Microsoft has gamers playing for points

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There's nothing new about rewards programs. People were saving S&H Green Stamps as early as 1896. The one thing they and frequent-flier miles and Mypoints.com points and Web dollars and e-coupons all have in common is that eventually you can cash them in for ... something.

But, in 2005, the marketing folks at Microsoft had a brainstorm. The Xbox 360 console had just been released and, to sell more games, they decided they would start doling out "achievement points." Play enough games, collect enough points, and you could cash them in for ... nothing, nothing at all. What a concept!

Nobody was more surprised than Aaron Greenberg when the achievement points program exploded and became the phenomenon it is today.

"You never quite know how people are going to react to these sorts of things," observes Greenberg, the group product manager for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live. "But we were very pleasantly surprised when it took off like wildfire. The gaming community is crazy about them."

Could it be that gamers are an entirely different breed of consumer altogether; that, for them, earning points just for the sake of earning points -- not for toasters or airline tickets or DVDs -- is sufficient?

Tim Surette is associate editor at CNET's popular GameSpot game site -- and is a huge fan of "achievement points."

"I'm not sure the general public has ever heard of them, but the hardcore gamers certainly have," he says. "I mean, it's changed the way I play games; I'm playing games I never would have played without them." While he's not proud of it, he confesses to playing titles like "Cabela's African Safari" just to earn achievement points.

Here's how the points system works: Microsoft mandates that every developer of Xbox 360 games "hide" 1,000 achievement points in every retail game and 200 in every casual game. Players earn points for certain successes in the game. The more challenging the task, the more points are added to the player's profile -- or Gamerscore -- which is visible to anyone who cares to look.

"Besides trying to win the games they are playing, gamers are also competing to see who can get the most achievement points," explains Surette. "There are many gamers who care more about the bragging rights behind accumulating points than they do about winning the games."

Which is why there are entire Web sites -- like Achieve360Points.com -- whose sole purpose is to advise the fastest and easiest way to rack up points.

Some gamers have been known to buy both the domestic and Japanese versions of a single title in order to double the number of possible achievement points they can earn, reveals Surette. And, recently, when one person claimed to have broken the 100,000-point barrier, the gaming community immediately accused them of cheating by having several gamers contribute their points to one profile.

"You wouldn't believe the extent that some people will go to earn points," notes Surette. "It's absolutely ridiculous, but some kids are going crazy trying to build up their profile."

For what purpose?

"It's nerd cred, man!" says Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer at Raleigh, North Carolina-based Epic Games, whose tactical third-person shooter "Gears Of War" is one of the hottest Xbox 360 titles around. He was skeptical when Microsoft first informed developers that they would need to participate in the program, but no longer.

"It's so clever," he says. "I mean, it's just a score. You may say it can't be used for anything, but gamers use them for pride. They're pride points! You can compare it to the feeling you get when you pull up to a restaurant in a Lamborghini. People go, 'Oooo, he must be somebody.' In the virtual world of gaming, points create that same sense of rank and envy, and that's why gamers have latched onto them. I read that people are picking up the Burger King Xbox games just so they can score additional points. If that doesn't prove how well this program is working, nothing does."

Greenberg and his product team had something simpler in mind the day they sat down and came up with the achievement points program. Their goal was to build a social network and to add a sense of identity to it. Gamerscores, they suspected, would allow gamers to compare their progress with others and show off their prowess to their friends.

"The idea was that every time you'd unlock an achievement in a game, you'd be rewarded with a little badge or icon that was added to your gaming profile," he says. "As your Gamerscore increased, so would your reputation within the community."

Developers were given lots of flexibility to be creative in how they wanted to hand out the achievement points. While at first they made the points easy to accumulate -- assuming people would buy the games that were the simplest to conquer -- it turned out that gamers wanted to be challenged for their points.

Epic's "Gears Of War," for example, was designed with easy-, medium-, and difficult-to-achieve points.

"We want people to get their points, but we also want them to play 'Gears' as long and as often as possible," reveals Bleszinski, "because the longer they play, the longer they talk up the game to their friends. So there are a few easy challenges at first that give points out quickly. But then you have to earn the rest. For example, we had one called 'Seriously' that required you to get 10,000 kills online. It took someone four weeks of just sitting there and shooting to earn that one."

What's clear is that achievement points are changing the way gamers play. While the tendency had been for people to play a game through to the end and then toss it into a closet, many gamers are now going back and playing them again, this time to unlock achievements to boost their Gamerscore. Or if they only played the single-player version, to go back and play the multiplayer or online component. Or to go out and buy games they would not ordinarily have purchased. Or to rent games.

"Renting is the perfect way to rack up points because gamers find they can cycle through one game after another without buying any," says Surette. "Obviously, the rental companies think achievement points are terrific."

Some achievements are considered "coolest," and they are the ones that gamers tend to seek out. For example, Gastronaut Studios' action game "Small Arms" has become renowned for its "Six Degrees of Small Arms" viral achievement. It is unlocked by playing multiplayer with someone who has already unlocked that achievement, and so it spreads like a virus. The first time it was unlocked was by the game's developers, the second time by playing one of those developers, and so on.

"Needless to say, that is an achievement that is much in demand," says Surette, "and one that a gamer would put a lot of effort into trying to hunt down."

Microsoft's Greenberg says that this is the sort of excitement his team had hoped to create.

"It's that stickiness that's one of the best things about the program," he says. "Of the four million people we have on Xbox Live, in one year they've unlocked over 200 million achievements; that's 50 per person. We see gamers coming back to us because we give points, other platforms don't. It's sort of like having Google or Hotmail as your e-mail client; if you like it, you stick with it and you don't go checking and sending your mail from four different clients. As a result, our attach rate is five games for every Xbox 360 we've sold. Gamers who own several different consoles tend to buy the Xbox 360 version of a multi-platform game like, say, 'Madden NFL' because they can earn points on it but can't earn points on other versions."

Greenberg admits to being surprised when, in November, Sony launched its PlayStation 3 and Nintendo its Wii without competing points programs.

"My guess is that, at some point in the future, they'll both try to do something similar," he says. "But first they'll have to overcome one hurdle -- Microsoft has Xbox Live, a unified online service that allows us to seamlessly integrate across all our games. Without that, I'm not quite sure how they can follow in our footsteps." He believes that marketers working in other media may want to take note of Microsoft's rewards program and be inspired by it.

"The key for us was to build (a) community around our content and then reward that community for its loyalty," he explains. "So if you are marketing a TV series or a Web site or whatever, think about whether giving out exclusive content or special access will make people feel like they're part of something bigger. Let them connect with others who have the same interests. We are sort of uniquely positioned to be able to do that in gaming, but there's no reason why that wouldn't translate to other entertainment properties as well."

One thing is for sure, says GameSpot's Surette: "The program works beautifully. I myself have questioned why am I spending so much time gathering up points. And then, when that little logo that says 'Achievement Unlocked' pops up, I know that's why I'm doing it. It's adrenaline, man, adrenaline."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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