The strange and misleading art of achievement-o-mancy


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.

3 thoughts on “The strange and misleading art of achievement-o-mancy

  1. I have to agree. Achievements should be seen as an ‘extra’ to playing the game, not as a main goal. I’ve always seen them as a timesink or contentfiller and most of them certainly do not tell you much about the player. If they start to influence the game in such a way that players can’t join raids anymore without an achievement, I really question the use of them – same goes for the potential pressure on guilds in Cata. the game feels more and more like a ‘job application’ – a bit like Shintar wrote in a recent article or your own post about the cookie cutter mania. =/
    I wonder where we are going at this rate.

  2. I’m a Luddite regarding achievements. I think they have been used as a blind to cover the removal of real achievement in the game.

    We’ve gone from only the finest guilds in the world could clear Naxx 40 to everyone has the Lich King on farm. But not to worry, have an “I did it first” if you are top guild on your server.

    I’m afraid I see achievements as pure social engineering, manipulative psychology, and when I get one in WoW my thought isn’t usually “cool, how impressive!” but a shattering of immersion.

    I am (unfairly) perfectly happy to get achievements in other games because I don’t have the same sense of there used to be something even better than 10 achievement points – knowing and having everyone else know you were a good player.

  3. I don’t love the WoW achievements, but don’t mind LotrO deeds. I think perhaps it’s the fun titles and big splash across the screen with the WoW ones that puts me off. However, I do sometimes think ‘oh, I did something cool, nice’ when one does pop up. And I do want the skunk for collecting pets – but so far that’s the only one WoW has made me want… the rest I just treat as extras for playing as I’m going to play anyway.

    But – I wish I could stop them popping up on my screen and broadcasting to other players. Sometimes I don’t want everyone to know what I’m up to!

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