A Nintendo Argument Against Achievements

"We're not opposed to Achievements," Nintendo's Bill Trinen told me earlier this week, even as he confirmed that his company's next system, the 3DS, won't have one of the more popular features in Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC gaming.

Perhaps Nintendo has found a trend worth bucking.

Since the launch of the Xbox 360, gamers and game creators have appeared to collectively, if not unanimously, embrace the idea of associating certain actions in a video game with some sort of accolade or point value that can be added to accolades and points earned in other games in order to represent a player's overall accomplishments. Since Microsoft started doling out Achievement points on the Xbox 360, PC gamers have been able to do something similar with Steam Achievements, PlayStation users with Trophies and iPhone users with Game Center Achievements.

Nintendo has been the outlier, offering an Achievement-like system in its 2008 game Wii Sports Resort but declining to implement anything system-wide or even make the practice common in its games. Mario games don't have Achievements. Zelda games don't. Just about nothing Nintendo makes does including the Nintendo 3DS, which is Nintendo's big hardware release, coming to America on March 27.

"When they create their games, [Nintendo's designers] don't tell you how to play their game in order to achieve some kind of mythical reward."

"When they create their games, [Nintendo's designers] don't tell you how to play their game in order to achieve some kind of mythical reward," Trinen said, explaining his view of why Nintendo's top creators have stayed off the Achievement bandwagon. Trinen is currently head of product marketing for Nintendo of America, but has also long communicated with Nintendo's top development talent in Japan and would be privy to their design philosophies.

"Basically, the way the games are designed is they're designed for you to explore the game yourself and have this sense of discovery," he said. "To that end, I think that when you look specifically at games from EAD [the group long led by Mario and Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto] and a lot of other games that Nintendo has developed a well, there are things you can do in the game that will result in some sort of reward or unexpected surprise. In my mind, that really encourages the sense of exploration rather than the sense of 'If I do that, I'm going to get some sort of artificial point or score that's going to make me feel better that I got this.' And that, to me, is I think more compelling."

Trinen is aware of Nintendo's own exceptions. He recalled an Achievement-like bonus system in the GameCube's Super Smash Bros. Melee that rewarded players for doing specific, sometimes-unusual, things in the game. But he pointed out that even that game didn't tell its players in advance that they would be getting rewards and how to attain them.

Achievement-skepticism is not a Nintendo-exclusive philosophy. Plenty of other people have wondered what the worth of Achievements is, how they affect the way we play games that contain them and, ultimately whether they are good or bad for games and gaming.

It's not clear if Nintendo's top people would go as far as saying that Achievements are bad for video games, but Trinen articulates a valid wariness about what their cost may be. It's hard to imagine a Zelda game that contains Achievements. It's harder still to imagine one that feels as magical and surprising as the best of them do.