Who likes to feel accomplished? I sure do. You sure do. We all sure do. Even game and console developers know we like to feel accomplished. That’s the principle behind the addition of achievement systems to gaming platforms; to make you feel more accomplished from playing games. And yet there are a lot of people who hate achievement systems. Many argue that they provide lazy incentives to keep playing games, tricking consumers into delving into stressful or arduous content for meaningless rewards, and… well, both sides have solid arguments. The recent rumors that Nintendo is patching in an achievement system into the Nintendo Switch has sparked the decade-old war between opinions once more, regardless of whether it’s real or not. I figure it’s my turn to chip into this debate. As a battle-worn mercenary of the PSN trophy hunting battlefield, I thought I’d share one of my favorite war stories regarding how these systems can improve a gaming experience… and also not.
By the way, I’m going to talk about the final boss of Sonic Generations here. It’s over five years old and there’s not exactly much to spoil, but I feel it’s only right for me to put that warning here out of courtesy.
Around the later half of 2014, I was diving back into my finished copy of Sonic Generations for PS3. I love that game. I had already played through stages dozens of time to perfect them and earn S ranks. I had already defeated the final boss and brought the credits rolling. I had already fought bosses again and again, excluding the terrible finale, for the sake of fun alone. I was playing the game plenty, and I had enjoyed so much of it completing as much as possible… well, almost everything. I didn’t bother to go after the Red Star Rings yet.
Why should I, I told myself? The whole game is about going fast. What fun is there to be had in taking things slower in a methodical search of the levels? But then I noticed that I had most of the trophies for the game already popped by playing how I already was. I had very little left to do to pop the Platinum other than some tiny tasks and collect all the Red Star Rings. I wasn’t especially into trophy hunting at the time, but I appreciated the little rewards popping up as I played through the games. I loved the game, and I wanted to show I loved it. If I had the Platinum trophy, there would be no doubt I had undeniable proof of my dedication to playing this game.
So I figured the Platinum was shiny enough to be worth it, and I gave Red Star Ring hunting a shot. Suddenly, I realized what I was missing out on. The more controlled pace of a ring hunt allowed me to pay closer attention to the beautifully crafted levels and backgrounds. The slower, yet still fast and action-packed controls felt more nuanced, like the Sonic Adventure games I have so much nostalgia for. I was enjoying a boostless romp through the game miles more than I was when I constantly aiming for speed and nothing else.
Sure, constantly chasing higher speeds and faster times was still an excellent time after the fact, but I realized that I had much more fun when I focused on collectible hunting. Granted, the game itself was already encouraging me to do so, and I only had my own stubbornness to blame for not doing it in the first place. But the fact remains that PSN trophies pushed me out of my comfort zone in one of my favorite games at the time, and in doing so, I was led to enjoy a side of the game I wasn’t even touching otherwise. I learned to love achievements that day, because I learned they could lead players to enjoy parts of games they can otherwise easily overlook.
But I wasn’t done yet. And for one of those other “tiny tasks” I needed to finish before earning the Platinum trophy, I had to fight the final boss without taking any damage.
That is when it really occurred to me the Time Eater can go suck a jalapeño flavored Tootsie Roll Pop.
The Super Sonic controls for this fight are wonky and unreliable. The supporting cast’s play-by-play commentary out of nowhere is obnoxious and unhelpful. The boss can slow down time, including himself, making it useless for anything but wasting your own time. If you think these are bad enough as is, think about how annoying they are in conjunction with the requirement to restart after every single mistake. Your stiff controls make it easy to bump into a stray piece of rubble. You might be moving fast enough to pass by some much needed rings, but relative to the Time Eater’s location and movements, you feel so slow it seems like a slog to fly out of the way of its attacks. The constant, pointless time slows just make every repeated attempt more of a waste of time. And for the hundredteenth time Rouge, I know what a homing shot looks like.
But I was so close, too close to just give up. I wanted to prove I was better than giving up.
So I did it. I can’t recall how many hours it took, but I somehow obtained the trophy. I went through all of that stressful bullcrap just to get a Platinum.
And at the end… I felt like it was still worth it. The end fight wasn’t worth it, not by itself. But playing through the majority of one of my favorite recent games sure was. Thoroughly exploring the levels for collectibles sure was. As a whole, the trophy hunt sure felt worth it to me.
Despite that sour end note, I decided that the positive experience of ring hunting outweighed the negative experience of the Time Eater by far. I stand by that decision today; the hours of heightened thrills and joy from one of my favorite action platformers means much more to me than one terribly designed boss fight at the end. My main take away from that experience was that achievement systems can be a tool used for good. That their guidelines can spur us to find more things in games that we enjoy, things to enjoy for the act of doing them rather than only for the incentive of a virtual merit badge. This mentality has since led me to discover more thrills I was otherwise going to overlook, such as the spirit of competitive fighting games in Persona 4 Arena’s ranked mode.
But trophies are a double-edged sword. It’s okay to pursue achievements for their own sake alone, but if you do, you need to be aware that you may make yourself put up with some bullcrap requirements and artificial challenges. And you don’t have to do that. Not if you value the experience above the trophies, and not… ever, really. When I first declared myself a casual trophy hunter, I adopted the philosophy that I hunt for trophies to seek out more experiences in games, not just to earn the prizes themselves. If I poke into a trophy and realize after a few attempts that it’s causing me nothing but stress--not the good “become better through failure and learning ” kind of stress, but “this is terribly designed” stress--I would rather acknowledge that it’s not worth it. I refrain from committing myself to Platinums unless I see a game as a gem I enjoy enough to be worth the dedication.
I find achievement systems at their most enjoyable whenever I don’t act like they’re mandatory. PSN has the options to turn off trophy notifications if you don’t want them, after all. Quite frankly, I think the same should be true for developers. We’ve all seen games where developers clearly don’t give a crap about achievements, and implement them only to comply with console regulations. Sometimes even satirizing the concept. And they have a point. If developers don’t enjoy adding trophies, if those trophies just don’t fit into a game in a way that enhances the game’s experience, do they really help the players enjoy their game more?
I’m not sure whether these rumors of a Nintendo achievement system are real. Maybe that's something coming up in today's Direct. But we have a lot of reasons to believe the rumors wouldn’t be real. One of those reasons is that the company’s own figureheads have stated they don’t believe they are fun, though that was a long time ago. A very large community of players believes they can be fun, including myself, but that isn’t a universal constant. Wouldn’t the simplest solution to the inconsistent nature of trophies’ inclusion be to allow their inclusion to be inconsistent? Let developers who want to add them make up creative stipulations and motivate players towards exciting goals. Let developers who want nothing to do with them do that nothing.
Speaking just for my own personal preference, I’d be fine with Nintendo adding an achievement system to the Switch no matter what, but I think Nintendo would be much better off mixing things up from the norms of this modern gaming convention. We’re talking about Nintendo, after all. They always try to deviate at least a little bit to stand out and appeal to pure fun. I doubt Nintendo’s bigwigs would suddenly do a 180 and see exactly what their competitors are doing as being the most fun option, but the implementation can't do much harm, especially as long as you have the option to turn off the notifications, which should be a given. But I have a very specific experience with PSN trophies that shaped my view of them. What about you? Do you like the notion of Nintendo joining the achievement bandwagon? Would you rather Ninty and other developers leave them out of their games? Should Nintendo do anything in particular to improve upon achievement systems if the company were to implement them?