Being that I don't hesitate to sing the praises of the Xbox 360's Achievements system, I feel compelled to give equal time to a very big annoyance that I'm continuing to notice. That is the trend to link multiplayer Achievements to Ranked Match multiplayer play, only then to have to make players leap and dive through hoops in order to actually find a Ranked Match to join. It's been going on since the release of Gears of War, but now it's getting pretty problematic.
Case in point, I was trying to play PGR4 today but instead of enjoying the lush visuals of my Ferrari FXX racing through Shanghai's neon-lit streets, I instead spent nearly 30 minutes staring at a "Please Wait" screen. No exaggeration.
I love this series; it's easily one of my favorite gaming franchises and has been since it was on the Dreamcast. But it's nearly impossible to find a Ranked Match to enter. In order to enter a Ranked Match you have to let the game's matchmaking service pair you with other gamers in a particular format of your choosing. Being that I couldn't ever find anyone to race against when I chose a specific type of event like "Team Championship", I begun selecting the Quick Play option so that I had maximum chance of finding a game. Any mode, any car type, any city. I don't care; just get me in a race.
I succeeded in entering a team race yesterday with two Swedes and a Brit. This morning I entered another match with a couple of French guys and a German guy. Both events were good fun, even though nobody could understand what the other was saying. And I did get to unlock the "Giant Killer" Achievement, but when these events were over I spent the next 30 minutes waiting and waiting and waiting for the matchmaking service to find me a race to enter. I turned the machine off and came back later only to have the same problem. You mean to tell me that at 5pm, PST there isn't one single Ranked Match available for me to play in the entire world? For a game as popular as PGR4? How can that be?
I refuse to believe that I'm the only one in the world suffering from this problem. And making matters worse, a number of the Achievements are linked to Ranked Match play. Just like in Undertow, another game I can't find any Ranked Matches to enter. Both games have plenty of people playing Player Matches, but nobody in Ranked play.
The reason for linking Achievements to Ranked Match gameplay is so that, theoretically, everyone is a stranger and matches are completely random so that everyone has to earn the Achievement without "boosting" for it by trading wins/kills/widgets with a friend. This line of thinking is bogus. Those who feel the need to boost their way to an Achievement are going to find ways to do it no matter how many layers of super-secret protection the servers try to place over the host's name. And who cares? I know this is rather self-contradictory, but who cares if people want to cheat their way to a couple of extra Gamerscore? I don't. I care about Achievements only in that they are a welcome source of positive feedback. I enjoy being told by my Xbox that I'm getting better at a game. And I do love to hear that pop-up box chime. For me, most Achievements provide an ancilliary goal that I actually enjoy trying to earn. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. It doesn't bother me to not earn an Achievement, nor does it bother me if others cheat/boost their way to a high Gamerscore. What does bother me is when a game has a series of Achievements that I can't even attempt to earn. And that is what I'm facing right now with PGR4. And the reason is simple: people want to play with their friends without hassle. Not to single out PGR4, but finding a race to enter today was about as user-friendly of an experience as trying to renew your license at the DMV. I only continued to wait and renew the search over and over because I do enjoy playing the game so much. There's no way I would have waited this long for a game I was only half-interested in.
And yet more and more games are linking their Achievements to Ranked Match play even though the percentage of games being played in Ranked Matches compared to Player Matches is grossly unbalanced. Achievements don't cost the developer anything. They don't matter. They're just something for people to strive for. I don't want them made easy, but I would like them at least accessible. And while I understand that those who like the game will play with or without the Achievements, it does indeed bother me that all of that time I spend playing Player Matches doesn't earn any extra Gamerscore. Especially if I do exactly what the Achievement requires and do it without boosting or cheating.
No, it doesn't matter. And yes, the game is still fun. But isn't it bad enough we have to fork over $60 to play these games; why go and make it impossible for us to get the most out of them?