I remember when achievements were first getting a pop in the MMO space, or at least when I first noticed it concurrent with World of Warcraft’s second expansion adding them to the game. Then and now, there were two groups of people talking about them: people who saw them as silly and game-oriented additions that arbitrarily broke down specific bits of content as being more significant than others, and people who saw them in the exact same light but don’t see that as a bad thing when you are talking about a video game.
Personally, I am very much in that second camp. Yes, achievements are silly in-game milestones, but that’s kind of the point and I like them. I chase exactly as many of them as I care about and not any more of them, and half of them wind up being things I get without trying for them. However, over the years, I’ve noticed that… well, all the achievements basically fall into a fairly narrow range of categories. Sure, the details vary, but it’s always one of the following.
1. “Congratulations, you have demonstrated basic functionality!”
You cleared your first quest! You bought an item! You ran a dungeon! You have a favorite color! You remembered the state capital of Maryland!
It’s Annapolis, by the way. You don’t have to go to Wikipedia to look it up. Let’s just all pretend you just knew that.
The goal here is more to get you into that very basic and slight dopamine hit of “new achievement gotten, that’s good” while also marking your progression through the core elements of the game. No one really feels accomplished for these achievements; they’re just… there, filling out the list. They’re marking your progress.
2. “Great work continuing to play the game.”
This is in a similar category, but not quite the same. These are more expected milestone achievements, but the kind that you don’t necessarily get within the first dozen hours or so. Reaching the level cap, completing new story installments, clearing new dungeons/raids/whatever, crafting new stuff… you get the idea. It’s still marking time, but it’s marking commitment as well.
3. “You were actually paying attention to the scenery or lore.”
You found something hidden in a map, or you found something based on vague hints, or you read all of the in-game lore books about something, or you collected all the little lore markers. There are elements of a collection, of an ongoing march, but generally of just paying attention to the world you’re playing in beyond simply finding the nearest moving object and trying to kill it or get a quest from it.
These sorts of achievements are generally not particularly challenging, but they do require someone to be paying attention to find them. When someone does, of course, it’s usually spread everywhere quickly, so it no longer requires anything aside from the ability to search in Google. Ah, well.
4. “You have made things needlessly harder on yourself.”
When you want to add a challenge mode to a fight, you jack up the difficult and the rewards so players can endure a greater difficulty. When you realize that some players will want to make life harder on themselves for no reason other than that dopamine rush of getting an achievement, you offer no more rewards but celebrate the accomplishment with a little chevron saying “you did it” in the achievement window. Lots of people go for these.
5. “Wow, you really like doing this content.”
Run one dungeon in Final Fantasy XIV? Normal. Run 30-odd dungeons? Also normal. Run 3000 dungeons? Wow, you might have some serious issues you’re running into in your real life and maybe you want to adjust some of your behaviors… but here, have an achievement just the same!
6. “We have seasonal events too.”
If there are to be seasonal events, there must be seasonal event achievements, too. This is simply the way of things. Generally, these achievements just cover a top-level survey of the stuff you’re expected to do for the event, although on occasion these can expand into the prior two categories as well. WoW, looking particularly hard in your direction.
7. “Everything has to be a competition.”
As we all know, it’s not enough to be good at something or feel comfortable in your own accomplishments; you have to make it clear how much better you are than everyone else. And that’s how we get world first achievements!
I’m kidding! Sort of. Really, for a lot of people these things can be secondary. It’s nice to have things like seasonal ratings for competitive content and things wherein you are, however passively, competing against other players. When the new expansion drops and there’s a new level cap, who’s going to reach it first on each server? You don’t know, and it’s kind of a neat rush to find out that it was you, or learn you placed high in the rankings for seasonal content, or whatever.
But then you have races for who gets to be first in things that are actually immortalized in the game, and that… isn’t bad, precisely, but it leads to some potentially toxic compounding problems in which your entire game is based around competing with other players to prove you’re the best. Once again, WoW, I am looking very hard in your direction. With a frowny face.
8. “The development team wanted to see if you’d do it.”
I am convinced that some achievements are just there because the developers wanted to see if people could be tricked into doing absurd things like falling from extreme heights, dying to avoidable threats, spending money recklessly, or whatever if there was an achievement for these things. For the record: There almost always is, and people will always do it.
9. “A quest that isn’t actually a quest.”
When is a quest not a quest? When it’s an achievement. When it’s still a list of things you have to accomplish, but instead of offering you some metafictional reason for engaging with the abstract mechanics of a quest it’s just giving you a list of things to do and a reward for when you’re done with them, sometimes in such a way that that these things probably should have some structural representation.
The thing about these sorts of achievements is that they feel, at least in part, more like self-directed objectives. There’s nothing telling you to get these objectives cleared other than your own desires, and when you get a special mount or title you feel like you’ve earned it because you set out and did so on your own. At the same time, sometimes it’s possible to take this too far and make sprawling quest-like meta-achievements into a quest you have to accomplish to enjoy baseline functionality.
Looking at you once again, WoW. Pathfinder.
10. “Wait, how is that not an achievement?”
Sometimes you make things harder for yourself, you come up with an interesting thing that’s both difficult to do and requires patience and work, only to find that the game doesn’t track it at all. But that’s all right, you can celebrate it on message boards, where someone will claim that it’s not really an achievement. The internet is a cruel, cruel place.