Non-combat rewards aren't new to MMOs, but for a long time they were entirely player-driven. In EverQuest the success of running guild or friendships within an online community were the primary non-mechanical motivators. Since then, and especially with the advent of Xbox Live, in-game achievement tracking has become a major factor in persistent games. We as players love to be rewarded for success, and pinning gold stars to our sashes is a lot easier (from a game mechanic perspective) than actual monetary or xp doles. Warhammer Online may have perfected this schema with the Tome of Knowledge this year, but way back in 2004 City of Heroes really got the party started with their Badge system.
Collecting badges is not only a fun and (often) relaxing alternative to leveling or instance-running, in recent years the NCsoft developers have made it worth your while as well. Supergroup badges, for example, stack up to allow your group the opportunity to teleport straight from your base into the field. There are a number of reasons to enjoy badge hunting, and the addition of this seemingly-simple gratification system is one of the reasons CoH as much fun as it is to play. Read on below the cut for more on how the City of Heroes developers give you more fun, with less grind.
Badges are simple icons, plaques almost, that you can take a look at in your character menus. Each badge doubles as a title, which is displayed above your head as you move about the game world. Finding and 'trying on' badges is part of the system's appeal. You can only have one title equipped at a time, but there's no limit to the number of badges you can collect. Theoretically you could collect every badge available to your side in the game on one character; that said, many badges were given out for seasonal or one-time-only events and are no longer available.
There are a couple of different types of badges, and hundreds of possible badges to find. The most straightforward varieties are Achievements and Accomplishments, which are exactly what they sound like. Achievement badges are handed out for getting something done, usually with a specific number attached to it or through killing an enemy. You earn the Adamant title for receiving 1,000,000 points of damage over the lifetime of your character, for example. Gearsmasher is handed out for killing 100 clockwork gears, and you can even get badges for earning badges; Explorer is one of the first of these titles you'll get for earning 50 badges. Accomplishments are similar, just with a broader scope and usually involving completing a series of quests or tasks. Honorary Peacebringer is your reward for completing Moonfire's taskforce, for example.
Accolades are another badge type in this theme, but often reward players for persistence or for going after specific activities. Achievements and Accomplishments can often be gained naturally over the course of play, but Accolades will probably require you to 'go after' something in specific. The Vanguard badge, an Accolade, demands you earn the Finder, Zookeeper, Savant, Ace, Portal Partner, and Seeker of the Unknown badges before unlocking it. Each of those badges in turn has their own requirements to unlock, creating a metagame-in-a-game for dedicated badgehunters. Accolades also tend to come with extra perks and powers – Vanguard's toggle power gives bonuses to status-effecting powers.
The most commonly-sought badges, hunted by newbies and veterans alike, are the Exploration and History badges. They're effectively the same type of reward, but require different activities from the player. Exploration badges are handed out instantly when a player lands in a specific spot. Each zone in the game has a handful of exploration points, and you can find them without a map by looking for a small octagonal disc on the ground. That said, I suggest a map. Heavily. History badges require you to click on plaques scattered throughout the gameworld, each telling a piece of history behind Paragon City. Each plaque is connected to a badge, and each badge requires several plaques to complete. You don't have to read them 'in order' to get the badge and generally each plaque makes sense on its own. It's a fun and lore-heavy way of exploring the city, and of all the badges in the game History badges are the ones I enjoy collecting the most.
There are a handful of other badge types – badges that unlock Gladiator avatars and the aforementioned Supergroup badges. There are lots of badges to be had during holidays, and during the month of CoH's anniversary (May) you can usually get a badge just for logging into the game! Badge tracking and hunting is a fully-fleshed out mini-game, complimented nicely by the fun and rewarding feeling of moving about Paragon City as a superhero. It's one of the best parts of City of Heroes, and is definitely a compelling reason to play.