Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

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. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

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.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

39 comments

    • Syl

      That’s a good question. I can answer it easily though: because I love MMOs.

      What balances out the hate is staying away from the parts I dislike as much as possible, or alternatively those games which are the worst offenders. I am not playing much at the moment though because it is getting harder. still, I do my best to stick to my playstyle as good as I can in those games that still ‘also’ deliver a powerful explorer’s experience. LOTRO is a game like that although lately the casino pop-ups have gotten worse. despite all of this, I live for the special moments and sometimes all I’ll do is park in the PP and play my lute for others. achievements aren’t everything there is about MMOs, even if their long shadow is growing. :(

  1. Belghast

    I feel like the question is less where the mystery went and more did it ever exist in the first place? I started playing MMOs back in EQ, and I can remember being a premium account holder on Allakhazam and living and dying by that site and the hand drawn maps for all of the zones, loot tables, drop and spawn rates etc. Each game I have played since then has had a similar guide site of varying success, and when WoW launched, Thottbot pretty much existed from beta onwards. Players have always cataloged and mapped the game worlds and posting that information in newer and more efficient ways.

    What has changed is that companies have seen that players want this sort of information. I would imagine if we had access to it, the analytics behind wowhead would be truly staggering. Thing is… Blizzard and companies like them that publish open APIs to access the data know precisely how many users want exactly that information. As a result companies are going where the money is and giving the consumer what they want. The players that do not want the “all expense package” are unfortunately the minority.

    I think the problem is… we are simply better at playing these games than we used to be. Or at least we are better at consuming information about the games and burning through the content. The MMO genre is evolving… the mystery is still there but it is being presented through the various ARGs attached to the MMO more than the game itself. Secret World still has mystery, but only because they have broken the fourth wall and reached out into the community to “role-play” the gameworld in real time.

    • Syl

      I agree that we’re better at this and we learn faster, and that has some side-effects for sure. but where exploring worlds is concerned, that’s not the same issue for me. exploration isn’t about information – not for me. :) wanting to know is only a small part, the rest is the feeling of adventure and mystery, of being on the road. and no thottbots and allakhazams can spoil that for me, they’re optional and completely okay in my book as long as they don’t pop up in my face.

  2. Jeromai

    You missed:

    Player X doesn’t even bother looking around and googles “where do I find rats with silver pelts” and finds a third-party website telling him exactly where to go, slavishly follows it and gets there in even faster time than the DIY explorers, eventually becoming richer and lording it over them.

    …somewhere in that timeline.

    Personal opinion: Achievements didn’t kill exploration. Google killed exploration. :sadface:

    • Syl

      I rarely google and if I do, it’s a conscious decision. :) I have no issue with optional guides myself, the keyword being ‘optional’. if achis and popups and quest markers were optional, I’d be happy. I don’t race others and I don’t feel competition. just let me explore in peace.

  3. Pasduil

    Fascinating post.

    The thing is some parts of the literal journey (physically getting from A to B, or finding the location of C) never were intrinsically rewarding for a lot of the players a lot of the time.

    Sure there might be a wondrous landscape now and then, and I love them as much as the next person. But we habituate even to wondrous landscapes.

    Stumbling on rats with silver pelts might be exciting the first few times such things happen, but it gets old. If I’m going to be stumbling on something novel and challenging every week, great! If there’s mind blowing things to see in odd corners of the world, fantastic! But if I have to scour the landscape every single day for things that are much of a muchness most of the time, I’ll get bored of that very quickly.

    • Syl

      I would agree; but likewise, getting easy items every day and being led everywhere without chance of miss isn’t fun either. I would advocate for balance between effort and reward myself – it’s not like I enjoy grind just for grind’s sake or anything of the sort. ;)

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  5. bhagpuss

    You missed “Player X receives quest from NPC with ! over his head. Details of quest appear on screen with small icon. Player clicks small icon. Game takes control of player character and runs it automatically on pre-determined route to rats with silver pelts. Player kills rats. Player clicks icon again. Game runs player back to NPC for reward.”

    I actually don’t have a problem with any of this. Not any more. I’d happily play MMOs that use the Year #1 – #3 systems. That would lead to a lot of fun gameplay. I’d equally happily play the later ones. So would those.

    Some days you want to watch Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, other days you want to watch old episodes of the Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s not an either/or.

    There’s a bit of a fad for Achievement-based MMOs right now but it will pass as fads always do. There are plenty upcoming MMOS that will go in other directions. There are still old MMOs around that are using the earlier versions of the KTR.

    On the other hand, maybe I’ve been assimilated…

    • Syl

      I think so! =P

      hehe…no really, let’s hope it’s a fad then. and my main issue is when it IS either/or – in my face popups and markers and dingelings I cannot switch off are absolutely either/or. I can’t have my way and that’s what bugs me, not that achievers are having fun.

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  7. Telwyn

    I think for me it’s not just the achievement system, but the fact they did away with quests and ended up replacing them with an achievement ticklist. It’s just like working on projects in the office. At least quests try to dress it up in story first, I also find the living story achievement window to be a minefield of spoilers.

    I’d have preferred they stuck with the plan at launch telling stories through dynamic events and the heart system than what we have now.

    • Syl

      I loved heart areas and events :( GW2 really baffles me, the discrepancy between how they started out with this game and what they shouted from the rooftops they wouldn’t do, yet here we are now…..

  8. Doone W.

    I think the debate about whether achievements are good or bad are about ideas which are mutually exclusive. Having or not having achievements isn’t the problem. The problem is that players go to virtual worlds to get different things.

    Players don’t mind those who do or don’t like achievements, nor do we really fault people for enjoying them. What players definitely take issue with is having game features added/removed at their seeming expense. It’s the same way that, on the whole, no one cares that trillionaires exist, they care if that trillionaire gets rich at their expense. I think a lot of this goes on in game development especially because game dev resources are often limited; they can either create the achievement system, or design a rich system which makes the journey more fulfilling. More and more games these days opt for the former.

    The journey is absolutely what matters to every player, I’d wager. For example, when I go to an action movie I *know* the good guys are going to win. I pay for the ticket anyway to learn *how* they win. Yeah, I may go to see it so I can get my weekly “uplift” by seeing people succeed, but what’s exhilarating about the experience is taking that journey to the triumph. Achievers and non-achievers both enjoy that on a fundamental level. The problem as I see it is players are going to the game for different reasons: some just want their daily upper and achievements do that for us. If MMO gameplay wasn’t so job-like, these achievement lovers would get greater satisfaction from the journey.

    In other words, the journey in most MMOs is completely non-existent.

    • Syl

      “What players definitely take issue with is having game features added/removed at their seeming expense.”

      This.
      which makes the question of why none of it is optional (turn off buttons anyone?) all the more relevant. so, it’s extra work – surely it’s still worth catering to multiple playstyles in MMOs? isn’t that what these vast worlds are about – enough space for different people?

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  10. Electrolux

    I agree. Questing is wretched now and I can’t bear it unless it’s absolutely mandatory. Camping spawns? Fine. Dungeons? Excellent, Quests? I’d sooner eat my own eyes. I probably shouldn’t mention this in case they make an achievement for avoiding quests.

    I don’t worry about achievements; I don’t notice them. Well I see them, but they have ‘clever’ names so I don’t know what they were for in most cases,

    I too would enjoy a quiet and mysterious world to explore with friends if someone makes one; but this is almost certainly because I’m old.

    • Syl

      Not true – I have been enjoying that playstyle since my youngest years! ;)
      it’s not just that I dislike the idea of pre-defined achievements but also the entire mechanics around them: markers, popups, highlights. those can’t be ignored. sadly.

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  12. Tesh

    Achievements don’t bother me… much. They are a mild annoyance, a bit of static.

    That said, I’m always a bit sad to hear coworkers talk about games they only play to get the Gamerscore on XBox Live. It’s as if the little Achievement score tally is more important than the game. Now, maybe that’s an occasional comment on the low quality of a game, but still, it’s a layer of the “social metagame” that seems so utterly vapid to me, and I mourn a little when the actual games get lost in the race.

      • Syl

        My follow-up question to this is still: why even bother to design vast worlds with lore, complex characters and whatnot if a score or checklist is what you’re after? surely cheaper games deliver that. get off my lawn already! :D

  13. Tremayne

    I could probably blog about this at length, and if doing documentation updates all week hasn’t crushed my ability to write for pleasure maybe I will… but I don’t have a problem with the original idea of achievements (a virtual “thumbs up” to players for their, well, achievements). I do, however, have a problem with two features that are commonly found in achievement systems, and both are down to the fact that players respond to incentives.

    Firstly – having concrete rewards tied to achievements turns them from a nice pat on the back for something you happened to be doing anyway, into a to-do list that you must complete to get your reward. Because, you know, anyone who doesn’t get the reward is a sub-optimal gimp who should go away and commit suicide in real life before their mediocrity messes up someone else’s power progression.

    Second, and even worse – achievements for “doing it wrong”. You know, the ones for defeating a boss naked or letting six of the seven escort NPCs die. Those turn achievement hunters into guys who screw up content for others in order to get what they personally want. Honestly, I look at these and think that some devs WANT to create player drama.

    Incidentally, in year 9+ of your quest progression you could add “player uses a cash shop item to teleport automagically back to the NPC and save all that tedious running around”. LotRO has actually added this, and I will admit I’ve been using it this week as I ran my alt through books 8 to 15 of Shadows of Angmar, which does involve a LOT of tedious running around. Don’t think I would have done it if I wasn’t sitting on a huge pile of free Turbine points for being a lifer, though.

    • Syl

      I don’t mind these kind of items though because they’re optional. I am allll for playstyle variety. and in LOTRO the grind and travel times can be really bad :D some maps are horribly paced. if you want short-cuts sometime, knock yourself out. but achievements and markers and popups force themselves onto me, whether I want them or not. that’s when I get grumpy.

      To respond to your first point: I absolutely doubt how much achievements really do for experiencing the journey or exploration. I did write as much in my Wildstar explorer path post – I don’t buy this. achievements don’t make explorers out of achievers. achievers are fixed on the reward first and foremost, as in item/title or just getting it ‘done’.

  14. Klepsacovic

    I sometimes like to have an indication that I’m not exploring an empty hallways. It’s less “here’s where to go” than “you’ve seen that hallway already”. Sometimes I mix them up and end up wandering back around in the same area. That’s not so much exploration as the confused wanderings of someone with dementia.

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  18. Stumps

    I remember cringing when I got that flashy achievement thing pop up upon logging in during WoW’s “4th anniverary” (and the subsequent ones) – it may as well have just said “Well done you remembered your own password – have some glitter and a pixel-pet” -.-
    One of my pet hates was the pointless raiding achievements that people always seemed to want to do – I honestly despised wasting time to that sort of thing when we could have been focusing on something else.
    The server-wide ones were even worse – I managed to get realm first max level engineer (primarily because I couldn’t be arsed to compete for quest mobs) in Cataclysm and I then got 20 minutes of sustained abuse from half of the engineers on the server for beating them to it…what joy!
    Death to achievements!!

  19. Prolifik

    Its all about status .. you rock out with that new epic, pet or title and players think you’re awesome. They know the effort it takes or took to get it. A lot of players unfortunately yearn for that status, it gives them a sense of belonging even if it is in a virtual world

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