Steam, Achievements, and Achievement Spam

Over at Kotaku, Nathan Grayson wrote an interesting analysis of “achievement spam” games on PC gaming platform Steam.

Wikipedia defines an achievement as “a meta-goal defined outside of a game’s parameters.” So a very typical sort of achievement for a video game might be a little badge icon once you’ve killed 100 of some type of monster in a game.

Achievement-like systems had long been present in video games, but Microsoft made them a significant part of video game culture by including them on the XBOX 360 platform. This meant video game achievements would show up on players’ XBOX 360 profiles, and gamers could compare their particular achievements and overall completion rate. Other video game platforms quickly followed suit. PC video game platform Steam added achievements in 2007.

One of the things about the XBOX platform is that Microsoft has some limits built in regarding achievements. Each achievement in an XBOX game is worth a certain number of points, and Microsoft limits each major publisher game to only 1,000 achievement points, divided among how ever many individual achievements the developer wants to create. Indie and small publisher games that are sold at a lower price point tend to be capped at an even lower number of achievement points.

Steam, however, doesn’t award points for each achievement. In Steam, you simply see a total of how many total achievements you have earned. It also apparently has no limits on how few or how many achievements a game can have.

Some games have zero achievements, frequently because they were released prior to 2007, but also occasionally because the developer in question objects to achievements or doesn’t want to spend valuable time coding them to work properly.

And, as Grayson’s article points out, some games have thousands of achievements–in one case, just a bit more than 10,000 achievements.

While there are a few games on Steam that have hundreds of achievements that are intended to reward players for completing challenging content, more commonly they are what Grayson calls achievement spam games. The point is to sell a game at a very low price that has thousands of achievements that can be “earned” easily in a few hours to inflate the number of achievements a player has on their profile page.

Another achievement spam game is Blood Feed. The first-person giant insect shooter offers 3,001 achievements, all of which you can unlock in 15 minutes or so by wantonly blasting everything that moves. It’s a “game” in the barest sense of the word. Blood Feed’s developers offer custom achievements, allowing players to go on the game’s forums and request achievements with custom images and description text. Those make for especially fancy feathers in avid profile-decorators’ caps. Blood Feed’s developers know what they’re doing: in May 2017 alone, ANPA.US has released three games with over a thousand achievements (and little else) called Survival Zombies, Machine Hunt, and Dinosaur Forest. These games weren’t popular with reviewers, but they offered custom achievements and actually outsold Blood Feed, which came out at the end of April. Survival Zombies did especially well, managing to move around 40,000 copies, according to SteamSpy.

Not surprisingly, a lot of hardcore achievement hunters do not like the presence of such achievement spam games. Grayson quotes achievement hunter Xeinok who dislikes achievement spam games,

Getting 10,000 achievements for doing nothing in a game for 10 minutes can easily make a gamer who spent dozens of hours working on a single difficult achievement feel pretty bad.

I couldn’t disagree more. Achievements are a major part of the Steam experience for me–I pretty much won’t buy or play a game that doesn’t include achievements. But the fact that I downloaded Blood Feed and 100 percented it in a short time for thousands of achievements doesn’t distract at all from the accomplishment of achieving a particularly difficult achievement.

For example, in a story from 2016, Xeinok notes how he is one of the few people who has received the achievement in Frozen Synapse for beating one of the game’s developers. That achievement is far more meaningful and speaks to Xeinok’s gaming cred than the 3,000 or so achievements I received for playing some achievement spam games for a couple hours.

But honestly, there’s no reason the Steam achievement meta-game should be any different than video games themselves. Many video games give different routes and difficulties so that people of different skill levels and/or interests can play the game in different ways. Why should the achievement meta-game be any different?

Some people want to show off their hardcore gaming skills by earning insanely difficult achievements. Others just want to figure out a shortcut to maximize their total score.

Let a thousand achievements bloom.

Completionist.Me–Steam Achievement Tracker

Completionist.Me is a website that lets Steam users track their achievements and various stats around achievements in general outside of the Steam application.

It’s an interesting tool, though I’m still partial to which does much of what Completionist.Me does, but for several different gaming sites/systems.

What Are Game Achievements For?

Whether you love them, can’t stand them, or could care less, achievement systems within games are clearly here to stay. Personally, I’m a big fan of achievements, both to track my progress in a game  in general as well as in relation to other people  as well as to give an excuse to do goofy things that I might not otherwise think to try out. And, of course, they’re yet another form of the constant reward/reinforcement  system that most good video games have really nailed down (usually complete with visual effect and even music to further reinforce the reward).

But as one young woman profiled by Kotaku demonstrates, once you start adding achievements with assigned points to games, some people will start playing the achievements themselves as a sort of meta-game. The games themselves are simply something to grind through on the way to an achievement score. In the case of the Kotaku profile, Kristen has amassed an XBOX gamerscore of 165,000 and is grinding her way to 200,000, frequently playing games she could care less about except for the achievement points she can gain from them.

Quite a few people in the comments don’t see the point of playing the achievement system as a game, but that seems just as legitimate a way to approach video games as any other.