It’s been many years now since Xbox 360 introduced its achievement system and added an extra layer of gamification to your games. Microsoft’s system-level Gamerscore was introduced way back in 2005 (that's right, fourteen long years ago). That little dopamine hit on hearing the ‘Achievement Unlocked’ sound struck a chord with a whole generation of gamers and they soon became an addiction. Bragging rights for grabbing the most obscure, most difficult ones made adding to your Gamerscore a point of pride for many.
Valve soon followed suit on Steam and Sony’s Trophy system made the word ‘platinum’ a verb. Nintendo gamers, however, never got to experience that sweet, sweet addiction - not at a system level. Many titles implement the achievements used elsewhere into the game itself, but Nintendo has never created a similar framework of its own.
If we’re honest, after fourteen years achievements have fallen off our personal radar somewhat, and wouldn't rank particularly highly on a wish list of features for future Nintendo consoles. We’ve got used to not having them. Of course, they’d be a fun extra, but we’re not clamouring for them like we did a decade ago. In fact, we thought that was the general feeling amongst Nintendo gamers, but a quick scan of social media shows that there’s still a healthy appetite for a platform-wide system on Switch:
With Xbox achievements arriving on Switch in due course thanks to the release of Cuphead and Xbox Live integration, it seems to have reignited people's passion for the little pop-ups. Calls for Nintendo to ‘get with the times’ are easy to hear, although for a company that believes ‘the true value of entertainment lies in its uniqueness’, implementing a system based on a competitor’s fourteen-year-old success hardly showcases the 'Nintendo difference', does it?
Still, it’s a feature that many players crave. Personally, we’ve fallen out of love with them a bit, for various reasons. For every game that uses them creatively and encourages you to experiment or play a different way than you might otherwise, there’s another which simply doles out the cheevos as you finish a level. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but they lose significance to us if they’re simply a mark of progress – sure, you can ‘prove’ to your online mates that you’ve completed a game, but that’s not enough of a draw.
They’re not particularly developer-friendly, either. Microsoft’s mandate that all games were required to include unlockable achievements created extra work for game devs, and its easy to understand why so many take the uninspired form of ‘You completed Level 3!’ or ‘You jumped 10,000 times!’ It’s another layer of work added to each platform the game releases on, and while it’s often easy to track certain player stats and actions (especially on modern platforms), it can be more difficult for smaller indies already crunching to get the game running and not wanting to tack on a bunch of dull, token achievements after they've worked so hard on the core game. Being creative takes time and the best achievements are imaginative and playful.
They can be mighty intrusive, too. You’ve just completed some emotionally significant narrative moment – shot a traitorous friend, galloped into the sunset or whatever other video game scenario you care to remember/invent – and up pops the notification. You’ve completed a game, spending hours battling your way to a reckoning and you sit there, bathing in emotional and physical catharsis as the screen fades to black… doop-doop! 'Achievement Unlocked – Winner Winner!’
We’re exaggerating, of course, and other platforms do allow you to mute notifications, but a platform-wide system is inherently ignorant of the actual content of the game, so if a developer hasn’t thought carefully about how achievements will unlock across all supported platforms, you often get these pop-ups destroying the atmosphere of a tender or significant moment. These interruptions occur on Switch already, of course. While playing Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice a couple of weeks ago, emotionally striking and heavy moments were repeatedly interrupted by Switch telling us that ‘Tony80085 is online’ (a pseudonym has been used to protect Tony’s true identity, but we do wish he'd make his bloody mind up!).
Despite Switch not having an overarching infrastructure, many games implement their own achievements lists, and perhaps that’s enough. No, you don’t get the platform-wide integration or that satisfying unlock sound, but we’re rational human beings for crying out loud! Do we really need that - or even want it - in all our games?
Perhaps the best place they could fit in on Switch would be the selection of retro titles that come with your Nintendo Switch Online subscription. Little objectives could provide some of the focus lost with the introduction of save states and give players an incentive to revisit those old classics on the service. Many of us have fired it up, dipped into a few classics before losing interest and closing it down after a few minutes. The wall of games arguably induces paralysis and it somehow feels ‘easier’ – or more satisfying – to play something else despite loving stone-cold classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Zelda.
Save states would render anything as boring as ‘Achievement Unlocked: You finished 8-4!’ utterly pointless, so Nintendo would have to be very creative – very different – with its challenges. We’ve seen that the company is happy to play with these classics with the SP versions it's been dropping and the service only contains a small selection of games, which would make a blanket ‘system-level’ structure possible where it would otherwise only be realistic (logistically speaking) from the very start of a console cycle. Others have already taken the trouble to gamify retro titles in this way – Retro Achievements has been doing it for ages.
There are plenty of opinions available on the subject of achievements, and the most interesting ones tend to come from game designers themselves. Keith Burgun and Chris Hecker’s thoughts are worth a read and delve more deeply into ideas of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards and the mechanics of how achievements actually work.
They used to be the new thing - an incredible bit of seasoning to go along with Xbox Live on the 360 - and we have fond memories of them, but now achievements themselves are almost retro. Some would argue that they’ve had their heyday and it’s probably time to forget about them. Nintendo-only gamers never sampled their addictive properties in the first place, but anybody who has gone cold turkey with Switch need only hear that little unlock ‘dong’ once to have their nostalgia booted up and experience little ‘cheevy cravings.
What are your thoughts on achievements at a system-wide level? Do you still care about them on other platforms? Have Nintendo gamers really missed out? Feel free to share your thoughts with a comment and vote in our poll.