Massively Overthinking: Always be achievin’ (in MMOs)


A while back, my husband and I were idly chatting about MMO achievements. Neither one of us is much of an achievement hunter, or more specifically, we tend to be the kind of people who pick a few achievements and really zero in on them because they speak to us or offer some sort of specific reward we want – like an awesome title. But we’re not really about getting all the things. We’re not gonna spend all of our game time getting every single achievement.

This tendency makes some games a lot more palatable to us than others. For example, we joked that Guild Wars 2 is an always-be-achievin’ MMO. Literally every single thing in the game has been turned into an achievement and a checklist. I love Guild Wars 2, but I seriously can’t stand its achievement system. I don’t wanna hustle to make that number go up, thanks. On the other side of that are games that offer achievements for those who do want them – but kindly set them off to the side as optional play.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked our staff to reflect on achievement systems in MMOs. Which ones compel you? Which ones annoy you? Who does it the best and the worst? Must we always be achievin’ in MMOs?

Andy McAdams: Achievements are weird. I really like achievements that feel like I … ya know… achieved something. I think about the WoW achievements to get the red proto drake. You had to complete certain boss fights in unique ways – some which were really challenging – to get the achievement. Once you got all the dungeon achievements, you got the overarching achievement that granted you the red protodrake. I never actually got it during Wrath, but I had an absolute blast getting all the other dungeon achievements. They were fun and challenging, and they created new content without having to repackage the same dungeon with 34 different levels of difficulty because reasons. The achievement “What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been” was also super gratifying to get because while not particular step was especially hard, it required consistent work over a long time. It felt like an achievement.

What doesn’t work as an achievement? Whenever you get one for every action you take the in the game. The whole “CONGRATS! You get an achievement because you used the “W” key!” Those are dumb. The ones that I get just by playing the game without really doing anything above or beyond are pointless. They aren’t achievements, they’re just… stupid. It doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t add value for enjoyment to the game, and it sure as hell doesn’t feel like an achievement. It feels like “I did the thing the on-screen message told me to.” Those are the achievements that I think need to go away. Give me achievements like the one to get the violet protodrake or the red protodrake. Those were fun.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I suppose I said my piece in the intro: I don’t like MMOs that boss me, and MMOs that make the achievement system the heart of the game really grate on my nerves. I have to work hard to ignore it in Guild Wars 2, and I do sometimes fail and get sucked into the treadmill.

But there are some MMOs with really fun achievement systems that aren’t just adding new measuring sticks and mechanisms for gating, and I want to praise those! City of Heroes, for example, has well beyond a thousand achievement badges and accolades that players can seek out, ranging from outrageously difficult to so simple my kid could do it. And yet the game doesn’t drive you or measure everything you do by achievements. I never feel rushed or feel that I need to be getting achievements just to keep up. And instead of racking up all those points into a number that can and will be used against you in the court of other players, the game lets you pick one of them, and only one, whichever one you choose, to wear as your title. I’m a huge fan of this kind of system that offers achievements for the achievement junkies but doesn’t unwittingly (or wittingly) penalize everyone else. I’d be thrilled if every type of content in MMOs were designed exactly in this way.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I like an achievement system. It’s such a simple system, and it’s a good way for developers to make the most out of the content they dish out. I really enjoy the fun ones too, like eating a bunch of candy corn or finding hidden objects or something.

My favorite all time achievement was from the original Guild Wars, the vanquisher title. To get the title, you had to clear the entire map of enemies. It could get frustrating; it’s easy to miss a patrolling mob. But hunting for the monsters is part of the fun. It took a long time to get, but it was such a cool title, and I love the simple act of killing monsters meaningfully. It was also a great way to see the sights of each map; those areas aren’t cheap, after all. It’s also a great way to direct the playerbase to doing more of something. Case in point: Black Desert introduced adventure logs to encourage players to do more questing. As a reward, players got permanent bonuses for their accounts! That’s an excellent way to get students to do this stuff. I’m currently doing the adventure log that needs you to complete 5000 quests. I don’t know why I like that one so much, but that’s a really good one!

I do think there are pitfalls for all of this, though. Achievements increase the longevity of content, but I don’t see it as content. They’re fun side things that people do for bragging rights or extra benefits. That’s fine and all, but too many achievements will just wear down a player. There’s also the problem of player engagement. Will players be able to do them solo? If not, it’ll be an issue if the content is not played on anymore. So basically, I think they’re fine, just don’t go overboard.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Bree is going to be absolutely thrilled with me that she doesn’t impose a word limit in these responses because here’s mine: I don’t like achievements. Never have, never will. I’ve no skin in this game and so can’t really provide a deeper opinion than that, really.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I know that a lot of people are burned out on achievements, but that could be true about a lot of things. I think that they’re a great optional path to alternative content in MMOs, helping to guide players to try out different experiences and shoot for various goals while being applauded — and sometimes rewarded — along the way. I don’t chase achievements these days unless there are really strong rewards attached, aside from doing LOTRO deeds, all of which now benefit my character’s stats.

Some people might find guild-wide achievement notices — especially in World of Warcraft — annoying as well, but I’ll play devil’s advocate to this too by saying that those little pings letting me know what everyone’s up to makes me feel more connected to my guildies. Some of my friends adore chasing achievements as an alternative path to grinding out endgame gear, and that makes me glad that MMOs offer them.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I don’t usually go out of my way to get an achievement unless I know that I am close to getting it anyway, but I do like collecting them when they come along. I particularly like it if they come with in-game rewards like items or titles. I am a collector of anything games give me to collect, and I can be obsessive about completing things in games, but if it is a distraction from my main goal for the play session, it falls lower on my never-ending to-do list.

Achievements are a fun extra. They are a souvenir of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. I usually get them by surprise, since I am usually wrapped up in the goal du jour, but if someone else gets their kicks from collecting all the achievements, that’s cool too.

I should add that Riders of Icarus achievements often come with minor prizes, and Black Desert Online has titles and item rewards for achieving different things. Those are nice. I also check my Steam achievements sometimes, but I don’t usually work on those unless I am close to a whole set. I am just three short of all the achievements for No Man’s Sky, and if I ever have extra time on my hands, I will do those.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): Achievements are interesting. I think there are just so many games and only so few hours in a day to play all the games that I tend to usually just ignore achievements all together. If there are some that give you a sweet title, I might focus on that one, but often it’s just too much. I really don’t care if I’ve earned 33.333% of the games’ achievements. I also don’t care if you’ve earned all of them. I just don’t care.

However, I tend to handle Guild Wars 2’s different from many other games. It could be that I’ve played the game so long now that it’s the only game that I’ve actually invested the time into them. Originally, pre-Heart of Thorns, I think I was able to collect all of them. After that though, they’ve just exploded to the point that, eh, it’s just too much. When I had a list of 10 things in front of me to do, I thought, “Sure, here we go. Knock ’em down, one-by-one.” But now, I see hundreds and it’s so overwhelming that I end just just ignoring them too.

Another thing about the Guild Wars 2 achievements is that while the game has totally-not-quest-marker heart vendors, quests are basically built into the achievements. So sure, there aren’t NPCs all over the world asking you to do things for them, but the achievements totally do the exact same thing now. Maybe that’s part of why I’ve geared down so much on GW2’s achievements. They’ve turned into quests.

Tyler Edwards: I like achievements in theory but almost never in execution. I appreciate the value of digital trophies; it’s a way to recognize the efforts of the top-tier players without the game balance issues that, say, better gear does. However, most achievements in most games are not measurements of skill. They’re either things you’ll earn automatically by playing the game (sorry, but hitting level 10 in World of Warcraft does not meet my definition of “achievement”) or just long, pointless grinds. Yes, some achievements are true marks of skill, but they’re very much the minority.

As a result, I mostly ignore achievements, unless they have a reward tied to them I really want. The one exception is StarCraft II. While it does still have a reasonable amount of achievements that are little more than participation trophies, on the whole SC2’s achievements are much likely to be true tests of skill and genuinely challenging. Earning an achievement in SC2 feels like an actual accomplishment to me, and as a result it’s the only game where I’ve actually hunted for achievements. I don’t quite have the skill or dedication to get to 100%, but I’m around 80-90% for most campaigns, and I feel pretty good about that.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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