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Don't Be Surprised If SWTOR Has Achievements

In my last article I discussed a possible “legacy” system for Star Wars: The Old Republic. In it, I mentioned unlocking character options at important in-game milestones, like max level. What I didn’t discuss and will now, is if BioWare will include arbitrary milestones—commonly called “achievements”—and keying in-game rewards to them. Achievements have become so popular that it’s almost guaranteed, but implementation is debatable and linking achievements to in-game rewards would be a mistake.

Achievements are time-sinks. Sure, they’re vanity rewards for bragging rights, but that’s their “value”, not their purpose. The purpose is to set a goal for players to keep them logged in and playing. That’s not a bad thing, and generally achievements have been well-received by the gaming populace. I first noticed achievements when they appeared on Xbox Live, but today they appear in many games, including some of my favorite titles such as Team Fortress 2 as well as in BioWare games like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins.

But if achievements are a time-sink, are they just a grind? Not necessarily. They can be, but so can any type of gameplay. Time invested in a game is only a “grind” as much as it isn’t fun or feels repetitive to the player. If a game’s achievements are simply a bunch of kill lists—such as Warhammer Online—then yes I would most certainly consider that to be a grind, a cheap tactic to keep players paying the subscription fee every month regardless if they’re actually having fun. However, developers have also used them as tutorial aids to teach how to play a game properly, as encouragement to try new game features or alternate content, as a sort of treasure hunt, to unlock rewards or game features, or just to get a laugh from the player. Just because they’re a time-sink doesn’t mean they can’t be fun.

Implementation matters a great deal. The debate between binding achievements to a player’s account or to individual characters is a conversation that could fill an article by itself! If your achievements are uncreative—if completing them is annoying, tedious, or too difficult—then they’ll be ignored or worse, resented. One of the cleverest things done with achievements was done early on by Microsoft, by assigning each achievement a “score.” To this day, the XBL “GamerScore” is a meaningless number, and yet “achievement whores” go out of their way to increase their total sum of points earned, some even going so far as to rent games notorious for easy achievements. In this sense, achievements are a “top score” list that spans multiple games; gaining rep is an end in itself. Some companies—BioWare included—have created their own gaming networks where achievements, game progress, and character stats are displayed publicly. Achievements also tie into social networks, with services posting automated tweets when an achievement is unlocked. The brilliance of these achievements are that as important as they are to some gamers, they are utterly optional. Pursuing achievements is entirely up to the player and only for the sake of vanity. Achievements take a more controversial role when they are tied to gameplay rewards.

It’s a natural thought to attach gameplay rewards to achievements. Unfortunately, this takes what was a fun, optional mechanic and turns it into another form of progression, like XP, gear, and faction rep. It transforms what was “just for fun” into “work.” You might not mind hopping in place 1000 times when totally bored to earn the “House of Pain” achievement, but if you assign an in-game reward to it—say a unique lightsaber crystal—suddenly players will feel that they “have” to complete it to get the full value of their character. Suddenly you’re hopping in place when you’d much rather be playing the game. Even vanity-only rewards would make players grumble about having to carry out busy-work—to grind—in order to get an item that could just as easily been worked into normal gear progression or given as a freebie.

TF2 struggled with this when Valve began doing class releases, complete with new items and new achievements. The twist was that you didn’t get the former until you unlocked the latter. Players immediately began cheating the system, creating custom levels designed to quickly earn achievements and even using third party programs to simulate play. Players love new items, players love new achievements, but putting them together amounted to adding a grind to TF2. Previously, “skill” was the only determining factor in victory. I loved this. When a new map was released or tweak made to game stats, I could log in and still be up to par with other players as long as I knew my class and could shoot straight. This was no longer the case once players had access to fantastic new weapons that—while not necessarily better than the old ones—allowed for new and creative tactics, tactics that were barred from me until I completed their busy-work. Valve eventually backed off on their policy, allowing players to unlock new items through random drops during play as well as through achievements, but the achievement-grinding levels remain (and are not without some redeeming qualities).

BioWare has to be very careful about associating in-game rewards, even vanity rewards, with achievements. If obtaining them is too arduous or annoying, they will segregate the community by free time. Both casual players and hardcore raiders might read through a list of achievement rewards and know they’ll never have the time—either because of a general lack of play time or because of in-game commitments—to unlock them. Nobody likes to feel that game content is irrevocably barred from them. When achievements become barriers to content and barriers to success, achievements become less fun.

Will we see achievements in SWTOR? Yes:

3:33: any benefit to not having a companion?
3:33: ther emight be an achievement for not having one

{1UP.com “LucasArts Reveal Liveblog”}

From the above quote, we can expect a list of achievements for SWTOR. Likely, BioWare will include a variety of achievement types: tutorial, grind, humor, completion by character demographic (e.g., class, race, alignment). My only hope is that none of these achievements unlock in-game rewards.

The suggested achievement—given for completing the game without a companion character—is a perfect example of why achievements should NOT grant rewards. Yes, going without the extra firepower is essentially playing SWTOR in “hard mode,” but does BioWare really want to reward players for ignoring content? That isn’t the behavior they should want to encourage. I don’t want to have to decide between an achievement’s reward and enjoying NPC companions, or using a particular weapon, or going without healing items, or a number of other “hard mode” gameplay strategies that are essentially playing the game incorrectly. If a player wants to handicap themselves during gameplay that’s fine by me, but if they’re then rewarded for doing so with a unique in-game item—something awesome, like a black-bladed lightsaber for example—then that’s going to irk me a bit. A simple achievment wouldn’t bother me, but adding in-game rewards on top of that is worrisome. I mean, I could probably play Left 4 Dead with only a two-button mouse and using only my index finger, but that shouldn’t be rewarded with anything other than a pat on the head.

Achievements are guaranteed for SWTOR. Even without any quotes, enough games have them—enough BioWare games have them—that fans will expect it.  People would be more surprised at this point for a big-ticket title to lack achievements than for any game to include them. The only uncertainty comes down to what these achievements look like and what impact they have on gameplay. Hopefully none.

Agree? Disagree? Should achievements unlock in-game rewards? Do you have a good idea for an achievement? Share!

PS: Achievement unlocked: “Too much free time for fodigg” – One year of TOROcast articles complete! 52 articles in 52 weeks! Musco and Samm owe me a princess-themed ice cream cake!

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