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.)