In Which I Defend Achievements in MMOs

Syl at MMOGypsy wrote a post today declaring her hate for achievements in MMOs.  I have to give her kudos, her post was well-written and clearly thought out, and it did a good job of showing her thought processes and backing up her opinion.  I found myself being filled with annoyance while reading it though, and had to tell myself that this was definitely HER specific opinion, and not a representation about how all players feel about achievements.  But then I secretly thanked the stars that she’s not working on any of my favorite current or upcoming MMOs.

I’m an achievement hunter and a completionist.  Not to the extent of some truly dedicated players, but they definitely do serve as a motivation for me while playing.  It wasn’t always this way.  I too, like many others, started out my MMO career with EverQuest where literally nothing was spelled out for me and everything was ‘an adventure’.  I did ‘explore’ quite a bit, which looking back I feel fond about but while playing a remember swearing about while running in circles, getting killed and losing my body, going the wrong way and getting lost, getting frustrated and left behind, etc.  It wasn’t all rosy.  In fact, I spent just as much time going to Allakhazam and Casters Realm, printing out guides and putting them in my 3-ring binder so that I could actually figure out how to do my epic quest without having to drop out of high school.  So immersive, looking down at my Trapper Keeper instead of staring at the screen.

Nowadays, achievements are what allow me to play casually yet still have an objective when I log in.  Most nights, I frankly don’t have time to have to figure out what to do, then figure out how to get there, then figure out whether the reward is worth it (or waste my time if it isn’t) and then figure out if I even have time to do it.  Achievements do things like say – hey, did you know that there is a Goblin Raceway in Azshara, and you can ride it?  Honestly, the 5 or 10 achievement points I get for doing it isn’t the reason that I do it.  I *am* an explorer and I want to see as much as possible while still maintaining a healthy balance between gaming and real life.  Achievements are a handy check-off list that give me a objective every time I play.

Syl says:

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration.

I look back on my 5 years of playing EverQuest, and I know I didn’t see it all.  I spent so many years in that game, but because so much of it was either hidden to the player’s eye without research or locked off to players who weren’t a certain level or play-style, I didn’t see even half of it.  I stand around now in groups of nostalgic game developers talking about the ‘good ole days’ and half the time I can’t even share in their experiences because I didn’t discover the things they were talking about.  Speaking completely honestly, the chance of a player sticking with a single MMO for 5+ years nowadays is rather slim.  Players wax and wane, dip in and out of their favorite games, moving on to the Next Big Thing when they’re bored with their current experience.  So in this brave new world, is it better to want to complete a world while you’re there, or dip in for a few months to some world you will never experience even 10% of the game because of time and the obtuse hidden world?

I tend to agree with Liore on this one.  I am rather tired of hearing the phrase “but…my immersion!” when any discussion about player behavior comes about.  Immersion has a time and place.  If MMO players want an experience closer to immersion, why aren’t more of them playing Second Life?  After all, there you can actually hold a job and work 8 hours a day for ‘income’, have utmost freedom in creation, have very few objectives to actually take you away from your exploration path, and can literally be whomever you want.  If the concept of ‘immersion’ holds the genre back from innovating and providing quality-of-life mechanics such as faster travel, connecting players with friends new and old through social features, and other accessibility features than I’d rather have none of it at all.  I say this as a player who does like to get lost in my characters, lost in worlds.  My favorite fantasy games are the ones with huge worlds and persistent avatars with RPG-style storylines and motivations.  That doesn’t mean I want to be archaic all the time. You can *always* use the ‘immersion’ argument, and it goes both ways.  Bloggers are always toting how immersive the world of LotRO is, but the last time I logged in I was standing there listening to a bard play “Will You Hold It Against Me?” by Britney Spears in an inn on his lute.  Looking back on EverQuest, sure I ran around a lot and died and there was risk and scary things around every corner and I had no fucking clue what I was doing half the time (immersion!)  — but the other half I was standing on a table in Plane of Fire for 12 hours, hitting my Complete Heal hotkey over and over again, trying to hold that camp so no other groups would ‘steal it’, and talking with my group members about the trials and tribulations of being a high school kid.  How immersive was that?  In MMOs, we like our worlds to feel immersive and themed, but in reality – the gameplay itself is anything but. And that’s fine.

I think Syl’s argument that achievements nullify the journey and put the focus on the reward is false, at least in my experience.  Sure, it feels good to see the shiny popup telling me that I made an accomplishment, but what I remember later isn’t the moment that happened, but what I accomplished that MADE that happen.  Even taking a recent example, of fishing for dozens of hours to try to get a particular Mr. Pinchy pet.  I fished because I wanted the achievement, which I wanted because I desire a specific title that shows everyone what I’ve done.  That kind of social reinforcement is the exact same thing as wanting my full set of Insert Name Here gear in EverQuest and then feeling proud to wear it around Plane of Knowledge and show my accomplishments to others.  In EQ, it wasn’t “hey look everybody, I got this gear!” it was way more nuanced than that. It was “hey everyone, I worked really hard to get into the number one guild on my server, showed up and raided in dedicated fashion for months on end until finally my group of friends and companions killed the Rathe Council and got a server first and I ended up with this sexy breastplate because I earned enough DKP.”  It’s no different to me than wearing the Salty title on my head so that everyone knows “not only am I a max-level fisherwoman, I also spent a ton of time trying to get this elusive Mr. Pinchy pet and finally I got him despite the fact that 6 other people were fishing from the same lake as I was, and I also completed all of the other meta-achievements and have truly spent a great deal of my life fishing in WoW and I am proud of what I’ve done.”  I’m not proud of the pet in specificity, I’m proud of all of the time I spent.

The achievement is not the prize.  The achievement is the reinforcement. It’s what lead me to the experience, showed me it could be done, and challenged me to do it, then allowed me to show it off.  And now I have a handy list of things that I’ve done in the game.  I can go back at any time and remember what I did.  I wish I had such a thing in EverQuest, so I could take that drop down nostalgia lane and see everything I did many years ago.


You know what I think when I see this?  I don’t think “Cool, 10 points, I remember getting that achievement.”  I think to myself of how wonderful that day was, over 5 years ago, when my guild got together and had a drunken fun time in Molten Core.  I think about how that finally was the run that let me complete my Benediction/Anathema. I remember that particular guild fondly, and how I flew out to Los Angeles to hang out with them at Universal Studios.  I remember how I was the one who would always fuck up during the boss who put a bomb on a player, and I’d run and blow up the raid.  I remember the particular character I was playing, Cuppycake, and how she was my first-ever character and was a Priest.  I remember the guild drama when someone ninjaed an item on that run.

So if you think achievements are all about the ding, the points, and that they disregard the journey — then I’d argue that your relationship with achievements is quite different from mine, and from other MMO players who absolutely fell in love with them.  Just because I got a notification at the end, and a lasting check mark in my achievement window, doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten the journey, or that the journey didn’t matter.  The developers make these experiences fun, and they are still enjoyable regardless if I got an achievement at the end.

And finally, Syl says:

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

Here’s the problem with this.  What’s fun to some people isn’t fun to others.  What Syl considered a “worthy cause” might not be worth a crap to me at all.  For example, a 5 minute quest line where I managed to save an entire tribe of Taunka people is pretty important to me, because I am a Tauren and I feel a responsibility for my kind.  I’d hope that it would be considered a big deal and that I would get something for helping out a tribe in peril.  Meanwhile, a hardcore Blood Elf raider might do this questline and not give one ounce of care or respect for the lore or the story and simply want their XP so they can move on to the next quest.  Meanwhile, I’m not a raider right now so I couldn’t care less if you followed a guide on Icy Veins and managed to down the end boss of the end raid.  So are you proposing here that each player be able to wander the world and judge every objective for themselves, choosing when the experience was ‘worthy’ of a reward and only accepting an item or reinforcement if they personally felt it was warranted?  That sounds like a pretty dismal experience to me.  And for me, it’s not that the achievement is ‘telling me’ I achieved something.  I already knew I achieved something when I watched Ragnaros fall for the first time and felt that surge of pride.   Seeing achievements as nothing more than an informative popup is a rather shallow way of looking at it.

Syp’s right, the journey is the reward.  All of the experiences behind all of my achievements (only 22% of them, right now haha) were a fantastic journey.  I’m happy I can look back on my achievements list and smile or frown at the memories.  After all, the gear itself that I earned is long obsolete at this point, and the friends I made have long drifted away.  All I have left is the memories, and I’m thankful to have a whole achievement list of them.

10 thoughts on “In Which I Defend Achievements in MMOs

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  1. What a great post. 🙂 I agree with you. I love my achievements for the same reasons you say here. Sometimes, you want to log in and do something basic. So perhaps I’ll head over to Rift and go looking for hidden cairns on mountains. If I struggle, maybe I’ll find a guide but I’ll have to climb that damn mountain even then, and then there’s the excitement of what I’ll get inside. Then I’ll log off and feel happy that I did something that I thoroughly enjoyed. I probably wouldn’t know about cairns in each zone without the achievement system so probably wouldn’t go looking and might just kill ten more rats for the chance of dropping this, that, or the other.

    I like your way of describing looking at your achievements as well. It’s like looking back over a photo album, or one of those sticker albums you put together as a kid. You don’t look at them for the shininess of the photo or sticker, but because you want to remember that particular memory or how long it took you to get both parts of that character/person and the feeling of pride you have for it. You don’t necessarily wave photo alums around and say, “Hey look how many more photos I have than you!” But perhaps you’ll look through the album together and tell stories.

  2. I always thought of achievements as my own personal minigame of sorts, trying to complete as many as I could. I never bragged and felt my own sense of accomplishment until I began to see others competing for points. This saddened me somewhat as it became hard to complete with others in large guilds but at the same time it’s what I use the blog for. For the most part, it helps me look back and remember what was.

    Like you there are some I remember more fondly than others, esp when it took a total of FIVE Pinchys to claim the pet OUCH! It’s Over 9000 was definitely one of the better ones.

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