Microsoft Explains How Xbox 360 Achievements Work

After you read this article, you didn't unlock an achievement. :(

Love them, hate them, or be completely indifferent toward them, but in every case Achievements have become a permanent fixture in modern gaming since the launch of the Xbox 360. And in a new Xbox Engineering Blog post, Xbox Live and platform architect Vince Curley gives a detailed explanation of how the Achievements system works, as well as divulges some surprising facts behind their creation -- including that the now-infamous "Achievement unlocked" toast and sound effect was a last-minute addition that almost never existed.

Curley explains that although a key aspect of Xbox Live is the consistency you see across all games, they still wanted to give game developers leeway in making their own unique presentations, which is why the Achievement "toast" almost never came to be. "Some people argued that gamers wouldn't want the toast popping up in the heat of battle and that game designers would want to use their own visual style to present achievements," Curley writes. "Others argued for consistency and for reducing the work required of game developers. In the end we added the notification popup and its happy beep, which turned out to be the right decision, but for a long time it was anything but obvious."

Curley also recalls how the Achievement system was not "well understood" by developers early on, partly because Microsoft failed to give enough early guidance. "Because of this, early implementations of achievements were inconsistent and not as good as they could have been," Curley writes. "Some games did the minimum required: 5 achievements which were tossed out for basically just starting the game. Some games made the achievements way too hard or too easy. Our developer support team has done an amazing job of providing guidance, including creating a 21-page, 8,000 word whitepaper on best practices for achievements."

But the majority of Curley's post is dedicated to explaining the highly technical details behind how the Achievement process works, including how gamers can unlock Achievements even when offline and they'll still show up on their Gamertag profiles the next time they're online. Do be aware, though, that when we say "highly technical," we mean it: "Since the launch of Xbox 360, game information has been defined using a Game Development Kit (GDK) tool called XLAST, the Xbox LIVE Authoring and Submission Tool. XLAST writes the game information to an XML file called an XLAST file," Curley explains, and that's just the beginning of a lengthy explanation that involves flow-charts and chunks of actual code used for examples.

Still, if you have a mind for this kind of stuff, it's a fascinating look at just how much it takes to make that little "Achievement unlocked" toast appear on your screen each time.

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