Achievements, Questing, and Instant Gratification

Thanks to social media, I’ve recently had the pleasure of discovering the writing of fellow MMO blogger, @Gypsy_Syl. Perhaps the best reason to follow other bloggers is for the exposure to new perspectives and opinions. Syl’s most recent post, ACHIEVEMENT (HATE), EXPLORATION AND MYSTERY, is no exception. Never before had I contrasted the more recent mechanic of achievements in MMORPGs with the evolution of overall quest design, nor had it occurred to me that achievements just may be counterintuitive for individual player freedom. Do I agree?

The answer is complicated. Syl makes a compelling argument – I wouldn’t write a response to it if I thought otherwise. I also agree that, on their face, the evolution of questing has diminished a great deal of their original intent (promoting exploration and world-building). As quests have been streamlined further and further, they have now become more of a shorthand for why you are grinding a particular monster in a specific location. Rarely do they convey meaningful story, exceptional challenge, and, despite this, the rewards quests give have steadily increased in potency and value.

In a game like Everquest, completing a quest was a milestone in itself, often involving many individual quests, along with exploration, challenge, and a need for sincere effort. The rewards were made to match and often lasted the players many, many levels before they were replaced. Contrast that with the modern MMORPG, where doing all of the quests expected of you takes a fraction of the time for minimal effort, and it rewards you with an item that will most likely last five to ten levels until another quest for another hub rewards you the next tier’s replacement.

I have had this conversation before with Healing the Masses’ @ausj3w3l, and it probably deserves an entire article on itself, but questing, as it currently stands, is a major reason why new MMOs feel sterile, stale, and uninspired. Grinding is by no means a superior alternative, but at least it encouraged exploration (looking for a good spot), cooperation (teaming up with others in the area), and communication (asking for better spots/small talk with your pick-up team). All three of these elements help make a MMO not only more engaging, but more alive and dynamic. Hub-based questing provides a laundry list of easily solvable problems and points you exactly where you need to go.

In a similar vein, at least according got Syl, achievements break player immersion and restrict player agency. They counteract a need for exploration because they refocus the entire point of playing on “completing” the game, rather than exploration. Similar to quests, achievement tabs give you a laundry list of things to do and point you in the direction to complete. Sure, they can take longer and sometimes involve a great variety of mobs and locations, but in the end, you are still doing them for an implied intrinsic value: achievements are good in and of themselves. Syl takes issue with this, and believes that achievements and (I presume) questing should be for their extrinsic value. In other words, they should function as a means to exploring new locations.

I believe this is a sound observation and one I certainly agree with. Quests diminish a virtual world into a collection of jobs, solely meant to get you to the end of the game with, quite frankly, little to no value added along the way. Achievements take that a step further by quantifying questing and some vague (but mostly insulting) sense of exploration into a score which you pursue for petty reward. Both undercut one of the original intents of genre: to create virtual worlds with mysteries that drive you explore more, delve deeper. Often, this type of old-school exploration would involve the need for a group or to better equip yourself (since leveling was slow enough that the alternative to an area that was too difficult wasn’t as simple as out-leveling it). The need to improve to explore and explore to improve created a feedback loop that was constantly challenging, as well as rewarding.

It should be mentioned that some of the comment’s on Syl’s post bring up very valid points. My favorite mentions gaming websites and databases. Often the exploration and mystery of older MMOs was completely destroyed by websites that had already mapped out the entire game world, detailed every quest, and removed any mystery. Even though I adored the mystery at the time, I too relied on websites like Allakhazam to cheat my way through certain portions of Everquest. I also relied on forums to help me minmax my characters in Ultima Online. However, at the time, my computer and internet connection were not so great that it was a mere matter of alt-tabbing. More often than not, I would actually need to write things down (physically, mind you, since alt-tabbing to notepad would stall my system). Personally and arguably, I feel that this level of ‘meta-interaction’ with my MMO heightened the experience in its own way. And while it did remove some of the difficulty and exploration, it was never as severe as injecting quest helper-like mechanics directly into the game.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosophy). Plainly put, the medium itself is as important as the content it expresses. I think this applies to quests and achievements, as they are a medium which game designers express content to their players. When quests and achievements are designed to be easy, short, and immediately gratifying, the content they provide too is easy, short, and immediately gratifying. In other words, as long as questing and achievements remain as they are, the content in our MMOs will increasingly decrease in depth and diminish in value. If you want to change the content, that means changing the mechanic that delivers it.

The main area that I diverge from Syl is that I actually like achievements, at least in their original, presumed intent. I believe achievements can aid exploration, especially when done correctly. The problem is that they are often too transparent and so reliant on being simplistic and straightforward. I enjoy achievements that keep track of things like how many orcs I have slain, especially if the game still promotes grinding. Everquest II is probably my best example, since killing a single type of creature enough times would result in better ‘Slayer’ titles. At the same time, the game has discoverable quests that promoted the mass slaughter of these single creatures so that you could learn their language or gain a special skill that could only be used to kill them better. It was a simple system, sure, but it’s a good indicator how achievements and quests can function in a way that promotes organized, motivated grinding and exploration without simply giving you a meter or an objective to fill up.

Moving forward, I think a MMO that shies away from heavily leaning on quest grinding, that instead refocuses its efforts on meaningful content through fewer, more elaborate quests could use achievements as a way to replace some of the immediate gratification that we have become accustomed to in current models of hub-based grinding. As in my previous example, achievements that reward you for participating in the world could serve as a way to guide and direct players, but without the need to hold their hand along the way. A good sandbox experience must strike a balance between keeping the player from getting too lost and not forcing the player down a particular path.

Even then, Syl’s larger point can’t be ignored by a simple restructuring. Quests, but achievements especially, need to feel meaningful, otherwise why exist? The essence of a good MMORPG is not in how it gives you a constant drip feed of backpattery, but in providing meaningful avenues for self-discovery and glory, in dynamic ways that create stories worth telling your friends. I don’t like my MMORPG to feel like a slot machine, where lights and sounds constantly try to alarm me into thinking I have accomplished something.

There are a myriad of potential ways to rectify this. Achievements could take longer for instance and be less transparent, for one. Maybe instead of everyone getting the exact same achievements, we randomize the list a bit? No matter how you want to change it, the simple fact that I think most of us can agree on is this: they need to change.

ADDITIONAL READING:

I wrote this post last night, but wanted to look it over before it posted. In that time, several other amazing bloggers have also contributed their opinions both on Syl’s original post and on achievements as a mechanic. Though neither article is addressed directly in this post, I strongly suggest you read their views as well.

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5 thoughts on “Achievements, Questing, and Instant Gratification”

  1. This is kind of what I was going to write in reply.. but no need now! It really comes down to the implementation of achievements, how pervasive they are and controlling of the experience. Once they become the actual content they’ve gone way to far

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