I know this question is fairy broad and subjective, but I'm wondering if there's been any published research into what an optimal number of achievements is and what kind of challenge they should present. The game this question directly relates to is a shoot-em-up, but an ideal answer is fairly theoretical.

If there are too few achievements, or they are not challenging, I would expect they would fail in their goal to keep people playing. If there are too many, or they are unreasonably difficult, I would expect people to quickly give up. I personally witnessed the latter happening in Starcraft 2; a section of the achievements would have you win hundreds of games against their AI opponents (boring!)

  • \$\begingroup\$ I kind of think this is too broad/subjective for the site, but it could be an interesting discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – thedaian
    Nov 22, 2011 at 18:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ What criteria are you looking to optimize? I think the answer will be different depending on if you're optimizing for, say, max impulse sales or replayability or something else. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 22, 2011 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedaian, it is broad, but I think it's a constructive question. This is almost a question about psychology... \$\endgroup\$
    – notlesh
    Nov 22, 2011 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GregoryWeir, I think I'm looking for added replayability and a bit of an incentive to compete with friends. \$\endgroup\$
    – notlesh
    Nov 22, 2011 at 19:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ See extra-credits.net/?s=achievement for more on different tpyes of achievements, and on how to use them to improve player engagement. \$\endgroup\$
    – BerndBrot
    Aug 22, 2012 at 15:15

3 Answers 3


I personally witnessed the latter happening in Starcraft 2; a section of the achievements would have you win hundreds of games against their AI opponents (boring!)

That presupposes that you're actually trying to get that achievement. Most people that get this achievement play AI matches in order to practice and get better at the game.

Your overall question really depends on what you want achievements to do. They can have many functions, and not all achievements need to do the same things.

Design Feedback

It is really important to understand this: achievements were invented for game designers, not players. Oh, they have useful psychological effects, but they're really just tools for knowing what someone is doing with the game.

Take Civilization V's Steam Achievements. There are a number of achievements that are basically, "Beat the game with character X." By monitoring these achievements, Civ V's developers can know which characters are popular and which are not.

That's why a lot of games have achievements that are basically, "Got this far in the game." They're used to tell how far players progress on average. If you find that most of your players stop 30% of the way through the game, you may want to check to see what happened between your 30% achievement and your 50% achievement.

Not all of your achievements should be for game design achievements. But some certainly should be.

Grinding Rewards

Like the StarCraft II example you gave, sometimes you just want to give players an award for doing something that isn't itself particularly interesting. This shows how dedicated the player in question is at mastering the game. For a game like SC2, these could be considered rights of passage along your progress as a skilled player.

These generally don't encourage grinding. They're rewards, not encouragement. It's a way of saying, "You played our game a lot. Here you go." Some OCD players may actively try to achieve them, but that's not what they're for. They don't really encourage replay; they reward replay that you would have done anyway.

Behavior Encouragement

This one is mostly for multiplayer games. It can have positive and negative consequences, depending on how well you design them.

Team Fortress 2 has quite a few achievements that reward playing in a certain way. Some of them work well. An achievement for backstabbing a certain number of characters helps to encourage proper play of the Spy class. Some don't, such as the one that encourages Medics to stop doing their job and go attack people with their pathetic weapons, leaving their teammates to die and lose the match!

So... yeah. Make sure that if you're trying to encourage behavior, you don't promote negative or abborant behavior. Behavior achievements should encourage play that helps the game.

These generally don't help the replay value. They're there mainly to point the user in the right way of playing the game, and reward them for doing so.

Challenge Rewards

Challenge rewards are essentially you giving the player something to strive to. They should be difficult to achieve.

These do promote replay value, depending on the kind of challenge. However, it only promotes replay among players who like the particular challenge in question. You need to design these with a firm understanding of what is easy and what is hard in your game. Also, you need to know what is possible in the game. And most of all, what your players will find enjoyable.

Civ V's set of achievements has quite a few of these. The most famous of which is probably the One City Challenge.

Accidental Awards

These are mostly failed Challenge Rewards. The developers thought something might be a challenge, but the circumstances that might bring it about are either completely out of the player's control, or so unlikely to work that the only way it would happen is by dumb luck.

So when making Challenge Rewards, make sure not to go so far that the player really has no control of when they would even get the chance to pull it off.

Awesomeness Rewards

A particular intersection of "Behavior Encouragment" and "Challenge Rewards." These recognize that there is some particularly difficult but cool that someone could do. You want people to try it, and you want to reward them for pulling it off.

Not all Challenge rewards require awesome behavior. But Awesomeness Rewards are probably the most coveted kind, because getting them is both hard and awesome.

A great example is the TF2 achievement "Be Efficient" A Sniper kills 3 people without missing a shot. It's hard to make that happen, but when you finally pull it off, you feel like a boss.

Again, you have the potential issue of encouraging improper behavior. So you make sure that the awesome thing is something that benefits the team and doesn't work against good play.

Consolation Prizes

The consolation prize is an achievement given because the player screwed up. A lot. It's not designed to encourage behavior, since the behavior it would "encourage" already has plenty of negative stigma on it (like for example, dying a lot). It's mostly a way to point out that fail happened. To you.

Obviously, these don't encourage replay value.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, this is a great break down of various types of achievements. And welcome to 5000 points ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – notlesh
    Nov 23, 2011 at 6:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Team fortress 2 has TO MANY achievements. \$\endgroup\$
    – Derek
    Nov 23, 2011 at 17:28

In my opinion, the number of achievements is not important, what is important is that there is something for everyone.

In my mind, there are two objectives for achievements in games.

  1. Keep people playing (to gain more achievements)
  2. Give palyers bragging rights

Without servicing both goals adding achievements is not worth the effort.

As long as you have a nice linear progresson of difficulty for achievements you'll have some that are easy for everyone, the middle ones will be hard for beginners (but they'll keep playing), the hard ones will be super hard for beginners (but they are served by the easy and medium achievements) but they will be difficult for even advanced players, giving them something to work towards.

Most big games on Steam appaer to have achievements, and the list of them is public along with a percentage of players who unlocked them. I'd recommend checking out some of them. For example, see Left 4 Dead: only 0.6% of players obtained the least obtained achievement and even the easiest (based on percentage) only at 76% of players unlocked it. If you step back and look at the trend of player percentage unlocking a given achievement, its pretty linear from roughly 0% to 75%.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, this is a good answer. Very good tip looking at the achievements on Steam. I think one of the things I'm struggling with is whether or not I should expect anyone to achieve every single achievement, and if so, what kind of time investment that should be. Going back to my Starcraft 2 example, it would probably take hundreds of hours to unlock the section on playing vs the AI -- something that I found very discouraging (and, frankly, impractical). Of course, there aren't too many people that are so ridiculous as me as to feel they need to get every achievement... \$\endgroup\$
    – notlesh
    Nov 22, 2011 at 20:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @stephelton -- I think it is important to keep in mind that, some achievements will require a lot of time; some hard-core players may acheive them simply by plaing the game for a year or two. Not by explicitly trying unlock them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nate
    Nov 22, 2011 at 20:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure you have to let the player brag about his/her achievements. A lot of people bought and played shoot'em'ups before the Internet and had fun with them without telling anyone. The level and score awards still were meaningful. I remember that trivial blip blip blip when you jumped onto the chain hook at the top of the level of the Nintendo pocket Donkey Kong :) of course, people might have become so accustomed to publishing their achievements to Facebook now that you might be right... \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2011 at 0:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BjornWesen: Shooters pre-Internet were also played in Arcades. Where there was a simple and effective bragging mechanism: the high-score screen. In general, if you were good at a shooter, you were pushed to be better because of your score. IE: competition and bragging with your peers. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2011 at 0:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BjornWesen: bragging is VITAL for the achievements. If it didn't happen before is only because it couldn't. And, as Nicol noticed, there were other ways. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Nov 23, 2011 at 17:15

Humans are suckers for small awards, often. They have to be in return of some effort though, in case of a virtual environment like a game.

Look at all the most successful mobile and flash games. People replay levels just to get the full score per level often even. I don't have the reference, but I know I've read summaries from studies that researched the sweet spot for dealing out these rewards. Maybe a 1-2 minute window, for mobile games at least... people keep mining rock to be able to build small things, or keep watering some crops to.. harvest it.. or similar.

Look at the xp and level systems of the old "grinding" games - Diablo 1/2, Everquest, etc... and all MUD's I've seen have had players endlessly playing to get small awards, often in the form of something you can invest to be more efficient next round.

Awards can be explicit like in the above examples but they can be implicit as well, like you feel you do something in the game which required some skill even if the game doesn't tell you.

The most boringly bad games I've played have been those which require little skill and where you have to run endlessly through corridors. Adding a button to push every 30 seconds in the level doesn't help, you need to at least have some small danger or skill effort in between.

In old-skool shoot'em'ups you have a fairly established cycle of enemy waves and a boss to cap it all, in around 2-3 minute cycles.. you want the player to feel the "just one more" thrill. Give the player some points to spread on power ups after each boss to encourage repetitive play even if the enemies start repeating.

Of course there are the other grand achievement awards listed in a lot of the other good answers here, but I'm not sure that they are the ones that actually sell your game to the broad masses by keeping players "jacked in" enough that their friends get curious and have to try the game etc.. they will certainly be nice to the hardcore players, but then again, you have to decide who are your main customers.

Just my 5 cents...

  • \$\begingroup\$ ... how does this address anything the person asked? Only the last paragraph even talks about achievements, and it completely ignores them. It also seems that you're putting forth the idea that achievements are somehow mutually exclusive with all of the other things you've talked about. There's no reason he can't do all of those things and add achievements. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2011 at 0:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nicol: I generalized achievements to psychological rewards and discuss them. Angry Birds for example is "the largest mobile app success the world has seen so far" with 500 million playdrs, with an incredibly fine-tuned award-system. So depending on your goal (and customer group) with the awards/achievements, I'm not sure higher-level achievements help bind your player to your game, and development time often is not entirely free.. Another example is WordFeud with a simple award structure and an enormous replay-value. I'm just saying simple frequent achievements are a proven good start. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2011 at 13:58

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