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Sunday, December 5, 2021

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    20 moments that defined Xbox: #5 — Achievements – TrueAchievements

    When the Xbox 360 hit shelves in late 2005, it didn’t just bring more powerful hardware, HD visuals, one of the all-time best controller revisions, and a console that would define what it meant to be an all-in-one entertainment system. No, Microsoft had another trick up its sleeve, and by expanding on the simple user profiles introduced with Xbox Live on the original console, we got an all-new way to compare our gaming credentials with friends and rivals alike: the achievement system. We’d seen systems like this on a per-game level in the past, with in-game accolades appearing in a variety of games stretching all the way back to the Nineties, but those accomplishments were tied to just those individual games, and typically not something you could easily share or compare with others. It’s a concept we would see quite a lot in later PS2-era JRPGs — since preowned aisles tended to soon stack up with these one-and-done adventures, developers were looking for increasingly demanding ways to get players to hang onto their copies for longer, and perhaps even to upsell them into picking up a strategy guide as a nice bonus while they were at it, too. That’s one of the reasons we saw so many missables in those games too, actually, some of which got pretty daft (like the Zodiac Spear ultimate weapon in Final Fantasy XII, which required you to not open four specific yet untelegraphed chests throughout the game), but I digress.

    Far closer to the achievements system we all know and love are things like action-RPG Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’s Battle Trophies, which work in a way that should be immediately familiar to anyone reading this — defeat 1,000 enemies, land a hit for maximum damage, end a combat in under ten seconds, use every special ability… the shopping list of optional combat objectives in Tri-Ace’s PS2 adventure was pretty much the exact same kinds of tasks you would expect to make up most of the list of a modern JRPG, albeit contained solely within that one game. Microsoft’s masterstroke here was to take such a system and expand it to be not just game-specific, but tracked account-wide, with all of your accomplishments across all of your games adding up to form what Microsoft’s J Allard would introduce at E3 2005 as your Gamerscore. If you feel like you’d enjoy watching a video of an Xbox exec in a hoodie sitting on the floor and talking about the then-brand-new achievements system for a bit, don’t worry — I got you.

    Achievements, at least when done well, introduced a way to get more mileage out of your games, pushing you to do and try things you otherwise might not need to over the course of any given game. And naturally, different kinds of people and players reacted to the system in different ways — a spectrum of mindsets all the way from completionists who simply have to have the lot, to those so disinterested in achievements that they’d rather just be able to turn them off entirely, and everything in between. We see most of that rainbow of attitudes here on TA, and it’s part of what makes this community so vibrant and exciting… but one of the main issues with the achievement system was the very reason this site exists in the first place. You see, not all achievements are created equal. Why is a two-second achievement for a ten-hit combo in a kid’s game (Avatar, don’t pretend you didn’t know) valued at 150G, while a gruelling achievement for beating an awful hardcore action game on its hardest difficulty (oh hey, Bullet Witch) is worth just a single point of Gamerscore? Rewards have been inconsistent from the inception of the achievements system all the way through to today, and TA was born out of the idea of trying to level that playing field a little.

    In preparation for Xbox20 and features like these, we’ve been desperately trying to reach out to pivotal figures involved in the creation of the achievements system, but with little luck. We’ll keep trying, because I’d love to know what kinds of briefs or guidelines were given to developers in the initial introduction of achievements, as some of the early lists were off the chain. Some developers clearly saw achievements as a fun little novelty, with that Bullet Witch one being a prime example — leave ’em hanging on 999/1,000G to troll players into playing your game more until they do The Really Hard Thing. Kinda ties into what I was saying earlier about JRPG devs adding artificial longevity to their games, actually, and just as rude. Others seemed to view achievements more like sporting trophies, things that only a handful of players should ever be able to get. That’s why a handful of early games like Quake 4 and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter have those ludicrous achievements for topping the leaderboards that I talked about a couple of months ago in a feature about multiplayer achievements that are utter nonsense. Completionists such as those who gather here in numbers obviously did not appreciate this approach. Other lists, meanwhile, you could clearly tell were an afterthought, a developer phoning it in simply because it was required (who would have thought this would be where we’d find the first two 360 FIFA games?), and it just felt like every developer was singing from a different hymn sheet. It still does today, of course, and arguably more so than ever, but with years’ worth of precedents having already been set now and no realistic way for Microsoft to retcon past achievements or move the goalposts without an absurd manpower investment and likely an equally crazy player backlash, could this situation ever realistically change without a complete hard reboot of the system?

    Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Burning Earth

    Despite inherent balancing issues, Microsoft’s Gamerscore system proved a huge hit with players, and would inspire pretty much the entire industry to follow suit. Valve added achievements to Steam in 2007, with Sony playing catch-up by adding the similar-but-slightly-different trophy system to PS3 games the following year via a belated post-launch update. Apple later got in on the action by adding achievements to Game Center with iOS 4 in 2011, with Android users getting achievements via Google Play Games a couple of years later. Even the still-fresh Epic Games Store now has its own achievement system. In fact, you’ll find yourself unlocking achievements (or trophies) more or less wherever you play these days, with Nintendo devices being the primary exception… but then it wouldn’t be Nintendo if it wasn’t doing things its own way, would it? The firm produced a console with a handle, for crying out loud. Madness. Still, save for that one predictable outlier, achievements are basically an industry standard in modern gaming, and that’s all down to Microsoft taking the initiative with the Xbox 360.

    We’ll be back on Monday with the next part of this series, again focusing on the Xbox 360 era, but for the first time looking at something that doesn’t really have a positive spin to it. Defining moments don’t necessarily have to be good things, after all, and having several little lights tell you it was time to buy a new console certainly wasn’t a good thing, but it’s still a key talking point when looking at the history of Xbox. For now, though, when did you get the achievement bug? Was this system one of the reasons you picked up a 360? How do you think similar systems compare, and why is one better or worse than another? Let us know!

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