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It's time to get rid of achievements

Opinion: John Dean thinks the little unlockables are spoiling our fun

They were fun at first, weren't they? That little noise, the cheeky pop-up at the bottom of the screen - it added something new and unusual, an experience that felt unique to the Xbox 360.

Since then we've seen the PS3 and plenty of PC platforms like Steam introduce their own variations, but nothing else has been quite as compulsive. Anyone who's tried all three will agree: There's nothing quite as strong as the draw to become a Gamerscore whore.

During the first few years of the Xbox 360's lifespan, it seemed like these new non-existent points would benefit gaming as a whole - adding an optional level of extra challenge for fans to get their teeth into. Games like Crackdown and Viva Pinata wouldn't have worked without the inclusion of achievements: These open-ended games using the system's elusive 1000g as a guidance beacon - giving the otherwise thankless tasks of collecting orbs and breeding butterflies a sense of direction and purpose.

Whilst a few games since have embraced the idea of making achievements an integral part of the game's design, for most it still feels like a cheeky afterthought.

The problem lies with mainly with the assumption that gamers will be able to ignore them if they wish to do so; whilst some have the ability to play without thinking too much about these evil little unlocks, many like myself find it impossible to ignore the lure of having a quick look at the achievement list. This is when things go wrong.

Once you've seen an achievement which seems vaguely attainable, it's impossible to get it out of your head. 2008's Prince of Persia contained two absolute game-killers: Finish the game having fallen less than 100 times, and finish the game in under 12 hours.

The fact that these challenges weren't mandatory didn't matter - as soon as a tiny part of my brain thought these tasks were possible, my experience of playing the game changed: The bright and breezy take-it-easy nature of the game's entire design was shattered, leaving me rushing through the game and punishing myself mentally for every mistake that I'd made.

Mass Effect 2 is another good example of letting a game's achievements piss all over a developer's cornflakes: Offering a 75g carrot on a string for anyone able to finish the game without losing any of their crew creates a sense of direction that /entirely undermined/ the spirit of the game.

For a series based entirely on accepting the consequences of choices you'd made, Mass Effect 2's achievements openly encouraged you to do something different: Don't mourn the loss of an excellent team-mate - reload the game, and get it /right/. Achievements can't afford to ignore the agenda they push: From the eyes of a gamer, these always represent the way in which the developers /want/ you to play. If you're a developer shaking your head at this notion - you need to go back to the drawing board.


It isn't all just about the tone being spoiled, though: Avatar: The Last Airbender changed achievements forever when it accidentally discovered that you could sell a game based on easy-cheevos alone. In the same way many of you will find yourself joylessly ploughing through the last few hours of a game in order to max out that easy set of achievements, the opposite is often true of games which make their tasks excessively difficult to appeal to the elite.

Have you ever got halfway through a game and then suddenly lost interest after realising all of the achievements are flipping impossible? I'm looking at you, Blue Dragon.

Unless you're one of the lucky few who aren't effected by their mere presence within a game, it's clear that achievements have to be dealt with more responsibly. Developers need to be aware of the fact that these pointless little numbers will fundamentally change the way we play their game.

If Microsoft can't enforce some kind of guidelines about how this should be handled, then it's their responsibility to give players the chance to remove them entirely.

I haven't loved achievements for a long time now, but that doesn't stop me thinking about them far more often than I'd like to. Gaming wasn't boring before achievements came around, so I don't see any harm in waving goodbye to them now: If we can't find a way to make things work, I think it's probably for the best that we simply get rid of them.