Do Xbox 360 achievements spoil the fun?

GDC 2010: Ex-EA Maxis developer Chris Hecker wonders if reward systems are undermining the inherent enjoyment of playing games.


Who was there: Chris Hecker of definition six returned to the Game Developers Conference, the site of his headline-grabbing appraisal of the Wii as two GameCubes duct-taped together, in order to deliver a presentation on whether or not achievements (or trophies and other incentive programs) ruin the joy of playing a game for its own sake. Hecker's currently working on a game called SpyParty but might be better known for his previous work at EA's Maxis studio on Spore.

Chris Hecker
Chris Hecker

What he talked about: Early on in his talk, the verbose Hecker said that he doesn't actually care about achievements as he plays, but he started considering the long-term effects of reward systems like that because of his 6-year-old daughter. Specifically, he wondered how achievement systems affected people and whether or not extrinsic reward systems like achievements ultimately undermine the desire for people to play games.

After taking detours into psychology, cremation, mathematics, global warming, LOLcats, and brain chemistry, Hecker lamented the limitations of much scientific research, emphasizing that in most fields, it's not precise once applied to the real world. Hecker recapped a number of studies, most of which concluded that when you tell people, "Do this and you'll get that," they wind up disliking "this" and insisting on "that."

The developer likened the back-and-forth studies regarding the issue in peer-reviewed scientific journals to a schoolyard brawl and then searched for common ground. One conclusion he said was largely agreed upon was that tangible, expected rewards contingent on doing something reduces the intrinsic motivation people have to do that thing. He was particularly worried about what that meant for games, considering how easy it is for developers to use those extrinsic rewards.

"Games are the only art form where the opportunity and mechanism for feedback is built into the form itself," Hecker said. He worried that opens the door for people to add extrinsic motivation to their games, even though they don't know exactly what possible harmful effects that could have down the road.

Hecker's "nightmare self-fulfilling scenario" was that extrinsic motivators would ruin the intrinsic motivation to play their games. And with the industry's current "fetish" for metrics, Hecker said developers will wind up being pushed toward designs where extrinsic motivators work well.

While players can turn their achievement notifications off, Hecker said that doesn't prevent them from affecting the game for everyone. He brought up the example of a Gears of War player who opted out of achievement notifications but wound up jumping through hoops to play games online with his friends. Because only ranked servers gave achievements, there weren't enough players on unpopulated unranked matches for him to get a game going. But since he couldn't join up with his friends on the ranked servers, he and his friends had to narrowly tailor their server searches and coordinate between themselves in the hopes of all winding up in the same ranked match at the same time.

Quote: "The industry needs to start studying the long-term impact of achievements on players, or we risk the doomsday scenario."--Chris Hecker, urging developers to be cautious with how they incorporate reward systems.

Takeaway: Although Hecker veered off on frequent tangents before circling back to his main point, the takeaway was unmistakable. He's not yet sure that achievements are ultimately damaging to a player's motivations to game for gaming's sake, but he wants researchers to look into that question specifically, and he doesn't want the industry going too far down a potentially damaging path before a real answer has been reached.

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