You know the ones. Sometimes you start a new game, and a few minutes in—before you even do anything—and ping! Achievement Unlocked. Congrats, you earned that achievement by, um, existing?
It's achievements like that, the gamer community at large seems to have decided, that give achievements a bad name. Developers give them out willy-nilly, and in doing so, these achievements mean less.
Hold up, Super Crate Box developer Rami Ismail says. What assumptions might we be making there about the people playing the game? As a different developer put it on Twitter recently,
Ismail illustrates this point further on his blog by telling us the story of his girlfriend picking up Assassin's Creed 2.
As every gamer knows, it's tough to sit back and watch someone walk into walls endlessly. She did exactly this in her first ten minutes of Assassins Creed II, frustration levels rising slowly to the point where she would just give up and never try again. After minutes that seemed like hours of desperately trying to steer a character straight ahead, she finally succeeded.
I used to argue that just achieving that goal in itself should be an adequate reward to motivate new gamers to continue playing, but I did not take into account that new gamers are fully aware walking should be a trivial tasks; they know that it isn't a tough challenge to walk straight in a game, even if it is fully reasonable for them to find it difficult having never used gamepads before. They realize it is not an accomplishment by any standard and thus the argument fails.
She was already tired of playing and about to quit when the console played that unmistakable notification sound: achievement unlocked.
That sound changed everything. Instead of quitting, she gave the game a few more minutes of her time—the achievement acting as an unobtrusive encouragement tool. That same achievement is one that many of us would receive with an eyeroll even though it's likely that the game in question has its share of respectable achievements meant for us in addition to the easy ones meant for less motivated players.
The constant barrage of morale boosts is something that casual gamers are acquainted with when acquainted with when playing titles "for their demographic." And this is where Ismail gets incisive: maybe that's the point. Maybe we recognize that anybody—even those pleb casual gamers—can get these achievements, and we don't like that.
As I started digging deeper, a realization set in: the problem these people were having wasn't so much with the achievement being too easy to unlock for them—the problem was that others could unlock it just as easily. It's the idea that if a ‘non-gamer' can do it, things can't be an achievement. At best, it's a cry for more challenging games—at its worst, it's an attempt to safeguard the exclusivity of hardcore gaming from newcomers. The underlying thought is simple: achievements are supposed to be for ‘real' gamers.
When you think about how fervent the gaming community can be about the lengths games go to make things accessible for casual gamers, and the sense that the challenge and difficulty in games is something of the past because of that endeavor, the derision of easy achievements makes sense.
Going further, even though "achievement" implies earning something, what that means can vary. For some, it's an achievement just to walk straight. Games marketed toward these folk know that this is the case, and will make all of the achievements easy—like awarding the purchase of in-game items. But it's not too common. You don't even have to get extreme about the example, though, the skill level from one gamer to another can vary. We can't assume that all achievements will accommodate all people, but making them all difficult—or all accessible, even—is typically not the answer.
We intimately know how great small acknowledgements of our actions can be. There's a reason games like to pile achievements, medals, commendations, and level-ups on us—these are things that remind us that we're progressing or that we're being awesome. That feeling shouldn't be exclusive to a small sect of people, and if developers can give it to new players without hindering the overall experience, why shouldn't they? As Ismail notes, the alternative is to put tedious tutorials that explain every. single. thing. to you while playing—and we all know how much that sucks.
There's nothing wrong with easy achievements, really. You get some points for your Gamerscore and are welcome to try achievements that are on your level, and those who aren't skilled in the same ways will feel as if they've earned something—making it more likely that they'll keep playing. Everyone wins—and is that such a bad thing?