Achievement Design

This is a guide on how to think about and design good achievements. Not the technical side but the conceptual.

This content is a summary of what was originally written by RA user cirellio on a forum topic.

Progression Based Achievements

There are 3 types of progression based achievements: simple progression, story-based progression, and progression/collection achievements.

Simple Progression

Progression-based achievements are usually simplest ones, especially if the game you are doing is nothing but linear stages. Or doesn't have much going on in the way of storylines. In this case, let's look at some GOOD and BAD examples of this:

  • Good: Clear stage 1.
  • Bad: Reach stage 2.

It takes slightly more work to code an achievement where the player is required to clear the stage rather than simply reach the next one. But it is also much more satisfying for the player, and it is much more professional-looking. It is also less susceptible to problems with players loading save games or savestates for freebie achievements en masse.

  • Good: Complete the game.
  • Bad: Start the game.

While it is true progression-based achievements are often freebies, it is generally agreed upon here that an achievement to start the game is a bit too easy, and not at all memorable for the player. It's just a formality. The ending of the game, however, is often the most memorable part of a game for a player, and completing a game is definitely an achievement in itself. It's a good practice to make such achievement work like "Beat last stage and beat the game".

  • Good: Cleared the ice theme stages, or Cleared the first five stages, or Cleared the first ten stages.
  • Bad: Complete Stage 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11-200 (all separate achievements)

One of the worst things you can do is create achievement spam. Puzzle games are notorious for these kinds of problems, because the stages are short and often, there are one-hundred of them or more. As a result, the main page feed ends up with a lot of micro-updates, which spams other folks' achievements down and off the front page quickly. The way to come off as more professional in this matter is to space out the achievements a bit more, into groups of stages. For instance, if stages 1-10 are all fire themed, and stages 11-20 are all outer-space themed, you can create achievements around these themes. Be creative.

Story Based Progression:

The most memorable moments in gaming history are often not related to item collection or sidequests, but to specific scenes relating to the story.

Examples: - First encounter with Pyramid Head in the Silent Hill series. - Finding out the truth about Darth Revan in Knights of the Old Republic. - Finding out what will happen in the future in Chrono Trigger. - Launching the Cow in Earthworm Jim. - Pretty much any character death.

The thing you have to be extra-careful with here is spoilers. If you catch a progression-based achievement that has a spoiler in it, by all means contact the dev about it. And devs, please be receptive when it comes to constructive criticism! Also, the number and even percentage of these will vary from game to game--The dependance lies heavily upon how story-driven the game is.

Progression/Collection

Progression/Collection is a common hybrid. Not only are you collecting an item, but it also launches into a memorable (and mandatory) scene.

Examples: - Obtaining the Master Sword in Link to the Past, which lifts the curse in the Lost Woods. - Finding the sword on the beach in Link's Awakening, which launches into the first scene where the wise owl speaks to you. - Picking your starter Pokemon, which happens during a beginning scene, but is a 'rite of passage' for most gamers.

Achievements in this hybrid category are often more satisfying because they are pulling double-duty. The player is not only obtaining an item, but watching a memorable scene and nabbing an achievement all at once. Quite the rush of endorphins!

Progression Pros and Cons

Progression Achievements are guaranteed to the player on a normal play-through. So why even have them?

Pros

  • A player deserves points for playing through a game! They do! Remember, a lot of folks are playing through these games for the very first time, and most games are quite hard to beat. Why shouldn't we reward players for a good ol' normal play-through?

  • Periodic progression awards go a long way to encourage players to complete a game.

  • Some players are more casual and don't intend to do much more than beat games on this website. Not everyone feels the need to Master every game in Hardcore mode. Many are perfectly happy grabbing whatever convenient side-achievements they can during a normal play-through, and there's nothing wrong with that.

  • Some scenes are so memorable, they deserve achievements all their own! People who grew up with these games and love them look for these scenes in achievement lists, and it might just warm their heart when they see it was acknowledged.

  • Progression Achievements help other people on the website gauge how far along a player is in a game, a bit like Rich Presence. We can drop a line to the player and say, "Good luck!" because we know the next section is pretty tricky. It encourages the community to interact.

  • Order matters! Progression Achievements can tell us a lot about a play-through just by the order they occurred. If you pop that optional boss achievement and saved up a million dollars AFTER you've already done all the sidequests, that's much less impressive than if you manage to pull it off well before the mid-point of the game. In other words, Progression Achievements allow us to show-off a bit! We can show the world that we can beat that final boss before we've reached level 10, or that we can beat Expert mode on our first go before Easy and Normal. It can even reveal if we've used glitches or cheats to skip certain portions of the game. So, as you can see, Progression Achievements have great SYNERGY with other kinds of achievements.

  • These kinds of achievements are the easiest to code and are generally error-free.

Cons

  • Too many Progression Achievements can over-saturate a game with 'freebies', and that's a Very Bad Thing.

  • If your entire game has nothing but these kinds of achievements, it's just another boring run through the game for players. Reach stage 2, Reach stage 3, Reach stage 4, Complete the Game. This is a great 'base' for you to start adding achievements from the other categories, but don't leave your list at just Progression Achievements if you can help it. Otherwise you're just rewarding players full points for going through the motions like they've done a million times before.

Sidequest/Optional Achievements

Vintage games, on their own, offer little-to-no incentive to beat a bonus mode, other than that it's something to do on a rainy day after you've beaten the game. Old games didn't have internet connectivity. And they had no social aspects other than 2-player mode, and maybe telling your friends at school that you beat something. But now, with RetroAchievements.org, we can display our vintage trophies (even though it requires us to redo what we've probably already done many years ago). These trophies are badges of honor. You can look at another member's Challenge Achievements and begin to understand how far they went, how skilled they are. Along with that comes respect from the other members. We socialize, we congratulate each other on a job well done. We feel like we belong, and we are in good company.

Sidequests

There are often things the player can do that are confined to the rules of the game, but aren't necessary to complete it. In other words, a challenge built into the game by the original game developers. Usually they are fun, or sometimes not so fun, but deserve an award because they require hard work and persistence to achieve. You have to walk a fine tightrope between if dedicated players are likely to do something, vs. if the goal is stupid. People will have differing views over this, so steel yourself.

Often times, these types of achievements are even Easter Eggs or things the player never knew existed in their entire lives! Many players adore these types of achievements. I think it's because they learn something new about a game they grew up with, or feel like maybe they were the only ones who knew about a given secret and were excited to see it supported here. It's important for us developers to REALLY know a game inside-and-out before creating an achievement set.

Examples of Sidequests: - Delivering tails to the Tail Collector in Final Fantasy IV. - Finding the owner of the Insignificant Item in Earthbound. - Giving the Jerky to the King in Guardia Castle. - Anju sidequest in Majora's Mask. - Learning about Wrex's past in Mass Effect. - Diplomat/VIP escort missions in Flashback: The Quest for Identity. - Discovering a secret room.

Sidequests are most often found in RPGs, but especially these days, sidequests are finding their way into just about every genre. Keep your eyes peeled - Even the unsuspecting platformer may have a sidequest or three. The Kirby series, for instance, has many hidden rooms and areas. Often times, sidequests end up awarding an item, which falls under a hybrid: Sidequest/Collection.

Optional Achievements

Examples of Optional Achievements: - Optional bosses. - Clearing a challenge dungeon (which is a hybrid of Sidequest). - Completing Expert Mode (which is a hybrid of Progression). - Completing a secret challenge level. - Getting an exceptionally rare drop off of a monster. - Clearing the game with an optional character. - Getting a high score. - Completing features only unlocked on a second playthrough. - Game modes that are only unlocked on multiple playthroughs. - Optional game endings. - Codes you can enter during the title screen to make the game harder.

This is the game makers hoping you'll like their game enough to keep coming back for more, even after those ending credits scroll by. They are trying to reward the player for completing their game, and create some form of satisfying re-playability. If the game makers went to the trouble making things like this an integral part of the game, we as achievement developers should recognize these challenges and create appropriate achievements for at least a few of them.

Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Star Ocean: The Second Story are famous for this. The Game Boy Advance Castlevania entries also do this. In fact, many games do this. If you aren't sure if your game has any extra modes or challenges, be sure to do some research and check out some FAQs. Or ask the community here, many of us are experts on the games supported here.

Sidequest/Optional Pros and Cons

Sidequest/Optional Achievements make fantastic supplements to Progression Achievements.

Pros

  • This is the bread-and-butter of achievement making. Chances are, a good deal of your achievements will come from this category. All games have optional things to do. Collect all the coins in a stage! Gain 9 lives! Creating achievements for this stuff is easy, and it rewards the player for their dedication.

  • Game makers love appreciative players. They like it when players bother to dig deeper into their games, appreciating their hard work, otherwise we wouldn't see hidden 'fun' things in games like Easter Eggs, bonus scenes, etc. If game makers reward the players for doing it, why shouldn't we? Us devs should also recognize that the player has gone the extra mile.

  • Game players love telling their friends when they find something unusual and off the beaten path in a game. With this site, they can show their friends that they did indeed slay the elusive 'yellow frog' rarely seen in the marsh, or found the warp to the 'mystery dimension'. If we include these curiosities in our achievement lists, we show the players that we are 'in the know', which builds confidence that we can competently guide them through the game.

  • Sidequest/Optional Achievements give players something to strive for after they've beaten the game.

  • These kinds of achievements can often be earned at any time and are not on a predictable schedule. Players feel an extra rush of endorphins when an achievement pops that they weren't expecting, but it was earned.

  • These kinds of achievements are usually easy to code, second only to progression-style achievements.

Cons

  • Some players don't care to explore beyond what a typical play-through has to offer, so a high percentage of these types of achievements in a game can leave a player under-rewarded. (Granted, this type of gamer is a bit of a rare bird on a website centered around achievements.)

  • Some people may feel a specific challenge is too hard, even if it's something the original game developers included in-game for players to achieve.

  • When you create a Sidequest/Optional Achievement for, say, running away from 999 battles (or other stat-maxing achievements), you risk that the people on this website may not feel this particular achievement offers a challenge and is just a 'grind-fest'. Achievements like this may very well end up getting demoted unless they serve a second purpose, like in Final Fantasy V where running away from battles actually powers up a weapon called the 'Chicken Knife'. This has SYNERGY with the game, as opposed to creating an achievement based upon raising a stat that has no other use.

Collection Based Achievements

Most collection-based achievements are optional, unless the items themselves are MacGuffins, which in that case they would fall squarely under Progression/Collection.

Examples: - Finding the Mickey hats hidden in the background to obtain 1-ups in Genesis Aladdin. - Finding exceptionally well-hidden items. - Bestiaries. - Unlocking an optional character. - Maxing out Money/kills/stats. - Finding all the different ways to die in games like Prince of Persia or Shadowgate. - Opening every treasure chest in a game/finding every powerup. - All items/Collecting 99 or 255 (etc.) of an item. - Catching them all in Pokemon (any monster collection, really.)

If the game keeps track of a stat, the game developer is practically daring you to max it out. Now you might be that kind of player, and you might not. You have to ask yourself, as a dev, whether or not other players are likely to get 9999 vampire bat kills, even if you wouldn't. The advantages to this are that people who wouldn't normally do this always have something to come back and work for when they feel like playing the game again. The disadvantage is that other players who wouldn't normally go that far and never would, but also feel like they have to MASTER every game quickly (a rare breed), will complain. If you get enough complaints, you might want to bring down that 9999 to something more reasonable, like 500. If no one's having fun with an achievement, it's not in the spirit of playing games or making achievements.

You have to use your better judgment here and think of what the player would enjoy the most. As a rule of thumb, it's better to have a few Sidequest/Optional Achievements than none at all. But with a little extra effort, these achievements can make your list very memorable.

Next, it's time to roll up our sleeves as devs and get REALLY creative when the devs themselves challenge the player beyond the rules of the game.

For-Fun achievements

This kind of achievements usually worths just a few points, but they are still fun

Examples of For Fun: - Letting the clock hit 99:59 in Valkyrie Profile. - Interactive backgrounds, such as poking the hanging dead body in stage 1 of Castlevania: Bloodlines. - Cooking the hamster in the microwave in Maniac Mansion. - Watching the apocalypse in Majora's Mask. - Finding John Romero in Doom 2.

Sometimes, game makers add fun easter eggs. They went the extra mile to entertain the player with 'what if's'. Again, it is our job as devs to recognize and support these as much as we can.

Challenges

One thing that you have to remember about retro gamers - and the games they play - is that most of us have played these games a million times before. This is the same old song and dance for most of us, and we often need motivation to do it again. Some of us can clear Contra without losing a single life. Well, now is our chance to prove it!

I mean, think about it: Before this website, about the only way to prove you can do a flawless run of Contra was to invite a friend over, sit him down, and show him, or figure out recording software and make a YouTube video. But even then, a lot of those videos are doctored to look like flawless playthroughs. This site, however, has Hardcore mode, which help to indicate no one is cheating.

You may have Progression Achievements and Sidequest/Optional Achievements, but if you want to create an achievement list that's truly great, you need at least a few Challenge Achievements. Try to think back to all the games you've played here at this website. What are some of the most memorable achievements? I can almost guarantee you that they were Challenge Achievements. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but the typical player isn't going to fondly recall, 'Cleared Stage 2-6', or 'Reached Level 30'. They are more likely to fondly remember achievements that made their play-throughs a unique experience, such as...

  • get through the entire game without ever picking up a powerup or coin
  • defeat a boss without getting hit
  • finish a stage without losing a life

That is what makes this website so special, and what makes achievements something more than just beating a game.

Even the most vocal critics who hate the idea of Achievements may say, "Well, except for THIS one. This one was okay." And I guarantee you that ONE example they're talking about is a Challenge Achievement, something that challenged the player beyond the game itself.

A good achievement developer will keep their eyes peeled, their wits about them, and their senses sharp when developing a game, looking for good, unusual challenges. They may notice something in the game that's a difficult feat.

Speedrun Challenges

Timers introduce an added pressure players may have never felt before while playing their favorite games. Few things get the heart pumping more than an imposing ticking clock. Add a timer element, and a game that was previously so easy they could beat it blindfolded could suddenly be transformed into the ultimate gaming challenge of their lives.

Examples of Speedrun Challenges: - Completing a game in under one hour. - Clearing a specific stage in under three minutes. - Undercut the timer by a certain number of seconds. - Kill 30 vampire bats during the escape sequence. - Collect 99 bonus coins before the bonus screen fades away. - Go from point A to point B before day changes to night. - Leaderboard - Complete the game with the fastest time possible. - Leaderboard - Complete a given stage with the fastest time possible.

A dev may want to head out to YouTube or Twitch and see how fast people are finishing a game (And please ignore TAS - "Tool Assisted Speedruns"). Some pro speed-runners are so fast, the typical player here won't stand a chance at the times being posted, but you should be able to find a happy medium. And if you can't figure out a good time to challenge the players here, that's what Leaderboards are for - Turn it into a competition! In fact, some of your favorite celebrity speed-runners may come to this very site and submit a time or two.

You'll know when you're facing a pressure achievement when your palms are sweating and you find yourself nervously glancing at the timer. Like I said before, nothing screams, "Wake up!" louder than a timer, especially when developers start weaving this kind of achievement with OTHER kinds of achievements (and even leaderboards) during a timed portion of a game. Timer Challenges have an insane amount of synergy with other types of achievements.

Limitation Challenges

Examples of Limitation Challenges: - Clear a battle or even an entire game with all characters of a specific job class. (One famous example of this is clearing the original Final Fantasy with a group of White Mages.) - Beat a final boss with no equipment on. - Clear a stage without ever jumping. - Solve a puzzle in only two moves. - One-hit KOs. - Low level games (LLGs). - No hit achievements. - Never hit certain button(s) during a challenge. - Never lose invincibility through an entire Mario 3 stage by finding enough Starmen. - Defeat a certain enemy without using a certain move. - Reaching Ganon in Legend of Zelda, sword-less. - Defeat a certain enemy ONLY using a certain move. - Stumble your way through a maze while drunk/confused. - Clear the game with a status ailment.

Community websites built around certain games are a fantastic resource for these kinds of achievements They'll have a good idea about what's possible and impossible, and have likely written up FAQs discussing alternative and challenging ways to play the entire game.

Often times, though, there will be no community. No FAQs. No Message Board. And maybe even no useful videos. In these cases, you'll need to be an idea person to come up with new and interesting ways to challenge the player. Be aware that these kinds of achievements take a lot of practice, time, and experience to create.

The takeaway here is to BE CREATIVE! And remember to keep it FUN!

Score Challenges

Examples of Score Challenges: - Completing a game or level with the lowest possible score. - Complete a minigame with a perfect score (not just topping the CPU leaderboard). - Leaderboard - Complete the game with the highest score/most money/best kill count/etc. possible. - Leaderboard - Complete a given stage with the highest score/most money/best kill count/etc. possible.

Challenge Pros and Cons

Challenge Achievements are your chance to show players how to play their favorite games in different, unique, and even mind-bending ways. While these achievements can breathe life into an otherwise dull achievement set, you generally only want a small handful of these to be in your final list.

Pros

  • Hardcore players love sinking their teeth into these kinds of achievements.

  • If some players are too hardcore, you can find a happy medium by implementing Leaderboards, which satisfies both the casual achievement hunters and the hardcore players all at once.

  • This is your chance to be very creative and come up with new challenges for players they never expected. This can be a pleasant surprise and really make your lists memorable.

Cons

  • These types of achievements require a fair amount of creativity to dream up, though there are many ways to research unusual ways to play games by watching things like speed runs.

  • May require a deep research.

  • These can be notoriously difficult to code. They require you to make a lot of code notes, make tons of game mechanic observations, and often times they require bug testing before they even work. In fact, you may not even be ready to tackle achievements like this until you've had a few games under your belt with a set of baseline achievements. Fortunately, Challenge Achievements can always be added later.

External Resources