Quickly the stubby legs accumulate momentum from a trundling jog to a hurtling sprint, as Mario’s velocity reaches it’s apex he throws his arms back, sharply leaps through the air grabbing his journey’s final star medal before using his Tanooki suit to gracefully float back to the ground. There he stands full of pride and self congratulation for completion of the difficult task however, the air rings hollow with silence – where’s the accompanying ping of a trophy or the bloop of an achievement?
Almost every online gaming infrastructure these days has a virtual reward system, but not Nintendo. Since their inception decades ago the now instantly recognisable gaming company has always been happy innovating and doing it’s own thing. This unique approach shines through their ever strong stable of constantly self re-inventing first party franchises; over the years this powerhouse group of household names like Mario and The Legend of Zelda has served the big N well. Perhaps it’s the success and confidence they’ve had and continued to have in these series that have afforded them the luxury of skimping out on features otherwise integral to other big companies.
Despite Nintendo’s well respected position as video game creators they have their fair share of problems, for example their ongoing struggle to get third parties to develop for the recently released next gen system WiiU. It’s arguable, and my opinion, that their largest issue is the famously primitive and limiting online structure they adhere to - still rife with cumbersome features like friend codes, a gripe that is still regularly complained about today. Recently I purchased a 3DS to experience Nintendo’s wonderful games again after sitting out almost a whole generation of their offerings. The games they produce still sparkle with charm and magnificence however, it’s evident after playing a lot of Vita much is missing from Nintendo’s set-up. Controversially I feel the most important missing ingredient in their recipe is the lack of an achievement system – no wait! I’m sure that’s divisive but hear me out.
At the beginning of the current generation of home consoles Microsoft’s XBox360 championed the achievement system. Years later it’s become a standard across all a whole manner of platforms, from Apple’s iPhone to Valve’s PC download service Steam. Even their main competitor in the console space, Sony’s Playstation brand, saw potential in the idea and implemented their own version christened trophies across both the home console PS3, and the handheld Vita. Perhaps the reason they saw value in the idea was not just as a simple virtual reward for players but rather as a social tool.
If modern technology has proved anything it’s that the vast majority us feels everything is better when we’re connected to the rest of the world sharing our experiences with like-minded folks online and more importantly our friends. Whether we choose to simply discuss single player experiences, play competitively or cooperatively the presence of a fluid well connected service draws us to prefer certain systems over others unwittingly. Through a combination of social interaction and ease of use we become part of a community, we buy more for a chosen platform – effectively becoming part of a specific eco-system. Sure, consumers buy into new devices, games or services regularly but how many actually become a mainstay brand? The power of a close knit community and sense of familiarity keeps people coming back, it’s the reason World of Warcraft remains on top after eight years and other MMO’s fade, it’s why Facebook will likely remain king for a long time to come – even if they’re arguably better alternatives available.
An achievement system offers up a straight forward type of gateway to begin such interaction, they give an over-arcing reason to return to a community or platform. They have the power to link otherwise completely separate titles and make them mean something cumulatively. A side effect of achievements is the ability to view other’s game collections, maybe even informing future game purchases, even a simple profile ID can keep people checking in on latest with their friends within a community. It’s curiosity of others that some find so alluring, however what achievements do best is spur our competitive side, rewarding us with bragging rights and a numerical value higher than that of our friends. Such a simple system provides ample friendly competition giving players a reason to come back to compete with friends – like the high scores of old. The inclusion of achievements even impacts purchases – do I play my 3DS, or buy a Vita game which adds to my trophy level?
Regardless of their power as a social interaction for many avid collector’s the allure is much more simple – the rewarding sense earning them provides – a digital mark that sits next to their username saying “I did this”. Of course it means nothing and collecting them is it’s own reward many would argue, but that sums up the hobby of the gaming as a whole, more philosophically hobbies collectively mean nothing, it’s the fun that counts. So why not give objectives a numerical value that sums up the dedication and skill of user across all of their collection? If it doesn’t interest you, pay it no mind, nothing is lost everything is gained.
From a gameplay perspective the digital commendations do more than just reward us, the more well designed ones cleverly affect the way we choose to play titles. They add a whole manner of replay value and, help squeeze the most out of games that might otherwise remain under-explored or under-appreciated. They can help us find enjoyment in something we may otherwise miss, like side quests that might just get passed over, or a replay of a title we may not of experienced twice. Take Bioshock Infinite’s scavenger award, it’s highly unlikely I would have played the game on 1999 mode (the hardest difficulty) without buying any consumables without incentive, as it turns out I loved every minute of the challenge.
What this leads onto, is the key that links increased social aspects, the sense of achievement and the additional replay value into one common factor that’s relatively simple: motivation. Regardless of the reasons an individual chooses to collect them the motivation it can provide to come back can be immense. And if we keep coming back we keep buying games, we keep talking to our friends about it, all of which keeps the 3DS relevant and more importantly helps Nintendo endeavour to beat back current WiiU woes. Sure it’d be difficult perhaps even impossible to adopt such a system now, and it comes with a slew of problems - but Sony managed it with PS3, so who knows.
Since their early days Nintendo has never been afraid to be different, to fight the curve – and that uniqueness is why their classics are so beloved. Maybe the lack of achievements is just a symptom of the weak online infrastructure, or maybe both are just symptoms of Nintendo’s confidence in it’s ability to defy industry norms. After DS and Wii success that’s not altogether surprising, but Sony learnt a hard lesson once after similar circumstances. Maybe for Mario collecting that last star medal should have been it’s own reward. However in a world that’s ever more connected maybe a little badge that says “I got all the star medal” for his own self congratulation and for his friends to admire wouldn’t be so bad – it’d certainly stop him pondering, where’s the ping?