Saturday, 13 July 2013

Achievement Fatigue: GW2

Google, a company with which I am increasingly falling out of like, decided overnight to reorganize my mail. They've joined the faction to which Feedly also belongs that believes everything is better if you put it in a box. It seems to be a common view amongst designers these days. It's not a view I share.

Both Google and Feedly, however, stand higher in my estimation in this regard than ArenaNet because although those companies might think they know what I want better than I do myself they are at least prepared to let me disagree and bumble on in my own, inefficient, disorganized fashion if that's what I prefer. Which it is.

Putting things in boxes is all well and good when you have the time and inclination. In MMOs it can take the form of naming actual imaginary boxes with real see-them-on-the-screen names. I do that now and again. It's amusing to have a Dressing-Up Box with cosmetic items in, for example. Alright, not all that amusing. Anyway, amusing or not, it's largely useless because to see the name requires a mouseover or a click and by then you could just as easily have opened the box and looked inside.

Yellow on Brown. Is it 1974 again?

No, I prefer lists. Alphabetized, chronological, positional; any of those is good. The way GW2 Achievements were sorted and displayed before the recent change wasn't perfect but it suited me; it's much worse now. The main listing down the left-hand side requires extra clicking to get to what you want and when you do get there you have to scroll down an enormous array of identical icons that bounce directly off the retina without leaving a trace of meaning.

Clearly whoever designed the new interface has a far more visual memory than I do. I found it so much easier to follow the old simple screen of clear text than this color-washed pictorial grid. I much preferred the simple, elegant version with progress bars, exact numbers and plain text descriptions, all laid out like the page of a notebook. Having a floating window appear on a  mouseover is in no way that I can determine any possible kind of improvement, either aesthetically or practically.

Plain in every sense.


So much for the form; on to the function. I'm coming to the conclusion that I really loathe Achievements. I first encountered them in LotRO, where I found them highly entertaining and funny. I loved the unexpected messages that would pop up seemingly at random informing me I was now a Breakfast Expert or a Slug-Squasher. Somehow that innocent pleasure has curdled. What started as a light-hearted sprinkle of glitter on top has become the dark engine that drives entire games.

One might argue that Achievements remain optional but when a particular game-system is foregrounded to the extent Achievements have been in GW2 the opt-out option starts to fall in beside other rarely-seen idiosyncrasies like tanking without pants (and yes, I have grouped with those people, more than once. Nowadays there's probably an Achievement for it). The trend has been picking up steam almost since launch but the recent patch sees it hit full speed, becoming an irresistible locomotive force to which the only responses are to jump aboard, jump aside or be crushed.

Opting out of the Achievement rat race now puts your character in the same position as those poor folks who rolled a half-elf druid in Everquest back in 1999. Doomed forever to be less effective, less powerful, even less wealthy than your peers because of a simple desire to play the character you want the way you want to play it. I would contend that it's one thing to opt out of running dungeons and fractals and thereby foregoing the gear that comes with it, entirely another to miss out on permanent percentage-based upgrades to your account and every character ever made on it because you chose to focus on activities that aren't currently being flagged as expected gameplay.

Some warning on this would have been nice.
Oh well, not going to use them anyway.


Safe to say, then, that I don't like what Achievements represent, something in which I'm not alone. I like my MMOs to be far less structured than that. I like them to require of each player logging in a moment of reflection while said player reviews his or her own personal goals before deciding on a plan for the day. I don't approve of being handed a checklist and being told to go complete it. Or at least not this frequently, in this much depth and with such negative consequences for non-compliance.

Okay, it's not that black and white. I like the way ANet do Dailies and Monthlies. It's a list of stuff you'd likely be doing anyway unless you're one of those folk who sit in Lion's Arch all day chatting, in which case you presumably don't care - respect! Those things aren't really "Achievements" though - they just piggyback on the Achievement process for tracking purposes. I don't have a problem with that.

These color schemes just get worse.

I do have a considerable problem with the way the Achievement system now dovetails into The Living Story, itself another aspect of the game about which I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable. What we are falling into is a pattern whereby, on a specific day (Tuesday, let's not beat around the bush) a chunk of new content falls from the sky (literally in recent weeks) bringing along with it a scorecard.

What it reminds me of more than anything is being back at school. Teacher Anet sets the assignment, we have a couple of weeks to complete it then we hand it in and get our grade. If we've done our homework well enough we even get a small prize.

That's not quite why I started playing online fantasy roleplaying games. I had this strange idea I would be able to imagine myself under the skin of creatures very unlike me doing things I'd never be able to do in places I'd never be able to go. To live their lives, at least in some small way. And stap me if that's not what happened. What's more amazing, it still does, even with games designers apparently determined to stamp out the last vestiges of such airy-fairy, unproductive, ill-disciplined, self-centered, wishy-washy nonsense  .

Anyone want to play Sweetshops?


The ironic thing is, even with all these Achievements racking up the points that bring the current flood of rewards there's almost nothing I want, need or use. In nearly a year of playing I still have 99% of all the jugs of karma, mystic coins, laurels, boosters, utilities, consumables, skins and currencies I've ever been awarded. For me at least, ANet succeeded right from the start in making a completely non-aspirational MMO, where all you ever needed to do to have endless fun was just go out and explore.

If I wasn't a hopeless, incurable packrat I would just destroy all this stuff as it pops into my packs. Almost none of it will ever be used. Instead I'll probably end up spending gold to buy gems to increase my bank vaults just to store it. And then resent the game for making me do it. There's nothing rational going on here.

Yet I'll keep playing. Tyria is beautiful, Ascalon especially. The sound foundation that was laid down will be hard to break even under the weight of all these Achievements. My patience is another matter.




19 comments:

  1. I'm glad your still being a critical voice as I no longer have the energy or passion for it. For a second there i thought you'd been corrupted by the dark side.

    I am one of the many who really rather despise this focus on achievements, it's not a new thing by far and has been steadily become more predominant and ingrained in games and mmo's but it seems GW2 has taken it to the extreme now.

    Like you said, it wasn't too bad before and was more just about giving the people who needed a certain direction which was kind of required but now it seems to have gone too far

    I have never focused much on these in play and would rather forget about them and let them be completed while doing my usual stuff. Better yet I would rather make my own in game goals but that is an ideal lost in the past.

    i like you love the game like you, if for different reasons and will continue to play it but it really is severely testing my patience.
    And yes they did set up to create a game that was centered around having fun which they did reasonably well with originally but now they are creating content based on fulfilling chores.

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    1. Everything in GW2 since launch has been two steps forward, one step back - at best. The base game is excellent and some of the changes and additions work well, but plenty more either don't work at all or run counter to what appeared to be the original direction of the game.

      Until recently it seemed the worst of it was the apparent lack of direction but it's beginning to look as though they might have worked through that and settled on some kind of roadmap for the immediate future. Unfortunately it's a road that will take us somewhere I'm not very interested in going.

      When they introduced the Ascended gear last year there was a huge pushback from the players, as there had been against the big one-off Karka event earlier. Since then, though, there seems to be less and less outright player resistance all the time and a lot more shrugged shoulders and grudging acceptance. I think ANet are starting to get the measure of the audience they've been able to attract and hold and that is primarily an audience of Achievers. Most things they are doing now play to that.

      My guess is that WildStar will be even worse in this respect and if GW2 and WildStar turn out to be the most successful new MMOs of the last few years,a s well they might, we can look forward to much more of this in both new and older games. I find it tiring and its likely I'll be looking to spend more time in whichever MMOs don't follow this trend too intently. FFXIV is looking better all the time.

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  2. I admit I'm slightly confused by the nature of this post. You state that you enjoy the intrinsic rewards of playing and exploring, and yet you lament the fact that your playstyle apparently isn't being rewarded with enough extrinsic rewards, which you then state has negligible impact on your playstyle? It sounds like you're setting unreasonable expectations of wanting everyone else to conform to your ideal playstyle. Which is never going to happen.

    There's always going to be some things that others enjoy that you don't. The true balancing act then, is for game developers to make these rewards have as minimal impact to people's gameplay as possible. (i.e. dungeon skins are purely cosmetic, exploration unhindered by gear).

    So does that extra gold/MF making people wealthier really impact you that much? Especially when you've stated repeatedly in the past that personal wealth doesn't do that much to you (I'm looking at your thousands of ectos you're allegedly hoarding!). I'd understand it more if actually cared about extrinsic rewards and was aiming for a Legendary of something. Then this complaint makes more sense, because you want an extrinsic reward and the content to achieve those (pun intended?) does not give you intrinsic satisfaction.

    But from everything I've read from you, you don't place that much value in said extrinsic rewards. Which in the end leaves me confused as what exactly the problem is?

    -Ursan

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    1. I read your reply then went and did all my dailies on one account and then ran four Sanctum Sprints while I thought about all the very valid and pertinent questions you raise. It was really helpful. I think I might have the glimmering of an idea of why this is annoying me so much. It comes down to this:

      Who is giving me these rewards?

      A quest or a mission or a task has an NPC actor who sets the scene and comes up with some spiel justifying whatever sociopathic action he wants you to take. The reward you get is payment from him or his agent for services rendered. Frequently that mechanic is artificial and unconvincing but it provides a fig-leaf large enough to conceal disbelief. In other words, it enables me to stay in character.

      Achievements, on the other hand, are extrinsic to the world my character inhabits. They require no context and offer none. They rub my face in the G of MMORPG, the letter I'm least comfortable with.

      I'm not a roleplayer of the kind that sits in Quicksilver College in Rift emoting misspelled teenage relationship angst in the guise of Heroic Dialog but I do play my characters as individuals in context with their worlds as much as I'm able. Getting an endless stream of instructions from an invisible entity doesn't make doing that any easier.

      J3w3l above thought I might have been corrupted by the dark side and she's picking up on something very real. These Achievements are seductive. It's a lot easier to log in, check a list and then go start filling in the blanks than it is to self-motivate. It's fun. I enjoy it. To use another analogy, its as much fun as eating your way through a whole bag of donuts. Which is something I try to avoid.

      I'm not annoyed by these achievements because I think other people who genuinely enjoy them shouldn't get what they want; they should. Partly I'm annoyed because it makes each session in GW2 harder for me and less fun because I have to put more effort into resisting what I know, for me, are lazy impulses that will give a short-term sugar high and a long-term buzz-kill.

      It's not even the Achievements per se that I'm having such an issue with - it's the extreme foregrounding of those Achievements. Ignoring them gets harder all the time. I'd much prefer them to stay tidily out of sight, a plaything for those who enjoy them, not the front end of the entire game, which is where they seem to be right now.

      Then once we're done with the meta we can examine the micro. Why give us actual, inventory-eating objects? Why not make the Achievement score a currency, create an Achievement tab in the store, stock it with the things we're allowed to have and let us choose them as and when we want them?

      In short, I don't like the concept and I don't like the implementation of the concept I don't like. And yet I can't leave it alone.

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  3. I'd much prefer that they just give rewards based on age of account, as that way you can still play the way you like without having to go chase after the pixelated pats on the back.

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    1. I would too, although I guess that's harder to do on a B2P model than a sub.

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  4. I do actually agree that this new focus on Achievements with Living Story, coupled with Achievement rewards, makes things less optional and thus more restrictive to gameplay.

    For example, I found myself just fretting today over whether I had remembered to charge up crystals yesterday and finish the daily for the Laurel because most of my gameplay time went into playing newly bought Steam games instead of GW2. Which is never a good state of affairs in the long run because feeling obliged to log in becomes a chore, and doing chores/errands inevitably lead to burnout.

    However, given the number of Achievers in any game, arguing that they should not have Achievements from a philosophical standpoint is much like arguing that devs should not design group content because one prefers to solo. There's also a subset of people who love group content (or Achievements) that they have to cater for too.

    But we could argue that there should be both the option to group and the option to solo to cater to both preferences.

    So I think the closest we might be able to get is more of a happy medium like the Dailies and Monthlies. Preferably add more achievements for different playstyles, so that the process of attaining them is more organic, rather than feeling obliged to check off a list and trot obediently from point to point.

    Do bear in mind too that we're getting a heavy burst of retroactive rewards, so the past few days have been very atypical. Spread out over time, I think the 4th wall breaking effect would be less noticeable.

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    1. It's definitely the case that having a year's-worth of rewards packed into a few days makes the whole thing seem more intense than it will be once that's settled down. On the other hand, there will now be those nice little chests sitting at every 500 points just begging to be worked towards.

      As I think about this more, though, it becomes a more and more complex picture. The new achievement system could be said to be standing in for what in other MMOs would be the AA or Talent systems, a means of progressing your character beyond the level-cap. Melding that with Achievements and then tying it to the Account rather than the character seems to me to be moving a long way from character-play, which for me is the heart and soul of MMOs.

      I think I'd be a lot happier with the system if it was character-based rather than Account-based, something that I'd say about a number of systems in several MMOs I play. I really don't like to think of my characters as some kind of hive-mind collective, any of whom benefits equally from the actions of all. Of course that would just be seen by many as multiplying the perceived grind by the number of characters...

      I also think MMO devs should always consider adding an opt-out for every "benefit" they add. That's just polite.

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  5. Yes indeed operant conditioning, Skinner Style, to enforce gameplay ... This is a unimaginative way of effecting gameplay, whereas artful game design could produce greater immersion, affinity, and retention.

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    1. I have a feeling that game designers tend to be very high on the Achiever spectrum while game artists would be high on Explorer. That would explain why we so often get incredibly detailed, wonderfully explorable maps, zones, cities and dungeons and are then asked to run around them with a fact-sheet ticking off objectives.

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  6. I guess I'm a little confused with your beef with achievements here. You say that not pursuing them will put your character behind/gimp you somehow, then you go on to say that the rewards from achievements are ones that are useless to you. How are you being gimped? Other than statistically small bumps to account-wide XP boosts/magic find/etc., I don't really see any difference between a character who goes whole-hog with achievements and one who doesn't.

    Just trying to understand where you're coming from, is all.

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    1. Part of the problem here is that I don't yet know where I'm coming from on this one. The original post arose from my strong dislike of the visual changes to the Achievement system and then grew from that into a general realization that I neither liked how it looked nor what it did. It wasn't a deeply thought-through analysis, more an emotional response.

      With the coming of the new focus on Achievements I tend to feel somewhat less welcome in the gamespace and somewhat more discontented with my own behavior. We tend to react to signals from the environments in which we operate and with this change stronger signals are being sent about expected behavior than formerly. Therefore deciding to opt out feels like a more rebellious choice than it did a week ago, which is uncomfortable.

      The psychological picture is complex. Many of the activities for which there are Achievements are things I would be doing anyway or which, having had the possibility highlighted, I would start to do. It's also very convenient indeed to have an automatically-updating "To Do" list. It's leaving me in the odd position of feeling I'm being manipulated into doing things I already want to do, which in some hard-to-define way devalues the whole experience.

      As I try to formulate replies to the penetrating questions and observations on this thread it becomes more an more apparent to me that I don't have a fixed view on all this, not yet. New implications and complexities spin up each time I think about it. In the body of the post I said I was coming the conclusion that I loathe Achievements but really that's not the case at all.

      Achievements make me uncomfortable. That's nearer the mark. They fall into that class of things I do because I want to do them at the time even though I am aware that later I might wish I hadn't. It has more to do with the presentation than the content, too.

      I've been doing the Sky Crystals Achievement today. Currently at 33/40. I'll be unbearably pleased with myself if I finish it. While I was doing it I realised that if this and all the other exact same achievements I'm so uncomfortable with right now had been put into the game as quests the above post would never have been written and instead I'd probably have posted about what a great update this has been. And I don't even like quests all that much, either!

      As for the rewards ANet have attached I don't think they can be written off entirely as "statistically small bumps". The cumulative XP boost at 10KAP is 12%, for example. 800 Gems and 80 gold are not insignificant, either. I think it's reasonable to believe that the rewards now on offer will be sufficiently desirable to materially affect how some people play the game.

      If I continue spending a lot of time in GW2 it will very likely affect my decision-making. If I'm 200AP from earning 400 Gems, for example, I might very well go and do some things that have AP attached to them instead of something of my own devising that doesn't. More importantly, if I do successfully resist that temptation it will take more mental effort to do so, which makes playing GW2 a less relaxing activity than it otherwise might have been.

      Bet that's clear as mud. Frankly, I still don't know what I think. I just know I was more comfortable in the game before this changed.

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    2. It sounds like an extrinsic versus intrinsic thing to me.

      Achievements are an external push from the developers to go do such-and-such a thing, and you will get a reward.

      It's naturally less satisfying than if -I- decided I wanted to do that thing, then was pleasantly surprised by a reward at the end of it.

      Then as you say, it's also meta-gamey and immersion breaking. Would it have helped to have an in-character mail giving us a reason to oh.. go collect sky crystals and run races, I wonder?

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    3. The contradictory thing is that I've spent all day doing the Sky Crystals, I'm tabbed out from doing it now (I need 3 and I can't do the remaining ones I know about so I have finally cracked and gone to watch videos of other people doing them). I've really enjoyed it but would I have enjoyed it more if it had been in the context of a quest rather than an Achievement? My feeling is yes, although by now I would probably want to stuff the crystals down the questgiver's throat.

      The issue definitely isn't with the content of (most of) the Achievements. It's much more with the presentation and what that seems to imply. I think.

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  7. I think your common complaint, Bhagpuss, is that achievements distract you. I noticed the same thing in GW2 with exploration. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool explorer. I love poking my head into nooks and crannies and finding interesting places.

    So, imagine my surprise when I read about GW2's minidungeons and how I never found a single one despite getting 100% world completion.

    Actually, looking back I think it's the fact that I got 100% world completion that distracted me. I was so focused on the points of interest, vistas, etc. that I fell into the path laid out before me. It's not that I didn't have fun, because I did, but in the end I wasn't as satisfied with my experience as I could have been. (see my recent post: http://psychochild.org/?p=1208)

    Looking at this from a game design point of view, the problem is that the game rewards a certain type of behavior that may not be the most satisfying for the player. The achievements are the way the game designers are specifying the game should be played. Not that you can't play other ways (and obviously the expect some people to go off the beaten path and try out some of the "hidden" content), but that the game expects you to to do the achievements to advance.

    Of course, for achievers who make up the majority of the current MMO audience, this doesn't sound bad. But, let me make a comparison that Achievers might understand; it's like having some piece of desirable raid-quality gear that requires you to PvP to obtain it. Sure, you could just not get that piece of gear if you don't want to PvP, but for most Achievers they wouldn't agree.

    Anyway, I think too much of GW2 is based on "checking off a list" for gameplay. It's compelling in the short term and fun in a way, but it's not satisfying to those of us who love to explore.

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    1. The point about distraction is very well made. I very rarely have any difficulty coming up with personal goals, plans or projects either in MMOs or elsewhere. Getting round to doing them is usually the problem. I've hardly ever suffered from the "don't know what to do next" blues in MMOs that you hear so often. I don't really need other people to set goals for me.

      Once someone (in this case the developers) do start setting goals, however, it's incumbent on me to either accept their agenda or reject it, either in whole or in part. And I am a fundamentally lazy person; if I log in knowing there's a bunch of stuff waiting for me to do, all set up with tracking and rewards, it takes that much more will-power to say "but I had other plans".

      The end result is that it feels like working against the grain if you don't follow the path laid out for you. There's always been that path, even right back in EQ when I started, but the signposts seem to be getting bigger and bigger and the nudges firmer and firmer. In the old days if you went your own way you remained largely unaware of what you might be missing out on; now they send you in-game emails reminding you.

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  8. "The ironic thing is, even with all these Achievements racking up the points that bring the current flood of rewards there's almost nothing I want, need or use."

    THIS.
    it's baffling anyway, this whole gear grind and -centricity in GW2, considering that there's err...nothing we're gearing up for. no endgame. no raids. who needs ascended gear and legendaries?

    I like the school teacher assignment analogy; this is what bugs me so much about achievements, that they set out a plan for you where to go and what to do and find there. this is where intrinsic motivation and adventure spirit go to die.

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  9. Yeah this is all really starting to bug me.

    I've actually started playing LESS GW2 as a result.

    I don't like feeling like I have to do my homework, yet know that if I don't I fall off track. So I log in, do my dailies, and then log out.

    When this last sky-batmen patch came about, I looked at the insane list of achievements and after putting in an hour or two of them, moved on.

    But then over the weekend I realized that if I did not do this one part of the living story, my account would forever be unable to mine quartz crystals...

    So I spent most of Sunday stuck in this 'dumb game' plodding away at things...

    I love the lore of Guild Wars, stop making me feel like its a 'dumb game' I am hassled into playing...

    The living story is a severe disapointment to me. I see no story or plot in it. People tell me things like "But Commander Keen, she's the next major NPC, and we're going to vote for her and all this and that..." and I go inworld and wonder where all that is.

    Then I remember that to understand what the fuzz is going on round here, I need to log out/tab out and read a website and watch a twitch recording of a livestream Q&A interview...

    ...

    ...

    /facepalmeryallupinthisplace

    ...

    ...

    But hey... I did it anyway right?

    And I had to use a guide on dulfy too... because you've got to collect all kinds of things that are... clued in well inworld...

    So back to those webpages.

    /sigh

    And I still have no idea why I should care about sky crystals and playing Mario Kart...

    Oh and I suppose there was an achievement to watch some show where a human has a couple quaggan slaves dancing around or something. I dunno... I could less so much I left my toon AFK there while taking a morning shower...

    I mean seriously...

    This setting has so much vibrant lore history... and they're ignoring it all because hey: SKY PIRATES AND STEAMPUNK !!!

    But it doesn't matter what it is...

    ... Just that its got no relation back to the core Guild Wars lore...

    Remember when PandaVille was announced for WoW and people were complaining that there was still so much left in the existing lore... the Titans, The Emerald Dream, the this or that...

    Now Guild Wars 2 is like that every 2 weeks...

    Context-lacking smack-yo-butt-across-the-stage drop of 'click F to win' in bulk... that moves the setting all of nowhere, moves the lore all of nothing, and neatly resolves by the end with a tiny tiny tiny piece to feed into the next part... because they're all written in isolation so all that team B knows of team A is that 'Commander Keen is alive at the end and will be ready for a handoff to promote to progress step 3.'

    /palmhurtsfrommyfacesmackingitsomuch

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    1. I'm not quite *that* fed up with it but as you say it gets harder and harder to think of GW2 as anything but a computer game. I'd like my MMOs to be virtual worlds first and games second but the trend these days is very strongly in the other direction, at least outside of the sandbox.

      In the end you have to decide; do you go with it willingly, go with it unwillingly, stay but go your own way and accept that you'll miss out on much that's new, or leave. I'm somewhere between unwilling and going my own way right now.

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