Are Trophies or Achievements Bad for Gamers?

Hello there, internet. Sorry for the bout of cancellations, but I’ve been very busy. To compensate, I’ve put together a more substantive post rather than a review or some such. Today, I want to talk about achievements and trophies, which I shall now refer to only as trophies because it’s shorter to write. If you were to ask me what are the three biggest innovations this generation of consoles I would say: 1 – workable online; 2 – large scale distribution networks (PSN/Xbox Live Arcade); and 3 – trophies. Looking back now, it all seems so intuitive; rewarding gamers for playing games with a perpetual tally of their accomplishments that they can show off to all they meet. Of course, last generation, the online capabilities of the hardware were such that even the broad concept of trophies was unworkable. Of course, starting with the Xbox 360, gamers have been able to track accomplishments across multiple games, and, occasionally, even get something for it. But what is the cost of the widespread use of trophies? Did this feature come in and act in a wholly beneficial way? That’s what we’re going to be looking at today, as we delve into trophies and their impact on gaming as a whole.

Yay for console neutral images!
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Let’s start this discussion by talking about pre-trophy trophy hunters; gamers I like to call completionists. Before even the thought of trophies entered the minds of even the most radical game developer, gamers were achieving insane feats on their games. Go look for “perfect games” for various RPGs. These games require not only maxing characters, but getting a maximum of every item, skill, and what not. You don’t get anything for this; the reason gamers do it is because of that self satisfaction they get from perfecting a game, whether it’s fun to do or not. This is the primary mentality of the trophy hunter. It’s that drive to do ludicrous things in the game all for your own sense of self satisfaction. This doesn’t just apply to completionists of course. There are many facets of gaming culture that trophies were designed to cater to including: the low level runners, speed runners, self-imposed challengers. These people are the ones who saw a basic game and tried to wring every last bit of enjoyment from it. My point is that the basic insanity that trophies can lead to was present in the gaming industry far before the implementation of any trophy system.

You or I wouldn’t do this, but there are plenty of people out there who have.
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Let’s open up out examination of trophy culture with the biggest and best positive for the existence of trophies: replay value. Past and present, many games are short. It’s a simple fact of life. From Super Mario Bros. to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, many games don’t take long to plow through. Trophies give that little extra incentive that wouldn’t be there otherwise. There were some older games that I enjoyed but I never really bothered pushing myself through the harder modes. Of course, with a trophy on the other end, there’s a bit more of an incentive to keep playing. Same thing with collection quests. Most people would never bother collecting all the blast shards in InFAMOUS, because it serves so little purpose in-game. With a trophy attached, many people have tried and succeeded completing this feat who would have never given it a second thought. This replayability aspect to trophies is barely noticeable on games that already have huge replayability such as Skyrim, where the hunt for trophies can actually stifle you. However, for shorter, more linear games, the implementation of trophies has been a godsend, especially when those games lack multiplayer. In so many ways, video games are meant to be disposable. You are meant to devour a game and throw it aside for the next one almost immediately. However, trophies give you more of a reason to stay with a game for a longer time. To really savour it before throwing it away, and that is the best aspect of trophies.

Like Raiden, the game doesn’t last long. Trophies are basically Viagra to short games…sorry.
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Of course, trophies, by their very nature, are bragging tools. The basic premise is that you collect a large number of them so you can show off to your friends or strangers you play with online. While bragging is rarely considered a positive thing, trophies have simply made things easier, which is definitely a plus. It used to be that people would brag about fake accomplishments and feats and be asked for photographic proof. Now, a single active trophy is enough. What many people enjoy about trophies is being able to flaunt their imaginary “gamer cred” wherever they go. In some circles Platinums or 1000/1000s mean quite a bit. Checking out someone’s trophy list isn’t reserved simply for awe, however. In today’s online climate, where you will get random friend invitations after playing a multiplayer game, trophies can let you know exactly what kind of gamer you’re friending. Does the person have a smattering of trophies for Call of Duty games and Battlefield, but nothing else? You’ve got yourself a modern military shooter fan. Does this person have all of the trophies for all three Street Fighter IV releases? Then you have a hardcore fighter. Does this person have a tiny amount of trophies over a huge library of games? That’s a dilettante. Examining someone’s trophy list and determining what games they’ve played, beaten, and mastered, is a great way of determining the personality of the gamer whose friending you, and, from a practical perspective, determining if you’re likely to be playing the same kinds of games four months down the road. You wouldn’t expect someone with all the trophies for Hyperdimension Neptunia and nothing else, to be playing Call of Duty in December.

Not exactly the Call of Duty crowd.
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A dark side to trophies is their addicting nature. This is the unfortunate flip side to extending replayability. Some people don’t want to keep playing a game, they’ve long since stopped enjoying; however, trophies keep pushing them forward. I got all trophies for Bioshock 2, and I hate online multiplayer. But for days, I would slog through the crappy online modes for the game, hating every second of it. That kind of thing is awful. Sometimes trophies can affect playstyle too. If you know you’ll get a trophy for making all decisions in the game a certain way, many people will do so, just to get it even if they don’t want to. Then there are the trophy hunters (Trophy whores by the more vulgar terminology of the online community). These people will play terrible games for the simple reason that they have easy trophies to get. At this level, games aren’t enjoyable any more. All that matters is the ping of a new trophy being unlocked and that rush of endorphins from collecting all of them (Stupid Pokemon). It’s gaming addiction 101, and developers definitely take this into account when making their games. After all, it’s key to hook gamers and giving constant stimulation is a way to keep anyone coming back. Some gamers can be so blinded by a form of trophy-lust that they don’t even notice the game they’re playing, and all of the nuances and fun that can be had. Why explore in certain areas or complete certain objectives when there’s no trophy attached? This level of trophy addiction can be dangerous, and it isn’t hard to fall into if you aren’t careful.

Above: me showing off that I know about trophy whoring.

The biggest problem with the implementation of trophies isn’t about their effects on those who care about trophies, but more their effects on those who don’t. In the past, when you did something worthy of accomplishment such as beating really hard bosses or even completing certain challenge runs, the game would reward you with new stuff or unlockables. This kind of thing is being phased out in favour of trophies. It used to be that you could unlock characters and alternative costumes in fighters. Now, a trophy gives the same level of accomplishment, and that frees up these bonuses for DLC. It’s hard to not see some games being stripped down to a barebones level because of trophies. Unique, fun bonuses get replaced with gold trophies/100 gamerscore, but what do gamers actually want. If you asked a typical gamer whether they’d prefer a new costume in God of War, or a silver trophy/50 gamerscore, what do you think he or she would say? Trophies have so much meaning in today’s industry because they can be carried forth between games, but, in reality, they’re meaningless. A single new item or fun new scene in a game is worth a thousand trophies, because content always trumps lack of content. The saddest part of the proliferation of trophies is that developers are slapping trophies down and calling it a day, instead of actually trying to reward gamers in-game, which is infinitely more valuable. Of course, this isn’t universal, but it is a growing trend, especially as big games become increasingly a business of profit rather than a business of love and care.

Imagine how much better this game could have been if there were more worthwhile things to unlock. As it stands, two bucks a pop for the DLC.
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So, as usual, there are several major competing concerns and no solid answers. Trophies have made singleplayer games so much more substantial due to their effect on replayability. On the other hand, sometimes that replayability is boring and uninspired, and the only reason people are doing it is because they’re hopelessly addicted to the online rewards. Trophies are great tools in the online community, but they also can be used by developers to cheapen games, stripping out real rewards in favour of DLC later. There is no one right answer for whether trophies are good for gaming or not, because they’re both good for gaming and detrimental. Trophies have done so much for the industry, but there’s the risk that they can strip off so much that made classic games unique. In the end, trophies are simply a tool. A good developer will know how to use them effectively without cheapening the medium. Like DLC, trophies are as good as the studio behind them. Trophies can represent the worst of this generation of gaming, or the best depending on who’s at the helm, and that’s a comforting thought at least.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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