by Bob Reinhard
Since it comes up often, and I don’t feel like arguing back and forth about it. I’m just going to write my take on the trophy/achievement debate right here. I’ve defended them before, so it’s no surprise I’m about to defend them again. However, I’m going to address each complaint I’ve seen as well. Because some of them do have merit, but maybe not in the way people think.
We can’t start this conversation without stating the single most obvious point here, the one many people parrot: They are completely optional. This is an easy argument to make, and on the surface seems to be the easiest way to just end the discussion all together. But there is a lot more to consider in this when you get down to it.
First, let me explain some of the reasons I personally ENJOY trophies in games. And take into mind that I only usually go for trophies if I enjoy the game or I think they sound like fun extra challenges. I don’t force myself to do something I don’t want to do.
I’ve spent a lot of time on my podcast and in general talking about the concept of “Added Value”. Trophies (easier to type than “achievements”, so that’s what I’ll be using for now on in this blog) do what I consider to be adding value. They’re essentially extra goals for you to work for in a game. Potentially adding more gameplay or time spent playing.
Time is an important one. For some, shelling out 60 dollars for a game is no big deal. People can buy multiple games and breeze through them and move on to the next without thought. For others, 60 dollars for a game may be their monthly, or even longer periods of time, budget for games. Let’s assume we fall into the latter group. We bought our one game for the month, but it turns out to be a 6 hour game without much challenge or range. That’s it for our month? Trophies at least add something else to do if the person so chooses. This can turn a game like Uncharted into a longer game than it initially is.
Another added value point to make is WHAT these trophies are. In some games, you’re given a very large tool set to play around with. So much so that sometimes you can’t use all the tools or do all the things in your playthrough. You may get a large collection of abilities or items, and in a normal playthrough you may simply choose the ones you like the most to use. This, at it’s core, is what a tool set is supposed to be. It’s supposed to give players freedom of choice in how they play the game. And because of this, some players may very well never use a large chunk of what is available to them in-game. For instance, you may never touch a certain gun or use a certain spell.
But if we add trophies to the game that reward you for using every type of tool or getting a certain amount of kills with a certain gun (Bioshock and Uncharted do this a lot), the player may feel more inclined to take some time out to play around with things they may have otherwise skipped out on in a normal playthrough. This can add a lot of fun and variety to a game. And again: it’s totally optional. You can still play the game with just the tools you like if you feel like it. I, for one, like experimenting with my other options every once and awhile just to see what other styles of play are out there. Added value.
There are a lot of trophy types that aren’t anything new to games. Things such as collectibles, high scores, Easter eggs, time trials, etc. have been around pretty much since gaming began. Having trophies for these things just gives you a very easy to keep track of tally list for things we’ve already spent decades doing. Going for 100% is something that existed long before trophies. We just not has a more quantifiable way of seeing that done. Let me tell you, it made getting everything in Okami an easier goal to keep track of…
The “Bad” Trophies
While the trophies I mentioned above add value to the game and give you extra things to seek out, there are other trophies that simply don’t work. As is the norm with anything in gaming these days, some developers don’t quite understand how to utilize this system well and make trophies that are more irritating.
For instance, the dreaded online multiplayer trophies. Most games think they can be the next Call of Duty and sustain a long and robust online community. And some of those games can. Others fall flat on their face and pretty much have zero online play very shortly after release. So, when a game stacks a bunch of required online play trophies, they’re setting themselves up to be uncompleted. How many games have you come across that have online trophies no longer even HAVE the online play? Or nobody is playing so it’s literally impossible to score the trophies? In other words: the game now has unachievable goals. That’s just shitty game design. But that’s simply the fault of the developers, not the trophy system itself. There are many other places developers get things wrong, so it’s no surprise this system can be mucked up as well.
And some trophies make you do ridiculously long-winded, boring, and pointless tasks. Having to sit around and kill 10,000 of the same enemy type simply isn’t fun by the time you complete it. Some developers think time-consuming automatically means challenge or fun. If it’s not balanced with engaging, these simply become monotonous tasks with no pay off. But hey: that exists in games WITHOUT trophies as well. Making a player do dull tasks for insanely long periods of time with no pay off is bad no matter how you spin it. Again: not the fault of trophies, the fault of developers missing out on basic game design concepts.
So that about covers the trophies themselves. There are very few trophies that aren’t things we’ve already had in games. They’re simply an easy way to keep track of stuff we’ve probably already done in many games before. They’re a fun little way to look at what you’ve done in all the games you’ve played. Nothing wrong with keeping track of what you’ve done, right?
But then we come to the downside of showcasing what we’ve done…
This is one of the complaints I see thrown at trophies all the time. People are acting like they’re better gamers because they have a higher gamer score or more Platinum trophies. And while there is an entire sub-group of gamers who go out of their way to be the first and the best and the highest scoring, this is still not the fault of the system. And again: it’s nothing new! Go watch The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and see if topping leader boards or having the highest gamer score is new to gaming.
One of the things we see often in this kind of behavior is people who play games they otherwise wouldn’t for “easy achievements”. Grown adults sitting down and playing Barbie games in order to score easy trophies. People not even taking time to ENJOY a game, simply tearing through it as fast as they can so they can move on to the next game and get more trophies. And while you and I may not get this behavior or see how it’s any fun… who are we to say they SHOULDN’T do that?
What’s actually wrong with that, when you get right down to it? It’s not OUR money or OUR time being spent on those games. If that’s what they want to do with their free time, that’s their decision. We may find it stupid and silly, but need I remind you there is a large group of people out there that think the fact we play video games at all is stupid and a waste of time?
So now we’ve looked at the trophies and those that go for them. But what about the development side of things? Do trophies have a negative effect on games in general?
We’ve already determined that, for the most part, trophies are nothing that developers haven’t already put in games in the past. But is the need to put a trophy list in the game taking away from other things during a game’s development cycle?
I can’t imagine trophies are something that take a ton of time for a lot of people to work on. I would imagine they’re mostly tacked on after-the-fact based on things that are mostly in the game already. However, it could be possible that developers build a game with certain trophies in mind. This may very well put a damper on their attention to making the game itself functional and good from the start. Focusing too much on “what would be a challenging achievement” vs. “what will make this game the best game it can be”.
But dare I repeat myself again by saying this is STILL entirely situational? That this is a reflection of the developer and not the system? We lobby this at online multiplayer and various other systems as well. Because obviously there are MANY games this generation people consider great games. And most of those have these trophies in place. If this many developers can easily make a great game with trophies included, does this system really damage games as much as we think it does? Would those games be so much better if they’d just not put trophies in? I find it hard to believe that it damages games nearly as much as we think, and whatever damage is done is probably still likely to have occurred because the developer themselves isn’t very good at what they’re doing.
The main things we can pull from this are that A) Trophies can add value if done correctly and B) Much like most pieces of content in a game, being good or bad is entirely dependent on how well the developer understands good game design. So let me ask again: is this something that is really damaging to games? Or is the added value worth the downsides? Are trophies really ALL that big of a shift in developer focus that they’ve damaged gaming overall, or is it simply adding a clearer way to see something we’ve already done in games for many years? Is it the systems fault for people abusing it, or is it simply easier to see the negative behaviors today than it was 20 years ago?
Just ponder these questions and ask yourself if trophies are really worth attacking or if they’re simply a part of gaming that some can enjoy and others can ignore and go about their day.
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