While trophies and achievements themselves serve to elevate a game’s content, the competitive metagame surrounding them can be toxic. Sean explains why;
Yeah. I know. I know. That might sound like a click bait-y title but just hear me out on this before you unleashing the fury in the comments section because, honestly, I believe it…
It dawned on me a few months ago while I was sitting there looking at my PSN store basket. In that basket we 3 games – ★★★★★ 1000 Top Rated, My Name is Mayo and The World of Nubla (a new version of a game called Nubla that I had already played and Plat’d). I didn’t particularly want to play any of these games. I’d read that “★★★★★ 1000 Top Rated” was awful, that My Name is Mayo was little more than a clicker game and I already knew that World of Nubla was as bland as a white bread, mayonnaise only sandwich – but there I was, prepared to pay for 3 games I didn’t want to play. Why, you might ask? Because they’re all really easy Platinum trophies.
At the time I was part of a “Trophy League”. Myself and 38 others were in a race to earn more trophies than the others during 2017. The prize for the winner? A sweet £780. We’d all ponied up £20 and the winner would take it all. I was doing admirably for someone with 4 kids, a wife, a fulltime job and a website to write for. I was coming in around 5th each month and was was only 6200 points (we transferred the trophies into points for ease. That equates to around 6 Platinum trophies) off the top spot when I last checked. But I had to tap out because the metagame was ruining gaming for me.
While I stared at the basket full of games I didn’t want to play, I realised I’d let the competitive side of trophy collecting take over and gaming had become more of a job than a pastime. I was prepared to buy 3 games I didn’t want just to stay within reaching distance of the top spot of the Trophy League while my PS4 HDD was full of unplayed games I actually wanted to play. Dishonored 2 – unplayed. Yakuza 0 – unplayed. Uncharted 4 – unplayed (and well documented). Before I bought a game, I checked the trophy list online first. “Are there any missable trophies on there?” and “I wonder if someone will boost the multiplayer trophies with me?” were questions I had started to ask myself. I found myself reading “15 easy PS4 Platinum Trophy” articles. Something had gone very, very wrong.
I chose the headline to this Opine piece carefully because, honestly, I love Trophies and Achievements. I have 120 Platinum trophies and the journey to achieving some of them are some of my most fondest gaming memories. When taken in isolation, the additional challenge and variety they can add to a game make them worthwhile, encouraging gamers to explore more and stick with a game for longer. Going out of your way to test yourself against the option challenge of Cheevo’s/Trophies, all for a pat on the head and a virtual trinket you can show off to your friends is a fantastic idea. It’s obvious why they’re important to Microsoft, Sony, Valve, Google Play etc too. They’re a superb, low cost lock-in mechanism that keeps you coming back to their platform to earn more shiny badges of honour. So, I propose that it’s not trophies/Achievements themselves that are ruining gaming. It’s the metagame and the culture surrounding it that are doing so.
Take Sonic Mania for example. In my opinion (and that of Rossko who reviewed the game here) it is the finest Sonic game since Sonic 2. It’s bloody brilliant – but some people won’t play it because it doesn’t have a Platinum trophy. “Not even a gold? time to cancel my preorder.” and “If they can’t be bothered to put effort into the trophy list, I can’t imagine they put much effort into the game” are genuine comments (a selection of 2 from hundreds) made when the news dropped that Sonic Mania wouldn’t have a platinum trophy. I’ve recently been part of communities that scorn any game without a shiny Platinum to achieve, as if they’re less of a game if they can’t improve the metagame score.
Then there’s the games that advertise themselves as easy Achievements/Trophies. Games like “★★★★★ 1000 Top Rated” promote the fact that they only exist to improve your trophy score. While that was the most blatant effort, it’s a method of selling a game that has become more prevalent in the past few years. Without naming names, I received a press release a few weeks back that listed “An easy Platinum trophy!” as one of its positive bullet points, as if it’s a selling point. That isn’t the first time I’ve read that in a press release either. This isn’t a healthy path that game culture is heading down.
There’s also a number of “Trophy Unlocking Services”. These involve paying someone to play a game on your PSN account to unlock a Platinum trophy. Now, I can imagine some of you are thinking “What the F**k is the point of that?” and you’re absolutely right to think that. But when you’re in a race/leaderboard, some people are willing to pay someone else to play a game for them, just to stay ahead.
And then there are the hackers. While it’s not as prevalent on the PS4/Xbox One as it was on the PS3/Xbox 360, there were people out there that will hack a game’s save data, just to unlock trophies. I’ve been approached online in the past by someone who was willing to unlock trophies on my PSN account – for a fee, obviously.
Of course, for most gamers, Achievements and Trophies are little more than an aside. They’re the garnish to the Steak and Chips of the main game. There are also people out there that manage to Trophy/Cheevo hunt in a healthy way without falling into the Skinner box cycle/endorphin & dopamine rush obsessive gaming that I seemed to have succumbed too (I’m all better now, honest). That being said there’s a vocal minority of trophy hunters who are deep into the metagame of Trophies and Achievements and the industry itself is starting to react to that. We’re starting to see games that are aware that if they have a short play time and offer an easy Platinum trophy, they’ll sell to the metagame obsessed gamer. They encourage that fact. Some even exist because of it.
Games are competitive by their very nature – even “walking simulators” have a win condition, even if they don’t have a loss condition – and Achievements/Trophies are an extension of that. When used to elevate a games experience or as a personal challenge, they’re excellent. Unfortunately, the metagame has created this toxic desire to “win by any means” among some communities and certain corners of the industry are feeding it. Gone are the days when everyone played because they enjoyed it. Now, hundreds of thousands of gamers are trapped in their own Achievement/Trophy operant conditioning chamber – exhibit a, exhibit b, exhibit c, exhibit d, I could go on but you get the picture – and, for many, it’s ruining gaming.
The only cure for this is for all the platform holders who have implemented a trophy/achievement system to take them more seriously – at least as seriously as those people collecting them. Sony need to start vetting those games it grants a Platinum trophy. Microsoft probably need to rethink their stance on every game on Xbox One being allowed to have 1000G’s. Valve need to at least test that the achievements in a Steam game are unlockable and not bugged (because I see far too many people complaining about Steam achievements which are broken).
Every platform holder needs to look at the systems they themselves implemented and measure the value they have to the player and treat them with that level of respect. If they don’t, the trend will continue. More and more games will release with the easiest possible trophy/achievement list in a bid to attract more sales in the ever crowding marketplace. The perceived value of the achievements/trophies will plummet as a percentage of players go from one game they don’t want to play “but they’re easy” to another game they don’t want to play “but they’re easy”, spiralling the relevance of the metagame. Worst case scenario? The overall quality of games in general declines because less money is being spent on good games, innovative games, games people actually want to play but with bigger trophy lists as more is spent on easy achievements.
This might seem like hyperbole and certainly some of this is “worst case scenario” but recently, I’m seeing an increased number of gamers who have dedicated literal years of their life to unlocking trophies/achievements burn out of gaming all together. They specifically cite the competition, the metagame and the perceived devaluation of their gaming accomplishments as reasons why they quit. “Why do I bother spending 40 hours trying to Plat Star Wars Battlefront when someone else spends half an hour getting the Plat in Mr. Massagy and they’re worth the same?” was one question recently left in my Facebook Trophy group and it’s a question I didn’t have an answer too.