The Value of Achievements in Video Games

Since the seventh generation of video game consoles, Trophies and Achievements have become a notable part of how a segment of people play games. That doesn’t apply to everyone, and a lot of gamers would tell you that they’re absolutely meaningless and deserve no attention whatsoever. It’s obvious, however, that they’ve made enough of an impression on the video game scene to prompt discussions about the lack of an Achievement system on Nintendo‘s most recent console, the Nintendo Switch, being one of a number of missteps the Japanese hardware developer took with the launch of the console/handheld hybrid.

People have different ways of using that system as a part of playing games. Some obviously aren’t affected them at all, while others take a glance at the achievement list and occasionally go that extra mile for that small feeling of accomplishment; others still are hardcore completionists, considering a game unfinished on their part unless they have 100% of achievements earned. And in between, there’s a lot of diversity in how players regard achievement systems in their games.

The idea of achievements as rewards for accomplishing certain goals technically dates back to the fledgling years of video games, when gamers would receive physical iron-on patches as a token of recognition for sending in a photo of their high score. Valve was the one that first created an achievement mechanic like we know it today, when in 2007 they implemented the Steam Achievements, a system of virtual “iron-on-patches” that were uniform across multiple games available on the platform. In the following years, similar systems were implemented on other platforms as well, from PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to Apple smartphones. Nintendo remained the outlier, being essentially the sole gaming platform developer that didn’t – and still doesn’t – have such a concept realized with their games.

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Actual, physical iron-on patches were the precursor to digital achievements. Image credit: http://www.nostalbit.com

What’s the Point?

Around the time the other platforms started participating in this new trend, Nintendo’s argument against having achievements – according to an old Kotaku article – was that they viewed them as a way of telling players how to play their games, which went against their design philosophy. They’ve also pointed out that from their perspective, achievements add nothing to the game. While those are reasonable viewpoints, they both are arguably subjective opinions, and the situation isn’t necessarily as straightforward as that.

First, it’s worth a note that even with achievements, people still play games they enjoy in the way they want – for some, that does mean looking at the achievement list first and planning their playthrough based on that, but for a lot of people that’s the to-do list that comes after the brunt of the content has already been experienced. In other words, a lot of players still don’t feel like the developers are telling them how to play the game, but instead go about the game doing what they’d be doing anyway, provided that the game is fun enough for them to want to do that in the first place.

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Still no achievements… Nintendo is standing their ground with that one. Image credit: http://www.nintendo.com

Achievements don’t dictate the way to play games until the player essentially feels like they’ve already done everything – that’s when the achievement list comes into play, providing structure and extended goals for continued gameplay. It also gives players a reason to go back to games they’ve played in the past; for example, I personally have a list of a few dozen games that I already own, but didn’t get all the Trophies for, so I have games for months without having to spend a dime.

So while achievements don’t literally add anything to a game, they don’t diminish it either. For those that are interested in them, achievements provide an incentive to delve just a bit deeper into a game they’ve already experienced for the most part, often extending the playtime and/or replay value of a game, increasing the appeal of revisiting or further focusing on existing content. In that sense, it’s debatable if Nintendo’s view that they add nothing to a game is actually true; in the end, it comes down to the consumer’s personal approach to playing that game. Interestingly, this can be perceived as Nintendo disallowing players accustomed to Achievements or Trophies playing the games the way they want to, which basically means they’re “telling them how to play their games”. But that’s bordering on sensationalism, so let’s not go there.

I’ve also noticed some gamers making the argument that achievements are a pointless waste of time, and as it always is with people on the Internet, it’s not always in a friendly manner. Coming from individuals and aimed at other individuals, that’s something I’m much more eager to counter, since it’s none of their business how others play their games. What’s ironic about that kind of a statement is that it’s exactly what people used to say about video games in general – they’re waste of your time, you could do something much more useful with the time and effort you put into it, and you’ll never benefit anything from it. So the gamers who put others down for liking achievements are, plain and simple, hypocrites.

Virtual Collectors

Aside from achievements encouraging players to go deeper into what the game has to offer, there’s a much more widely recognized pattern of behavior that makes achievement hunting worthwhile for a segment of gamers: people like collecting things. I didn’t really even think about this until Colin Moriarty of Kinda Funny casually phrased Trophy hunting as a form of being a collector. With how heavily all sorts of entertainment leans towards the digital these days, it only makes sense that even being a collector could have a dimension in the clutter-free digital space.

And that’s what it is for a considerable amount of players. They post their achievement unlocks and collections on message boards and social media, much like they would display physical collections on a shelf in their house. I doubt there’s any better way to explain the appeal of achievement hunting than by drawing a correlation between it and hoarding stamps or baseball cards; people understand collecting, but they’re just unaccustomed to it happening in a non-physical way.

Trophies are Special

Being primarily a PlayStation gamer (tied with PC at the least), I’ve become the most familiar with the Trophy system that’s slightly different from others of its kind. The primary difference is the Platinum Trophy, which is essentially an additional token of recognition for completing the entire Trophy list for the game (excluding possible add-on content). Among Trophy hunters, there’s an additional (sizable) subgroup of people for whom the collection is measured primarily in the number of Platinum Trophies.

What that means in comparison with, say, Steam Achievements, is that while the latter consistently encourages players to do a little bit more for a little bit higher completion rate, PlayStation games (those that do have a Platinum Trophy, anyway) tend to urge gamers to thoroughly reach the goals set by the Trophy List, in order to earn the ultimate badge of virtual accomplishment. This results in the PlayStation achievement culture to be slightly different in nature from its counterparts, since for the most part the cumulative “points” earned across your library has less value than the amount of games fully completed.

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PlayStation’s Platinum Trophy sets their achievement system apart from others.   Image credit: http://www.thevideogamegallery.com

That’s why I’d also argue that Trophies have a different effect on game sales than Achievements do on Xbox or Steam, for example. Achievement hunters will generally have a lower threshold for “giving games a chance”, or purchasing a game with less initial interest, in order to go after its achievements. PlayStation games, on the other hand, can sometimes have their sales adversely affected by the lack of a Platinum Trophy, as dedicated Platinum hunters may ignore such a title even if the game itself would interest them. That’s all just conjecture though, as I have no hard data to back that speculation, and I’m mostly speaking from my personal experience.


There’s a lot of discussion constantly going on about the relevance of achievement systems in games, but ultimately it’s just another matter of taste – it’s no one else’s business how you play your games. If you only play games for the digital badge collection, let no one tell you you’re wrong to do so; the same applies if you couldn’t care less. But the one thing I strongly believe to be the truth is that while it’s debatable whether or not they add value to a game, achievements certainly don’t diminish it. There’s no real downside to having such a system available for people who may enjoy it, but the benefit can be noticeable regarding game sales, and substantial in terms of gameplay experience.


Featured Image credit: http://blog.us.playstation.com

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