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Gaming ‘achievements’ tend to split opinion in the gaming fan-base. Some people don’t really care for them, others love them, and a few actively dislike them. Whatever your opinion, it seems clear that they’re not going anywhere, as more and more platforms embrace them. But have you ever considered what their true purpose is, and why they were introduced in the first place?
Let’s take a step back and look at the last generation of gaming – a more of less ‘offline’ gaming world, especially in the console arena. Gamers owned a console or a computer, and they used saved games to store their progress – this was essentially the only ‘gaming profile’ most people had. Consoles generally weren’t set up for multiple profiles, and only a few games had any kind of in-game achievement system, let alone any kind of network-wide system that accounted for achievements across multiple games from different publishers. Think about older online games like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament – I personally spent countless hours on both of these PC titles in the late 90s/early 00s, yet I didn’t earn a single achievement or unlockable bonus to add to my name.
Fast forward a few years, and gaming has rapidly become an interconnected mesh of services, with online gaming profiles an integral part of this – and these services need to be paid for, with huge money to be made from successful offerings. Gaming is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and huge blockbuster games like Modern Warfare 3, which are online orientated and tied intrinsically to player profiles, offer a slew of achievements and bonuses to be unlocked through online gameplay. This is where the real value of gaming achievements can be seen. Achievements can increase re-playability of games, offer new challenges that can go beyond the scope of a game’s storyline or basic mechanics, and they add to a personal sense of identity in an otherwise anonymous online world. Having an achievement system makes sense for gamers and gaming companies alike, and that’s the beauty of achievements; gamers actually like having their own individual profile with their own set of achievements.
Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold service, and to a lesser extent Sony’s PlayStation Plus service, have relied on gaming profiles moving from the console to the individual – and if each individual has their own profile, the number of potential customers for these services is increased massively. By introducing an achievement system, gaming companies are rewarding gamers for moving to this new system of personal profiles. For an explicit example look at Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold ‘Family Pack’. Suddenly, paying to use online services isn’t a per-console expense – it’s an individual one. You can buy an Xbox Live Gold subscription, but if your spouse or kids want to play online, you’ve got to pay for them too – unless you want to go back to the old model and effectively have a console profile rather than a personal one.
As the gaming industry progresses, we’ll see more and more monetisation of online services – after all, gaming companies are ultimately out to make money. Sony tried a completely free online services route this generation and ultimately decided that it didn’t work. While laudably still allowing online gaming as part of their free offering, the move towards PlayStation Plus’s subscription system shows Sony’s interest in charging for online services. Considering the money that Microsoft has made from Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Sony will move to a similar model when the PS4 is launched. Even Valve’s Steam service has integrated a full-on achievement system – could chargeable online services be next? And Nintendo, traditionally among the slowest to move into the online arena, are starting to take notice of the potential for online services.
So next time you hear the familiar ‘ping’ of a PlayStation Network Trophy, or the ‘pop’ of an Xbox Live Achievement, take a second to think about what that means. If you look at it from a sales point of view, it’s purely a numbers game – proportionally, every gaming achievement is a fraction of a gaming profile, and every gaming profile is a fraction of an online gaming service – and these online gaming services are worth a lot of money. While you may be hearing a ‘ping’, someone somewhere, in a deep dark statistician’s basement, is hearing a ‘cha-ching’.