Soon there will be a good reason to jump off the tallest building in town and a reason to rejoice over catching a virus.
The celebrations will commence with an Xbox 360 controller in hand, because these are the things gamers will do to prove that they are great gamers. They're among the next wave of Xbox 360 Achievements.
When the 360 was launched in November, it introduced gamers to a number of new or revived ideas, including a free, persistent online gaming service, the ability for the console to be powered on and off with the press of a button on the controller, and the concept that a gaming console could be cream-colored.
Another innovation was the Achievements system, a Microsoft requirement that every 360 game would include a minimum number of accomplishable feats that could be noted and compared with other games and assigned a point value that would enhance a 360 owner's overall GamerScore. Clear the first half-hour of "King Kong," get an Achievement. Play a "Tony Hawk" game online, get another one.
Each store-bought game could have as many as 50 Achievements worth a combined 1,000 points. With each Achievement would come a popping noise and an icon on the screen noting success with subdued fanfare. Often, scoring an Achievement would be a surprise, a goal passed that players didn't even know they were approaching, like traveling a total of 10 kilometers in a snowmobile in "Amped 3."
Some early Achievements were innovative, like the Pacifism Award for any gamer who could survive the first 60 seconds of "Geometry Wars" without firing a shot or the badges of discouragement for losing five, 10 and 20 straight online matches in the fighting game "Dead or Alive 4."
But among the fans of Achievements — including those who have created Web sites such as Xbox360Achievments.org to track and discuss the milestones — a concern has set in that the fresh idea might be turned stale by the prevalence of uncreative Achievement rosters.
For the wary, the E3 presentation of the "Grand Theft Auto"-style 2007 game "Crackdown" was an achievement in itself. Representatives from developer Real Time Worlds explained that their team was thinking broadly about how Achievements could be won in their game. Some ideas included falling off the tallest building in the game and dying or falling off and surviving. There could be Achievements for juggling a shotgunned enemy in mid-air with another shotgun, the kind of merit badge not seen in the heyday of the Boy Scouts.
In the next few months, Jacob Van Wingen — the 27-year-old director and programmer of the late summer/ early fall Xbox Live Arcade fighting game "Small Arms" — hopes people will strive for an Achievement he calls "Six Degrees of 'Small Arms.' " It's an Achievement that will start with the four people at his small game development company, Gastronaut Studios, and spread to anyone who plays them online. It will continue to be contagious for anyone who has it, and Wingen hopes they will be able to program it in such a way that those who catch it will be able to tell how many degrees they are separated from the first players at Gastronaut.
"It's possible it can spread very quickly, and it's possible it might not," he said, noting that Microsoft has stipulated that the Achievement, like the "DOA" failure ones, won't be worth any GamerScore points. "I think they're concerned it may not spread, and they don't want it to be unattainable. I'm OK with it."
The viral concept hasn't been tried with Xbox 360, but it got a run in "Infected," a poor-selling PSP game that enabled victorious gamers to contaminate vanquished players' copies of the games with the victor's character. Wingen hasn't played "Infected" but said the "Small Arms" version will be passed on, win or lose.
This is the kind of free thinking applauded by Jerry Johnson, 39, program manager for Xbox Live at Microsoft, who said his company has been reviewing the first wave of 360 titles and counseling developers, not just on how to innovate but also to not be so free in giving away all of their Achievements so easily.
"This is something that's really relative," he said. "If [developers] want to screw it up and hand it out real easy, that will reflect poorly on the title."
Instead, Microsoft is promoting a "hockey stick" approach. A slew of easily obtained achievements will be doled out before ramping up and offering a select few that are much harder to obtain — and that grant the bulk of the GamerScore points, of course.
As of a month and a half ago, Johnson said enough Achievements have been won by players that the 360 community of owners has raked in a collective 1.5 billion points in GamerScore. Is it a successful program even without Gastronaut's viral innovation on the "Crackdown" skyscraper leap? Ask a gamer who's hooked.
"I find myself playing a game where I would be like, 'I would have bailed out of this game a long time ago if I wasn't just trying to get these stupid Achievements and finish these Achievement points off,' " said Chris Erb, the marketing director for Electronic Arts' football games and a hard-core gamer smitten with the system. "It's that perpetual carrot that always keeps you going. Whether anyone sees those achievement points or not, it doesn't really matter. What's cool is that little 'ching-ching,' and that thing that pops up on the screen is eerily gratifying. And I don't know why. I think they did a great job with that."
More from the world of video games:
Play "Halo," make money. Make lots of money. Major League Gaming, one of the handful of pro-gaming groups still vying to become the standard league for America's gaming athletes, announced that it has signed the four-man "Halo" clan Team Final Boss to a three-year, $1 million contract. It's also given a three-year, $250,000 contract to Tom "TSquared" Taylor, who was featured on MTV's "True Life: I'm a Professional Gamer." With top players on the "CounterStrike" circuit like Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel and Sander "Vo0" Kaasjager making a quarter-million in 2006 — for just a single year of winnings (see "Dutch Gamer Uses $232K CPL Winnings To Splurge On First White Castle Burger") — the world's most popular console first-person shooter might actually be seeing its top players getting underpaid. ...
The bad attitude seems all the more fitting: Sonic the Hedgehog turned the non-mellow age of 15 on Friday. Sega announced that the company will celebrate by selling more "Sonic" games, of course. The original "Sonic" for Genesis will be released this year on Game Boy Advance, along with a new "Sonic Rivals" racing game for PSP and the latest full-fledged console "Sonic" game for Xbox 360 and PSP. Early 2007 is expected to bring Sonic to Nintendo's Wii for a game that has already made a good impression (see " 'Paper Mario,' Clumsy Sonic, Male Cheerleaders Among E3 Hopefuls"). In a press release touting the hedgehog's birthday, Sega reported that the Wii game will play out as a "colorful retelling of the classic tale 'Arabian Nights.' "