Achievements vs. Trophies, Unlockables, Leaderboards

Achievements vs. Trophies, Unlockables, Leaderboards

It’s interesting to consider how video game design has, in a way, come full-circle. Gaming pioneers used to stand for hours at arcade cabinets in hopes of leaving their mark on the screen in the form of a high score and a three-letter identifier. Then, with the introduction of the home console, gaming became a solitary affair for a time.

Now, we exist in an era wherein we’re encouraged to accomplish several goals in one game. We invest time and energy into winding story-based epics that go on for hours, but we still seek to leave our scent behind by way of Achievements, Trophies, Leaderboards, OpenFeint, and other venues that let us display our high scores. Previously, only patrons of a neighborhood arcade would have ogled a digital warrior’s high score. Now, our scores go out to entire continents, and even around the world.

Sure, Achievements and the like are a bit of an ego trip, and that’s fine. In fact, Achievements and similar features are a good way to challenge skilled players without alienating the less skilled. For instance, many games still keep content locked up until certain difficult in-game goals are achieved. The later Mario Kart games are particularly notorious for blocking access to bonus racers until players meet very specific goals that are often hard to meet. Similarly, Nintendo’s popular Super Smash Bros. series locks select fighters away from the player until he or she plays through the game in a certain way. Maybe Nintendo works its fans extra hard because the Wii lacks a universal leader board on which to display one’s scores?

Arguably, if you want something, you gotta work for it. Some would suggest that goes for a game’s most coveted elements, including the “privilege” of playing as cool and popular characters or accessing special levels. To an extent, this is true: Going back to Nintendo, what was more satisfying than exhibiting the reflexes necessary to find Super Mario World‘s “SPECIAL” world and tearing through extra levels with A+ names like “Radical,” “Way Cool” and “Tubular?”

That said, there’s something that feels a bit unfair about advertising a certain character, feature, or level within a game and then denying the player access until he or she jumps through a certain amount of hoops. If a buyer spends money on a game, he or she should have access to the whole experience, especially its most hyped bits, without having to “unlock” this or that. Leaderboards, Achievements, and maybe being allowed to test one’s mettle on a super-secret level or two are preferable ways of letting especially skilled players show off what they’ve got.

Image Credit: Ripten

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Agreed. I love Achievements and Leaderboards for this reason, among others.

    And, as noted, hate being turned away from getting to play as the characters I like because they’re hidden away.

    In the case of some things, such as Special World, I can understand that: ideally, the challenges there are such that if you can’t reach it, you’re probably not ready to take them on.

    Then again, all you have to do is find Star Road 5’s secret exit to access it, which doesn’t take too much effort. New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s World 9 might be a better example?

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