Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Feature: This Generation - Part I

For the purposes of these features, "This Generation" refers to software found on the following hardware: Wii, DS/3DS, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. Trends found on the PC platform will be addressed but because the demarcations between PC hardware iterations can be foggy, establishing what is of this generation is much more difficult to finalize.
"This Generation" includes major trends or evolutionary notes that will, in this writer's opinion, be identified strongly with this generation of games and hardware for years to come. 
First item to hallmark this period of gaming: Meaningless Rewards.
When Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 platform in late 2005, the company established a "reward" system called Achievements.

For curb stomping 100 enemies, winning a string of races, web slinging for a mile, completing an NHL season, finishing a game on the highest difficulty setting, or killing the population of Willamette, a familiar ding would (and still does) occur and the "Achievement Unlocked" logo would display at the bottom of the screen.

Some gamers found this endearingly Pavlovian. It might not provoke salivation, but it launched websites dedicated to finding the fastest and easiest games to play to "pad" your Gamerscore, the sum total of all those Achievement Points, and goaded other gamers to play a game well beyond what they would have in order to acquire the maximum number of points.

For each full retail game, 1000 Achievement Points was mandated by Microsoft. Smaller or digital titles (like the Burger King promotional Sneak King, and classic arcade titles like Smash TV) were maxed out at 200 points, and downloadable content for full priced games was variable.

For these same Pavlovian gamers, Microsoft delivered a masterstroke when they launch the PC service Games for Windows Live since the Achievements unlocked while playing GFW games would count separately to the cumulative Gamerscore. The pursuers of a high Gamerscore could play Batman: Arkham City on Xbox 360 and PC to collect 2,000 Achievement Points in a move that is often referred to as "double dipping."

Currently there are gamers out there closing in on 1,000,000 Achievement Points. One doesn't even need to attempt any complicated math to understand that the number of hours that would go into acquiring that many points would be substantial.

Thousands? Tens of thousands?

All in pursuit of something that has no value besides being able to say your Gamerscore is higher than the guy (or gal) below you. At least in an MMO grinding out points will net some kind of cool doo-dad or sword or powerful armor that has some use in the game. In the realm of Xbox 360, it's a number. And that's it. At the end of it, you have nothing to show for it, except possibly an expression of sorrowful regret when you look in the mirror.

It was only very recently that Microsoft announced Xbox Live Rewards, which included the possibility of earning Microsoft Points -- virtual currency -- to purchase games or extra content based on your tier of Achievement Points. (There are three of them.)

Not wanting to be left out, in the latter part of 2007, PC games on Steam started offering Achievements, though without a numeric value attached to them.

In July of 2008 Sony followed suit with their Trophy system for Playstation 3, which spawned a crowd of drooling Trophy seekers. Gaining a "Platinum" became a virtual badge of accomplishment.

The only platform holder to escape unscathed from meaningless rewards was Nintendo. Nintendo's Wii didn't offer anything in the way of rewards (unless you count Club Nintendo and even then you receive a physical thing for a reward after redeeming coupons included with Nintendo products and filling out a survey). With the 3DS, the hardware allows for coin collecting by simply having the unit in sleep mode while the gamer walks around. The coins aren't any kind of reward though because they can be used to make purchases during the Find Mii games and acquiring extra puzzles pieces.

A cynical mind might suggest that these meaningless achievements and rewards were implemented to exploit the obsessive compulsive nature of some gamers (and even "convert" those that were only mildly interested in collecting things) and extend the time which a game is played to reach virtual milestones (and stall the gamer from trading it in for store credit at the local video game retailer). Collect all those Agility Orbs! Find the hidden Kilroy graffiti! Don't stop, play, play, PLAY! You don't need to go to the bathroom! Bathing is overrated!

Even if you looked at these meaningless rewards as harmless or part of some kind of "meta game," you'd be hard pressed to convince me that Meaningless Rewards aren't a hallmark of this generation.

- Aaron Simmer