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Padding Your Gamerscore: Have Rewards Ruined Gaming?

Matt Gardner
Achievements, Features, Trophies

Padding Your Gamerscore: Have Rewards Ruined Gaming?

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.

Padding Your Gamerscore: Have Rewards Ruined Gaming?

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.


Padding Your Gamerscore: Have Rewards Ruined Gaming?

Damn you Potter!

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.

Add a comment5 comments
Matt Gardner  May. 3, 2010 at 13:11


This should be mandatory listening for anyone who has ever gone 'chieving...

ODB  May. 4, 2010 at 10:41

good article though ruined by the needless slating of the 360 early on. Have both consoles and still prefer the 360 to play on...graphical superiority WTF...technically yes but nothing thats used this yet, plus its only shiny if you have the Phat. Its about time that both consoles really pushed the machines and showed what they can do, the way the PS2 did with Black when its life had pretty much ended cause we arent getting anywhere near where it should be

and have never been bothered with achievements, playing it the way you are told too ruins the fun of it all, think too many people are worried that others think less of their gaming abilities...so? play it like you want to...with or without achievements

Late  May. 4, 2010 at 10:59

Very good article. I've not listened to the song - will give it a listen when I get home tonight. I agree that achievements can have a detrimental effect in some minor way, but on the whole surely they're a positive.

I try not to be affected by gamerscore but do find myself checking my score/achievements periodically - and actively avoided them for a while when my score was 12345! (OCD? Maybe a little...)

But generally I like to complete a game as far as I would without the achievements before I look at them - to see what I've done and to see what I've not. Often there's no surprises in there - if I've completed a game on normal I know there'll be an achievement gained there and there'll be one missed by not playing on hard, for instance; and if I've happened upon 20 of 50 hidden objects I'll know there's a missed achievement by not spending a couple hundred hours hunting down the others (or more realistically, downloading a map to find them - something I did I think once and vowed never to do again. What a waste of time - there's no accomplishment in following someone else's instructions!)
But other times I'll learn new things. I'll maybe find out that I've not gotten an achievement for killing an opponent in a certain way - a way I'd not considered before. Or I'll see that there's an achievement for finding a shortcut or item on every racecourse. And seeing that I've missed something like that will incite me to play some more - not because I've been prompted to do so by whoever wrote that achievement, but because I'll enjoy it.

As for buying a game purely because it's got easy achievements - shame on you!
It is annoying, though, that some games are easier to get GS on than others (I recall playing some Sonic game a couple years back and I'd only gotten about 50 gamerscore after dozens of hours :evil: ) but there's no real way to avoid that. (Shooting the guy who came up with the Sonic achievements might be a step in the right direction. See how I got over it...)

Matt Gardner  May. 4, 2010 at 11:05

I have an extreme love/hate relationship with my 360s....although now running a Dec 2009 Jasper Elite which is freakin badass.

The PS3 has a clear margin over the 360 in terms of graphics, one comparison between the two versions of FFXIII will tell you that, and Sony's Blu-ray capabilities suggest that there's far more to come, but as yet most multiplat titles have been developed for the Xbox simply due to familiarity and convenience...I wonder whether now, particularly in the wake of Capcom's Lost Planet 2 complaint, we'll see both platforms being used to their fullest extent.

I do agree with you, however, that no-one has pushed either console to it's limits as yet. Black was a good example for the PS2 as was Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy XII, the latter of which looked better than a lot of 360 launch titles!

Of course, OnLive and Gaikai might well render performance debates superfluous in the long run.

Matt Gardner  May. 4, 2010 at 11:23

I agree with a lot of the points you've made here...

Collectables are one of my biggest peeves with sandbox games, but primarily this is because so often the game gives you now indication that you're anywhere near to a pickup. I like the way, however, these optional objectives were included in say The Saboteur or Just Cause 2 - the former with its freeplay objectives, and the latter with its proximity sensor.

In Just Cause 2, there were actually so many well constructed distractions and well implemented points of interest that you could feasibly pour 50 hours into it and still not have gotten past the third story mission! The flags in Ass Creed, though? Terrible...and I concur, anything that forces you into the arms of another's instructions is missing the point.

There's no doubting that Achievements can often open up a game and help you to try different things, and for all the discussions around games as art, gaming has always had one foot firmly planted on the side of skilled competitive play. But standardisation doesn't work for all of the games out there, and I do find there is something slightly insidious about achievements. I actually miss the little 'Unlocked' sound when playing on my Wii.


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