It's hard to understate the impact of Xbox Live Achievements. Launched in 2005, the system is effectively a giant, platform-spanning meta-game that binds together your endeavours into one, easily understood measure of prowess: the venerated Gamerscore.
The idea has proven staggeringly long-lived and influential, but eight years down the line there's a clear need for change - much as with Xbox One's reputation system, which has become a creature of sinister intelligence. Most Xbox games are now sinuously evolving online ecosystems, updated with new content and tweaks for as long as their players express an interest, making the concept of a finite list of Gamerscore-earning objectives a little stingy. We spoke to Chad Gibson, Xbox Live's principle group program manager, about how Microsoft has "super-charged" Achievements on Xbox One.
First, the broad strokes: developers can now add Achievements to games at weekly, monthly or quarterly intervals without releasing them via DLC add-ons, because the associated data is kept in the cloud rather than built inflexibly into the game itself. "We've found a pattern where a user will buy a game, they'll play the game, they'll max out the Achievements within three to four weeks, and they're still playing the game six months later," Gibson observed. "We really wanted to make all our Achievement systems fully embrace cloud power. Which is why in this generation it's all cloud Achievements."
"So, the general guidance we give to Achievements on how they're utilised - conceptually, that's the same, but the big decoupling we did is that on Xbox 360, your Achievement is actually a bunch of client code you write in your game, and that's still largely true on Xbox One, but the client code is instrumentation," he explains. "So you instrument your game with all these events and then you go to a web tool and say, 'oh OK, I want a new Achievement when this event crosses this threshold'. You can add an achievement without ever updating your game client."
This corresponds to a broader aim with Xbox One, which is to create a platform that grows over time in response to how people use it, calling on immense Xbox Live server resources to enhance games and services in all sorts of ways. Microsoft won't require developers to add Achievements post-release, but it sees a steady diet of additional Gamerscore as a crucial facet of the next generation Live experience - particularly, we imagine, for big-bottomed experiences like Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles.
"We want game developers to be able to offer Achievements and interesting opportunities throughout the life-cycle of a game," Gibson continued. "So, you know, 14 months after the game's shipped, you're still offering interesting Achievement opportunities, because users are still playing the game and the game is still evolving and growing."
There's no formal cap, either - players might ultimately earn "a couple of thousand Gamerscore" and up from a well-supported title. Completionists may find this troubling - what's to stop EA flooding a game with points to boost popularity ahead of a DLC release, cheating the dedicated of that coveted 100% Achievement rating? Answer: Microsoft will take action if it feels developers and publishers are abusing the system.
"We're mindful of it," Gibson commented, when we asked whether Gamerscore obsessives should worry. "We're mindful of it, and the corollary is that with a lot of games today, three updates later it's a nice evolution of that game - it's a different game that's been modified and adjusted, based on what people are enjoying and having fun with. And we think that Achievements should match that."
"Especially if a game's been on the market for a while, and they have the opportunity to add all these new Achievements - if you start playing a game a year after it ships, there's probably 2000 Gamerscore to get for that game or more. And so, for the completionists, they're going to have more work to do."
He subsequently reassured us that "we are super-sensitive to people who are worried about wanting to get all of the Gamerscore, so we still have policies for developers to make sure that things don't get out of control. Like, we do not want a game offering 10,000 Gamerscore every day. We still have policies, so that user experiences are rational - users have an opportunity to complete everything without feeling constantly overwhelmed.
"A game developer could just take its Gamerscore budget and just, you know, dole it out every week if they wanted to. But, we don't want things to be out of control from a gamer perspective. We don't want people to be constantly overwhelmed with thousands and thousands of things for this game."
The presentation has changed, too. You'll be able to track your Achievement progress from the dashboard, should you choose, rather than delving into the depths of the UI, and Xbox One's Game DVR feature can be set to automatically record and share Achievement unlocks - that moment you squashed three gazillion Roman skulls in Ryse, for instance, or that time you ankle-kicked your way to an amazing comeback in Killer Instinct.
As with much of Xbox Live, it's possible to browse Achievements you're close to getting - along with those of your friends - via the Xbox SmartGlass app on a tablet or phone. The notification system has been overhauled, though to what degree remains to be seen. "We have toasts, just like we do on the Xbox 360," Gibson hinted. "And we're making a bunch of nice changes to those."
Achievements are now joined by Challenges, which reflect the recent popularity of community events like Black Ops 2's Double XP weekends. "Challenges is a concept that you see in games today - like, 'do this over the course of this weekend and you'll get this reward'," Gibson told us. "By implementing them at the system level, we can then celebrate them within the experience, in that you'll, you'll start up your new Xbox and you'll say 'wow, there's these challenges available this weekend on these three games that I play', or 'these four friends are working on this challenge'."
Unlike Achievements, Challenges can apply to multiple titles (extending beyond games to apps) and can be earned by groups of players, working in tandem. They also don't earn you any additional Gamerscore. "It's something specific to that game - you know, complete this Challenge in a racing game and get a new car skin. It's like that." This may or may not have something to do with Microsoft's next generation Xbox Live Rewards system, which is down for reveal on 1st September.
Tempting stuff - but we suspect the larger benefit of next gen Achievements and Challenges for Xbox Live's millions of users will be that it brings them closer to developers. The system's agility means that teams are free to use Achievements as a way of highlighting and rewarding community behaviour, capitalising on how players exploit their creations and thus, celebrating the interactivity that defines the medium.
Bethesda, for instance, might roll out an achievement for shooting a Skyrim guard in the knee. BioWare might throw a weekend Challenge for Mass Effect, in which you're rewarded for collectively punching reporters. "With next-gen, we really wanted to build for the future of living, breathing entertainment content, by providing these cloud computing resources to enable larger, more epic games," Gibson concluded. "And by providing these new Achievement mechanics, we allow developers to prolong engagement with these experiences."
Sounds like a real solid upgrade to the achievements system. Automatic DVR of achievements could come in handy for some more intense ones.