One of the biggest complaints I hear from veteran gamers is that games these days rely too much on achievements. Warhammer Online’s Tome of Knowledge was a great example of the influx of achievement-based games; ninety percent of its purpose was to track your achievements. World of Warcraft, previously only somewhat reliant on achievements, even went so far as to implement their own achievement system with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
Possibly one of the best known achievement systems is from Xbox Live, a system that provides players with a gamerscore based on their achievement points. In gaming today, it’s not enough to feel the pride of having beaten a level or killed a specific monster — you have to see it carved on a stone tablet along with the number of rats you’ve exterminated and the amount of times you’ve clicked on yourself while naked.
In many cases, achievements don’t merely provide bragging rights; they often come with a reward of some kind. In WAR, that meant a special tome tactic, cloak, title, or trophy. For WoW, players who accumulate some ridiculous number of achievements will get access to a rare mount. It seems like this is one of the main arguments from those who don’t like achievement-based gaming: that it only rewards achievers, while other player types get nothing. In other words, achievements become compulsory instead of optional, especially when the rewards are more significant than a shiny ribbon to hang on your belt.
Team Fortress 2, like many first person shooter games, has its own achievement system. Valve dressed up the achievements with clever names and cute icons, but they’re standard fare: kill x players with x weapon, heal x health in one life, and so forth. When Valve began updating the TF2 classes, they implemented unlockable weapons that could be obtained via completing achievements. In most cases, three unlockable weapons were available that were obtained at three levels of achievements, i.e. weapon A at 10 achievements, weapon B at 20, weapon C at 30. The expected amount of controversy was spawned and has continued ever since. One side thinks the system is fair, the other doesn’t. Count me for the former, but, like many younger gamers, I’m an achiever (when I’m not a killer).
A new shitstorm is brewing in the TF2 community this week, as the latest update goes live. The largest content patch to date, this update includes the sniper update, the spy update, three new maps, and a change to the unlockable weapon/achievement system. Boyfriend and I discovered this last night when he was randomly informed that he had received the Razorback, the sniper’s new unlockable shield, despite the fact that he was playing a spy at the time and had not completed any sniper achievements. I experienced a similar event when, while playing a pyro, I found that I had received the Dead Ringer, a new spy unlockable.
We thought it was a glitch, but soon realized it was intentional. Yes, instead of obtaining unlockable weapons via completing achievements, the weapons will now be obtained via drops, similar to an MMO. Evidently it is also be possible for players to receive duplicate drops of weapons they’ve already obtained, as I unlocked the Sandman, a scout weapon I’d earned previously. You need only take a look at the game’s official forums to see that the new system is just as controversial, perhaps more controversial, as its predecessor.
The good thing about the new system is that it is much more equitable. Tying the weapons to achievements was unfair to players who didn’t have the skill or patience to complete them. There was also a number of ways to exploit to obtain achievements faster — like joining an empty server with your friends and farming the ones you could manage with only a few people — that undermined the system. Making the weapons obtainable only via a completely random drop evens the playing field somewhat. Casual players will have a chance to obtain the unlockable items, and hardcore players will still have a better chance to obtain them because their increased playtimes will improve their drop chances.
Unfortunately there is also a down side to the new system. The most obvious one is that the achievements are now reduced to bragging rights. Some achievers will still complete achievements for a sense of fulfillment, but otherwise it’s unlikely that players will strive to complete them. They’ll be seen as more of a novelty — a notice that pops up when you happen to complete one, but isn’t particularly exciting or rewarding.
The other problem is that one controversial playstyle is being replaced by another. Instead of basing unlockable content on achievements, the focus is now on grinding and play time. Where a skilled player could possibly complete a full set of achievements in a few hours, now that player may be in game for days before finding one of the weapons.
If there’s anything anti-achievement gamers hate more than achievements, it’s grinding. Yet grinding is what TF2 has chosen to be the primary means for obtaining unlockable weapons. Is it fair? Perhaps — it’s as fair as anything random can be. Is it gamebreaking? Certainly not — the unlockable weapons are nice, but the game is playable without them . . . unless you’re a rabid achiever looking for fulfillment. Is it smart? Well . . . that remains to be seen. TF2 is introducing a lot of new things to the game that blur the lines between MMO and FPS — such as headgear slots that may eventually have attributes and an inventory system with 50 slots (for health packs? items?) — and some purists may not appreciate that.
For me? So long as TF2 continues to be the kind of game that I can abandon for several weeks and come back to without a significant change in the game’s feel and play style, I’ll be happy. If it gets to the point where I have to play continuously to keep up, like an MMO . . . well, I wouldn’t be happy then. I play TF2 when I want a break from MMOs; I don’t want to play TF2: The Mini-MO.
(If you don’t own TF2, you can try it for free for the next two days during the game’s Free Weekend. The game is also on sale for a limited time for $10 from the Steam store.)