What a long strange trip it’s been

“What a long, strange trip it’s been” is an unusual set of WoW achievements. In order to complete it, a player has to fill in several sets of achievements, one for each of the in game holidays. This means that at the minimum, it will take one year to complete. That’s one year in which a player doesn’t miss a single in-game holiday.

The reward is a mount that is faster than almost anything in the game. Although not with a unique skin, just a unique colour.

This does explain some of the dissatisfaction with the recent Valentine’s Event. Other than people like me who hate it on principle, some of the achievements which count towards the drake require luck with the random drops. And now the event is over, anyone who missed it this time will have to wait another year.

Is it unethical?

I personally hate achievements that reward you for having a subscription for a minimum amount of time. I hated the idea in CoH that the only way to get wings for your superhero was to have subscribed for X months. The CoH achievements are why I can never persuade my husband to drop his sub when he stops playing for a few months (it’s not that we can’t afford it, it just offends me on some deep level to be paying for a service we don’t use.) To my mind, it’s just one step beyond letting you pay cash for achievements.

In any case, to get the violet protodrake, people will have to keep their subscription going for at least a year, and arrange their own holidays and spare time such as to never miss an in-game holiday. Granted many people would have maintained that sub anyway but you can imagine some financial guy at Blizzard’s eyes lighting up when the notion was invented.

And for some people, it’ll encourage them to play more than they really should, pay longer than they really should, and act against their own best interests. And the pressure not to miss an event achievement will get stronger and stronger as the year goes on. It isn’t the game’s job to save us from ourselves, but shouldn’t they be rewarding activities that are fun?

So what’s the big appeal?

One of the complaints that people have made about WoW at the moment is how difficult it really is to stand out. When everyone is raiding, no one is a non-raider. When everyone is raiding, raiding achievements don’t feel so exclusive any more. In fact, very few things in the game feel exclusive.

So let’s look again at the long strange trip:

  • can be done mostly solo (the non solo parts can be done in PUGs)
  • requires dedication during each event
  • requires a whole year of dedication to events
  • requires luck too for some of them
  • has an obvious visual reward
  • has a reward with a nice extra feature (extra speed)

This achievement is plugging a gap for people who may or may not be raiders but want to do something hard that will give bragging rights. The reason it is hard isn’t necessarily to do with a challenge to playing skill, it’s more of a logistics issue. Were you dedicated enough to get your drake? Were you lucky enough? Did you spend months and months working on it?

There are very few goals in the game which are as accessible to everyone but still feel exclusive. The sarth+3 title/mount is for relatively hardcore raiders only. There isn’t anything cool that you can grind for solo if you want to prove your … uh … hardcore grinding skills.

Even though I have so little comprehension of the playstyle that would see these things as desirable, I can see how achievements like this will make a lot of people happy. I think they are unhealthy (the achievements, not the people) and encourage developers to add content that isn’t fun or appealing. But if an activity was fun, appealing, and accessible, then everyone would do it and it wouldn’t be exclusive. And so players vote with their feet.

The only way to make a reward exclusive is to make it either inaccessible, unappealing, expensive, random, or demanding in some other way (eg. needing to influence other players to vote for you). The price of exclusivity in games is this type of content.

So perhaps this meta-achievement is a way for Blizzard to introduce the illusion of difficulty without actually making the achievements difficult. It’s not a good substitute for solid gameplay or real content with properly scaling difficulty.

In which people puzzle me

I am surprised by how many people are going for this one. In retrospect, I really shouldn’t be. I’ve listed above all the reasons the achievement is desirable, and being achievable solo is a big part of that.

But any time I see a violet proto-drake, I’m still going to think ‘What a muppet’ :P

The study of incentives in WoW is a very fertile ground for economists. I will be fascinated to see what people make of achievements in future and how they drive player behaviour.

When achievements tell the story

Achievements are a waste of time.

They’re time consuming, they don’t grant significant gold, don’t give any other significant rewards, and there’s only a small number that might even be worthwhile for boasting rights. They’re very obviously designed as timesinks and players fall for it every.single. time. No, it is not fun to kill 5 zillion foozles for any reason, no matter what title you  get at the end. What is wrong with us?

And how can we stop it before the business world takes note and we have to set pointless achievements for our minions at work too?

“Uh, I name you, ‘Chief build system wrangler when the other guy isn’t here’. Congratulations. Here’s a badge with your title on it. Now never mention the build system to me again.”

Bad news there, I’m afraid. We can’t stop achievements. They play into simple human nature, the desire to celebrate things that we have done and to be regularly rewarded with titles, recognition, and peer regard.

They’ve been fantastically popular in every game that has used them. From CoH with its crazy myriads of titles (it is practically guaranteed that at least one will be perfect for any character you can dream up), to LOTRO with its traits for killing racial enemies and practicing your abilities, and Warhammer with the Tome of Knowledge.

I do have a soft spot for the tome because it even looks like a book. A book, which contains the history of your character and all the (great and not so great) things it has done. You can leaf through it, looking for achievements in various categories, and see where you’re at and where you’re going.

Achievements and Storytelling

The basic story for any player in an MMO is the story of your character. It’s the story of a simple farmperson who becomes a skilled, geared, and feared world-saving hero. The rest is window dressing and guild drama.

And naturally, as the character gains in power, it marks this with various achievements. Some are mundane (Congratulations! You are level 10!) and some more tricky (You fought the fifty armies while balancing a spoon on your nose!) but each one marks a rite of passage.

One of the innovative things about the WoW achievements is that they are broadcast to your guild. I wasn’t sure about this in the beginning because it seemed kind of … nosey? But in practice having the achievement broadcasts turns out to be quite sweet. Items of Some Consequence practically makes a lifestyle out of achievement snooping! Everyone in the guild congratulates people, you can see how all the alts are doing, and — most importantly — because there is an achievement for level 80, no one ever has to spam ‘Final ding!’ ever again. I owe Blizzard for that one.

I like the idea that the achievements help to mark out the story of a character. One day, I think we’ll have proper generated character narratives to record what we have done but until then, the ‘recent achievements’ tab will do.

And also, some of the achievements will have a memorable story. A lot of people remember what they were doing when they hit max level. Some of the dungeon achievements have a resonance for me because of the people I was with, and will do even a year from now when I skim through them.

Achievements and decoration

It’s common to have some achievements associated with special titles. I think of these as being like vanity pets or glowy weapons, a way to add extra sparkly description to a character. Sometimes it means boasting about what a character has done, sometimes it just describes who a character is.

Either way, it’s an important draw of specific achievements to specific people. If you want that special mount, you know which achievements you have to do. If you want that particular title, it will point you at other activities in game.

And we do like to decorate our characters. This is the main reason I want to get ‘The Undying’ on my warrior, or why I bought green dye for my Archmage during the brief period when she was ‘The Green.’ It’s fun.

Different types of achievements

I despise grinding. I can sometimes be lured by a game into doing it, but it’s something I avoid when I can. So a lot of achievements involve activities that I simply would never do. I freely admit I don’t understand the people who do them, but hey, different strokes.

In any case there are different sorts of achievements:

  • Things you would do anyway. These can help teach new players about the game (if you’re not sure what to do next, check your achievements tab) and mark the simple progression of a character. These are also fun because they’re so organic, you are happily playing the game and *ping* a new achievement comes up. Shiny!
  • A bit of extra grind. Push you just a little into more exploring, more hanging out online and killing orcs, running that one extra instance because you need that reputation for an achievement.
  • A lot of extra grind. Something for the OCD. As I said, I have absolutely no idea why people do these things but glad they’re having fun. And if a game ever makes the rewards for these so high that they become nigh-compulsary, I will drop that sub like a hot brick.
  • Doing something unusual or amusing. Good amusement value, something relaxing and non grindy to do.
  • Doing something at greater difficulty than usual. Extra challenge, can be extra content if the achievement requires a whole new strategy. I like the idea of these, especially if they are mostly optional.

The great strength of achievements is that they mirror the strength of MMOs. There is something there for all abilities and all playing styles. And they’re optional — I think this is a really key point. WoW has ominously assigned points for completing achievements but there’s nothing yet to spend them on. Let’s hope that Blizzard understands the importance of only allowing small or cosmetic improvements as rewards here.

They’re a waste of time, but damn if I don’t really  like them :)

(Thanks a lot to Pixellated Executioner and the Blog Azeroth crowd for the shared topic idea.)

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

I think my infatuation with heroics is coming to a natural end. I’ll never hate them, and we will stay on good terms. We’ve had some good fun together and I have the screenshots to prove it. (This is ironic since there is at least one that I’ve never run on heroic, but I don’t really feel much drive to either.)

But I’m not on fire any more to put groups together and run three or four in an evening. I think that white hot stage of the relationship has faded now. I’m still running them with friends/ guildies but less likely to actively organise.

Blizzard has invented achievements for each boss that encourage you to kill it faster, more smoothly, or with an unusual tweak, to provide an extra challenge. Unfortunately, I’m not really an achievement junkie.

But for me personally, I make the runs more interesting for myself by speeding things up. Again ironically, the one achievement for a speed run in an instance is one we don’t have yet (we’ve gotten to the extra boss in Stratholme a few times but not killed it inside the timer – my gut feel says it’s a dps issue but still, if there’s anything I can do to help I want to try).

You do need to know the instance pretty well to really be able to focus on speed. That means every patrol, every nook and cranny, every pull and what might be in it.

Chain Pulling

This means no downtime between pulls. As the dps are finishing off the last mob of a pull, the next set of mobs arrives. So you pull the next set while there are still things left to kill. There’s no special trick to chain pulling apart from knowing the instance well and keeping tabs on people’s mana bars to get an idea when a break may be needed. Obviously try not to get hit in the back too much when you are maneuvering.

It is generally polite to let people know you plan to chain pull but you can always just pretend it was a mistake. eg.  ‘Oops, didn’t see that patrol there, thought I’d better grab it.’ When the mobs are all dead, people will be OK about it.

The easiest way to start is to practice pulling a patrol while the group is still fighting something else. (Like I say, I sometimes apologise afterwards but I’m not actually sorry, I was just bored. Plus I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t know we could cope. )  To do this you want to:

  1. Have solid aggro on the group that is currently being fought (or at least slap a Shockwave on them while you’re pulling).
  2. Have access to an instant pull. I think all tanks do though.
  3. Be aware if the new group includes casters or any mob that needs to be pulled around a corner.
  4. Be able to count. Oh, I thought it was just a 2-man patrol will not save you when 5 mobs sprint round the corner.
  5. It isn’t necessary but can help to have some raid marks hotkeyed so that you can at least stick a mark on the one that needs to die first.

Even if you are chain pulling, pause before a boss fight (unless the instance is set up to be chain pulled, like Old Stratholme). At least long enough to check that people know the fight.

Sometimes people will respond to chain pulls by banging out some crowd control. Even if it isn’t necessary (and if it was necessary I would have marked for it), I try to respect the CC and not just ignore it. For one thing, it keeps me agile, and for the other … maybe it’s just me but it seems a bit rude to just ignore other classes abilities.

Speed is fun?

I think people do enjoy faster runs and having to think on their toes a bit, once they are familiar with an instance.

It’s just unfortunate that more fun for the tanks and dps generally means mad pulls, lots of mobs, nonstop dps and mayhem all over the place. Which is also more work for the healer. So the trick for keeping the run fun for everyone is staying in control and checking that people are OK with the speed. And pausing for mana breaks if people need them.

But seriously, when the paladin in that Nexus run yesterday spent the whole time talking about how his mana never dropped below 15k, what did he expect? Saying that to me is like a red rag to a bull! :)

Or as an old friend of mine (who was, not coincidentally, the scariest driver I have ever known) used to say, “It’s great, you won’t even notice the speed bumps if you go over them at 70MPH.”