and I’ll unlock the trophy! I can’t wait until I see Jared’s face when he sees it. - 2018-01-22
OK. Just one more Animus Fragment and I’ll unlock the trophy! I can’t wait until I see Jared’s face when he sees it.

A carrot-and-stick approach

For some players, unlocking an achievement is a reward in itself. They spend countless hours on completing a challenge and they feel satisfied when they (and all their online friends) can see a given trophy on their account. Well, I for one am not like that. Trophies should carry a bit more than just another icon and increased percentage of… what exactly? Experience? Skills? I am glad to learn that in the U.S. Sony has announced additional rewards for unlocking trophies – each trophy, depending on its rarity/difficulty, grants the player a given amount of points he or she can spend at Sony’s online store. That is exactly what I am talking about! But do it worldwide! For all platforms! Unlocking trophies would have been so much different if only we knew that there was another reward for it! Players would stay in their favorite game even longer trying to complete everything it has to offer and then use the points they received to obtain e.g. an expansion to this game, making them play it even longer! This sounds perfect. Right, developers? Publishers? Anybody?

So? Do they motivate or frustrate us?

Trophies that inform you of your progress are really nice and rewarding. They differentiate the experience and make a game more engaging. Being rewarded for completing a difficult challenge is also a welcome bonus – I mean, who doesn’t like a good pat on his or her back? Some players need this kind of motivation to experiment with the game as well as discover its secrets and easter eggs. The problem starts with absurd achievements that force you to make an unnatural choice or simply collect everything the developers implemented in their game to make it artificially longer.

And what is your opinion on the trophies? Do you feel motivated by them? Or do you play the game so as to unlock all the achievements? Let us know in the comments section!