Editorial: Trophy Earned! Achievements and RPGs
Why RPGs should make better use of trophies and achievements.
08.26.12 - 11:22 AM
I love achievements. They keep me playing a game long after I beat it and bring me back for a second playthrough at a later date. They inspire me to tackle the difficult optional bosses of games and spend another hour searching for that elusive item. Embarrassingly, I still only have a single platinum trophy to my name, but that doesn't change the fun I have setting out to obtain those that I can. Watching that little box pop-up on screen to tell me I've done something special is immensely satisfying.
Considering the variety of games and achievements out there, it strikes me as odd that RPGs seem to make the worst use of them. In many JRPGs, piles of trophies are dished out for reaching certain parts of the main storyline, and this is the case in a number of western RPGs too. Is it really that impressive to have reached the halfway point of a game? Or, in perhaps the most horrendous example, to have watched the opening cutscene of Atelier Rorona? Achievements for such simple tasks completely defeat the purpose of the mechanic: you're not achieving anything.
Let's take a step back. What's the purpose of the achievement system, anyway? There are probably different ways of looking at it, but I see it as a reward system. Completing tasks that are a real challenge or require real skill are those that deserve an award. Of course, challenge is a comparative term. Completing a game like Eternal Sonata is far less difficult than clearing Valkyria Chronicles. So, sensibly, achievements should reflect the scope and difficulty of the game they are a part of. In short, achievements and trophies should be awarded for worthwhile endeavours; those that require extra skill, extra time, or extra dedication.
Another potential use of achievements is to encourage players to approach a specific part or battle of a game with a new mindset. Though perhaps less important on a first play, it gives players a reason to come back and play the game in a different way. Achievements for different endings are exceedingly common in the RPG genre, but few games branch out into original territory.
Let's take a look at a good example. In Tales of Vesperia, there is an additional achievement for every major boss fight in the game. In each of these battles, there is some sort of special task you can perform to earn the achievement. The first boss, for example, requires Yuri to protect Estelle from taking damage, while a later boss requires you to knock them out of the battle arena. This forces players to think differently about a battle, and provides an extra challenge for those who are more skilled.
On the other hand, there are plenty of RPGs out there that seem to use achievements to torture the player. Star Ocean IV is perhaps one of the worst offenders with its "battle trophies." A number of achievements require obtaining certain battle trophies for milestones such as killing a certain amount of enemies, using particular skills, and generally just playing well. However, around half of these battle trophies are mind-numbingly monotonous tasks that appear to exist just to force you to play another 100 hours of the game. Awards for making Sarah jump 500 times or somehow manipulating Edge to deal exactly 5,500 are completely pointless and downright irritating. Even worse is a trophy for winning a ludicrously boring (not to mention excessively long) mini-game involving racing bunnies 100 times. Seriously, what was Tri-Ace thinking?
More recently, consider Diablo III. Among others, it includes achievements for activating a certain amount of health wells or opening a certain amount of chests. Are these really achievements? Aren't they rewards on their own? The same can be said for a number of Skyrim achievements. Does anyone really care if you've held 100,000 gold? On the other hand, Skyrim includes many worthwhile achievements that encourage you to play the game differently: using lockpicks 50 times, using persuade and intimidate, and even getting married, just to name a few.
So what should achievements be awarded for? It's simple, really. Achievements should provide motivation for the player to explore more of the game. I don't necessarily mean explore in the traditional sense, either. Sure, locating secret areas may be worth an award, but I also mean searching for those optional bosses, trying out different weapons and characters you might not have used otherwise, or even attempting the game on the highest level of difficulty. Let's not forget that a primary function of achievements is to compare them with your friends. Who wouldn't be impressed to see that a friend had picked up a silver trophy for defeating the Four Kings in Dark Souls? I suspect far fewer would be interested to see their friend had cleared Chapter I of Final Fantasy XIII.
I guess I feel that when you see an achievement pop you should feel something like "Wow, I finally surmounted that challenge," not "Oh, there was an achievement for that?" To my distaste, it seems the latter of those two is becoming more and more common in RPGs. So, developers: take time to actually consider the achievements you put in your games. Yes, there's nothing wrong with including some easier ones, like awards for reaching major milestones in the game's story. But make sure to include the truly momentous accomplishments too: tasks that make players go that extra mile or hunt down that difficult boss. Just stop including monotonous, pointless, artificially game-extending achievements. After all, victory is sweetest when it's truly earned.