Poll Question 180 – Is there a difference between achievements and finishing a game?

9th July 2010

Single Player First Person Shooter Maps and Mods for Half-Life 1, 2 and Episodes 1, 2 and 3

There´s a thread on the forums where, GypsyJim, a PP reader, asks a question related to achievements: Does anybody bother? The discussion moved onto whether achievements were fun and then to the difference between achievements and finishing a game.

It´s an interesting topic that I felt deserved a wider audience, so here it is as a poll question:
Is there a difference between achievements and finishing a game?

Grey Acumen put it nicely when he said “…properly implemented achievements are a great way to encourage players to explore the game and find out things about it that they might have missed, or add a little extra challenge to their game beyond just “beat the game”. I had entire sections in Ep2 that I didn’t even realize existed until I went for the cache checker achievement.”

For me as long as I don´t have to replay games to get all the achievements AND I am told about them BEFORE I play then I think they can be interesting.

However, I want to be told about them in game, not via some “scoreboard” outside the game. For me that breaks immersion.

Here´s an example. One of the achievements in Half-Life 2 is to get through Ravenholm without shooting a bullet. If one of the NPCs tell me just before I enter Ravenholm…“Hey, Freeman. Ammo is pretty tight, would be great if you could get through and only use one bullet. I’m sure it will be worth your while later.”

Achievements within the game can have a natural feel and maybe even a proper in-game reward – extra health or something.

My problem comes from having to replay the games just to get the achievements. I would never do that but I accept that others would and do.

In some ways, the end of level stats, something I wrote about in November 2006, are the same as achievements but Valve’s are better presented. I would love for Valve to implement something similar in-game if I could still finish them.

For example, when I am about to leave an area I can’t go back to (for whatever reason) I am asked if I killed all the bugs. That way I could complete the Achievement without replaying the game.

I had a quick look through the achievements in Ep2 and all seem to be able to be included in a natural way within the game.

Now I know I’ve gone off on a tangent a little but I wanted to explain my position. Back to the thread….

Jasper doesn’t really like them, in fact he says “‘Achievements’ are pointlless to me and I care for them not at all.” And whilst I generally agree with him they can have benefits too.

MikeS quite thoughtfully points out “Sometimes they’ll encourage you to develop a neat technique, such as destroying loads of barnacles with a single exploding barrel in HL2. And pinning a combine soldier to an advertising board was quite funny too.”

That’s a great point and perhaps if more of the achievements were like that then I might be interested.

Next to enter the Verbal Boxing Ring is jjawinte who says “but I don’t see where they’re all that relevant in increasing the overall quality of the initial FPS game play at all. The concept is, in my opinion, geared toward multi player and coop for the competitive aspect of such game play.”

Whilst I don’t agree about the competitive play part I do agree that they don’t increase the overall quality of the INITIAL gameplay. They probably do for replay value but that’s never bothered me. Wozzle agrees with me…“I think the achievements add a level of replay ability into the game as well as pushing you to explore around a bit more.”

But he comes back with a sucker punch…“Though I do remember when I got around to doing the Gnome achievement, I was so focused on carry the thing around that the achievement almost felt like a chore rather than something fun to do on the side.”
Clearly, that particular achievement would need a lot of work to include properly “in-game” but it’s still a valid point. When the effort to get a particular achievement actually takes the fun away from the game it’s too specialised for most players.

He finishes with a quick left hook to the Monk in all of us…For myself, I have an almost OCD need to complete things. So the achievements also pander to that aspect of some people too.”

At this point the heavyweight enters the ring (CivanT) and hits us with..“Just tell me the difference between “beating a game” and “beating an achievement”. Why is beating achievements less meaningful than beating the game itself?”
I suppose my answer would be that beating the game is the real objective and since the achievements are optional and they don’t effect the outcome or story in any way, then YES, they are less meaningful.

He continues..“So you are saying if game asks you to kill all people in a room that’s fine, but if an achievement asks that it’s bad. I don’t see your point here.” Actually , that’s a huge difference as far as I am concerned and it is exactly what I was talking about earlier. If the achievement system were completely integrated WITHIN the game then I would definitely be more interested.

To me it’s no different than somebody posting a thread on any forum saying they managed to beat the game and only fire X number of shots. You could go out and try and do the same but you wouldn’t get a badge for it. Or perhaps that’s the point – the badges. Would it make a difference if only you knew you got the achievement? Would players be so eager to beat them if they were private? I wonder.

Side Poll

There’s no stopping him now…“You are not playing games/mods the way you want, you are playing them the way its developer wants. Thus, in a sense achievements can be considered small games in a game.”
Within reason yes, but there is still plenty of room for different gameplay styles. Some play run-and-gun, others play more carefully, shooting only when they have to.

He finishes off with..“On the other hand these small games don’t interest me because they are too shallow for me. I play games for their stories, so I don’t bother beating achievements. But if you are playing the game for beating challenges, what’s wrong with achievements?”
Nicely put, the achievements are a little shallow for me too but if they were appropriately merged with the game then that shallowness may disappear.

Before I open up the discussion, I’d like to go back to the original question again. Is there a difference? For me it comes down to possibly semantics.

Grey Acumen repeats the question for me..“What IS the difference between earning an achievement, and earning the specific unspoken achievement called “beating the game?”” But notice his wording. He used beating I used finishing. Whilst the difference might not be important I think it reflects the different conception of the “game”. A lot of us talk about loving the story and I am one of those but I also love the physical challenge of shooting and puzzle solving.

Imagine I build a mod that modifies Half-Life 2 in such a way that I don’t have to kill or shoot anything. I can’t imagine how that would work but it’s just a thought experiment for now. I could go through the game, listening to the NPCs, experiencing the atmosphere and running like hell every time somebody shoots at me. Would I beat the game or finish it? Well, I suppose that if I managed to reach the end it would imply a level of skill in avoiding being hit.

Now, imagine that I couldn’t die, GODMODE if you will, what word would I use now. Definitely not BEAT because I didn’t really do anything except play long enough.

For me I BEAT a game because I am not just a spectator but a participant. That means that beating the game is the ultimate achievement but that doesn’t mean others can’t be valid. So I suppose that there is no real difference between achievements and finishing/beating a game.

In the words of Isaac Asimov in his Foundation Series “The difference between killing a man and wasting his time is just a matter of degree” (I paraphrased I think – I can’t find the phrase ATM)

The Real Poll


  1. MikeS

    You make two very good points in the above essay. Yes, it’s much better when the achievements are there to begin with and not added retrospectively as they were (for example) with HL2, and your suggestion for segueing the achievements into the game via NPCs is a brilliant one. Valve, take note!

    That said, I have booted HL2 and replayed a few chapters specifically to gain achievements, not for the kudos, but because some of them looked like fun challenges.

    For me, though, finishing the game is the #1 priority. That’s usually an achievement in itself.

  2. Kasperg

    I’m asking this question out of ignorance because I’ve only gotten a few of the Ep2/Portal achievements and basically all of them in an accidental fashion.
    Are they met with a game event or are they just checked out in the achievements menu?
    I know you can get the gnome into the rocket, but does it actually affect the game somehow?
    If having the gnome inside the rocket prompted a sequence where they check the different cameras around the rocket (at the moment of launch, for example) and Kleiner etc suddenly see and comment on the gnome, then I’d consider it worth my time.
    Otherwise, the achievements just seem like an excuse to make quantifiable or isolated (and really meaningless) events seem like something important even if they’re not.

    I think I’ve said it before. Having the achievements menu in the game (as well as the comment mode) is just a slap in the face for me reminding me that it’s just a videogame we’re talking about, and not the inmersive FPS experience it used to be.
    Half-life’s simple menu design, the absence of cutscenes and several similar elements all worked in favour of that feeling I got from the games. The “gameification” that these additions bring to the table is something I could’ve honestly done without.
    I know easter eggs (such as those in The Citizen) also have that negative side to it, but they don’t really trascend the game world if you think about it.
    An achievement of stepping on antlion grubs implies that someone is keeping count.

  3. I really think this poll was badly phrased. Of course there is a difference between achievements and finishing the game, since you can get achievements while you continue to play. There’s also the obvious difference of scale; an achievement is only going to cover one portion of the overall game. A better question might have been “Is finishing the game one gigantic achievement?”
    As it is, you’re asking a group of gamers if playing their games are no more important than finishing optional components of that game. If most gamers recognized the truth in that, there wouldn’t be an industry.

    So far I’ve heard a bunch of difference excuses as to why achievements, aren’t enjoyable, but nothing that doesn’t come across arbitrary when you compare it to other aspects of the game.
    If you feel the presence of achievements pull you out of the game, then do you also set buddha or god mode on so that you can’t die? After all, the story doesn’t involve Gordon Freeman dying, so I’d imagine that dying and restarting from earlier on should be a “gameification” too. What about quicksaves? When you do die, do you restart the entire game? Do you quit the game before you see the end credits roll, since they’re effectively the same thing as the achievement popping up for completing a task.
    Another excuse I’ve heard is that achievements are frustrating and tedious. For some of them, like the “get Y amount of X object/event” I can see that as being tedious, but achievements are optional, so you can just simply not do those ones. They give a pat on the back to people who explore every nook and cranny of the game, and thus justify the work the developers put into areas like that.
    As for the others that are difficult or frustrating to get, they are just a way to give yourself further handicaps in order to make the games more challenging, so at that rate, should games also remove the harder difficulty options?

    Ultimately though it boils back down to what I said earlier about the overall importance of the game itself. Beating/finishing a game doesn’t earn the player anything except knowing the end of the story it tells, but with youtube video walkthroughs, even that could be done without playing the game, and for free to boot.
    The reason I personally play games is because I enjoy the challenge of beating a game mixed with experiencing the story it tells, but I also like achievements for the interesting challenge they add (I find “enemies do more damage and have more health” to be pretty damn boring), and the achievements I like I generally view as character defining,(even if only the in game character) going above and beyond the call of duty, so to speak. When I’m playing a game, I’m not just some guy barely getting by, I’m Mr. Awesome and I’m on top of the situation.
    I’m the type of guy that would see that basketball hoop and immediately go to score a shot, just because it’s there. I am the type of guy who can fight through all the opposition even while keeping track of a lawn gnome, why? just because I can. I am the type of guy who loves the gravity gun so much that I would prefer to use it through the entire game, and I’m awesome enough to do it. I am the type of guy who wont let even one building get destroyed by the strider assault.

    This is why it’s so confusing for me why other people actually DISLIKE achievements. They’re optional, so if you don’t want to go to the effort of getting them, you don’t have to.(If you think the gnome achievement was frustrating, imagine if it was actually a requirement for finishing the game) They give a pat on the back to people who put in that extra effort into exploring aspects of the game that the developers couldn’t rationally demand ALL players accomplish, and also encourage seeking out those extra little details the developers worked to put in even though many people wouldn’t never otherwise even realize they exist.
    So what is there that isn’t good about achievements? (Other than achievement whores who think that they have any correlation to your status as a gamer)

    1. Kasperg

      If you feel the presence of achievements pull you out of the game, then do you also set buddha or god mode on so that you can’t die? After all, the story doesn’t involve Gordon Freeman dying, so I’d imagine that dying and restarting from earlier on should be a “gameification” too. What about quicksaves? When you do die, do you restart the entire game? Do you quit the game before you see the end credits roll, since they’re effectively the same thing as the achievement popping up for completing a task.

      Those other “game things” you mention are much more subtle (just like the HUD and menus are) and have been there in Half-life since 1998. I know they’re optional, but they’re still there in the menu (I don’t remember if the game actually gives you a message when you get one) and even polls in a site such as this one are crafted in their honor. There’s absolutely no way to escape from the fact that they exist.

      I understand they were introduced to please console players who mostly enjoyed having these achievement systems in games to add some replay value to what are usually very poor games in terms of length.
      Perhaps I’m just getting mentally old for these sort of thing. I just know that If I’m going to replay any of the HL2 games, it certainly won’t be to chase down some artificial challenges that could’ve just as easily been a whole different random set of them within the exact same maps and story.

  4. Major Banter

    Once again, I will not post a bloody lecture like the above.

    Single-Player games have no competitive edge. By adding Achivements, you and your friends are able to engage in a extremely fun battle to get the most first.

    While admittedly a pissing contest; there is no true value to Achievements or having the most, it lends that friendly competition value to otherwise very much lonely single-player games.

  5. Zekiran

    I think that achievements are meta to my enjoyment of any game. However, I love it when they’ve got fun wording, a silly image, or whatever – or are something that I know I’d want to challenge myself to do. As for whether they’re within the game itself, that isn’t really important to me.

    I had actually just finished HL2 when they put in the achievements, and wouldn’t you know it, I’d also *just* decided, “hey, I think I’ll go across sandtraps without touching the sand!” … So I had to do it AGAIN, getting the achievement since I knew I could do it.

    There are plenty of achievements I’m not likely to try getting, in this or any game. Things which require reflexes I don’t have (portal) or the desire to compete with others to get (L4D).

    In my mmo City of Heroes, they’ve had things akin to achievements for years now – Accolades which allow the character to have bonuses to their defenses, offense, etc based on having explored, defeated enemies and participated in events. Even though I’ve been playing 5 years and have literally over 150 characters, only 3 of them have any of the major Accolades earned, because I don’t PVP and I hardly ever go on the “task forces” in the game. But I still love exploring, and I adore the flavor text that each accolade, badge and whatever else has.

  6. Joure

    I personally don’t play for the achievements. I just don’t have anything with them, but that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy them. Personally I think that achievements are something totally irrelevant then let’s say finishing a game.

    They’re there to give the players that do want to go for them something challenging. As said they might provide for learning new tactics or finding new areas within the game you might have not discovered just by playing the game.

    I personally believe that if you play any game as intended you have fought enemies, bosses, overcome obstacles like puzzles while enjoying the many scenes within that game. So when you reach the end after all those hardships, to me that constitutes to beating what the game has thrown at you while at the same time you also have finished the game because there are no more maps left and no more scenes.

    The achievements don’t add anything relevant to the story as far as I see it. The moment you start using cheats to finish a game, then you clearly haven’t beaten it, you only finished the game and what it had to offer.

    But imho, I don’t see why this is being treated as such a big thing, they’re just achievements. I understand the point phillip is trying to bring across when he mention them to be implemented into the game before you mis them, but personally I don’t think that’d be such a good idea. It would deviate from how the initial gameplay is envisioned, and eventhough it’s optional, it’d leave players wit ha choice, either ignore them or not, but since it’s being mentioned in the game on that particular moment it might put people off who don’t care for them.

    Also, how would the gnome achievement be implemented into the game through a scene, like an npc telling me to bring it all the way to white forest ? It would add nothing to the overal story unless the gnome holds some secret and is a mandatory objective, I don’t need to be told something like that, it’d make the story a whole lot more unrealistic, same goes for not touching the sand.

    And even there you already have learned that you shouldn’t touch the sand. So let’s say someone tells you that you cannot touch the sand, how would it be pointed out that an achievement can be earned during that particular area. you cant have the npc just tell you this, it’d break the emergence. And I seriously do not want some sort of icon popping up on my screen, that would also break the mergence imo.

    And then there’s the skill level of the player, let’s say you’d touch the ground, loose the gnome or die while trying not to shoot in ravenholm. You’d still have to reload that level just for an achievement.

    The way I see it, is that you just play the game as intended, beat it, and finish it, and after that for those who do like to replay games, or do something different wit hthe same game, they can try and go for achievements.

    As been said before, you don’t have to and before you play the game, you can already see which achievements there are in the game. I think it’s fine as it is personally.

  7. “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”
    My wife loves Brussel Sprouts, I do not. Horrible, yeuk.
    That she likes them is irrelevant to me (but keep them off my plate!).

    The same for Achievements. Some like them and may be benefit from them.
    All power to you; enjoy.

    I find them irrelevant to my gaming pleasure.
    Out of curiosity, I did check my Achievements after playing EP2 once.
    Apparently I did very well according to some faceless person, or persons, at Valve.
    I looked through the list and to me this came over as a sort of scoreboard.
    For my Cricketing pleasure, a scoreboard is essential.
    For my video gaming pleasure, Achievements are immaterial.

    On deeper reflection, they could be detrimental to my gaming pleasure as they would destroy my immersion of a SP FPS game or mod. You are being watched and scores are being tallied – whether you like it or not (I guess).
    The same for Commentaries, someone talking or texting to you while playing?
    No thanks. If it’s switched on, I switch it off.

    I do not need a list of Achievements to help me find to places or to do things. I explore the games and good mods thoroughly. I even explore mediocre mods in the hope of finding a gem(s) missed. This applies to both routes and combat tactics.

    The fact that you can use different routes and combat tactics does suggest that the developer put them there for you to find.
    I enjoy finding them for myself and do not need Achievements.

    I rejoice for those who value and enjoy Achievements and am pleased that they have a further avenue of achieving satisfaction, an avenue which I do not need.

    No vote in either pole because none of the options reflect my personal view.
    Achievements are not for me. I will continue to eat at another table.

  8. Kyouryuu

    I remember back when I was a little kid, I played Mega Man 3 more times than I could count. And if you’re familiar at all with that series, you basically have to kill 8 robot bosses, each in their own themed stage, before progressing to the final levels. The twist was that you could tackle these 8 in any order you wanted, bearing in mind that some weapon or gadget you receive from one stage can help you easily get through another.

    So, it’s easy to see how you could challenge yourself. Maybe you go in order, maybe reverse order, maybe you tackle the most difficult robot first, maybe you swear not to use any of the special weapons, etc. The game is as difficult as you want to make it. Gamers have been making these little self-challenges for a long time – especially back when games were only a couple hours long – and achievements are basically just acknowledging this and allow gamers to brag to their friends.

    More than that, achievements can be part of a game’s positive feedback loop. Burnout Revenge was a great example of a game that rewarded you for practically anything you did. New cars, new tracks to unlock, more points toward your rank – even in failure, you got something out of it. This created a positive feedback loop where you’d keep playing “just one more time” knowing that you’d reap some reward simply for showing up.

  9. The Pengu

    I will not go out of my way to complete an achievement unless its really enjoyable to do so.
    I never understood why people farm gamerscore and complete %100 of every game. Then again its a personal preference to why they are playing the game in the first place.
    Occassionally I become competative and will really try for one. I respect their use as rewards and insentives, but I don’t think their central use is to be used as medals. Thats just my opinion.

    In summary I chose Yes.

  10. bobdog

    I think one of the real reasons that achievements have been integrated so much into at least Valve’s games is to encourage more people (especially of the console crowd) to play the game to its completion. I am too lazy to look up the stats, but I think I recall that less than half the people who play their games actually finish them!

    Achievements are a fun way for some players to continue playing the game again and again. What players do with the results is up to them. I’ve played a lot (300+) hours of Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, and part of the fun in playing with your group is to jointly support each other’s goal of gaining new achievements. You still play the game regardless, but if you know one of your mates needs to gain a certain achievement, you’ll all tailor your gameplay to accommodate that need.

    Some games” achievements have more literal value. For example, I just finished Bionic Commando Rearmed. Completing this game’s achievements gave you greater powers and skills, so it was worth your while to gain all the achievements.

    For the HL2 universe, I have never desired to get any achievements, although I’m sure I’ve got plenty for completing the game and episodes numerous times. For this first-person game, I don’t really want something popping up on my screen telling me what I’ve accomplished — I want to experience everything first-hand.

    So my final thoughts are: 1) achievements are not for everyone; 2) it’s useful to know about them beforehand so you can go after them if you wish; and 3) for an immersive first-person game that never breaks into cutscenes (like HL2), I don’t want to know about achievements on my screen.

  11. GoodGuyA

    Achievements are for e-peen, and that’s not a bad thing. I actually rather enjoy the insane, really specific achievements in TF2 because they show diversity in gameplay styles (and luck) and encourage the player to take up new weapons or otherwise to reap a reward. I STILL don’t have a direct hit. Should they be seperate? I think so, since it’s kind of boring just to get them for doing what you’re supposed to be doing. No sense of accomplishment.

  12. Berrie

    I say yes.
    Because achievements can be considered meta-gaming (breaking the fourth wall).

    For a developer this is about encouraging players to play again or play until the end (there are enough people apparently who stop a game halfway through). Through a sense of rewarding and satisfaction achievements encourage people to play.

    For players this is a fun aside. Something that gives them a ridiculous goal that doesn’t really fit into the gaming world.
    For me the difference is whether your are told ingame what to do, or through a main-menu option that you can achieve them.

    Though developers do blur the line, by awarding you achievements for playing through levels or getting to the end (which again is more about encouraging people to finish)

    I have to say I enjoyed Metro 2033’s achievements.

  13. TymaxBeta

    This is especially important to me on the note of the private achievements, I personally believe that achievements really do add re-playability to a mod/game I find myself playing through episode 2 all the way through again, even after getting my goal achievement. As per the reason this is so important to me is because I’m developing a system called “UMAS” or the “Unofficial Mod Achievement System” and to see that people still would be interested in private achievements is great, because the UMAS is private, you can take a screen shot and share your achievement progress, but besides that it’s all just a private system, and the primary reason I’m creating this is to add re-playability to my mod and others, so it’s good to see people will be interested in private achievements…

    1. Poll Question 078 (April 2008) may interest you:
      Would you like to see mods with HL2-Ep2 styled achievements?

      1. Yes, but I already do see them I have the system fully coded and in my mod already ^^

  14. I think Phil is right, the achievement system needs to be revamped and integrated more tightly into the game. I’m replaying HL2 now, after installing Windows7 on my KGR (Killer Gaming Rig, for the uninitiated–which, may I say, REALLY allowed me to ROCK the snot out of the game!), and I didn’t realize there were achievements in the game until after I dropped out of my first round. :-\

    “Bizarre, there they are, okay, kinda neat, like Ep2; oh, wait, it shows I made the first one, but none of the next 6?? WTF??”

    No clue why it refuses to show what I’ve done, and the only one I’ve “missed” so far was beating Ravenholm with a crowbar. I gave up even trying to follow it because it became useless to me, if it’s not going to do it’s job.

    But, beyond that, the system need to encourage participation, so perhaps make it optional, like the trivia track on a DVD/BluRay, that follows along and drops those hints and tips at the appropriate times.

  15. No. Private or otherwise.
    Yes I play for the achievement. The achievement of achieving the objective of the game and finishing it.
    Achievements in the context of the question are just about point scoring and there are better games for that.

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