tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Achieving nothing

I was reading a thread about the upcoming Left 4 Dead Survival Pack on one of the Internet forums I frequent today, and I came across a rather strange quote from one of the forum regulars:

I think all DLC that doesn’t bring in new achievements with it should be free, and if it’s not, it should be pretty cheap. I’m talking 100MSP.

It wasn’t the fact that he was willing to pay for DLC that struck me as strange (that seems to be a fixture of our times) – it was that he viewed achievements as worth paying for.

I have quite a bit to say on the subject of achievements in video games, but I’ll start off by saying that anyone whose buy/not-to-buy decision is based on the availability of achievements for a particular game is a gibbering idiot.

Harsh? Maybe. But I can’t really put it any other way. Achievements are largely pointless in the grand scheme of things. They’re really just a way to artificially prolong replay value by adding silly tasks for players to do, some of which run contrary to the whole point of the game. They’re a bonus, nothing more, and they’re most definitely not worth anything.

For instance, take the infamous gnome achievement in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. This achievement gives you credit for successfully bringing a lawn gnome, found near the start of the game, to the final area and stowing it in a rocket before the end of the game. Keep in mind that while doing this the game has you drive a car (which the gnome has the habit of frequently falling out of) over a large distance while engaging in several large gun battles. Is the ability to do this rather ridiculous task really worth any money at all? Is the game worse off for their exclusion? Obviously not.

Alright, admittedly it’s not such a big problem in single-player games. Heck, I’ll admit to going back and replaying HL2: Ep Two while trying to get the achievement where you squish all the antlion grubs (which is pretty much where I drew the line). It’s when the spectre of achievement farmers begins to haunt multiplayer games that I start to take umbrage. As a prime example, here’s a revealing quote from madlep, one of the main contributors to ubercharged.net (a major Team Fortress 2 blog):

You know how I mentioned that I top scored as pyro at the beginning of the post? IT WAS BECAUSE THE ENTIRE SERVER WAS FULL OF MEDICS TRYING TO UBER DEMOMEN JUMPING OFF CLIFFS, MEDICS TRYING TO UBER SCOUTS, OR MEDICS TRYING TO UBER FIST HEAVIES (or the scouts or heavies or whatever from their clan helping them out)

Ridiculous stuff. What the hell did valve think would happen when they put such moronic criteria for the achievements in there?

You can read the rest of his post, which deals with the mentality of achievement farmers, here.

That post was written shortly after the first content update for Team Fortress 2, where Valve added three new weapons and 36 new achievements for the Medic class. The achievements would have been harmless by themselves, but Valve tied the new weapons to your progress in obtaining the achievements, resulting in the tomfoolery that madlep described above.

The problem with adding achievements to multiplayer games is pretty clear – the rules and mechanics of the game are already sending you a strong signal as to how you should be playing (this is true of single player games as well, but like I said above I don’t consider achievement farmers in single player games to be that big a deal). Good Team Fortress 2 players know that Scouts should almost never be ubered, that Medics who run off trying to kill enemies with their syringe gun aren’t doing their job, and that Heavies running around punching people while ubered are colossal morons. Yet the achievements tell players to do these things, and say that they will be rewarded for doing so! Absolutely asinine.

Valve, perhaps realising this would be a problem, has made the criteria for the subsequent achievement packs much more reasonable – the Pyro and Heavy Achievements stick more closely to what players are expected to do with those classes (although there are still some pretty weird ones in there). Still, the fact that players needed to unlock them in order to access the new content rendered the game almost unplayable for the week following the respective updates. You would see teams with six Pyros per side, with pretty much all the other players on fire at the same time. Classes like the Scout and the Medic became practically useless – It was a truly ridiculous state of affairs.

The game is already telling you how it should be played – why not listen to it for a change?

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