Achievement Unlocked: A Retrospective

As some of you may know this week marks the 5th anniversary of the Xbox 360’s North American launch and along with it came Achievements, loved by some, hated by others but so deeply set in the industry now that they’re not going anywhere. An arbitrary system usually with no other reward than the satisfaction of obtaining them, Achievements have become immensely popular since their inception 5 years ago. From iPhone games to Warcraft, what makes achievements so addicting?

If there’s one thing that Microsoft was very aware of when it designed the system was that gamers are a competitive bunch, there’s a reason why over 8 million people bought Halo 3 and I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t the singleplayer. The driving force behind achievements for many gamers is having a higher Gamerscore than your friends. It’s your score as a gamer, right? Of you’re more of a gamer than your friends! Achievements let you prove it. (Even if it meant playing Hannah Montana and Avatar for an easy thousand.) Not only did it allow you to compete, it allowed you to compare. Checking your friends list to see who had done what and what easy achievement you missed added a new social level and became a meta game in itself.

And it’s not only players who like Achievements either, developers also like them for their ability to get gamers to try out things they might not otherwise. They spent a lot of time on that minigame, perhaps you’ll be more likely to play it if there’s a cool 10 Gamerscore in it for you.

Achievements, and those who love them, have really developed into a sort of subculture of the gaming world, those who are into them will go pretty far to obtain them with sites like and many others designed just to help people up their GamerScore, even if it often means playing crappy games all weekend just for an easy thousand (See here)

Another fun side of achievements are the humor devs often try and throw in. While most of the images in this article are fake achievements designed for humor, the “Zombie Genocide” string of achievements, started in Dead Rising and continued in L4D and Protoype, shows some literal one-upmanship and achievements like the one below from Fable 3 is a good example of the humor devs often try to add to their prizes.

Achievements aren’t all fun and games, sometimes developers just get it wrong. Remember Turok? Its infamous multiplayer achievement “Grab Bag” forced players to kill a teammate and themselves in a single round, like you needed another reason to be griefed on XBL. Or how about an achievement in NHL 2K7 that rewards players for quitting a match early 10 times? Great design right there. Perhaps the worst though are the truly unattainable achievements, no, not those that are just super hard, those that are literally impossible to obtain such as one in NBA Live 07 which required 1000 people to be online and in game at once. Nearly 3 years after the game’s release, EA announced they were shutting down the servers; makes sense, not many people playing the game anymore, why not move them to a new NBA game, right? Sure, but now of course the achievement has become impossible to get, you can’t even get online anymore!

Microsoft’s meta game has become so popular that it’s extended into other consoles and individual games. PSN launched their trophy system in ’08, Steam launched their strangely point-less achievements (as in without point values, of course Achievements have a point!) in the same year and the ever popular World of Warcraft has further advanced the concept by providing players with rewards for certain achievements, an improvement Microsoft has adopted in the form of Avatar Awards.

While many dislike or outright hate them the obvious popularity of Achievements has shown they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Certainly the most influential and copied thing that Microsoft introduced with the 360, it’s something I’m personally addicted to and something I hope Microsoft, or any other games company with some bright ideas, can integrate even further into our gaming.