I've heard all the arguments before, trust me. Achievements are a waste of space. They're frivolous, meaningless numbers -- a Skinner Box within a Skinner Box for the weak-willed. They can be far too spammy. And then there's that hoary chestnut: They take precious development time that could be used for better purposes from something you personally want.
Achievements are a blight upon our games, binding us to the most base of gamer crowds, the yokels on Xbox Live. We should cast off the chains of achievement oppression and live as free men, women, and Elves once more!
OK, enough with the histrionics. Many of these points come down to personal preference, and that's impossible to refute. You like what you like, and I like what I like. Still, I'd disagree that the overall notion of achievements is useless. In fact, I fully embrace them in my gameplay and hope that they stick around for a good long while.
The debate over achievements used to be a lot hotter than it is today. People used to get worked up into a foaming lather on the pros and cons of these systems, with the fringes giving us delightful rants and the rest of us realizing that getting worked up over what was basically a high score chart was completely silly.
As a matter of fact, achievements have a very long history with video games as a whole. From some of the earliest titles, programmers and players have yearned for ways to measure their accomplishments. Before games had proper endings, scores allowed for comparison and personal goals. In the heyday of the classic Atari 2600 console, Activision gave out achievement patches for players who took pictures of their games when they hit significant goals.
Modern achievement systems are pretty much an extension of this same basic concept. They give us a way to measure progress and goals as the game gives us a virtual pat on the back for a job well done. It's about one of the most harmless things to rebel against, especially because most achievement systems aren't tied to any substantial reward and can be ignored or engaged at will.
Achievements help you explore the game in a new way
I used to look at things like Gamerscore with a quizzical eyebrow raised, completely befuddled as to why anyone would want to pursue such meaningless fluff. But then Warhammer Online and World of Warcraft both implemented achievement systems around the time I was playing them, and I got hooked on the concept. Interestingly enough, these two titles approached achievements in different ways: WoW gave you a list that could be pursued, while WAR kept its achievements hidden until you accomplished them. I prefer the first, to be honest.
I haven't gotten into achievement hunting in every MMO I play, but I have in both RIFT and Lord of the Rings Online. In both cases, by engaging the system, I've allowed the game to coerce me out of very routine activities in order to experience the game in a different way.
It very much reminds me of another hobby of mine: geocaching. When I go on one of those global GPS treasure hunts, it's almost never about the cache itself or what's inside. Instead, the object of the hunt is incentive to go on adventures outdoors. Sure, I could tromp through the woods on my own and explore nooks and crannies without a carrot dangling in front of me, but I probably would never do so. Having that artificial prompt to explore makes all the difference -- and it's the same with achievements.
Yes, some achievements aren't that noteworthy or difficult to attain, but in many cases I see it as a developer coming up with a fun challenge to give to me personally. Can I run across a series of high ropes without falling? Can I find all of the hidden whoozits in the land? Can I find the highest peak and ascend it?
I wouldn't do any of these activities in a normal gameplay session, but with the aid of achievements, I gladly embark on little strange adventures. And I end up loving most of them.
Because achievements aren't critical to your character's power level or advancement, they become an optional activity that caters to the explorers and achievers out there. What's even better is that the optional aspect allows players to decide just how much they want to get into achievements.
Maybe you want to accumulate as many points as possible and see whether you can max out your character. You can do that. Maybe you're a completionist, and achievements help give you quantifiable steps toward your goal. You can do that. Maybe you just want to do the most fun-sounding activities or the ones that give you a goofy title. You can do that. Maybe your raid team looks to achievements for more challenging goals in dungeon fights. You can do that too.
Achievements share your progress with friends
Probably the most divisive factor in achievement systems is whether or not the game shares your accomplishments to others. Let me go back to the two games I mentioned earlier: LotRO keeps your deeds private, although your titles can give an indication of what you've accomplished. RIFT, on the other hand, broadcasts your achievements to guildies and those nearby. While the latter may irk those who see such announcements as spam, I actually appreciate them.
I see achievement sharing as nothing different than showing off your armor or pets or what have you. We like having others admire what we've accomplished -- it feeds the ego and it's fun to share what's made you happy. Achievement notices may just be broadcasting that you've done a silly or trivial activity, but sometimes they can relay that you've crossed a major threshold in your character's career.
Besides, these notices can and often do bring guilds closer together. They get us out of our self-centered shells by making us take notice of what others are up to. Even a simple "grats!" when one of these notices goes up helps us build others up and encourage them. MMOs make it so easy to be narcissistic, so I have to applaud anything that helps us to see past ourselves and build community.
Even if it's a harmless bit of fun.
Isn't that what games are supposed to be about, anyway?
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!