Editor's note: A long, long time ago, in a galaxy called San Andreas, Rockstar destroyed my obsessive gaming habits. If they hadn't, I would probably be just as furious and furtive as Jon and Evan are about their Xbox Live Achievements. If you've ever played Pimp My Ride just to boost your Gamerscore, you'll definitely want to read this article. -James
Bitmob Splitscreen is a one-on-one discussion conducted over e-mail on a single topic. For the fifth installment, Jon Shults and I sat down (at our computers) to discuss our experiences with, and attitudes toward, Xbox Achievements. SPOILER ALERT! One of us gets busted in this column. Here's a hint: It's not me.
Jon Shults: I picked up my 360 a little while after launch along with Dead Rising — Gears of War was sold out. I remember initially thinking that Achievements were silly, and for quite a while I didn't pay them much mind. I can’t recall when I started to strive for them, but I do remember that Cloning Clyde was the first game I played where I ultimately wound up getting all the Achievements. Given how mediocre that game is, I’m not sure why.
On the retail side of things, the first game that I really hunkered down on and played through several times with Achievements in mind and guides on hand was Bioshock. Since then, Achievements have played a big role in both the how, and why I play (or don't play) certain games. They've even changed the way I socialize and compete with other gamers. I feel completely confident in saying that I don't think I will ever play games the same way again.
Evan Killham: My first Achievement was also in Dead Rising. I got it from accidentally falling off of the storage shelves in the back area of the mall. The little *boo-BEEP* sounded, and I thought, "Well that's a silly thing to reward me for." I earned it on my older brother's 360 before I had my own console, so it didn't really feel like the Achievement was mine. A couple years later when I had my 360 and a copy of Dead Rising, one of the first things I did was to take a swan dive off of those same shelves. But the second time was on purpose.
Speaking of Gears of War, I played through that one on Hardcore specifically because it had rewards tied to it. I wasn't actually that interested in the game, but it was my first year doing Extra Life, and I had the whole day to fill, so I borrowed it. If it hadn't been for the Achievements, I would have played through on Casual just to get the general concept. I'm not sure if that was a good idea or not, actually.
Your mention of competition reminds me of why I first started actively seeking Achievements: I wanted to have a higher Gamerscore than my brother. It stung a little when he passed me up on my copy of Assassin's Creed, so I "worked hard" and got back ahead. Who do you compete with for Achievements? And do you find yourself playing games that you wouldn't otherwise have bothered with?
JS: A while back I participated in a "Gamerscore League" hosted by Console Heroes. Over a series of six weeks, teams of four paired up and competed head to head to see which group could outscore the other in a given week. Teams had traditional win-loss records, even leading into "playoffs" between the best teams. At the beginning of the league, the other players' scores ranged from 12,000 all the way to Stallion83's (then) 300-and-something-thousand.
Going into that Gamerscore League, I did a lot of research to find games that had notably easy Achievements and stocked up on those. I mean real gems too, like Superman Returns and Pimp My Ride. I intended to take the "high road" by earning points from games that took skill — I meant to use the throwaway games as a quick boost if we fell behind. But working forty hours a week and having a family takes a lot of time.
Individual people were throwing up numbers as high as 5,000 points in a week, and that didn't even take in to account the two other gamers putting up their own numbers (one of the four had to sit out each week). It wasn't long before I was resorting to my "clutch" pile on a regular basis — although I can proudly say I've still not played Avatar: The Burning Earth.
Despite our best efforts, my team didn't even make it in to the playoffs. We did manage to rack up the only win against the "undefeated team" in the final week, but I'm sure they were saving games for the playoffs. I think we ultimately wound up somewhere around sixth place out of 10 teams.
Since then, I don't usually go out of my way to acquire games with easy to score Achievements. The one recent exception is NBA Live 07. I really wanted to participate in the last attempt at the "Online with 1,000 people" Achievement before EA pulled the servers offline in early February. I am slowly working my way through what's left, which is an embarrassing amount. Before I got married, I was quite the collector, but at least I stuck with good games.
I do find myself frequently looking through a game's Achievement list before picking it up. I tend to skip games with lots of unnecessary multiplayer Achievements, especially if I'm playing it a while after it's been released.
EK: Multiplayer Achievements have always been a sticking point for me since, as I've said several times before, I play video games specifically because I have terrible social skills. Condemned 2 was one of the first times I decided that I was never going to get all of the points because I refused to play online. This is independent of my thinking that games don't need online modes tacked onto them for the sake of online modes, but it certainly supports that conclusion.
One big exception, however, is Fable 2. The online Achievements in that game are fairly low-maintenance, and if you play with someone you know, you can easily earn most of them. This is how I prefer it. The one time I had to make a terrifying foray into the public online space was to get all of the Hero Dolls, but I managed to find one guy who was willing to hand them all over. After that I just wandered around messing with people until I remembered that I had several other games that I could be playing. But in general I don't like playing online, and I've found it surprisingly easy to let those Achievements go.
I'm afraid I have to call you out a little here, though — I've seen your profile and I know that you got all 1000 points in Shrek the 3rd, and that this happened pretty recently. So, um…what's up with that?
JS: I'm busted. Shrek's 1000 is the result of me cleaning out that "clutch pile" of crappy games. I know it's very OCD, but it bugs me to look at my play history and see games without 100% that I know I could punch out in a short while. My one regret is getting a single Achievement in Yaris, which is a terrible game that was released on Xbox Live Arcade for free and then pulled after the license expired. I accidentally deleted it off my 360 when I was clearing space. That game will forever sit at 8% completion.
Lately I've been going through that stack of games with gusto. I promised my wife that I would do my best reduce my collection to 10 retail games, maximum, at any time — I just have to "finish the games" before I let them go, and that means getting all the Achievements. Shrek and Viva Piñata are already out the door!
To help me get through the games in the stack that have online Achievements, I usually use a site like TrueAchievements or Xbox360Achievements to meet up with other people who are trying to complete the game, and we usually "boost" each other to get it taken care of. It's a small section of Xbox Live that operates entirely differently from what you'd normally expect. Instead of teabags and obscenities, people actually work together to help each other out.
I absolutely agree about games that tack on unnecessary multiplayer, although it does make it very easy to boost online Achievements when no one is playing the game for real. Games like Far Cry 2, however, can make even boosting painful — it has an elaborate multiplayer ranking system, but barely anyone plays. Some games take it a step further, like Quake 4 and Fight Night Round 4, both of which carry Achievements that require you to be the top-ranked person in online play.
Speaking of difficult-to-attain Achievements, do you have any in particular that you're especially proud of or were the result of a lot of extra work?
EK: I guess as long as Shrek is gone now, I'll allow it. But your Gamercard is forever.
You bring up an interesting (and often ignored) aspect of Achievements with sites like Xbox360Achievements: the potential for collaboration and cooperation. The usual perception of one's Gamerscore is that it is just another e-penis to measure, but the community part of it is also interesting. That guy who gave me the dolls in Fable 2 didn't ask for anything in return; he just wanted to help someone out. And I remember now that one of the first things I did after the Achievement unlocked was to look for someone else trying to get the same one and help them out. It was almost heartwarming, provided you don't actually think about what was going on there.
Your question about difficult Achievements is a good one, and I couldn't have put it better myself. Two immediately come to mind: "Neighborhood Watch" in Half-Life 2, and "Psych Out" in Crackdown. They both required a lot of trial and error and persistence, and I wouldn't have bothered to complete either of them if they'd unlocked concept art or something like that. But "Psych Out" is worth 100 points, which was somehow totally worth it.
How about you?
JS: I'm not sure I have one that I'm especially proud of. I'm more proud of some of the games that I have 100% in, like Bioshock and Assassin's Creed. I do like having Achievements with a high TrueAchievement ratio (which means it's pretty rare among those who have played the game), like "Cönquerer" in Brütal Legend. Other Achievements like "Sellout" in the same game and "Keeper of the Lions Passant" in Assassin's Creed are more like testaments to things I will never do again.
A few I'm not proud of are The Simpsons' "Press START To Play", where you literally get an Achievement for hitting Start at the main menu. I'm also guilty of using scotch tape and Charge-n-Play cables to get time-requirement Achievements in games like Superman Returns and Viva Piñata. I also remember playing Burnout Paradise offline after deleting a mandatory update: I used an exploit that had since been patched to get "Boosting Around the World".
Have you done anything you're not proud of for the sake of Achievements? And what are your thoughts on the zero-point Achievements that are usually rewarded for doing poorly in a game?
EK: I don't know if there are any that I'm out-and-out "ashamed" of, but there are certain games that I was ashamed to be caught playing if any of my friends were online. One of these is Saw: The Video Game, which I finished up during this year's Extra Life and went back to later for the rest of the points.
Actually, forget that first bit because the last Achievement I had in Saw was to stomp five guys to death, which is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. I loaded the same section of the game over and over and kept killing the same, poor bastard. Eventually, the stars aligned — or a butterfly flapped its wings just so — and the shitty controls allowed me to do what the Achievement was asking. That was pretty shameful, but somehow I would feel worse if I'd spent all that time and then not gotten it.
I suppose I understand the theory behind zero-point Achievements — that they're something like a scarlet letter "S", where the "S" stands for "Sucking" — but in practice they're counterintuitive because people who care about Achievements like getting Achievements. We love that hearing that *boo-BEEP* and seeing the little window pop up. Completionists want to get all the Achievements they can — even the stupid ones that aren't worth any points. Some people might play badly just to get those, which renders them kind of pointless. I think that's why you don't see them very often anymore, if at all.
JS: A "scarlet letter" is a great analogy, and I agree with what you're saying. It kind of defeats the purpose when people actively seek them out. I’m torn between being "good" at the game and reaching 100% completion.
As a whole, I've enjoyed playing games for the sake of earning Achievements. It has made me branch out and try games I wouldn't have otherwise. Even the bad ones are pretty tolerable. With some of the better games I've played, like Assassin's Creed 2, I get more value out of the title going for 1000 points than I would have just playing through the main campaign. I was not really much of a completionist in older titles that didn't actively track stats like that, and Achievements are an interesting way to share that kind of progress with friends.
In fact, I'd really like to see the progress-comparison mechanic taken a step further in the future. Mass Effect 2 is a great example. I'd love to be able to align my Shepard with my friends' and see things like which way they're playing, what rewards their decisions earned them, or how close they are to completing a certain quest chain.
With other services like Steam, PlayStation Network, and even Kongregate adding centralized awards systems across their games, we certainly seem to be heading toward a future where our play styles are tracked, boasted about, and even rewarded.
Thanks to Jon for his time — and for having a Gamerscore so much higher than my own that I won't bother spending the next several months futilely trying to catch up. Seems I'm not completely without hope!
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