Achievements for Non-Achievers

Achievements are the greatest gameplay innovation of this generation of computer games. (Although phasing may come close.) Players love them. Developers love them. Publishers love them. Achievementville may be papered with old laundry lists and high score tables, but it’s definitely where people want to be. Achievements are what quests were to the last generation of MMOs (rare and novel content that fascinates players.)

And like so many facets of MMOs (and human behaviour, even), we still don’t entirely know why they are so popular. Yes, people like rewards. They like to achieve a continuous stream of short term goals. But Achievements have become more than just a means to that end, they’re sparking off new types of gameplay in themselves.

I think a lot of people write achievements off, saying that they’re just there for achievers. And achievers are that nebulous cornerstone of Bartle’s four player types whose main goals in a game are to hit the high scores, the speed runs, collect the best in slot epic gear, and other concrete measurements of success in games.

I’ve always felt that achiever was a misleading name, because all players feel a sense of achievement when they succeed in their goals. A social player feels a sense of achievement when making new friends or running some group content successfully in a PUG. An explorer feels a sense of achievement when they explore some new location or content or theory. A killer feels a sense of achievement when they win a fight against another player.

And this is the brilliant groundbreaking aspect to Achievements. They can give players other than achievers some kind of concrete measure of success. Let’s face it, completing an encounter in some odd non-optimal way isn’t really the goal of a pure achiever unless they get some extra concrete reward from doing it – they want to beat the encounter, get the loot, move on. They may spend time working on completing the encounter as quickly and efficiently as possible. But by attaching an Achievement to the tactic, it becomes meaningful to players who might not have cared otherwise.

I’m seeing a lot of emergent gameplay springing up around Achievements. They’ve been plopped into our games, and now we’re seeing more of how players are responding. I’m going to use the WoW ones as my main examples.

Achievements as social enablers

When you get a new achievement in WoW, it is broadcast to your immediate area and also to your guild channel (if you have one). If it’s an impressive achievement, people will often stop to congratulate you. It may even spark a conversation on trade chat or one of the world channels.

In guild, we almost always congratulate achievements, even silly ones. Someone caught 25 fish? Cue a conversation about how dull fishing is. Cue the guild meme of everyone shouting FEEEEESH!! on channel. Cue people who may not even know the guildie well engaging him or her in the guild channel. I’ve noticed that even people who mostly play solo seem to enjoy the social inclusion.

Someone just hit level 80? It’s very likely they’ll be offered an instance or heroic run if people are free. Or offered advice on which reputation to work on first, or on gearing or talents. The *ping* of the achievement reminds the rest of us that this guy only just hit 80.

My guild is friendly anyway but broadcasting the achievements makes it much easier to keep up with what other guildies are doing, even if we don’t group with them regularly. I was wary at first (after all, do you really want everyone knowing what you’re up to?) but I can’t think of a bad side to it now.

Achievements as a narrative device

Some achievements help to chronicle the history of a character. I could look back through my WoW achievements and work out in which order I had run instances, when I had run different questlines, and as a rough gauge of what my characters had been doing at different times.

The achievement log doesn’t currently make it easy to read the list as if it was a history book, but it might be something that we see more in the next generation of games. Standard storytelling doesn’t handle repetitive grinding and instancing well (I killed an orc, then I killed an orc, then I killed an orc, etc), but if you imagine your story as a list of achievements instead, it may make more sense. Especially if there are extra ways to associate achievements with the memories – you could imagine a game which took a screenshot of your character every time you got a new achievement and stored them somewhere, for example.

Some achievements are specifically present as historical markers. Getting to level 80 or catching 25 fish in WoW are not notable achievements. But they may be interesting rites of passage for a character. Achieving max level is always meaningful to a player, even if it’s easy. The same goes for achievements that are given for completing questlines. The quests don’t have to be hard, but giving out the achievement makes them more meaningful. It’s like saying that finishing those quests was important to that character’s storyline.

In CoH there are some missions which give out badges (the CoH equivalent to achievements) and they were always very popular when I was playing. I was never sure if they were particularly good or well written missions, or had been randomly chosen as badge bait. However, because the badges were there, the missions became more important to the playerbase.

I’d love to have some kind of online book available that would tell the story of my character with pictures, achievements, and notable moments. Although guided storylines with awesome cut scenes and NPC dialogue can be vastly entertaining, the story of my character is the story that is MINE. Ideally, I’d like both :) And I think achievements could have a huge role to play in enabling players to tell their own stories.

In fact, I could easily imagine achievements replacing quests as the core guidance through a game in the next generation.

Achievements as gating mechanisms

In WoW, it is not uncommon for people running PUGs to ask prospective members to link appropriate achievements before they invite. Sometimes this is taken to stupid levels, but the achievements are giving players the ability to screen others based on what they have done in game.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing is entirely in the hands of the players who use it. It’s easy to see that if you really want to do a speed run of some instance, it makes sense to look for players who can prove they know the instance already and are well geared. Achievements give players an easy way to do that.

In may be that in future they will be better at helping players to find other players who like to play in a similar way and can prove it by what they have done in the past. For example, to find other people who want to RP being pirates. To find other keen PvPers. To find other crafters. To find other social players.

Achievements to teach people new content

A new patch comes out. Players log into the game. Some of them (who do not avidly read patch notes) wonder what’s new and what they should be trying to do? Go check the latest new achievements. They’ll give you some clues as to what the devs had in mind.

The achievements can also suggest ways to interact with the new content that might not have been obvious. And because they are achievements (and rewarded by a *ding*), there’s a good chance that other players will want to do them also.

In WoW, we’ve seen this a lot with the holiday achievements.  As well as just doing whatever the holiday quests may be, achievements encourage people to go play. To throw rose petals at each other. To turn each other into bunnies. And so on. I do think they have increased the fun that people have with the in game holidays.

The fact that WoW has an achievement (with a title!) for completing every heroic instance also encourages people to at least try the less popular ones occasionally.

Achievements as collectibles

Achievements may have titles, pets, mounts, or collectible items associated with them. So they appeal to people who like to collect stuff. You can only display one title or pet at a time (in any game I’ve ever played) but it can be fun to change your title or pet depending on your mood and the people you are with.

In CoH there are some badges that you can only get once you have achieved a specific set of other (easier) badges. So working towards a badge that gives your character a title that suits its current role and costume can be a huge part of deciding which achievements to attempt.

In LOTRO, you can choose to display a crafting title, or a grind based title (ie. several zillion variants of ‘Orc Killer’), or a funny quest based title, depending on what you want to tell other people about your character and what it has done.

Achievements as high score tables

This is the closest use to the classic definition of achiever. I haven’t seen much use of this yet in games but achievements could track a player’s personal best scores at various aspects of the game. I know in WoW there are addons that will tell you when your raid has achieved a raid fastest time to kill a mob, and we always comment on TS when that happens. It is an achievement, even if the achievement system as it is now doesn’t really record it.

But it’s easy to imagine an achievement system that would let people know when you’d been part of your personal best attempt on some boss or instance.

And as far as other parts of the game go, WoW does record some economic achievements. You will be told when you have reached 10k gold for example. So it would be possible to also record most gold made in one day, and similar types of statistics.

Achievements to learn lore

Remember Angband? Every time you killed a mob, you learned a little more about it. You might start with a sentence or two of information recording what you had noticed last time. Did it run in packs? How much health did it have? How hard did it hit? And after you had killed more of them, the game would start to record whether you’d noticed any special abilities, what sort of locations it inhabited, precisely what stats the mob had, and maybe even what type of items it dropped.

I haven’t quite seen a mechanic like this in MMOs, but Warhammer’s Tome of Knowledge opened up more lore information about mobs, areas, and items as you unlocked different achievements in the game. I always thought that was a fascinating way to present information to the player (and the fact that the book  looked amazing didn’t hurt).

The ToK wasn’t perfect. It was very text heavy and hard to search. So although there was a lot of information in there, it could be quite painful to retrieve it. But I think the idea is sound, and I really do hope that the next generation of games can do more with this type of notion.

MUDs were also very good at recording details such as how many times you’d killed different monsters. It may not be very exciting information but there are people who would love that type of data. They probably do detailed analysis on cricket scores too :)

This is just the tip of the iceberg

I’ve barely scratched the surface of how players interact with achievements in games. Feel free to add anything you like about achievements or that you’ve noticed about how people use them in games you play.

But one thing all my examples have in common – they show that achievements aren’t just for ‘classic’ achievers.  Perhaps they never were.

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27 thoughts on “Achievements for Non-Achievers

  1. Oh Spinks! :( You listed so many reasons why our contemporary achievement system are a dumb abomination. They are not a boon, not even for the achiever style players, they are just grinding down a list of odd things for which you get rewarded.

    “In fact, I could easily imagine achievements replacing quests as the core guidance through a game in the next generation.”

    Achievement/Deed: You kill 1 Worm.
    “: 100 Worms
    “: 1000 Greater Worms
    “: 1 Elder Wyrm

    The MMO future looks like a dumb excel sheet full of statistics.

    I am playing LOTRO a bit at the moment, and at best the deed system is rather odd. I see no good reason why I should not be opposed to this kind of progression, it does not really make games more enjoyable.

    • OK, I wasn’t very excited by the LOTRO deeds either (although I liked the one about the inn league membership). They do turn into a grindfest at higher levels, at least back when I was playing.

      But I don’t think they all have to be like that. The WoW ones aren’t, for example. And really, doing quests is also like working your way through a list of odd things.

      I think achievements could possibly include quests and grinding and exploring and collecting and let the player pick and choose their own way through.

      • I am not too fond of many WoW achievements either. Just think of some battleground achievements or children’s week achievements that demanded players to capture the flag – it totally screws up the already low level of cooperation.

        As with most things, it depends on the implementation if they are boon or bust. I think of a near hit, but unfortunately an outright fail in practice when I think about LOTRO and the legendary weapon system e.g..

        I like how WoW/LOTRO did the explorer achievement – visiting landmarks or clicking them. Have you done the cartographer(=explorer) title in GW, you know how it is done there: By 0.0% fractions of the map uncovered, which means… WALL HUGGING extreme in every zone.

        I am a fan of what WoW calls “Feats of Strength”. I am not a fan of doing silly things listed in my achievement tab as “to do”. Must jumping down Teldrassil really be an achievement? This is a pointer for people to do something cool, but add in Meta achievements and it feels like work to do. It is not right.

        There are rumors that Blizzard’s “NextGen” MMO is heavy Jeff-Kaplanesque, I hope if he decides to make them a major part of gameplay, that he makes sure that achievements are really achievements, and not “odd stuff to grind/to do”.

  2. I really, really hate achievements.

    I play games for immersion and escapism, and I don’t need to be told on a regular basis ‘Hey! Don’t forget you’re playing a videogame!!’

    It it floats people’s boats, fine. Just give me an ‘ignore/hide all achievement info’ checkbox and we can all coexist blissfully.

  3. I have to admit, I came back to WoW for a bit having played WAR, and the achievements in WoW were one factor in driving me away again. I loved them in WAR – essentially, I could get a little bit of bonus XP, a title, some gear, SOMEthing, from doing odd and interesting stuff.

    WoW’s achievements – with a few difficult-to-achieve exceptions, which I understand are disliked by the designers – do NOTHING except spam the guild channel. I don’t mind the ones to do with boss kills, exploration, hitting 80, and so on, so much, but the 25 fish one and its kin made me sit in the corner making growling noises and annoying my wife and housemate.

    I was able to disable the notifications, sure, but that just meant there were incomprehensible streams of gratzes (gratzi? gratzen?) flowing up my screen at intervals. And it didn’t stop my 25-fish, 100-fish, etc achievements being broadcast, which would invariably unload a deluge of more gratzes and whispers, while I sat there and gritted my teeth, cos responding to people who are being nice and friendly with ARRRGH STOP IT DAMMIT is not going to do my curmudgeon reputation one bit of good.

    (Hm, that went a bit ranty. Maybe I should make a post of my own about it…)

    • I did like the WAR achievements and the Tome of Knowledge. One thing I do remember is that there was a conflict between explorers and achievers.

      I loved that the achievements were not revealed to you until you accidentally stumbled across one. You were encouraged to go play, have fun, do whatever you wanted, and you might just run across a cool new achievement. (I’m more of an explorer in that way.)

      And some people hated that they didn’t have a neatly itemised list of achievements to work towards. They found it frustrating.

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  5. I don’t care about achievements at all, but yesterday when me and my A-team were clearing heroics for emblems we decided to do some bosses for achievements. Not for the achievements (or at least not me), but simply becaues it was more challenging and fun than the other 85 times we did it. Instead of just King Drek we took King Drek and 6 of his adds at the same time.

    That’s what achievements should be like: an optional hard mode.

  6. I’m not a vast fan of achievements in general, I guess I’m not really that much of an achiever. But I love to see how players can subvert the achievement systems once they are in the game, and looking at it now, I’m seeing ways in which I can also use them that do work with the ways I like to play. Regis’ notion of the optional fun hard mode is a good example of that. One of the high points of running Naxx for me was when I led the raid that got the 10-man 4 Horseman achievement. That was really fun in itself.

    The big thing I like is that they give a feel that there’s a lot of choice in how you play. You’re not expected to get all of them, it’s more that you can pick various different achievement goals to be working on.

    I do appreciate that it can affect immersion, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun in other ways. MMOs have always been a mixed bag. Either way, I don’t think we’re done with them yet.

  7. you could imagine a game which took a screenshot of your character every time you got a new achievement and stored them somewhere, for example
    [...]
    I’d love to have some kind of online book available that would tell the story of my character with pictures, achievements, and notable moments

    As a matter of fact, that game doesn’t need to be imagined. It’s called Vanguard. Sadly, it’s still terribly broken and frustratingly dead. I played a free trial and left with a sigh (and an auto-screenshot of my character hitting level 5 in my auto-generated online-blog-diary-thingie).

    Also, a word on LotRO’s deed-system. You already noted how it turns into a grindfest at high levels. And it does. You’ll hate it more or less depending on how much you enjoy “just killing stuff”, but hate it you will. And the respective titles? Lost their meaning once there was hundreds and thousands of them. A title isn’t worth much, if looking at won’t tell you anything but “thus guy .. did .. something .. probably .. whatever”.

    As it stands, I’m really glad the achievements in WoW do not have a direct impact on gameplay.

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  9. Ugh – I really hate achievement systems with a passion. They add this layer of metagaming to MMOs that suggests that the base game play was simply not enough to be worthwhile, and you need to perform odd/repetitive/arduous tasks in order to “succeed”.

    I ranted about this when WoW’s achievement system came out, and nearly a year later I’m still convinced that achievement systems are a terrible addition to MMO games: http://teethandclaws.blogspot.com/2008/10/under-achiever.html

    On the other hand, Angband – which you cite – is a wonderful example of a game system that has nothing to do with “achievements” in the modern gaming sense of the term. “Learning by doing” has nothing in common with “grind 1000 rats”, and as a result it’s much more interesting and rewarding.

  10. I’m not much a fan of achievements in WoW myself, but I understand the allure. I’m happy to let people enjoy a game in the way they want, generally. But I think MMOs are innately a bad environment for achievements.

    The main point of an MMO is to provide gameplay experiences you tackle with a group. There can of course be single player elements, but group gameplay should be a big part of the experience or it may as well not be an MMO in the first place. Groups don’t function well when the goals of its constituents differ, and I believe achievements make an already unstable situation much worse.

    Example 1: BGs. BGs by design can already be a little frustrating because some are there just to get honor, some are there to win, and often the two goals require opposite strategies. Adding in achievements can make it so every team member has a different goal and strategy to achieve it, resulting in very few people getting what they want.

    Example 2: Raids. Like BGs, people already have different motivations to raid. Some want to play with a bunch of friends, some want to gear up, some want to see and defeat new content. Adding in achievements makes the situation more unstable. Should we be doing Flame Leviathan with no towers so we can get to new bosses faster? 1 tower for the extra badge? 2 or more so we can get a new achievement?

    I could go on. I mean, I don’t see why everyone needs to know what I’ve been doing either. That’s not to say there are no benefits, even for someone like me who generally dislikes achievements and wants nothing to do with them. I do like the timestamps, they’ve even settled an argument or two for me. Still, I mostly feel that achievements should be used only in single player content.

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  12. But aren’t “Achievements as Lore” basically obsolete in the Web 2.0 era of MMOGs? I mean, any game mechanic whatsoever is going to be reverse engineered and published in a Wiki or added to an in-game mod/add-on within days of its being discovered.

    Yes, I know that there are some people who willingly avoid using that sort of material, and that’s fine — but a game designer can’t really count on that.

    • It’s easy enough to make the lore only count in game. I mean, you could look up the details if you really wanted but the actual game mechanic could require that your character had unlocked that lore item before you were allowed to make use of it (in whichever way).

  13. I’m going to be the odd-man out and just add that I find Achievements to be a fantastic addition.

    I have the Loremaster Achievement. I already had the Loremaster of Outland Achievment when 3.0 was released simply because I love questing. Thanks to the Achievement systerm, however, I had a reason to go back and do quests I had never done on any character (such as quests in Ratchet and Shimmering Flats).

    I love collecting mounts. I had 10 or so on me before they converted mounts into spells. Once they added that, I immediately went out and bought all the mounts that were available to me – but I couldn’t carry due to space limit – and had an Albino Drake while still in Outland.

    If someone’s immersion is killed by a little yellow text that indicates someone made an achievement… maybe they weren’t really immersed to begin with.

    In my opinion, of course.

    • Indeed, live and let live… the trouble is that we can’t turn the Achievements and notifications *off* in some systems. At least install a toggle players have control over.

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  15. It is not the text popups that X,Y,Z got an achievement that are annoying. OK, to some… but this is not the major problem.

    This hunt for achievement and meta-achievement “gives players something to do”, right, but it also burns them out and puts them even more on rails what to do. And they often make players do really ridiculouzs things.

    • Like play the game longer than they otherwise would…

      It’s easy to argue that Achievements are a brilliant way to leverage the obsessive compulsive behavior of some gamers into more sub dollars.

      The bigger question in my mind isn’t one of efficacy, it’s one of propriety. It’s easy to hide behind the “it’s a business, businesses exist to make money” argument, but I don’t buy it. Even though I could make a moral case against such design, there’s even a sheer numerical/psychological aspect to it. Businesses that consume their consumers by promoting obsessive behavior aren’t acting in anyone’s best interests. They burn out players, maybe getting another month or two of sweet sub money, but gaining a detractor and kicking someone out of the genre.

      • woah Tesh, fast reply! :) Did not read it before I posted another take on achievements below.

        You are right, MANY people who loathe LOTRO said the “deeds” system of char progression, basically kill 100, 150, 350 buggers of a sort in disguise, was driving them away to other games.

        WoW has fancy gear/mounts as reward, not as essential as some LOTRO deeds, but still… I share your opinion that achievements exploit compulsive behaviour that (IMO) seems to be very common among MMO gamers, we are drilled to do silly things that NPCs tell us (yeah!), after all.

        Achievements are fun, but at a certain point they turn into a chore and work. And all MMOs so far managed to turn them into this!

  16. I just logged into Guild Wars, guess what people are doing. They are farming Luxon/Kurzick Faction in “Fast Faction Farming Runs”.

    I just discussed it with a friend ingame. The achievement/title hunt “killed the soul” of the game, so he said. But it kept people playing the game, as “achievement zombies”.

    I think he pretty much sums it up what I think, the only difference is that he is not so worked up about achievements as I am.

  17. I’m not going to bore you with the details of the physiology of rewards, since it’s secondary to my point, but I wanted to go into something a step above that. A meta level I wound up learning about during a brief look into some developmental psych. That is the dichotomy of internally motivated versus externally motivated. If you look at the way achievers are described, it isn’t just that they wish to “achieve” something, it’s that they are almost completely externally motivated. If the game system applies reward to something, then they “must” do/have it because that is the provided motivation. (Generally killers are considered their natural opposite, and when you think about it, most often the play styles associated with the killer are very self motivated.)

    Now, to some extent everyone uses both meta classes. However, unlike most things there is no spectrum between internally and externally motivated, because it’s a binary decision taken on a case by case basis. While adding achievements to activities that have traditionally been the purview of the internally motivated is probably good for the general majority who aren’t one of the extremes and don’t use one style for almost all decisions, it’s probably hell on earth for the two extremes. The achievers wonder why they’re being “forced” to do all these pointless activities, while the anti-achievers feel that their activities have been “cheapened” by the addition of outside motivations.

    • That’s extremely interesting (and thanks for that). I’d never really understood why some achievers felt that they were being forced to do an achievement just because it existed.

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