Eletiofe The Joy and Misery of Hunting for Video Game...

The Joy and Misery of Hunting for Video Game Trophies

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I’m burning rubber as I approach the motel parking lot. The tires squeal in protest as I spin the handlebars hard, waiting for the motorbike to start drifting before I hit the nitro. It’s working. I’m doing a donut, not too tight, just clearing the parked cars. Surely this time I’m going to make it. I only need five seconds, four, three, two … and a zombie slams into me out of nowhere, sending me sprawling onto the asphalt. I’m never going to get this trophy.

I’m playing Days Gone, which casts you as a biker in a zombie apocalypse. The Apocalypse Burnout trophy is the last one I need for a full sweep—you have to drift your motorcycle and use nitro for a speed boost simultaneously for five seconds, which is a lot tougher than it sounds. After a fruitless half-hour, I give up and look for a guide online.

PlayStation trophies, like achievements on Steam or Xbox, are awarded when you complete tasks specified by the developer. They’re a cherry on top, a kind of metagame you can take or leave. You’ll inevitably unlock a few trophies as you play through a game, but completionists work hard to unlock obscure achievements. Your trophy count feeds into a score that can serve as a badge of honor on your gamer profile, but not all trophies are treated equally.

What Makes a Good Trophy?

Achievements give players another way to explore parts of a game they might miss on their first playthrough, says Graeme Timmins, creative director at Gearbox, the studio behind popular series like Borderlands. 

“They create a great sense of pride for completionists,” he says. “They give designers methods to incentivize alternate gameplay mechanics. When approached thoughtfully, they can add a lot to a player’s experience.”

That sentiment is echoed by Dan Webb, who is the editor-in-chief of playstationtrophies.org and xboxachievements.com. Both of the websites Webb runs offer lists of trophies and achievements with guides on unlocking many of them. The respective forums are lively, filled with trophy hunters. But some of these awards are more prized than others.

“One of my favorites was Dastardly from Red Dead Redemption, where you had to hogtie a woman and place her in front of a train, like the famous movie trope,” Webb says. “I’m also a big fan of Borderlands 2’s Tribute to a Vault Hunter.”

The latter trophy stemmed from a letter Gearbox, the developer behind the game, received from a friend of Michael Mamaril, a real-life Borderlands fan who tragically died from cancer at the age of 22. Mamaril’s friend requested a eulogy from the game’s popular robotic character, Claptrap (you can watch it here on YouTube). Gearbox went further, adding Mamaril as a non-player character (NPC).

“This NPC randomly spawns all around Sanctuary each session, so to make sure the character was not missed, the achievement was made so people would seek him out,” Timmins says. “Not every game gets to have the community that Borderlands has, so we like to do whatever we can to show our appreciation and gratitude.”

It’s rare for achievements to have a deeper resonance, but the most memorable trophies are often bizarre. Little Rocket Man from The Orange Box is one such example. It was awarded to anyone that picked up a gnome early on in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, carried it across the entire game, and placed it into a rocket that would blast off to space. “Completely pointless in truth, but it creates a story, an experience you otherwise wouldn’t have had,” he says.

Easter eggs like this can be a lot of fun, but many are so obscure you’ll never find them in a normal playthrough. I played Hitman 2 to death and never realized you can summon a Kraken on the Sapienza map.

Gamification and Rivalries

Leaderboards and the pursuit of high scores have always been a part of gaming, but trophies and achievements as we know them today began with Microsoft’s Gamerscore system for the Xbox 360 in 2005. That was extended to Games for Windows in 2007, the same year Valve added achievements into Steam. The following year, Sony hopped on board with PlayStation Trophies, and a few years later Apple and Google added achievements to their respective mobile gaming services. Nintendo is the only major gaming platform that doesn’t have an achievement system.

Trophies often extend the life of a game, encouraging players to look beyond the main story, but they are ultimately arbitrary challenges for bragging rights. And trophy hunters can get lost in the pursuit. Better known by his PlayStation Network handle, Hakoom, Hakam Karim has been the world leader in collecting PlayStation trophies on and off for a few years now. He has 105,828 trophies at last count, according to PSN Profiles, the most popular unofficial leaderboard.

“I spend around 10 to 15 hours per day playing and unlocking trophies,” Karim says. “Say around 90 hours a week or so.”

While there are gamers with higher overall trophy counts, Karim’s lead has largely been based on Platinum trophies (he has 3,188 at the time of writing). To score a Platinum trophy, you must unlock all the other trophies in the game. Trophies are assigned different scores based on their level of difficulty: It’s 15 points for a Bronze, 30 for Silver, 90 for Gold, and 300 for Platinum (upgraded from 180 by Sony last year).

Sony doesn’t maintain an official leaderboard, and there’s some debate in the trophy hunting community about who should be top. PSN Trophy Leaders, for example, lists Roughdawg4 (who prefers not to share his real name) as the current leader with 110,631 trophies, and 3,360 Platinum trophies. He hunts for trophies for around 20 to 40 hours a week.

“I got hooked very early on in the PS3 days,” Roughdawg4 says. “I’ve always been a completionist gamer so earning trophies and doing all you can in a game just came naturally for me.” He removed himself from PSN Profiles after a disagreement with the owner. “I personally think he has made some unethical decisions on how the site is run,” he says, before making some claims about Karim hacking certain trophies.

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Reading through the forums on trophy hunting sites, these kinds of complaints are common. People are accused of hacking trophies or working as a part of a team under a single account, but these claims are difficult to prove.

The Endless Grind

Just like how there are many highly sought-after trophies, a vast majority don’t have much thought put into them. 

“It’s all about unrealistic aims, at both ends of the scale,” Webb says. “Any achievement or trophy that just pops when you start up a game is a waste of oxygen. Then there’s the achievements you get for dying a certain number of times—how is that even fun or an accomplishment?”

There are virtually impossible achievements too, such as completing a game multiple times, hitting number one in the world rank, or reaching some unattainable in-game level.

“We want players to feel accomplishment when completing hard trophies, so we try to avoid repetitive or tedious tasks, as the only thing players feel after completing those is a sense of relief,” Timmins says. “Creating a difficult yet engaging trophy is not simple.”

The trophy Karim is most proud of came from Max Payne 3: The Shadows Have Rushed Me. It requires you to play through the whole game with a strict time limit. Die or fail, and you go back to the beginning. For Roughdawg4, Mein Leben from Wolfenstein 2 is his proudest achievement. It challenges you to beat the game on the highest difficulty without saving or dying.

“When achievements first became part of our workflows back in the Xbox 360/PS3 era, some very ‘designery’ and extremely difficult achievements were created,” Timmins says. “Whether a conscious decision or not, we’ve become more respectful of everyone’s time as our designs for trophies and achievements have matured. We want everyone to experience that great sense of accomplishment they provide, so you’re seeing fewer super difficult challenges in our games.”

I have a meager trophy collection. My last Platinum trophy was in Marvel’s Spider-Man, which is considered relatively easy. I spent ages chasing trophies in Red Dead Redemption 2, but I didn’t have the patience to study and skin every animal in the game, or the skill to earn 70 gold medals.

There’s an achievement in The Stanley Parable called Go Outside, which you can only unlock by not playing the game for five years. That’s my kind of achievement, but I was determined not to give up on Days Gone and, after downgrading my bike, I managed to earn The Apocalypse Burnout trophy, which unlocked the One Percenter Platinum trophy. That gave me a warm glow of satisfaction. Perhaps I can be a trophy hunter after all.


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