I've been promising this for a while so now here goes.
I'm going to give a rare glimpse into how PDX Publishing works with developers on achievements. I'm also just going to show you the same guideline documentation (more or less) we give to devs. I'll hope it'll spark a (constructive) discussion.
One thing before we head into this. Paradox is releasing about 15 major games this year, 3 of them are major internal titles (V2,HOI3SF and EU3DW). The bulk of our releases are non-grand strategy games - in other words more "ordinary" games.
Meaning, less depth, more linear, less mod-friendly. So as we have this discussion bear in mind that we're making achievements to work with ALL Paradox games. We can't accomodate all games to a 100% so we'll have to make sacrifices sometimes.
Achievements are a tool for adding an additional gameplay layer to a game, making them more fun and appealing. More specifically this is done by doing a number of important things; challenging, teaching, encouraging and rewarding the player to name a few.
Achievements can also be used as a tool for developers/publishers to gain useful insight into their games. As we track which achievements are, and aren’t, unlocked we learn more about the actual playing patterns of the gamer. This knowledge is useful for future designs.
For achievements to actually be effective and usable tool they need to be properly designed. A collection sloppily designed achievements can act as a detriment to the game.
This document outlines the best practices to use when designing a solid set of achievements.
In essence the primary function of achievements is to regularly affirm and award the player of their progress in the game. The secondary functions of achievements are to communicate with the player about the what, when and how of said achievements.
As every game is unique, there is no set formula for designing achievements. Instead you will find a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” below. They are not mutually exclusive and will sometimes be contradictory, but remember that it’s more important that your achievement system as a whole is of sound quality rather than that each achievement is perfect. Almost every “do” has an antithesis and vice versa.
What should be awarded?
- Besides rewarding the player for natural progression (defeating bosses, advancing the story) the following guidelines can be used to figure out what to actually reward.
- Mastering of a core game mechanic
- Something that contains a high skill component
- Handicapping the player if the new core mechanic of this handicap is still compelling (such as removing high-powered weapons when the low-powered ones are just as much fun).
NOTE: There is a distinction between achievements and the point reward associated with them.
- Achievements can and should be broken down into sub-achievements.
- Communicate clearly how the player is progressing with each achievement. Progress bars! (See Gears of War 2, Splinter cell conviction, MW2, Shadow Complex)
- Achievements should be unlocked at a fairly steady pace.
- Make sure to reward achievements 2-3 times during the initial game experience (approximately first hour). Get them hooked early.
- Make a distinction between a “normal” playthrough and “this is my nth playthrough” and pace the achievements thereafter.
- A “normal” playthrough should yield a substantial portion of the achievements. Depending on the playtime 20-50% is a fair amount of reward.
- If connected – Compare and display the players progress with his/her friends score. See*Shadow Complex
- Achievements should overall have a positive impact on the game. Don’t throw in an achievement just for the sake of the achievement.
- Design achievements that enforce your core game mechanics.
- Make sure your achievements are in harmony with each other
- Use achievements to connect with the player and show them that you “get them”. Inside jokes!
- Use achievements to teach and inform the player about the game. “Oh, you can do it that way? I never thought of it”
- Design with diversity in mind. Have a broad variety of achievements from a broad number of areas.
- Acknowledge the highest difficulty on which something has been accomplished. Unlocking “Hard completion” should also reward “normal” and “easy”.
- “Grindy” achievements are acceptable as long as they enhance an already existing in game behaviour - collecting money for instance. Collecting flags, shooting pigeons and other arbitrary game elements do not qualify.
- Design your achievements so that they can’t be “broken”. I.e. no shortcuts
- The hardest achievements should inspire awe and respect, but should not unfeasibly hard to get.
What should NOT be awarded?
There are numerous pitfalls that designers need to avoid when designing achievements. The following are a loose set of guidelines on what not to reward.
- Low skill component.
- Artificial gameplay.
- Perfection of a non-core game mechanic that has little to do with the actual game.
- Handicapping the player if the new core mechanic of this handicap isn’t still compelling. i.e. forcing the player to do something that is less fun.
- Non-accomplishments; played 50 hours/100 hours.
Evaluate the design:
- Don’t be arbitrary in your design – don’t reward nonsensical accomplishments
- Don’t enforce artificial gameplay
- Don’t reward achievements that have a low skill component or are luck based.
- Don’t reward non-accomplishments. Things that are done automatically.
- Don’t design achievements that enforce gameplay behavior that contradicts your core gameplay mechanics.
- Don’t reward perfection of non-central game mechanic that isn't overly fun on its own.
- Don’t punish the player for being better than the achievement. Most achievements should have a “-achieve this or less” clause.
- Severe punishments for small mistakes after a long period of time
- Aggressive real-life demands (completing a grueling task within 24 real-time hours, for example), difficult logistics of even attempting a task (such as finding an active multiplayer game)
- Award dying/failing x number of times. Achievements should not award mediocracy.
- Don’t close the window of opportunity. Always try to give the player the opportunity to go back and try to get the achievement again.
- Don’t be arbitrarily cryptic. The player shouldn’t be forced to go online to find instructions on how to unlock the achievement.
- Don’t have achievements that are so incredibly hard to unlock that makes the players dislike the game.
- Don’t make achievement hunting feel like a chore, they should be fun.
- Don’t require the player to collect x number of arbitrary objects that have no impact on game. (see flags in Assassins’ Creed)
As a general rule always evaluate the weight and fun of an achievement by the most efficient method by which it is earned. Does it stand up against scrutiny? Does it still seem reasonable?
- Make sure you have a diverse set of achievements:
- Are they from all parts of the game?
- Are they of multiple types?
- Do they vary in difficulty?
- Do they only reward one kind of player?
- Do they punish another?
General information & facts
In most cases on Kongregate.com, adding achievements to games caused the user rating to drop! But more people played the games. There are many theories about why this is — the best guess is that there's a difference in psychology between people who play a game just to have fun and people who play a game to earn achievements.
Let the discussion begin.
Do you see the design challenges inherent in creating achievements for our own grand strategy games and how much easier it is for a linear game like Magicka?
Let me know what you think.