Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On the Vanity of Video Game Trophies

Sony calls them trophies, Microsoft and Steam call them achievements. They are, quoting wikipedia, "meta-goals defined outside of a game's parameters". I think that trophies are similar to chemical process that turns cocaine into crack – it takes an already strong drug and makes it even stronger. Games are supposed to be fun, but we all know they can be pretty addictive. Trophies make them more addictive and in this article I intend to explain why I think so.

(I'm going to call these meta-goals trophies instead of achievements, simply because as a Sony fanboy I'm more used to it. But when I'm talking about trophies, I'm talking achievements too. Also it's kinda ironic to use the word trophy to describe the reward for completing artificial video game challenge, when you think about it.)

My experience with trophies

I knew next to nothing about video game trophies before I purchased Playstation 3 earlier this year. I liked them at first, they add something extra to the game. It feels as if you're being rewarded for playing the game when you accomplish something in it and you hear the *DING* sound and notification appears at the top right corner of the screen saying you've just got yourself a trophy.

Later, I've noticed that trophies changed the way I approached video games. Soon after I started playing the game, I checked out the list of trophies to see what I should attempt to achieve. I spent a lot of time trying to unlock trophies, even when I didn't enjoy the game itself, I just wanted the goddamn trophy. And if there wasn't a trophy for certain bonus activity in the game, I usually didn't bother doing that or just rushed through it as soon as possible.

At the end, I became frustrated with trophies. I might be a bit OCD, but I generally intended to finish game on 100%. In most PS3 games, that is a LOT of work. You tend to hoard lots of bronze and silver trophies quite easily, gold trophies are usually a bit more tricky to achieve, but hey, they're gold trophies. And then there's always a couple of inconspicuous itsy-bitsy bronze trophies hidden down the trophy list that require about the same amount of effort as the rest of 95% trophies!

I usually decided that these just-before-100% trophies simply weren't worth my time. I did reach 100% in three games: Assasin's Creed II, Flower and Fl0w. ACII was okay ("In Memory of Petruccio" trophy – find 100 collectibles), maybe because it's considered as one of the easiest games to get a platinum trophy in. Flower and Flow are quite another story. These games are supposed to be relaxing. Well getting just-before-100% trophies in them ("Pure" in Flower and "Cannibalism" in Fl0w) is anything but relaxing. By the time I got to 100%, I passionately hated both of these games and would never play them again even if somebody paid me.

(I should also add that I got all these hard trophies by cheating – I hunted collectibles in ACII by map downloaded from internet, downgraded Fl0w to early version so I could get most of difficult trophies without any work, watched videos and tips about achieving the infamous Pure trophy in Flower. If I didn't cheat, it would take me at least twice as long to get to 100%. But even with cheating it took a long time and it was a lot of work – yes, work, not fun. By then I started to realize there's something wrong with trophies in general.)

Ironically, lots of these just-before-100% trophies are not even a challenge, it's just a dumb grind (for example: trophy for 75% game completion in Just Cause 2). As I said, I turned back to these heroic deeds, but I imagine that after completing such an epic task PS3 says to you after the *DING* sound: "So, hey, here's a bronze trophy for being complete dumbass and wasting significant portion of your life completing absolutely meaningless task which is no challenge and fun whatsoever. But seriously, get a life."

Designed to be addictive

I wouldn't mind if trophies offered fair challenge and an excuse to explore the game, But instead, they tend to offer endless frustration and meaningless grind. But why? Aren't games supposed to be fun?

One possible explanation is that I'm a OCD psycho and this is entirely my problem. But if you look around the internet, you'll find out that I'm not the only one who likes to hoard trophies. In fact, my trophy collection is pretty pathetic compared to serious trophy hunters. The extremes are Stallion83 and CRU x360a on Xbox 360, Hakoom on PS3. I doubt that these people would play as many games if they didn't contain trophies or achievements.

So let's assume that I'm not the OCD psycho (feel free to question that statement in the comments section below :)) and trophies are not just my problem. Another explanation is that game companies know that trophies might actually ruin the game experience, but they add them to the game nevertheless. And I'm quite sure that game companies are aware of the effect that trophies have on games – all major games nowadays go through extensive Q&A testing and surely trophies are part of that. And if you make console games, I'd guess that console maker also steps into the process with its own requirements.

Why would game producers make the games intentionally less fun? Let's assume they're not sadists :). There has to be some benefit in it and the profit must outweigh the loss - for game companies, not necessarily for gamers.

Many MMORPGs also have trophies and in this case the reason is very obvious - to keep players busy. MMORPGs earn most income from monthly subscriptions, so it's in their interest that players have always something to do in their virtual world. It costs virtually nothing to add trophies and thus provide additional activities for players. It's much easier than developing new content altogether and you can always think up some bizarre artificial challenge for players (e.g. tickle 50 orcs with pitchfork while wearing dwarven miniskirt). You can even throw in some digital trinkets as rewards. In LOTRO, which is the only MMORPG I've played for a while, you get special title for your avatar when you complete an achievement, for example after slaying 100 spiders you can call yourself “spider-bane” or something.

But getting back to console games, why game companies want players to spend more time with their game just to get a trophy, even if they wouldn't enjoy the gaming itself that much? The obvious reason I can think of is DLC. Game producers want players to keep the game for a long time so they have a chance to buy additional content for it. If a game didn't have any trophies, you might finish it once and then sell it. If a game has trophies, you tend to play the game longer to unlock them all. And if a game has some hard-to-get just-before-100% trophies, you tend to play it even longer and eventually you might even become frustrated and give up, but by that time all planned DLC will be out and you will have a chance to purchase them – mission accomplished.

And remember that DLC became a big part of gaming business in last few years. It's a convenient response to pre-owned market – you might buy a pre-owned game with discount, but you still have to pay full price for DLC sold directly by game producer. It's also a convenient way to pull more money from customers' wallets. Consider Mafia II – practically half of the game is distributed as DLC, though that didn't stop publishers to sell the basic bare game for a full price. In this case, you practically pay for the game twice. Still, in order to profit from DLC, game publishers need players to keep the game for some time. It's no problem for some games, like Call of Duty series where multiplayer can last easily for a year, but for others there are trophies as a convenient way to prevent some players from getting rid of the game too early.

Now let's look at trophies from the perspective of company that makes game consoles, be it Sony or Microsoft. According to business expert Mr. Obvious, they want as many games as possible to be sold for their platform. Trophy collectors have to play more games in order to get more trophies and because one can never get enough trophies, they generally buy or rent more games than people who play them just for fun. They play even bad and boring games. It is beneficial for console producer if players are hooked on trophies.

I think that here lies the answer to the purpose of frustrating last-before-100% trophies. In order to be hooked on trophies, one should see them as something important, something that matters, something to be proud of. It makes no sense to hoard trophies that are easy to get, in fact gamers regularly make fun of such trophies (10 easiest achievements ever). If something is easy to get, you don't treat it seriously, you don't value it much. On the other hand, one tend to value things that are difficult to get.

So to conclude my paranoid theory, console makers make sure that getting 100% trophies for any game is a difficult and time-consuming task, because that in turn makes players appreciate them and value them. Console makers have to approve all games before they are released for the console and my guess is that there are guidelines for trophies that every game has to pass. And it is stated in these guidelines that 100% trophies should be very hard to get. The predominant mechanism to make this happen is to have some throwaway trophies to get player started and hooked, then moderately difficult trophies to keep them busy and finally, a couple of just-before-100% trophies that can make you fling your gamepad out of the window to keep the game in player's collection for a long time. At this time, he's already collected most of the trophies for the game and he/she just doesn't want to give up right before the finish line. And even if he's frustrated with the hard-to-get trophies or gives up eventually, they reinforce his notion that trophies in general are valuable.

I might be paranoid, but that doesn't mean there isn't a team of behavioral psychologists on Microsoft's payroll behind this scheme. (I mention Microsoft because that's where game achievements have been invented.) Why else would be the structure of trophies difficulty basically common for all games, the way I described above? Why aren't there any games with only easy trophies or games with only hard trophies? (My guess is because console producer approves trophies for games and makes sure that they are "balanced".) Why else would relaxing games like Flower or Fl0w have hard trophies that are totally against the overall feel of the game?

The cure for trophies

Game companies want players to perceive trophies as valuable. Herein lies the big illusion of trophies and game achievements in general. They subtly pretend to be something they're not. Games and trophies are basically fun, a pastime activity. In terms of achieving something, they mean next to nothing for most people, somewhere on the level of watching TV (achievement unlocked: I'm Lost – watched the first season of Lost).

In the first paragraph I compared games with trophies to crack cocaine. I have no direct experience with crack cocaine, but I read about its effects: for a while, it makes you feel like if you've just won the million in lottery, finish first at marathon and made sweet love to the world's sexiest actress at the same time. Then this feeling passes and you realize it was all just an illusion and you're in the same s**t as always. You want that special feeling back – and at that moment lots of people get hooked on the drug.

I realize this is an extreme analogy, but let's compare the effects of crack cocaine to the effects of games enriched with trophies. What happens if you finish a game or unlock a difficult trophy? A rush of excitement. A sense of achievement. You did it, you just make something happen. Then you realize you just wasted all night getting that trophy, which is essentially meaningless. The not-so-pleasant reality starts to kick in, troubles in work/school/family, all the obligations and chores you don't want to do. But then there's a sweet escape of virtual world, more games to play, more trophies to get.

Of course, The damage games with trophies can do is nowhere as serious as the damage caused by crack cocaine. But I wouldn't say it's negligible either. Were it not for video games, lots of people would find some other way to waste their time, but some people could achieve something that really matters.

The good news is that compared to crack cocaine the cure for obsessive gaming is relatively simple. The only thing one has to do is to see things as they really are. If you're too OCD about trophies, just realize that you're not achieving anything by getting a trophy, you're just a loser cheering over some meaningless illusion. If you know what is really happening, you don't feel the dopamine rush, you just feel stupid.

Closing thoughts

That is all I wanted to say. I hope you didn't expect a sad story about how games and trophies ruined my life (they didn't). Honestly, I think that even if they're a drug – and they are, but then again, almost anything can become a drug for someone - it's still your fault if you don't resist it. All throughout the history people took advantage of another people, overt and subtle manipulation is our daily bread, and if game companies want to make us play games all day using some shady psychological tricks, then we have to deal with it. As for me, I became tired of chasing trophies, sold the PS3 and now I'm trying to get me some real achievements for a change.

Suggested reading

Overachiever For a Day

Achievement Chore: She Plays For Gamerscore, Whether It's Fun Or Not

5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted

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