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.