The strange and misleading art of achievement-o-mancy

fakeachievment

It’s amazing how much you can tell from a list of achievements!

I know this because, like a lot of other people, I’ve been scanning the new Cataclysm achievements as they get updated on websites from the beta information.

It feels like reading tea-leaves, or poking through the entrails of some small furry creature, or reverse engineering a piece of software by reading lines of assembler (they totally would have done this for fortune telling in ancient times if it had been available!) All you have to go on is a few lines of text, and yet from that you can try to imagine a whole mini game, how the expansion will treat guilds, and what the new raid encounters might be like!

It doesn’t just happen in Warcraft. Every game has it’s own team of players who piece through every little bit of data before release of some new content, trying to figure it out. This is the real mysterious art of game archaeology; between the data miners, beta leakers, and hordes of armchairs players and theorists who build soaring edifices of imagination out of a few meagre sentences or blurry screenshots.

The danger of reading too much into it

I know that people have been reading the new guild achievements, and thinking about how best to organise their guilds in Cataclysm.

And I want to call a warning on that. MMO devs in general and Blizzard in particular use achievements in a lot of different ways. Some of those ways will deliberately guide players towards a desired mode of play, it’s true. But in other cases it isn’t quite so clear. Lets’ look at some examples:

1. Reach level 80

This achievement marks that your character has hit max level in Wrath. DING! Congratulations. It simply marks a milestone in the life of a character that many people will reach. There are also achievements at lower levels, marking out the pathway to level 80 with a slow breadcrumb of shiny achievement dings.

This type of achievement isn’t something you need to go out of your way to pursue. It will happen if you play for long enough. For a more casual player, or a new player on her first character, it’s a nice, warm feeling that the game seems to ‘know’ that you’ve hit a personal goal.

2. The Loremaster

This is an achievement and title given for completing vast numbers of quests all through the game world.

This is a perk for completists, and anyone who likes quests and wonders if they missed any. It will never be necessary to do all of those quests. The game doesn’t require it. Although I’m sure devs would like interested players to see all of their lore and quests, fact is that the reason there are so many is so that players can choose which ones they want to do.

3. The Safety Dance

This achievement is given for killing a boss in Naxxramas (raid) without anyone in the raid dying. And this one actually is an encouragement to the raid to play well. If no one dies then it means everyone moved out of the dancing green stuff (or healers were able to cover for anyone who was a bit slow.) It comes in 10 man and 25 man versions, which shows that there are at least two versions of the raid available.

4. Less is More

Kill a raid boss with less than a full raid.

These achievements were present in the first tier of Wrath raiding but Blizzard didn’t repeat them later. And the reason is that although it’s nice to have a special achievement when not all of your raid can turn up, it actually encouraged completists to leave people on the bench (ie. “sorry Bob, you can’t come. We’re going for the less people achievement tonight and you drew the short straw”). This was not behaviour that Blizzard wanted to encourage.

5. Watch Him Die

Let’s make things harder for ourselves by killing a dungeon boss in the stupidest way possible and pulling all the adds at once, even though we don’t have to. (and there’s no extra loot.)

This kind of achievement is cool if you like experimenting with nutty ways to kill bosses that turn out not to actually be short cuts since they take longer in the end.

But at the end of the day, this one is kind of annoying and not particularly fun.  Players will be split between enjoying the challenge, wondering why you want to hold up their 10 minute heroic run with a stupid achievement, or feeling like masochists.

There are other achievements which spin this a different way, by encouraging players to try a new tactic which might not be more efficient but turns out to be fun! My raid enjoyed the 4 Horseman achievement in Naxx for example, and Sartharion+3, whilst crazy when it first was released, added an extra and very demanding level of strategy to the encounter.

I think these are the achievements with the most scope. Because sometimes completing an encounter in a silly way can be fun. Just at the same time you have to balance that with the demands of group play (how will the rest of the raid feel if you zone into a battleground naked just to get an achievement?)

6. Make Quick Werk of Him

This is an achievement for killing a boss quickly. Like #3, it’s an incentive to play well (since more dps is good). It’s also an incentive to play quickly. There is another achievement in Naxxramas for clearing one wing in under 20 minutes, and again that rewards efficient play by the raid team. Although it does also give the message that if you’re doing it right, you should be doing it fast. (If Blizzard wonders why players get the message that speed rushing is good, they could start by looking at their own achievements.)

7. Gladiator

This is a PvP achievement, and is given for being in the top 0.5% of ranked arena players at the end of a season. It means that someone is pretty darned good at arena PvP.

8. Argent Aspiration

This achievement is given after someone has completed a few daily quests at the Argent Tournament (a quest hub). It’s a step along the route to many other Argent Tournament achievements, and does in fact show that you’re doing it right. There are also a lot of achievements around the holiday events, encouraging people to go try them out.

9. 1000 fish

Use your fishing profession to catch 1000 fish. This achievement is pure grind, but also an encouragement to level fishing.  If you do level it, you’re bound to get the achievement somewhere along the way. But other achievements are just there for people who like grinding.

10. Realm First! Level 80 Blood Elf

And these are achievements for people who like to race the rest of their server. There are achievements for being the first one to max out each race, class, trade skill, and also for realm first kills of the end bosses of instances.

Now those are just a few random examples, but you can see that Blizzard uses achievements to convey a lot of different messages. Some are intended as tutorials (to give you a clue as to how you are supposed to fight the boss), others are breadcrumbs to lead you to content, some are for completionists, others are crazy, some reward grinding, some reward beating other players (either in PvP or speed). So how do you know which is which? You don’t. If you look at a list of achievements as a to-do list where you are playing it wrong if you don’t get as many as you possibly can — you’re doing it wrong. Or rather, that’s a very hardcore and specific playing style which doesn’t reflect most people and it isn’t intended to either.

So beware trying to figure out how Blizzard ‘wants’ people to play from a list of achievements. They have a history of just throwing stuff in (which is the right way to handle it, I think) but they may not mean what you think they mean.

This is particularly dangerous if you look at the new guild achievements. The new emphasis on guilds is new, it hasn’t really been tested by a full player base and no one really knows where it will lead or what types of guild will flourish. If Blizzard find that players feel encouraged to do things they (the devs) don’t like, then the achievements will be changed. Logic says that they’ll want to find ways to reward as many types of functional guilds as they can, from large social guilds to small focussed ones.

But you cannot always tell by looking which are the silly achievements that are just there for fun, which ones are there to try to guide players along, which are instructional, and which are optional grinds. One of the issues, I think, with guild achievements is that since all of them will reward guild experience, they don’t feel optional in quite the same sense as an achievement that just rewards meaningless points that can’t be spent on anything.

I predict that Blizzard will tweak the xp from guild achievements in some way.  It is almost guaranteed not to work as intended and to throw up unexpected consequences somewhere along the line. We just don’t yet know how. (I suspect they’ll have to ease the guild levelling curve later on, when people no longer want to do the grind for every guild they join.)

Beware in particular jumping on board with an ultra hardcore ethos, if that doesn’t actually fit the way that you want to play. Blizzard will want to reward other types of play too – in fact, if Ghostcrawler’s concerns about min/maxing are right, they’ll want to think particularly about that.

Class Population for Cataclysm

Hatch has written a great (and quite daring) post, predicting what percentage of the player base will pick each class in Cataclsym, based on the current previews. I suspect that I will fret about it briefly before sticking with my warrior because she’s still fun, dammit. And that’s why no major changes are a good thing.

Of course, there are still potential worgen and goblin alts to pick – and the lure of hybrids who can switch roles is undeniable. But then, some of the new race/class combinations are also appealing: troll druid, tauren paladin, undead hunter, dwarf shaman, night elf mage …

We still haven’t seen the new talent trees, and a lot of the detail will be in the tuning. But what do you think? Have you seen enough to make your decision? Do you agree with Hatch that paladin population will go through the roof, or do his predictions not go far enough? Are hybrids too appealing right now?

Sharing predictions, and looking forwards

This is the time of year where everyone traditionally makes some predictions for the next year, so that we all can laugh at how wrong they were in 12 months time.

Here’s a few links to bloggers who are putting their necks on the line:

The big trend in 2009 was the rise and rise of social gaming via facebook games. They’re not strictly MMOs, although massive numbers of players are involved and they are online. But a lot of investor interest is focussed again on online gaming, so I’m sure this will have some kind of knock-on effect on more traditional styled MMOs. We’ll see more effort next year put into translating the fantastically successful social networking, gift giving, strategy/ resource focus and virtual goods buying mechanisms into other gaming areas. And we’ll probably see more of this type of approach in non-gaming sites as well.

Many of the new MMOs of 2009 seem to have disappointed fans and pundits with their subscription numbers. Champions Online in particular has seemed like a flash in the pan from where I have been sitting. I’m still intrigued that so many people were happy to line up to pay for a lifetime subscription though, and I think that’s a trend worth noting.  Aion has been fairly successful but again, the pattern of excitement at launch followed by a few months of disillusionment (with the grind, on this one) is repeated. People will simply have to revise their expectations for how new MMOs behave at launch — they won’t actually revise their predictions though.

Free Realms is one that I was predicting to possibly take a slice of the WoW market. I liked the game when I tried it, but the non-existent social side failed to hook me in. SOE have struggled with their free to play model here, and shifted to an ‘all pay after level 5′ model which isn’t the same thing at all. I hope they see more success with the game in 2010 and find their audience because it was nicely executed.

Darkfall launched to a finely targeted hardcore PvP audience and has flourished, despite criticism. But this largely on the basis of catering to their core audience (not a bad idea for any business, really) rather than aiming to be something that they are not.

Fallen Earth surprised a lot of players with its focussed old style crafting and scavenging post apocalyptic playstyle.  Again, it’s a game that is focussed squarely at a core audience and aims to make those players happy.

Another trend (this is another gimme) will be the rise of gaming on smartphones. I don’t think the iPhone will take over the world, and it might be that cross-platform games will be the biggest success of 2010. It may come down to the social networking in the end and not wanting to be restricted to playing with people who use the same model of phone, rather than the better graphics you could get by tailoring to a single hardware platform. There will be some big game that uses location based technology and maybe even augmented reality — it may look better in demos than in practice but it will get vast amounts of press attention.

And the last trend I wanted to highlight was the snap sales we have seen on Steam and other online digital vendors. The sales have been very successful, and the unpredictable nature of them and the huge discounts has gotten a lot of player attention, even though there is now a good chance that you will feel like an idiot if you buy any game at full price only to see it at deep discount for one day only a couple of weeks later. I think we’ll see MMOs trying to experiment with a similar model, and maybe even occasional sales on 3 or 6 month subscriptions to keep interest up (in sub games at least).

WoW

Much of the remaining Icecrown Citadel content will be dazzling.  Players will love the cut scenes the first time they see them and will generally agree that the raid encounters are as fun as anything Blizzard ever designed — at the same time as complaining that they’re too accessible. The hard modes will have a better difficulty ramp than TotGC (ie. more people will get past the first boss) to give midcore guilds something to aim at.

The Oculus will be blown up in one of the pre-Cataclysm events.

A few months down the line, it will be generally agreed that the  dungeon finder is more successful in the EU and Taiwan than in the US. No one will dare to comment on why this might be, except to bitch that the rest of the world is cheating by having a less individualist culture.

Cataclysm will launch in Q3 2010. All the people who quit WoW in the first six months of the year due to boredom at having nothing to do with their pimped out characters will return to create new worgen. The updated Azeroth will be widely lauded but everyone will complain again as soon as they get to Outland. They will mess up the tuning again and return to the harder dungeon instances of TBC, which will be nerfed again after lots of complaints. But people will never be sure whether the dungeons actually were harder or whether players had just forgotten how to handle hard content.

People will get bored with the new expansion quickly. The guild changes will be successful but too late to save the shattered social fabric of the game. WoW players will continue to devastate other new games, but now they’ve also failed to learn standard dungeon etiquette (ie. stay till the end of the run, work with the rest of the group, play nice with loot, etc etc) in favour of hopping in and out whenever they want to and complaining if an instance takes longer than 10 minutes.

There will be at least one major unexpected announcement before Cataclysm that will throw the hype machine into overdrive. Possibly solo instances or something that involves more solo content. Hopefully also they’ll sneak in some extra ideas which won’t garner so much attention but will make seasoned gamers happy (like cosmetic clothing).

Then there will be the expected announcements about underwater zones, dance studios, and lots of pictures of female worgen.

LOTRO

There will be another expansion in 2010 but it still won’t be Rohan. Turbine will start playing around with more methods to help players catch up more quickly. The game will chug along happily and although they will make tuning mistakes, the players who like it will mostly be pleased with any new additions. Zombie Columbus will continue to delight with every new design he gets involved with.

Other new games

Star Wars won’t release before Cataclysm, even if it means delaying until 2011.

Star Trek Online will meet with more success than Champions Online. It’s hard to call this one without having seen the beta but I was intrigued by the demo that I saw, there’s plenty of interest in the IP, and I think many players would like a space combat MMO that isn’t EVE. The longevity of the game will depend on social factors rather than solo content.

Final Fantasy XIV will do very well, surprising the pundits who forget how many fans the Final Fantasy franchise has, and that FF gets a shot in the arm with the release of FFXIII towards the beginning of 2010. Their separation of crafting and fighting classes will make a lot of crafting fans happy. If they are able to release before Cataclysm, they will have a huge influx of bored WoW players looking for something to do before their world resets.

Torchlight will release an MMO (or at least a beta) before the end of the year. Everyone will exclaim that it is fun, and then move on to Cataclysm.

Guild Wars 2 won’t release in 2010.

Neither will Diablo III.

CCP will announce their Vampire MMO which will go into beta in 2010.

Mass Effect 2 will be amazing. Voice acting is the new black?

Blizzard will still not announce anything about their next MMO because they actually threw away the current design this year and are starting again from scratch.

Neither will Jumpgate Evolution (it makes me sad to write this because I was looking forwards to that game, but we really haven’t heard much about it.)

Although there will be a lot of talk about free to play models, there will be a better understanding of how and where that model works. WAR may try to convert from subscription to F2P, but it won’t help (again, makes me sad to write that). AAA developers will continue to push the payment model of subscriptions plus virtual goods plus anything else they can think of. However, extended trials will be more common, and maybe even WoW will offer the first 10 levels free as a Cataclysm enticement.

I think 2010 will be a better year for MMOs than the past one, we’re moving out of a recession for a start and lessons of the last year will also have been learned. The games I am mostly looking forwards to are the final fantasy ones, both single player and MMO. And if buzz from the STO beta is good, I’m also jonesing for a good space fighting game so I hope that one will fit. Because there isn’t much else in the pipeline.

Do you have any predictions? Anything you are particularly looking forwards to, gaming wise?