Xbox 360 and Achievements (and Undertow)

So, I got myself an Xbox 360 the other day. While one of the primary reasons to get one was Microsoft’s XNA, I also learned to like Xbox Live and Xbox Live Arcade. The Xbox 360 is not marketed as a “Casual Gamer” system (the Wii tightly holds that spot, and I don’t think that Microsofts attempt to market the Xbox 360 Arcade console in that segment are too successful), yet some of the best casual games are available on there.

I played around with the Demo versions of Geometry Wars and Pac-Man Championship Edition, and I absolutely love them. Ironically, I like them so much because of the artistic style of the graphics, something that normally only Nintendo gets right. Yes, the Xbox 360 is a Triple-Core System with a nice graphics unit and Geometry Wars is possibly not using even 10% of the resources (wild guess), but it just delivers instant fun for a few minutes, or a few more minutes.

These are not the only examples, have a look at Sensible World of Soccer (SWOS) or Speedball 2 for other enhanced versions of the original games. The nice thing: For every single game, you can download a demo version for free. That way, you can test the games first. Most demo versions are quite lenient: They are usually with a time limit, but you can still play the game to make a judgment call on it.

I think that Microsoft got Xbox live well. Really well. Apart from it’s stability apparently. Due to some recent problems with connectivity, you can currently download the Game “Undertow” for free for a few days, even as a Silver member. The game is quite fun. I don’t like it as much as some of the other games i’ve tested, but it’s free, so I recommend trying it :-).

Now, there is something else that makes playing games on the Xbox 360 a bit more interesting. It’s a feature that has no functional use whatsoever and is best describes as “E-Peen”, or in Microsoft Terminology: Achievements and Gamerscore.

Basically, in every Xbox 360 game, be it Retail or Arcade, you can unlock Achievements to gain Gamerscore.Xbox 360 Achievements (1) The number of Achievements varies from game to game – Perfect Dark Zero has 50 Achievements, Tomb Raider: Legend has 33, Forza Motorsport 2 has 44 etc. You can pick up some Achievement by simply playing the game (i.e. some games give you an Achievement every time you complete a level), some require more sophistication (i.e. getting all extras or beating time trial modes) and some are simply cruel (Dead Rising’s “Zombie Genocider” which requires to kill 53,594 Zombies) or otherwise memorable (Six Degrees of Small Arms…).

Xbox 360 Achievements (2)As said, each Achievement gives you Gamerscore.In every Retail game, you can get up to 1000 Points, and some games offer additional 250 Points through downloads. For Arcade games, you can get up to 200 points and then a few more through downloadable content on some games (I think 235 is the limit). Your Gamerscore is displayed on Xbox Live, and you can use services like MyGamerCard.net to get an image for your forum signature, your blog etc.Souvenance Gamercard as of 2008-01-24

So why are the Achievemets and the Gamerscore so nice? Why do they actually work? They are indeed absolutely useless from a functional perspective – You will not get any extras for a high Gamerscore, you can not buy stuff on the marketplace for it and they just seem to have the purpose to keep people playing. And they work.

I think it’s because they return a sense of Achievement to the game (which means that they are appropriately named :-)). I remember the old days™ when I finished a game and had that feeling that I surely did something great. I don’t know when, but somehow this feeling got lost or at least weaker among the years as I grew up and played more and more games. Finishing a game was nothing special anymore. Possibly because the next game already waited around the corner and games do not have a half life (no pun intended) of more than 6 months. Now with the Achievements, there suddenly seems to be a reason again to finish the games or play them again. Why play Tomb Raider: Legend a second time on the “Tomb Raider” difficulty or Gears of War on “Insane”, as you already saw all the content and story? Why waste 6 hours trying to kill 54000 Zombies in Dead Rising? Why even try to get the Mile High Club Achievement in Call of Duty 4? Because you get a Reward at the end. It feels satisfying to try something over and over again and finally see that “Achievement Unlocked” message appear. And you can then show that you unlocked the achievement. Yes, it is stupid and useless E-Peen comparison, but it’s deeply statisfying.

So yes, I like my Xbox 360, and I believe that Microsoft got – from a functional specification – the whole thing absolutely right. An attractive library of games, more casual stuff through arcade, the addictive Achievement system and a controller that finally deserves that name. Who knows, were it not for the Red Ring of Death problem, maybe it’s reputation would be a lot better? I’m happy that I got a console with the newer Falcon Motherboard, so I should not need a towel.

2008 will be interesting, as Sony could finally have some success with the PS3. As BluRay is about to win the HD War, maybe the PS3 will have a similar success as the PS2 solely because of the drive? I doubt so because the PS2 came when DVD was already established and just waited to grow, whereas the PS3 works more as a “market enabler” for BluRay. I have to say that I did not test Playstation Network (PSN) yet (as I don’t have a PS3 and don’t plan to buy one before at least Christmas) and therefore can not compare it to Xbox Live, so I do not want to judge the PS3 yet. At the moment, the lack of a fair number of “want-to-have” titles does not give me any reason to buy one, so we’ll see.

But it’s definitely nice to see that finally, different consoles work in different market segments instead of trying to occupy the same.

Game Packaging

Until a few years ago, Packaging for PC Games was very wasteful: In a big cardboard box, you usually found the manual and the game CD itself, along with some advertising and filler material, but overall, the box was 80% empty. But it looked damn nice, with the big artwork that you could proudly display on your shelf, kind of like Vinyl looks better than CDs because the size of the cover.

PC GamesBut as storage space in stores becomes more and more valuable, and as those cardboard boxes were rather expensive to manufacture and generally a big waste,  the industry switched to DVD Cases. While the cover artwork is still there, a DVD case just does not look as nice as a big box if you want to proudly display your taste on a shelf. Of course, boxes are not entirely gone, but they are mainly used for limited collectors editions nowadays.

I remember the uproar among gamers when this change first happened. About european gamers upset about being cheated on the Black & White game packaging (the US Version had a two-sided cardboard box, whereas the EU Version came in a DVD case – at least the cover was changable from black to white). Generally, the feeling was that you would get less for your money. In retrospective, these concerns seem somewhat silly. Sure, there were some games that packed a lot into the box, like artwork books, comics or keychains. But the majority of games still came with only the cd and the manual. So there was no real loss. But there was a big gain: Shelf space! Previously, I had to throw away some of the boxes because I simply did not have enough space. As a real gamer, it did hurt to throw away some of those boxes, but if you can’t safely walk around your room anymore, you know that you have to change something.PS2 DVDs

Ikea has those nice Benno Shelves, which allow me to freely separate them to create compartments for CDs or for DVDs or for anything else. With the DVD Cases, this allows me to put dozens of games in the shelf without having to throw away stuff. So I believe that the move from Cardboard Boxes to DVD Cases was one of the best decissions the industry took in the last few years. Interestingly, the Computer Games industry was pretty much the only gaming industry that used non-standard packaging. If you look at the console games, you will notice that they had a common packaging since the early days. Every SNES Game came in a standard sized cardboard box that was not too big to waste too much space. Every Playstation Game came in a CD-sized casing – unfortunately, the default case was a bit taller that CD Cases, which means that they don’t fit well in standard CD shelves, and that they look somewhat deplaced when places next to Playstation games that came in 4-CD Cases. Luckily, Sony learned when making the Playstation 2 and used standard DVD cases since then. Nintendo and Nintendo DS and PSOne GamesMicrosoft also started to use DVD cases beginning with the Gamecube and Xbox. Also, Nintendo DS Games come in a case that has the same height as a CD, so they fit perfectly within a CD compartment in the Benno shelf 🙂

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that the packaging was standardized for console games since the beginning. Maybe it was due to some rule enforced by Nintendo and Sega? Maybe it was due to the wish of the retailers to make the best use of storage space? I really don’t know, but I do not think that the console world lost anything by making sure all the boxes had the same size and shape.

The packaging that is used nowadays is also nice for protecting the media. With PC games, usually you had a jewel casGameBoy Advance Casese. But I also had games that came in a paper sleeve – not very impressive if you just paid quite a bit of money only to see it in a loveless packaging. Game Boy Advance games also came without any case, they were only covered in a bit of plastic wrap – the DS Packaging is a major step forward as you can keep the game in the case that can be properly opened and closed multiple tiems without danger to damage it. Also, the manual now has a proper place.  There is however onemajor drawback: As the GBA boxes were pretty much useless after unpacking them, you could use some poster strips to put them on the wall. With the reusable DS Cases, this is not really possible anymore.

This was a bit more elaborate that I first intended it to be, but if you think about packaging and look how games came to you in the past 25 years, it’s a somewhat interesting subject to look at. How will packaging look like in 5, 10, 15 years? Some people say that games will not physically exist anymore in 10 years and that everything will be distributed digitally, something that services like Steam (finally) provide mostly flawless. Current generation game consoles (Nintendo Wii, Sony Playstation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360) provide means to download games to the console, and broadband gets more and more common. Will we really see the end of physical products in the next years?

I don’t know. I don’t believe so. I like the advantages that Steam brings, but as a gamer and collector, not owning a physical product is not a nice thought. Also, imagine how many possible conversations would be lost if there were no physical cases to put on your shelf. How often did someone notice that you had game X on your shelf and started to talk about it? What would you put on your walls if it weren’t for those nice GBA boxes?

The industry believes that the future of gaming lies online, and in this point I hope that they are wrong. Sure, Xbox live and Steam are two strong assets in that argument chain, but as long as companies like Nintendo prove that some of the best games are either single player (Super Mario Galaxy) or best played with a bunch of people in your living room (Mario Party, WarioWare), I still have hope that gaming will stay something physical.