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Achievements have become pretty standard in games (and other gamified content, like Stack Exchange) these days. However, they definitely weren’t part of “classic” gaming, in the arcade/8-bit/16-bit eras. So where did they come from? What was the first game to offer them?

By “Achievement”, I’m specifically referring to multiple permanent (across-playthrough) awards which don’t directly correspond to whatever progression system the game has. High score boards have been around since the arcade days, but they only track single playthroughs. Bonuses or changes for completing the game also don’t count, because they’re directly tied to progressing to the end of the game.

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My first experience with "achievements" prior to the Xbox 360 was with Ratchet & Clank, where completing difficult or unnecessarily contrived tasks earned you Skill Points which you used to unlock in-game bonuses. The only differences are that they are tied to your save (although they carry across playthroughs on the same save), not your account (since the PS2 didn't really have online gamer accounts), and the only way to know how to earn a Skill Point before earning it is to look it up online. –  BoltClock Aug 3 at 16:28
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@Frank - See here, where the consensus was that historical questions are on topic. –  Bobson Aug 3 at 17:09
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@Frank even if you disagree, you shouldn't be casting close votes just because you don't like a question. The meta post is very recent and explicitly allows this type of questions. If you don't like the post then downvote it, but don't prevent quality answers by trying to close it. –  Jutschge Aug 3 at 17:59
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@Frank - We know you don't agree, but you didn't address Jutschge's main point. Close votes are for keeping community-defined values in alignment. Downvotes are for personal vendettas against a subject matter (or for anything else wrong with a question). By VTC'ing you're pushing against the grain of the community consensus, simply because you don't agree. A Close Vote is not a Super-Downvote. Please don't use it as one –  Robotnik Aug 4 at 8:23
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@Frank - I’d say that tanis’ answer is pretty “quality". –  Bobson Aug 4 at 12:24

1 Answer 1

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Achievements: A History

The first form of achievements that appeared, in the way you describe them was on the Atari 2600, 30 years ago. For some of the Activision games on the system, there would have challenges listed in them. Most often, these were simply "score x amount of points," but there were also challenges such as "finish a level in six seconds", or "survive 5 days". These challenges were listed in the manual of the game.

Enduro Racing Game Manuel Extract
An extract from the manual of the Activision game Enduro Racing.

The player would then complete these challengers, take a picture of the TV screen for proof, and put it to Activision in the post. Upon completing the often difficult challenges and sending the proof to Activision, they would send you a decorative fabric patch which confirmed your achievement in the game[1].

Chopper Commandos Decorative Patch
This patch is given after scoring 10,000 points in Chopper Commandos, a difficult feat.

The earliest Activision game that included this decorative patch was the racing game Dragster, which you earned by finishing in less than 6 seconds. It was released in 1980[2], which gives us a definite beginning date for the early forms of achievements as described in the question.

These patches were made to show off to friends. You could sew them onto clothing or other items, so that you could tell the world how good you were at the game. These early stages of achievements were entirely offline. The actual game didn't save anything.

We now move forward 10 years to another game called E-Motion for the Amiga. It had a collection of "secret bonuses" you could aquire by doing various challenges[3]. These secret bonuses closely resemble the achievements of today. Some examples of the secret bonuses in the game were:

  • Completing a bonus level with the last digit of the timer as a "3"
  • Complete any level without rotating to the right
  • Complete level one without ever using the screen wrap
  • etc.

Screenshot of EMotion
A screenshot of E-Motion.

This was closer to modern day achievements than the patches were. For one thing, they were stored on the game itself, rather than just offline. It still lacked, however, the ability to share the achievements online - an important part of today's achievement systems. Where did the sharing aspect of achievements come from?

We move forward another 6 years to 1996 - where a website called MSN Gaming Zone would launch. It was designed to be used alongside instant messenging. Due to the inherently social nature of instant messenging, MSN decided to allow one to easily share gaming results to whoever they were chatting with. The games also included "badges", which were earned for doing specific things in the games[4]. This started the social aspect of achievements - you were encouraged to share badges with your friends online.

Finally, we reach 2005, and the introduction of the Xbox 360. This tied together all of the parts of the previous iterations of achievements into a cohesive whole. Part of this was adding in the "GamerScore" which created a positive feedback system for learning achievements[5]. The achievement system in the 360 was completely integrated within the game. This was so effective that today the Xbox 360 is widely considered to have popularised achievement systems in pretty much anything - the PlayStation Network, for instance, introduced the similiar Trophy system in 2008[6].

[1]: Atari Age 2600 Patch Gallery
[2]: GameFAQS data for the game Dragster
[3]: Cheats website for Amiga games
[4]: About Badges MSN Website, which is apparently still operating
[5]: An article about the effect of achievements in gaming practices
[6]: A comment on this answer by Denilson Sá

Also, I highly recommend reading the fifth link there. It is actually really interesting.

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well, 30 years ago sharing the patches online would have been impractical even if they were electronic, due to the fact that very few people had internet access and even fewer would have the bandwidth and software to process binary files over the internet (hex encoding, yay). –  jwenting Aug 4 at 11:15
    
Very nice answer! I’d definitely have never guessed the Atari had achievements. And it wasn’t until the XBox 360 that they became common? –  Bobson Aug 4 at 12:15
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Very interesting read indeed. Thanks for putting the source, the article was great, nice job =) –  WizLiz Aug 5 at 6:33
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I'd add that PlayStation trophies were added to PS3 only in 2008. –  Denilson Sá Aug 5 at 15:09
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Also, I found this article which suggests the role of achievements in board games in 1989! The system described in the article is directly linked to the progression system of the game itself though, which is contary to the initial definition. Still an interesting read though. –  Lilac Aug 6 at 1:36

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