Before writing this post, I did a Google search on "Gamerscore Inflation" to see what turned up. I wasn't too surprised to see that there wasn't much, and existing sources use the term differently than I'm about to.
"Gamerscore Inflation" has been discussed in two different ways that I found. The first usage refers to people who hack/gamesave/profile glitch their way to more points, thus artificially inflating their scores without really playing. People offering to boost other people's score for them, sometimes for money (and possibly using one of the methods earlier mentioned) fall into the second usage of the term. Both involve a single player's account, and what happens to that score.
My definition of Gamerscore Inflation has ramifications on the entire gaming industry, and every Xbox owner. I'm talking about Microsoft-sponsored Gamerscore Inflation, in the form of raising point caps on games, and rising uncertainty on where they'll draw the line on how many points a game can or should have. As gamers and consumers, we need to keep a critical eye on this trend, as its development over 2009 will define the future of the achievements system. More points isn't always a good thing.
Microsoft has changed is policy on achievements more than once. I believe the initial rules were that a game must have a minimum of 5 achievements, a maximum of 50, and could have up to 1000 points. Most games took all 1000 they could, but there were a few weird exceptions. To polish things up, and make for easier comparison, Microsoft changed the rules so every game must have 1000 points available on the disc. The Shivering Isles expansion of Oblivion marked the first time DLC was given achievements, and a new cap of 1250 was given to games, where developers could add up to 250 points through DLC, and could make that content free or for purchase, as they wished.
Now comparisons start to get sloppy again, though it isn't Microsoft's fault. Developers don't have to add all 250, so now that nice line of 1000s on your card has been replaced with 1050 for Mass Effect, 1100 in Bioshock and Lost Odyssey, 1220 in The Force Unleashed, and 1250 in Oblivion, as an example. At this point, perhaps you're thinking I'm a neat-freak of sorts who wants all games to look the same in points, that's not the issue here. I love getting points in DLC like most other achievement junkies (though I'm not part of the "No points = No purchase" crowd). While it's nice that every game now has 1000 original points, this DLC policy has undone the "ease of comparison" idea that was part of the original intent of the first policy revision.
So far, the system has worked well enough, as most of the DLC content that comes with new achievements is substantial content that deserves to have points attached to it. At this point, developers don't seem to be abusing achievements as a way to get people to purchase DLC, though I know some whine about Gears of War 2 or Fallout's 800msp cost for 100 points in Operation Anchorage. If you're only playing Fallout 3 for the points though, you really have issues. Certainly, some developers aren't as good as others about providing good DLC, but if asked the question, "Are developers ripping us off on DLC or exploiting achievement whores?" my answer for now would be, not YET, for the most part. 2009 will be a telling year for DLC though, and things could shift in that direction.
The change in the system that truly has me concerned is the rise of new "super games," or games that are allowed to ascend beyond the 1250 cap. First, Halo 3 got the obscene raise to 1750 points. Obscene is the only word to describe Halo being worth almost any 2 other games, especially since its DLC is only a series of map packs, but since Halo is one of Microsoft's biggest cash ponies, it's not too surprising. Next up is Fallout 3, which is reported to have 100 points in The Pitt, and 150 in Broken Steel, making for a total of 1350, with the possibility of more points if they make more content. Fallout raises an important question; how should episodic content be treated? Should all such releases of content get points? What will the standard be? Right now, there doesn't seem to be one, but Bethesda doesn't appear to be abusing their exception status.
Halo and Fallout will not be the last games cracking the 1250 cap. With Microsoft shelling out millions for the exclusive rights to GTA4 DLC, I promise you they'll push that title by offering up more points, so count on GTA4 getting to at least 1500 total. I'm also expecting Gears of War 2 to push beyond 1250 before Epic releases Gears 3. So far, it looks like things are being handled on a case-by-case basis, which is good, but this trend is only beginning. How far will it go? What happens if more and more developers want to break the 1250 cap?
If the number of games granted exceptions remains rather small, it's not too big a problem, but there are several possible outcomes to the system as a whole if more and more games were to be allowed to go beyond 1250. Enter the dark potential futures:
1. Gamerscore Inflation:
As games continue to have more and more points, the games released before the cap raise would mean less and less, compared to new games offering up hundreds of points in DLC. Suddenly, everyone has higher scores, and hitting milestones like 100k aren't nearly as hard or impressive as they once were.
2. Developer exploitation:
Some could argue we're already being over-charged for DLC, but further point allowances could make things worse. What's stopping developers from making "Get X kills with Y DLC-only weapon" achievements? We already have "On X map, do Y" achievements in Halo and Gears, among others. If you think developers are using achievements to push some people into purchasing content now, imagine how much more they could do it if they're given more points to work with. Remember Microsoft gets a cut on DLC sales, so if it helps their bottom line, they could be more generous in allowing games to have more points. And of course, the more points attached to a piece of DLC, the likely you are to buy it, if you care about points.
3. Stringing along gamers:
While Bethesda's releases for Fallout should all be quality, odds are not everyone will be so good. Episodic content doesn't really exist on the 360 yet, but the idea of monthly content packs, each with a fee and a few more points, is certainly possible, if Fallout 3 turns out to be an example of the future. Could developers keep using points to sell strings of mediocre DLC? Add an achievement or two to a bunch of DLC pieces, so people have to purchase all of them if they want all the points? What about games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero? Would they take advantage of higher point allowances, and the 99 achievement limit introduced by the Orange Box, to keep attaching an achievement to whatever track pack they want? I'm a little surprised they haven't tried that already...
Ultimately, who has control over how points for DLC are utilized going into the future? Microsoft, for starters. They'll be the ones to decide just how many points a game is allowed to have, and whether games with more than 1250 become common or not remains their decision. However, it's up to us, who buy that DLC, to decide how far we'll let developers go. If we live up to the moniker of 'whores' and buy anything for points, could you blame developers for wanting to exploit that? If we're smart, and don't succumb to the temptation to buy any crap for a few more points, perhaps developers will be responsible in their usage. We can only hope.
In the February issue of OXM, Achievement Whores are listed as #35 in a "Top 100 for 2009" article. They write, "They're Microsoft's most valuable resource: The gamers who will do, buy, or play anything for another 1000 points of Gamerscore. Mediocre budget software of 2009, you have found your new target audience. Please milk it with care." We'll have to decide on our own how badly we let them milk us...
Achievement Generator: http://achievements.schrankmonster.de/Achievement.aspx