When my third Xbox began to develop the graphical sickness that comes as a precursor to the dreaded Red Ring Of Death I began cursing Microsoft pretty damn loudly, although thankfully not quite loudly enough to warrant a visit from the neighbours or the police (it happens, SingStar parties that get out of hand, Mario Kart contests that end with controllers inserted into people in rage). The first thing I did was to jump online and check out the cheapest deal around for a PS3. These things don't break, I told myself. I'd be happier with a PS3, I could play God of War III, finally finish Uncharted II and fulfil all of my narrative-driven addictions by pleasuring myself to Heavy Rain. I'd finally be able to fully expand my hard drive and run Blu-ray movies in retina-melting HD, sure the controllers would still me too small for my hands, but at least I wouldn't have to buy accessories for my accessories!!!
This was the plan, anyway. I don't have brand loyalty, there's no such thing as fanboyism...you go where the best games are. This was an opportunity, to start anew with a machine that wouldn't break (unless of course the millennium bug struck again), and take advantage of the enormous power, sleek shininess and graphical superiority that the PS3 has to offer. Every single bit of logic and experience and precedent pointed towards Sony's beast of a machine...
...so why the hell did I go and buy myself another 360?
The sad answer to this question comes in the form of Achievements, I'd amassed a score (a pretty low one, admittedly) and I didn't want to just leave it behind. As a Nintendo fanboy going back to the early-mid Nineties, I was always a bit of a purist snob when it came to certain aspects of gaming and so it was, following what I perceived to be The Great Wii Betrayal at the time, that I arrived on the Xbox 360 unconvinced by the Gamerscore system laughing off Jon's protestations of 'It'll get you in the end' and merrily wending my way through the next-gen stories of Marcus Fenix, Commander Sheperd and the Master Chief. I poked fun at completionists who would grind away in the early hours of the morning, buzzing on coffee and Pro Plus, trying desperately to find the last flag in Assassin's Creed. I told myself that I didn't need Achievements, that I could just ignore them and carry on oblivious.
But I was wrong.
Slowly, that little popping sound that accompanies each unlocking of a new Achievement began to instil a small amount of satisfaction, and slowly that satisfaction began to grow until I'd actively start looking up Achievement lists and working out which ones were readily attainable. I began grinding for Gamerpoints, although secretly, knowing that there'd be a certain smug assertion of 'I told you so' waiting for me. But then things went too far and I found myself in Gamestation, buying Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as part of an offer just for the easy Gamerpoints. It doesn't matter that I only ever played through half of it. It doesn't matter that it got pretty balanced reviews...I had officially crossed over. I had officially become an Achievement Whore.
Achievements and Trophies have been under the microscope for some time now, but no more so than at GDC 10 when Chris Hecker suggested that the rewards system might well be detrimental to gaming. The 'For' case for rewards is simple - by increasing objectives via a standardised points system one is surely adding longevity to games that might otherwise offer a fairly short lifespan. The competitive element of it all supports and fuels the drive to strive more further points. Boasting rights, it would seem, count for a lot, but that competition is as much a personal thing between player and game as it is between player and peers. But this comes at a price, one that is diametrically opposed to the whole games as art argument, and playing into the hands of those who see gaming as much more of a virtual sport than an artistic experience. David Cage toyed with the possibility of removing Trophies from Heavy Rain because he felt that they might well take the player out of the experience. Nintendo, arguably to their credit, still don't have a standardised rewards system for the Wii.
Hecker's speech, however, called for long-term study on the effects Achievements can have, feeling that maybe a rewards system isn't the way forward after all. He suggested that psychological research put forward the point that 'extrinsic motivators...can decrease intrinsic motivation on interesting tasks'; in other words, playing games for the rewards may be decreasing the desire to simply play games for themselves. As this Destructoid article pointed out, this is a pretty divisive issue, but...
'Even with all of the catty disagreements between the behavioralists and the antibehavioralists, both groups agree on two fundamental things:
1. For interesting tasks, tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce intrinsic motivation.
2. Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases intrinsic motivation.
Even if these are the only things psychologists agree on, these are huge statements. Hecker says normal game motivators are built on extrinsic, expected, contingent rewards, "and that's pretty scary to me."'
I know people that refuse to buy PS3 games unless they have Trophy support, others (like my own personal anecdote above) who'll seek out games with 'easy' Achievements to pad their Gamerscores.
Then of course, there are the guides. I have a fundamental issue with guides, and the only time I end up using them is for irritating collecting quests that are nearly always implemented for pure padding reasons. Collection quests are the curse of the sandbox genre, nearly always resulting in frustrating grinding and often requiring cross-referencing with a map usually because they're a seeming afterthought.
I'm not saying that Achievements and Trophies are bad, and neither really was Hecker, but the point that this field warrants further study and consideration. Don't get me wrong, Achievements have injected life into stale titles, pressed me to pursue ways of playing that I might not have otherwise considered and have added replay value to games that I might not have normally played again. But my motivation for that is completely suspect: whereas before I'd have happily have played a game numerous times out of sheer enjoyment, now that has, in some cases, been subsumed by expectation of reward.
What are your thoughts on standardised reward systems? Let us know in the comments box below.