Achievement Design Guidelines

Preface (3/24/2015): In 2011 I was tasked with designing an achievement system for one of the games I was working on. That system never saw the light of day, but I did write some guidelines on achievement design, intended to help future designers that might work on the system. This is an excerpt from those guidelines. Many of these were derived from reading achievement guides written by other designers – but because I never expected to publish this, I didn’t do a good job of saving links to those guides. If you have written similar guides on your own blog, please link to them in the comments here!

While researching achievement systems, I came up with a number of guidelines we should attempt to follow while designing achievements. An important thing to understand is that achievement systems can be used to incentivize a very wide variety of player behaviors, to the point that players will do things they do not enjoy just to earn an achievement.

Push players towards enjoyment

If there is a type of play-style or mechanic that players enjoy already, it’s a good candidate for achievements. Think carefully before incentivizing something they do NOT enjoy.

Evaluate an achievement by the most efficient method it could be earned

Ask yourself: if I was a dedicated player out to earn this achievement as fast as possible, how would I do it? Make sure the answer is something we’re willing to live with.

Do not incentivize undesirable player behavior

We don’t want to place achievements that might encourage players to do things that are disruptive or annoying to other players. We’d want to think hard before putting in an achievement to “rez five players in one instance”, for example, because then the healer involved might decide to let his party die just so that he can rez them.

Failure States

If a player is specifically playing to earn an achievement, then reaching a point where that achievement can’t be earned is a failure state. Make sure you evaluate it as such, and consider how harsh that failure is. An achievement that asks players to complete an instance without taking damage is akin to playing a character with 1 hitpoint and no rezzes, if your goal is to earn that achievement.

Don’t create achievements that value one “equal” choice over another

Bioshock is infamous for having a big moral choice that changes the ending of the game, and theoretically both choices are valid. But only one has an achievement for choosing it, which takes away the choice in the eyes of some players.

Difficult Achievements

Difficult achievements are good; they give the hardcore players something to strive for, and if they’re tied to unique player titles, then they can be impressive badges of honor and accomplishment. But ensure that they are difficult for the right reasons. Examples of wrong or frustrating types of difficulty:

  • Heavily luck-based (run this instance until all four of the rare spawns appear at once!)
  • Give a handicap that removes fun without adding interesting gameplay (turn on walk mode and use it through the entire instance)
  • Aggressive real-life demands (“level to 20 over the course of 14 days” is bad; doing it over the course of 20 in-game hours is preferable)
  • High reliance on specific behavior from unpredictable opponents that the player does not have control over. This applies more to PVP situations.

If you do it on high difficulty, it counts for lower difficulties.

If you have achievements on a lower difficuly, then doing that same achievement on a higher difficulty should still satisfy the requirements. We don’t want to make players who can handle harder difficulty modes downgrade just to satisfy a n achievement requirement.

Spoilers

Avoid putting spoilers in achievement titles or text, especially if earning an achievement is going to be broadcast to other players in any way.

Avoid achievements for trivial actions

If it is extremely trivial to earn an achievement, then it has no value. It in fact cheapens the perceived value of the entire system! Don’t grant an achievement for creating a character, killing your first enemy, etc. We’d be fooling nobody.

Comments:

  1. As with any game feature the achievement guidelines need to be tailored to the specific game you’re making and general achievement guidelines might want to cover this. Some games work best with a single style of achievement where others may use multiple styles of achievement to good effect.

    Off the top of my head here are a few achievement styles and examples:

    1. Record the player’s activity. This achievement type increments as the player plays the game and should generally finish around the same time a player completes a deep play of the game. This type of achievement works great in extended games such as open world, MMOs, and other games without set ending. Ex. Kill 1000 Orcs, complete 100 dungeons.

    2. Encourage the use of game features. These achievements are generally useful in games with a lot of breadth in their features, especially if it can’t be accessed in parallel. Ex. Complete the game with each character, finish the game on NG+, use an ability from a different class/specialization of your class.

    3. Record progress. This is most obvious in games like Bloodborne where the achievements are simply a direct map of progress towards 100% completion of the game’s content.

    There’s also a question as to when to display an achievement for the first time and if the specifics of the achievement are ever hidden.

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