The Problem with the WoW Achievement System

by Wolfshead on January 2, 2009

questionHave you explored all of Westfall? Have you purchased a vanity pet? Have you done some other unremarkable feat like tie your shoes? If so, then you deserve something special. Of course you do WoW subscriber. You deserve to have your virtual back slapped by the omniscient WoW Achievement system!

I absolutely loathe the WoW achievement system. Both in it’s design and implementation Blizzard has created an obnoxious cuckoo clock that pops out every so often to annoy you and those around you with some banal fanfare. Is this what passes for state of the art game design these days? A database that catalogs your every burp and fart while you play your favorite MMO (most MMOs have “achievement” systems in one form or another) seems to be a step backwards for advancing the potential of virtual worlds. Instead of getting serious advances in design and technology that could really start to make virtual worlds actually live and breath we get a feature that belongs more in a daycare center then in a massively multiplayer online world called Azeroth.

Here are a few reasons why I don’t like WoW’s Achievement System:

Achievements Erode Immersion

One of my main problems with the WoW Achievement System is the method by which the player is notified that they have completed a particular achievement. Upon completing the requirements suddenly the player sees a graphic pop up notifying them of their accomplishment accompanied by a sound effect. Just who exactly is notifying the player? Some deity or omnipotent force? In fact it’s the “program” itself that is communicating with you — not a deity, a trainer or even another player.

It’s almost like the WoW client is like the fictional HAL computer that acts like a talking travel planner to notify you of the fact that you have explored all of the areas of a zone like Loch Modan. To be fair, the WoW client already communicates with you in many ways such as: “You have earned a new level!”, talents points and so on. The problem is that those kinds of mechanics destroys the immersion for the player if it’s done in a lazy and haphazard as Blizzard has done with WoW.

Now if WoW was a sci-fi MMO then each player could have either a personal computer, PDA, cell phone, GPS with them to explain this and it would make perfect sense. However, if your personal device had all the information then exploring would be pointless as you’d never be lost making the “achievement” pointless.

Achievements Are Infantile

As players, do we really need to be congratulated by the program when we have explored all the areas of an area? Exploration should be ample reward in itself — not a few more meaningless “points”. A true explorer doesn’t need bells and whistles to congratulate them when they have scaled a mountain top or found the darkest depths of a dungeon. Achievements in WoW remind me of how children in primary school have to be continually motivated by politically correct teachers obsessed by ensuring that their students are subject to false praise for completing the smallest tasks.

WoW with it’s Achievement system really feels like an extension of that very same warm and fuzzy self-esteem movement that passes for *coughs* game design that has infected other video game systems like the XBox Live. It’s like a comfortable soother that helps ease Xbox Live kiddies into MMOs like WoW.

If Real Life Had An Achievement System

To illustrate the absurdity of most of the achievements in WoW, let’s take a typical day with a Real Life Achievement system. It would go like this:

*You showered without dropping the soap! Congratulations you get 5 points!*

*You shaved without cutting yourself! Congratulations you get 7 points!*

*You made it to work on time without getting killed in traffic! Congratulations you get 20 points!*

*You survived another day in corporate America without getting laid off! Congratulations you get 50 points!*

Did that make your day go a little better? Every day, I somehow manage to complete those “achievements” without the need for an omniscient voice cheering me on. It’s called adulthood.

Achievements are Worthless to Achievers

I find it ironic that in a MMO that caters almost exclusively to achievers that the achievement system is largely worthless to achievers. What is the point (no pun intended) of all those points anyways? You can’t spend them or trade them in for any kind of worthwhile items. Sure there are some titles and mounts but they are only attainable after a player has usually completed hundreds of painful pre-achievements. Now this may be fine for hardcore players out there living on welfare or a disability but what of the players that don’t have obscene amounts of time to devote?

The fact that there are no achievement quartermasters is rather appalling considering it’s from Blizzard — the zen masters of the reward, reward, reward game design mantra.

A False Sense  of Accomplishment

Probably the worst thing about an achievement system is that it gives players a false sense of accomplishment for doing trivial and menial tasks; this ties directly into the above reward philosophy du jour of video game production. The problem is that these achievements can be quite addicting as noted in an excellent article by Gamespy a few years ago entitled: Are You Addicted to Achievements? which I found by way of a superb article on achievements at Werkkrew.com which discusses virtual achievements vs. real achievements (that’s another discussion for another day).

Here’s a quote that I am shamelessly borrowing from Werkkrew who quoted it from the Gamespy article:

Hello, my name is Will, and I’m addicted to achievements. Not the real-life kind, mind you, as I’ve pretty much given up on those (just getting out of bed in the morning feels like an achievement). No, I’m talking about the kind of achievements that you can only get by playing Xbox 360 games. At first, I didn’t really pay much attention to them, although I did feel a slight sense of accomplishment every time I was informed that I had received one. Lately, however, I’m finding that I can’t stop trying to get them. It’s gotten to the point that I’ll stay up late into the night just to get an extra 10 points added to my gamerscore. I … I think I need help.

It used to be that in MMOs we as players were addicted to the formerly hard achievements like leveling up, killing named mobs, killing bosses (yes those things used to be difficult many years ago). Now it seems even the smallest tasks performed within a MMO have the capacity to addict us — by design. Clearly the Blizzard devs are fully aware of the addictive nature of officially sanctioned achievements but they implemented them anyways. I suppose WoW just wasn’t addictive enough. Translatation: more addictive features helps keep people subscribing.

I guess I need to be realistic. Achievements as a feature seems to be here to stay in video games and MMOs — at least for now until the public wises up. So what is to be done? If you absolutely feel you need to have an achievement system in a MMO then here’s what I would have done differently:

Change the Lame Name

The Achievement system is a blatant theft from the Xbox Live Achievement System. At least other MMO companies used different names like Warhammer’s Tome of Knowledge and Lord of the Rings Online’s Deeds, Traits and Virtues.¬† If you truly feel you need an achivement system in your MMO then at least have the decency to disguise it’s name. Calling something the “Achievement System” makes about as much sense as calling new content a “patch”. With all the supposed talent working at Blizzard you think they could have at least called it something more imaginative and organic; something that actually makes sense in the context of the world of Azeroth.

Use NPCs to Acknowledge and Reward Players

WoW achievements could have easily been broken down into a number of areas overseen by in-game organizations of NPC’s. For example the Explorer’s League run by dwarves already exists and could have easily handled the administration of all of the exploration type achievements. Their representatives could be placed in most towns and neutral cities so that Alliance players could interact with them for acknowledgment and rewards. Instead of being notified instantly for completing an achievement, the player would have to physically speak to a NPC for recognition.

Other societies and organizations could easily be created for the other types of achievements. Players already have to talk to NPC’s to get quests, get trained, bank, purchase goods and items, why then should achievements be bestowed without having to visit an NPC? At least it would make sense and build more immersion for the player rather then eroding it.

Conclusion

The WoW Achievement system as is, feels disconnected to the other parts of the MMO. It should have been designed and executed with more artistry and professionalism. They could have at least disguised it as a tome or journal a la Mythic or Turbine but instead they chose the easy route. I do realize that many players like the seductive nature of being praised and I respect that; for them it has helped give their play experience in an aging genre some fresh air. It also appeals to the collector mentality that seems to be all the rage these days in the video game world. If that’s what turns your crank then all the more power to you.

But let me ask you: did you really start playing WoW to collect *every* vanity pet and cooking recipe? As players are we so mindless and spineless that we will perform any task (read: time sink) that a MMO company sets before us — just because it’s there? Do you really need your every action and step within a MMO to be noted and praised by an unimmersive game mechanic?

For my part, I like MMOs that don’t insult my intelligence. The Achievement System lacks originality, imagination, context, harmony and cohesion. Blizzard would have done well to study Warhammer’s Tome of Knowledge for an example of an achievement system done right. Honestly, it just feels like it was retrofitted into the game with a hammer and nails.

Not only does this make Blizzard look bad, it speaks to the sorry state of mind of the typical WoW subscriber. If today’s average MMO player feels they need a childish system like this to hold their hands and make their play time meaningful then this genre is in serious trouble. Even worse, if Blizzard designers felt that by adding a trendy feature from a console game system was the best they could do to improve WoW then it’s a sad day for all of us who still believe that virtual worlds have tremendous potential. By continually appealing to the lowest common denominator and dumbing down the MMO genre, Blizzard will most certainly not be the video game company that will take us to the virtual promised land.

-Wolfshead

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