Jul 182008

One of the things that struck me was interesting when I first started playing City of Heroes shortly after it launched was the badge system.  I’d been playing Everquest for several years, and Badges were an interesting twist on the standard “kill monsters, get experience and loot” reward system.  Essentially a Badge was something you could earn by exploring a certain area, defeating a set number of foes, completing a mission, or other similar in game accomplishments.  You didn’t get any real benefit from having a badge in the way of character advancement or game play (although I believe that  a few of them may have unlocked different costume options), and there wasn’t any real “point” to them other than to say “I’ve earned this badge.”

In other words, bragging rights.

It was a pretty neat idea, and it spawned a lot of fun game play on my end.  One of my characters was part of a super group known as the Taxibots, and we would occasionaly set up badge tours in various areas of the game to help other players get exploration badges.  Earning a badge was a fun and often unexpected reward, and when you consider the fact that one of the big weaknesses of City of Heroes is that there is very little in the way of game play other than grinding the same mission types over and over again it was a good motivation to keep playing (obviously not good enough, though.  I haven’t actively played City of Heroes in years).

My next encounter with a system like this came in the form of the XBox 360 Achievement system.  Much like the Badge system in City of Heroes, Achievements are points you get for accomplishing certain goals in the multitude of games that are available for the system that grant you nothing other than bragging rights.  Many people, myself included, post their XBox Live Gamer tag on their web sites in order to show off how many Achievements they have earned.  Earning an achievement can add a layer of depth to a game and give you motivation to play it when you otherwise may have become bored.  Take Rock Band, for example.  Would you really be as motivated to play through the “Endless Set” (every song in the original game at one time with no breaks) on Expert if it wasn’t for the fact that it made you a “Platinum Artist?”

Unfortunately I see a very real possibility that systems like this could potentially lead to a lack of quality in the games we play.

As my regular readers know this is a gaming household.  Four of us live here and each of us is a gamer of one form or other so I get to see first hand how a lot of trends impact your typical gamer.  In our household, I’ve started to cringe at the mention of XBox 360 Achievements.

We have two teenagers in our home.  If you’ve ever raised multiple kids who have similar tastes I’m sure you’ll agree that, quite often, the word “share” is never really a consideration.  In order to avoid the “x person is hogging y” arguments we generally set very clear rules about who owns what in the realm of entertainment around here, and we discourage “lending” stuff out.  This may seem to be a bit harsh, but if you’ve never dealt with the drama involved when a child has had a favorite toy broken by a sibling or friend please try not to judge us too harshly.  It’s a nightmare, frankly, so we find it best to adopt a pretty clear line of demarcation to prevent that kind of fighting.

Unfortunately it really doesn’t work all that well (but hey, it helps me make the point of my story so maybe that’s a good thing).

Take, for example, the XBox 360.  Alex got one for Christmas last year with money that he got from relatives and a pretty significant chunk of change from me.  When that system came into the house Krystalle and I made one thing very clear – It belonged to Alex.  He had the right, at any time, to ask us to get off of it so that he could play.  He also had the right to take it over to his Mother’s house if he wanted to.  Now as the folks who pay the bills and own the REST of the electronics in the living room we had the right to say “fine, but we’re watching television so bugger off” but Alex was where the buck stopped in the realm of the console.  Despite the fact that we had sworn we we never going to be another console, though, something happened when Krystalle and I started using the 360.  We liked it.  We liked it a lot.  On top of that, many of Krystalle’s co-workers at Massively played and wanted to have “team building” nights in Rock Band.  One of those nights happened to fall on an evening that Alex was going to be at his Mother’s.  We asked him if he would leave the console, but (as was his right) he opted to take it over there.  Krystalle decided she didn’t like the fact that her ability to play was in the hands of a 12 year old and went out that evening to purchase her own.

Now I had a spare television in the computer room that was very rarely used so I moved it into Alex’s room and gave him the ability to hook his 360 up in there when he brought it over.  He did so pretty regularly for a while but has since grown tired of carting it around and generally leaves it at her place.  All he carts back and forth now, generally, is the games.  This, unfortunately, has led to a whole new set of drama.

The other day Alex was getting ready to leave and Jareth noticed that he was carrying three of the 360 games that he owned.  He asked what they were, and when Alex told him he got all pouty and said something along the lines of “How am I ever going to get all those achievements if you always take the games with you when you leave?”

Please note the important part of that sentence.  He didn’t mention game play.  He didn’t talk about how awesome the game was or how much he really wanted to finish the story.  He mentioned achievements.  This wasn’t an isolated incident, though.  The other day Alex and I went out to dinner in Clearwater with some friends and Jareth had the house to himself for several hours.  He took that time to play one of the games in question, and when we walked in the door the first words out of his mouth were “I got a ton of achievements tonight!”

Again, not “this game is so incredible.”  Not “I finally beat it and got to see the ending.”  I got achievements.  He then proceeded to go through and compare his gamer tag score to us and all of our friends, seeing who he was “better” than.

It reminds me of this, and the fact that it’s shown up in a web comic makes me pretty comfortable in saying that the attitude isn’t just showing up in our household.

Now we have an achievement system coming to World of Warcraft, and it’s really made me stop and wonder if this isn’t going to become the new trend in getting gamers to buy and our continue playing your game.

I’m worried that achievements will start to replace meaningful content.

Think about it.   You can spend x hours developing a new dungeon or zone or you can just add a “Boar Killing Achievement” that you can earn from killing one million boars in the game and watch players waste hours and hours of time doing nothing but killing boars for no reason other than to earn the achievement.  This kind of thing already happens in the game with reputations.  I can’t tell you the number of people I know who have wasted hours and hours of their time working on reputation with a certain group in the game just to say they had done it.  Just to have the bragging rights.  Why do they do this kind of thing?  Because they’ve run out of other fun and challenging things to do.  Because they’ve gotten bored and there isn’t enough content left to keep them interested so they make up their own games to justify playing.   Me?  I’ve spent literal days, nay weeks,  worth of time fishing in the game just to catch a super rare crawfish.

This is what scares me.  I worry that developers are going to start taking the easy way out.  I worry that they are going to find ways to make you waste your time that don’t involve adding any real depth or content to games, and gamers are going to do it just to be able to brag to people who haven’t.  I worry that console games are going to start advertising the number of Achievements you can earn as actual selling points on the box itself and that people are going to start buying and playing games for no reason other than the fact that they can increase your gamertag score.

Why would a company be motivated to do something like this?  In the case of a subscription based game like World of Warcraft that’s pretty obvious.  The more time you can get people to spend in game the more you’re going to get out of them in monthly subscription fees.  For a console based system like the XBox 360 the motivation is similar but slightly more subtle.  You don’t have to have an XBox Live account to play games on the 360, but you do if you want to play games online and, more importantly in this case, if you want to upload your achievements so that all the world can see.

In order to brag, you gotta pay.

Obviously I’m commenting on a specific system that is coming in Wrath of the Lich King that I have not seen and do not know anything about, but recently the world “achievement” has become kind of annoying trigger for me and the fact that they are going to be in WotLK has made me a little less enthused about the upcoming expansion.  I only hope that Blizzard doesn’t decide to start using new Achievements as a way to dodge adding something truly new to their games.

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