Remember when winning was enough?

I’ve been playing video games for a long time. Most of my life now; at least two-thirds of it with some form of regularity with gaming as my go-to indoor leisure activity. To do the math and put that into perspective, let’s say I’ve been gaming regularly since, oh, about 1994. My early years were primarily with the Nintendo/Super Nintendo systems; by 1997, I found a game that tickled my fancy so greatly that it started the process of turning me into the predominantly PC gamer I am now (that game was Diablo).

One of the greatest boons of the Internet age of gaming is that we can play with other people; this, however, inevitably leads to social constructs and hierarchies in which players must prove themselves worthy. In the old days, games did not take this into consideration. For the purposes of this argument, because they so clearly reflect what I mean, I’ll point to differences between Diablo and Diablo III.

Diablo was one of the most beautifully simple games ever, in my opinion. Three classes with limited customization and sixteen random dungeon levels to explore, which doled out random loot. This made Diablo infinitely replayable, despite being a game centered around one town and sixteen “floors” of dungeon. That’s pretty much all there was to the game. Of course, there was a finite list of possible items and permutations of dungeon layouts, but for the most part, it always felt fresh, and it was fun to try and get consistently better gear, to the point of getting the best possible “King’s Sword of Haste”, for example (even the prefix/suffix system which generated bonus stats on items pulled a random number from a defined range; my King’s Sword of Haste could have been better than your King’s Sword of Haste). Because of the replayability of the game, players did lots of bizarre or surprising stuff on occasion. I had a Sorcerer (my preferred class) who could stand toe-to-toe with Diablo on the hardest difficulty, for example, and survive. One night, my stepbrother and his guild mates did some PvP naked boxing – they made level 1 characters, entered a game together, went into the dungeon, and killed each other barehanded. Why? Because it was goofy. I can’t prove to you these things happened; they’re nothing but memories for me now, special because of their spontaneity. Likewise, in Diablo, the Butcher boss was usually a difficult kill at the level he was encountered on; the playerbase figured out that he doesn’t open doors, so we’d lock ourselves in a room with windows and kill him with ranged attacks.

Diablo III, on the other hand, represents the newer generation of online games, which almost always include an “Achievement System” (to be fair, Blizzard is most notorious for this, but it exists across platforms and genres). This is common nowadays; many games have this, and Microsoft certainly pushed this agenda with Xbox Achievement Points which spanned the entire library of Xbox games. Achievement systems are pretty harmless in and of themselves; they give players an additional goal to push for, or create a singularly difficult idea that a player may not have otherwise thought of. It adds flavor. The downside is that as achievement systems get more fabricated into the gaming community itself, it comes at the cost of spontaneity. It’s entirely possible that the Sorcerer I had in Diablo becomes an achievement in another game (i.e. defeat Boss X with a melee blow from a ). Even my stepbrother’s idiot boxing could become a plausible achievement (i.e. defeat a foe at level 1 without using a weapon). Defeating the Butcher without taking any damage/using only ranged attacks? That’s an obvious achievement waiting to happen.

Beyond the loss of spontaneous gaming, achievement systems also create the sense that beating a game is no longer an end in and of itself; you beat the game to progress onto other achievements, or as a result of your progression, but not as an objective in and of itself. Achievements become a way to garner replayability at the cost of actual game design; rather than make a difficult game, create a game with multiple difficulties and a range of achievements across each one. Perhaps this is a marriage of convenience – after all, no one wants to make an online game people only play once to beat. But an achievement system creates your goals for you; a game like Diablo, so beautiful in its simplicity, gave the players no such framework, and yet the players continued to play, driven by the simple fact that the game was fun and fresh (there was nothing else like it on the market at the time).

Back in the day, I had my little Diablo icon guy – he had his 3 dots, for beating each level of difficulty in the game. That was as close to an achievement system as Diablo came; past that, relaying your “achievements” was a word-of-mouth activity, and something you needed a certain cred for to be believable. In Diablo 3? There’s no distinction in beating the game. The distinction is in your numbers – your achievement point total, or your overall DPS (damage-per-second). We’ve lost touch with what it is to just beat a game, sit back, and enjoy it. Beating the game is no longer the point; winning isn’t beating the game anymore, it’s achieving a measurable end – be it damage or achievement points or something else.

My point here is that the gaming experience is slowing being quantified. To be fair, this has always been true to some degree; games are basically just math behind the pretty graphics, after all. We know that bigger numbers are better. But players are increasingly, across many online RPGs, being quantified into numbers – be it damage statistics or achievement points or whatever else. I suppose the damage thing bothers me less; math is math, and that’s pretty objective math. But achievement systems are something else; quantifying player action is a much more abstract idea, a much more subversive sort of tracking. Achievement systems place value in how players play the game without asking for their input. I have no interest in level 1 boxing in Diablo, but if there was an achievement for it in Diablo III, I’d do it once for those 10 points. While things like damage-per-second are a quick (sloppy and often inaccurate) method of gauging player skill, achievement systems tell us nothing about a player other than how OCD they might be. Yes, many achievements in many games are uniquely challenging and completing them is rewarding. But they’re someone else’s challenge, someone else’s way to add a covert level of difficulty to the game, and someone else’s way to quantify player action and encourage players to play the game a certain way beyond the normal scope of beating the game.

Two of my favorite online games to date (Diablo, Final Fantasy XI) have no such achievement system. Players in those games created their own challenges, enjoyed their own successes, and made their own legends by retelling those successes. There’s no achievement for beating Diablo melee-style with a Sorcerer, or for clearing all three nations’ missions in FFXI; but I did those things, because I thought they’d be fun and worthwhile. But more than anything, I miss winning being enough. When I beat Diablo for the first time on the highest difficulty, there was no in-game mechanism to keep me playing. I could win and go home. I kept playing because of friends and because of the fun; but most importantly, I did not keep playing because of a subtle nudge from the game itself that there was still something around the corner to do. Winning was enough. It’s not anymore.