Wait… why am I doing this again??

Yeah.. that seems about rightI find it kind of ironic that the 360’s unlockable awards are referred to as achievements. Now don’t get me wrong – gaming is a great hobby, but I wouldn’t say it’s one where you ever actually achieve anything. So while a mountain climber might justifiably be proud of scaling some forbidding height or a literary collector gratified in finding a rare first edition I just can’t imagine anything I manage to do in a video game being something I’d consider an ‘achievement’. So needless to say I won’t be bragging to the hot girl at work how I saved all the Little Sisters in Bioshock…

That established, I’m surprised at how compelling these irrelevant pats on the back actually are. I’ve gone significantly out of my way to acquire these things; sometimes long after I’ve had my fill of whatever game they’re tied to. And it’s not just achievements and trophies – modern gaming has fully embraced the mantra of superfluous content; be it in the form of meaningless level designations, unlockable customization options, or additional character models. For the most part these features don’t hurt the game – if anything they offer a little additional incentive or enrich the experience. But sometimes acquiring these extras takes on a life of it’s own.

Case in point: Uncharted 2. Now first off let me say that I love UC2’s multiplayer. I started with the demo, bought the actual release solely for online, and have spent every gaming moment of the last three months ‘nading Flynns and Tenzins back to the stone age. And despite the occasional stretch of bad games, in my eyes UC2 was a title that could do no wrong – I always came back ready for more. Well, that was before I got obsessed with the game’s level system.

Like several other multiplayer titles UC2 offers a leveling system to promote continued play. The better you do, the more money you’re awarded, the higher you climb in rank. Increasing your rank unlocks new gameplay boosters (i.e., better accuracy, faster climbing) and character skins – it’s all pretty standard stuff. But one of the areas where UC2 differentiates itself is it’s voluntary handicapping system, the ‘Badge of Honor’ boosters.

Unlike the other boosters, the Badge of Honor “perks” actually cripple you to some degree (i.e., half health, partial ammo). Why handicap yourself, you ask? Well, the motivation is that for every five kills you get with one of these equipped you get an award medal worth a buttload of cash. And since it takes so much money to level up once you hit level 50, players are almost forced to use these boosters to advance and the resulting handicap makes killing you a bit more manageable for newer players. It?s actually a fairly clever way to balance the matches.

The problem is that being handicapped makes the game significantly less enjoyable – getting one-shot punched by a level 2 guy is equal parts embarrassing and infuriating. Worse yet is the effect long term nerfing has on one?s gameplay. To get Half Blinded medals I had to forego aiming in lieu of spamming pistol blindfire. Invalid?s half health left me with a fear of melee combat and direct confrontation. Half Loaded?s reduced ammo caused me to abandon shoot outs and most long range gunplay.

The fact that the level conscious player spends so much time with these boosters means that these bad habits have plenty of opportunity to become ingrained in how one plays. I now find myself opting for a desperation grenade where I once would have simply shot an opponent or letting guys I used to mow down run off because I know my ammo will run out before they turn the corner. And these bad habits remain in effect even after I?ve left the offending booster behind. Needless to say it?s frustrating…

I put in a thousand hours for... this?!???
I put in a thousand hours for... this?!??

And the worse part is that I know I’m doing it for no reason. All I have left to unlock is additional nerfing boosters and some skins I’ll never even use. Your level isn?t even indicative of your skill – a complete duffer would reach level 60 if he played long enough. I know that I should just abandon the Badges of Honor. And I know that using them has sucked all the pleasure out of playing. But unfortunately I also know that I just can’t get past the lure of increasing my level to the next arbitrary number.

Once upon a time I used to play games simply for the pleasure of playing them. For example, I happily logged countless hours on Team Fortress 2 (generally on a single map) without any concern for awards, stats, or other minutia. Yet in the past year I find that I’ve replayed games for the umpteenth time just to get some dumbass trophy, suffered through unfair difficulties simply to match a friend’s efforts, and sacrificed enjoyment in order to garnish silly trinkets. It’s gotten to the point where I don?t know if I?m playing games to have fun or simply to reach some pointless goal.

All of which isn’t to try and blame developers for my ridiculous woes – I know it’s my choice to be a slave to trophies etc. Additionally, ‘fluff’ content is popular right now so smart developers are going to have in it their games – particularly if it adds some degree of content to a $60.00 title. But my concern is that while these extras certainly add to a game’s longevity they aren’t always doing so in a good way. Compelling your customer to endure unpleasant gameplay endeavors doesn?t exactly leave that customer with fond memories of their experience.

Developers should strive to make sure that their title offers a quality experience throughout the consumer?s playthrough – be it the normal game or whatever they’re passing as extras. So instead of extending a game by offering a trophy for killing?ten?thousand?enemies, developers could rearrange existing material into intriguing bonus content like Biohazard’s Mercenary mode or God of War?s challenges. I can’t help but think that providing quality sides to your main offering would better stimulate customers’ interest then a bunch of doodads awarded for arbitrary in-game actions.

And if developers are going to introduce grinding to a title I only ask that they make sure that completing that long relentless climb yields some form of valid reward. Going back to my UC2 example, instead of unlocking a lousy character skin at level 60 the game could offer something more substantial like a new game mode (i.e., free-for-all death matches open only to level 60s), the ability to equip an extra booster, or even some sort of level editor. Make reaching these lofty goals worthwhile – it would go along way toward maintaing the player’s interest; particularly if the most viable road to that goal is going to be frustrating.

And who knows – if the payoff is good enough I might even consider getting it to be an achievement.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to fire some half-clips at unsuspecting opponents – level 57 is a loooong way off.

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