Achievement Earned: Quality Achievement Design!
For purists, the joy of the sandbox is having no path laid before you, to know that any goal we may set for ourselves is as good as any other, and that whatever mountaintop we aim for is achievable if we have what it takes. This level of freedom doesn’t work for others, being able to track our success with shorter term and layered milestones keeps us motivated to achieve our overall goal. There’s often a certain snobbery attached when this is discussed amongst MMO enthusiasts, but I see it as just another example of how diverse we are as players and people.
In a game like Landmark, we’re presented with what is essentially a blank canvas and the offer to fill it. Some players will relish being let off the leash, but judging by reactions to other games it’s safe to assume they will be the minority.
So far, the various competitions and the Workshop in particular have offered effective shorter term goals, at least for those who have already mastered the game. This cycle has been invaluable for player motivation and retention, while creating a focal point for the community and a platform for players to to show off their skills and creativity. The results are incredible and continue to improve, I really can’t say enough good things about it.
For the new player, on the other hand, this level of skill and artistry can seem intimidating. No one would expect a brand new Dota 2 player to compete at the level of the players hoping to win The International and worse, be immediately compared to them. This is one of those quirks of being human—we like to feel that we can compare ourselves favorably to our peers, and it doesn’t feel good if we feel like we don’t measure up.
However, everyone can learn, and with a community as welcoming and supportive as that of Landmark it can happen quickly. As more veteran players take on leadership and mentoring roles, those who are less experienced will most likely feel better about their own ability as they judge themselves on a more reasonable scale.
Getting brand new players to want to learn is the trick, embedding the desire to be on the list of competition winners before they lose interest. In the days of fast downloads and quality free-to-play games everywhere, this window is small and shrinking.
For Landmark, a game without levels or quests, the achievement system is designed to provide this hook. There’s a placeholder system right now, and a fuller version coming with the big update/wipe this month. The new system is designed to point out what options exist for players, and provide a handy start point on the road to more advanced techniques.
I like systems like these; they are a fluid and unobtrusive way of providing tutorial-like experiences, and provide feedback to a new player that basically says ‘Yes, you’re doing useful things, carry on’, which is exactly the right kind of hook. It taps right into that bit of our brain that compels us to experiment through play, and rewards us for learning through it. Achievements can be added with new content, scaled to remain relevant to veterans and used to encourage all manner of behaviors.
Thumbs up all around for achievements.
On the other hand, one aspect to be wary of with these systems is what I refer to as the ‘checkbox effect’. Players see a list, and ticking off items on that list becomes the goal. Instead of playing the game in the way that feels right and/or effective to them, players will obsessively check off every box available. Regardless of how much fun we’re having, it’s what we’ve been trained to do. That same part of our brain that rewards us for learning is also the reason we end up conditioned to certain behaviors, and perform them compulsively despite ourselves.
I’ve seen this happen in the game already, when a new player was asking me for a small amount of silver. They told me that they’d been searching for hours in order to craft the second tier grappling hook, and I told them there is loads in the caves. They had no idea what I meant by caves, so I explained. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked what they needed a better grappling hook for, if they weren’t aware of the caves. The answer, of course, was that it was the next thing on the crafting guide.
This obviously happened while the game was in a very early iteration, and with almost no guidance available in game, but I think it demonstrates the issue very well. If you don’t believe me, Raph Koster has another example in his incredible post-mortem of Star Wars: Galaxies.
That being said, and while this is a fine line to walk, for my money it’s the best option for Landmark. Achievements can be a great way of subtly signposting content without having to mush it into our faces; it’s a soft sell that leaves the player in control. Importantly it’s also one that can be ignored by anyone who feels their time would be better spent elsewhere.
In many ways, that’s the ultimate goal for any system: for us to forget about it and play the game.