MMO Theorycrafting 19 Comments

The Journey is Boring: video games and validation

The most excellent Syl wrote a great post today about why she thinks achievements are one of the worst things to happen to MMOs. And with the standard caveat of “there’s no wrong way to play games and it’s good there is a wide marketplace so everyone can find a game that suits them”, I feel I have to stick up for achievements.

Warning: this post will probably totally out me as a Neanderthal who does not appreciate art and beauty

Immersion, Schmersion
Achievements absolutely break a game’s immersion.

I think immersion in games is wonderful.. in the right game. If you’re playing The Stanley Parable, immersion seems almost critical to the experience. (No, I won’t say why. Go play it!) I loved slapping on my headphones and getting lost in the world of Mass Effect, wandering my ship wondering if Garrus was finished with his calibrations.

In general, though, the MMO genre doesn’t seem well suited to being an immersive experience. First, and most obviously, however lovely the fantasy world is it’s also filled with other people, many of whom are doing things like shouting “lol butts” and dancing on tree stumps in their underwear.

And although MMOs have done quite a bit of innovating in the last couple of years, they still haven’t really solved the problem where you kill a terrible monster to save a village and it respawns a little while later. (Perhaps EQ Next? We’ll see.) Plus most MMOs seem stuck on the idea of having in-game events that mimic real life, something that absolutely pulls the player out of a fantasy environment.

In general the MMO genre by its very nature seems like a poor place to look for a truly immersive game experience.


Getting Some Satisfaction
People play games for all kinds of reasons, but one popular reason I think — or at least it is for me — is that real life is hard, you guys. It’s hard for different people in different ways, but for me finding “satisfaction within” is not always an easy task (particularly as someone with depression and anxiety issues), and it takes effort and practice.

For example, I will spend roughly four months of my life doing housework. I will never finish tidying my house, but instead will do it on a regular basis for the rest of my life because it needs doing. We do these things often with no real reward or acknowledgement. I do not get an achievement for getting to work on time all week, or for remembering to get cat litter on the way home, nor should I expect one.

In a game with achievements, after I catch 50 fish I get a happy noise and some digital confetti. You did it, player! Check that off your list, you accomplished a thing! Obviously not all achievements are the same (catch 50 fish vs What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been) but frankly I enjoy a little validation in my life, even if I know it’s virtual and very silly.

I find sandbox MMOs (and sandbox games in general) just mimic some of the very things I am playing games to forget. I don’t want to be lost in a strange and unfamiliar world! As I said in my post on Skyrim a long time ago, my idea of escapist fantasy is not being a helpless half-elf with no shoes and no direction in life, hiding in a cave. My escape is being validated in silly game ways for developing my character.


Casual Bartle Achiever
There are a number of valid holes in the Barle Test character theory, but I still find myself drawn to the basic definition of the achiever: “[Achievers] will go to great lengths to achieve rewards that confer them little or no gameplay benefit simply for the prestige of having it.”

I like to Get Things Done. I like checklists and forms. (Yes, I am that person who will do my family’s taxes because I find it kind of fun.) I add my own “twist” by trying to do these things as optimally as possible, which often requires a little research and planning ahead. Achievements provide a framework for these things.

Additionally, as someone who no longer raids, achievements are great for limited playtime. I can log on and spend 20 minutes working towards an actual tracked goal.

I find total sandbox games to be overwhelming. It feels like graduating high school — you can do anything you want, so what do you want to make of yourself, huh? Huh? Oh no, you said you wanted to be a bow and arrow rogue but that isn’t optimal and now you’re an unemployed middle aged elf who still lives with their parents.

While I respect that people are Explorer-types, I don’t get it myself. What happens when you make it to the top of that hill and see… the next hill? At what point do you get a sense of satisfaction? Serious question.


Syl said in her post that “The journey is the reward” in games, or at least should be that way, but for me that’s opposite from the truth. Life, real life, is all about the journey. I do that every day. It’s quite rewarding, but also often boring, scary, and difficult in equal measures.

I like games in large part because they are not my real life, and mostly “the journey” is just a period of time when my character is not as powerful and awesome as she could be. I realize this makes me something of a philistine who eschews art and mystery in favor of research, goal-setting, and sweet, sweet victory hats, but hey, whatever makes us happy.

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  • Reply
    November 6, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    I personally don’t care for achievements whatsoever. I get them, and I go, “Oh, okay” and continue on my merry way. My Xbox Live profile has maybe 10k points gathered over 6 years or so, whereas most of my friends have 50k+. On the other hand, I agree with your assessment that achievements are certainly not the breaking point for MMOs not being immersive.

    The biggest thing though is I definitely cannot deal with pure sandbox games–Minecraft excepted. Skyrim was even too much for me. Once I get off the main path, I never find my way back and lose track of why I’m playing the game, at which point I just set it aside and never play it again. I definitely need goals, and though achievements don’t provide me with said goals personally, I can see why some people would love having them.
    Talarian´s last post: Blizzcon 2013: SWAGs, but no YOLO

  • Reply
    Doone (@trredskies)
    November 6, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Even though I dislike achievements, I can strongly relate to what you’re saying here. And you’re right: there’s a place for achievements.

    I think what I protest most about the modern achievement systems is that they have come to usurp actual gameplay. Getting a shiny new badge is generally harmless, but when you get an achievement for logging in? Yeah, this is inconsistent with promoting gameplay, especially in current MMOs. It’s not that achievements are worthless, but they’re often just counter-productive to engaging the game by shifting focus on “push button, get shiny”.
    Doone (@trredskies)´s last post: PAX 2013 and Tomorrow

    • Reply
      Wilhelm Arcturus
      November 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      I am just curious, but what game has stooped to achievements for logging in? As I said in my comment below, I am generally pro-achievement, but they can be over done. I don’t mind a few easy ones to prime the pump, but trophies for just showing up tend to make the whole achievement thing less special.
      Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: KW-I6T – The Long Guy Fawkes Day

      • Reply
        Doone (@trredskies)
        November 7, 2013 at 10:54 pm

        @Arcturus: I can’t recall, but I felt sure I got an achievement in WoW for logging in during a holiday. But even if not literally for logging in, there’s achievements for putting on a tabard (just putting it on), for reaching level 10, etc. Really stupid stuff.

        I’ve got some achievements on Steam/XBL which basically amount to “grats you turned on the game”.

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      November 7, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      I should say that despite my pro-achievement post they can absolutely be done poorly. While I like digital confetti, getting one every time I level or whatever would be hopelessly silly.

  • Reply
    November 6, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    To answer your serious question, let me try to share my perspective as an Explorer with a side helping of Achiever. Discovery is the process, the journey, and the sense of satisfaction arrives in the accumulation of knowledge – preferably stuff that few people know.

    I enjoy being the pioneer, the one people turn to and have show them the way because it’s more convenient than trying to reinvent the wheel or figure it out themselves.

    Exploring is problem-solving, figuring out a riddle or a puzzle or a mystery and getting that sense of satisfaction when you hit upon the solution on your own. A validation of esoteric intelligence, perhaps, while achievement is more a validation of good planning and efficient action.

    Then on the side, there’s also the more scenic type of Exploration who enjoy uncovering the fog of war and seeing what’s over the next hill. Satisfaction arises in discovering the answer to “what’s over here?” Preferably something cool and awe-inspiring, like a good view for a screenshot, a hidden secret, and so on.

    Making it to the top of the hill reveals, hey, a veteran mob, a chest that probably few people know about. Time to feed that knowledge into a wiki, perhaps. Or take a screenshot to admire the view from the top. And from that vantage, one sees another intriguing hill with some buildings that one can’t make out from over here. New goal on the mental checklist: done here, time to figure out just how to climb up there…
    Jeromai´s last post: GW2: Don’t Be A Stranger – The Voice Debate in WvW

    • Reply
      November 6, 2013 at 5:51 pm

      Great description of what drives satisfaction for an “explorer” type, which is how I would most strongly describe my own play style.

      I find that the internet works to kill a lot of that satisfaction for us explorers, because these days there is so little knowledge that is truly rare. As soon as one person posts to WoWHead about the hidden chest in the remote cave, everyone knows about it – and then I’m not interested anymore.

      Sandboxes that have meaningful dynamic content can help to address this problem. For example SW: Galaxies had dynamically generated mineral fields that changed over time, and there was real game value in exploring to find the “best” mineral sources. Man, I loved that game.

      My itchy explorer fingers are crossed for EQ Next, I guess?!

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      November 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      Appreciate the response, Jeromai (and Mangle). It helped clarify the mindset of the Explorer type.

      “A validation of esoteric intelligence, perhaps, while achievement is more a validation of good planning and efficient action.” — I can completely understand that, even if it may not be my particular thing.

  • Reply
    Wilhelm Arcturus
    November 6, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I have a generally favorable view of achievements. I have a completionist/collector streak in me that this feeds. I am somebody who “caught them all” in Pokemon pre-Black/White.

    Sometimes achievements can be a pat on the back or a shopping list of things to do, but mostly they are memory markers that I have done something. That is also the role my blog serves, but I cannot possible record everything I do on my blog, so it is an adjunct to that.

    On the immersion front, achievements do not break immersion for me in the way, say, a cash shop pop up does. But what is immersion for one is not immersion for another. When I am “in the zone” and playing and tuned out of the everyday world, I am not sure I ever lose the sense that I am playing a game. I am never that detached from reality. I am certainly emotionally invested, and can be happy, sad, surprised, or in awe. (Cue stock footage of my first encounter with Froon wandering West Karana.)

    So an achievement is an affirmation from the game, part of the flow, marking something that I was doing in game already. But a cash shop request/reminder is a buying decision which is a completely different part of my brain. WoW telling me I passed the 250 fish caught mark or finished a dungeon for the first time is cool with me. EQII popping up an alert to remind me to “Upgrade to GOLD” in the middle of a fight is like a bucket of cold water. It takes me out of the gaming mood and into my economic decision brain.

    That said, I think achievements can be overdone. GW2 achievements and goals and points of interest and such made part of me go, “Screw that!” and move on to greener pastures.
    Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: KW-I6T – The Long Guy Fawkes Day

  • Reply
    Joseph Skyrim
    November 6, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Continuing from Jeromai’s post, “exploration” doesn’t even just have to be limited to wandering the map and finding random shineys. It can also come from talking to “non essential” npcs. Wizardry Online has a good example. There’s an NPC bard in Port Illfalo who you never ever have to go talk to. He only ever sings one song too (good guitar piece I might add).

    Eventually you’ll hit a dungeon that asks tests you on ancient knowledge that you can find on broken slabs in the place to shut down magical barriers blocking your path. Answering correctly and quickly is a good idea given the permadeath presence in the game, you don’t want to be thinking (or reading slabs for too long) when a horror or PK comes wandering by.

    Guess what, if you remember the bard’s song (which you can repeat in the relative safety of town) you have pretty much all if not most of the answers you need to get through the place.

    Unmarked quests are great too. Not just in the no exclamation point variety, but say the whole thing has no entry at all. An achiever who is only looking for the most direct and fastest route will almost definitely miss such things. If you are so focused on fishing up a crab or poking a giant ten times you’d probably not be talking to every NPC in sight.
    Joseph Skyrim´s last post: Futuristic Medieval Fantasy: Atlantica Online

  • Reply
    Why Can’t I Just Turn Off Achievements? | The Ancient Gaming Noob
    November 7, 2013 at 8:00 am

    […] the way of the world, that lead to Liore at Herding Cats to express her love of achievements.  Cuppy joined in on that front as […]

  • Reply
    In Which I Defend Achievements in MMOs | CuppyVille
    November 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

    […] tend to agree with Liore on this one.  I am rather tired of hearing the phrase “but…my immersion!” when […]

  • Reply
    November 7, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Just a tangential thought on MMO immersion… I really want some MMO dev team somewhere to make a Valhalla-ish MMO, where it’s explicitly part of the game that respawning and “corpse runs” are just part of the world, maybe even an entertaining lateral advancement path. Planescape Torment played a little bit with that. Mortality and common sense are strained to breaking when it comes to immersion in a lot of ways, and I think it’s time someone embraces that instead of just sort of ignoring it and pretending it’s just one of those “unavoidable business decisions”.
    Tesh´s last post: Tinker Dice in hand!

    • Reply
      November 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm

      In WoW the spirit healer will at least say something to the effect of “It’s not your time yet” and offer to bring you back. Unfortunately, the game never addresses the issue that for players it is never our time yet, while for NPCs it seems to always be. It would be nice to see even a throwaway quest in which we’re informed that we’re a rare “non-mortal” person who can return their souls to their bodies and reanimate themselves,.

      • Reply
        Jessica Cook
        November 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm

        True! RIFT sort of dealt with this (players are “Ascended” or special reincarnated heroes of the past) but I don’t think WoW has ever really addressed why we’re always coming back from the dead.

  • Reply
    November 12, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Your reason to like achievements is actually one of the few I really “get”, even if it’s different for myself. I wonder too how my own expectations correspond with let’s say everyday / work life – something to consider. I’m very a much a getting-things-done type myself, but I absolutely hate being told what to do, and especially how to do it – freedom above all. I’m rather anti-authoritarian that way, hehe. achievements rub me the wrong way. ;)

  • Reply
    Arguing on Achievements | Healing the masses
    November 22, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    […] Liore of Herding cats takes the side in favour of achievements and while I do have arguments regarding the immersive aim of our genre as if that isn’t the aim then the experience is mostly pointless, she does bring out many valuable points about players motivation. […]

  • Reply
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