Achievements as a whole are great for World of Warcraft; they ask you to look at the game a bit differently, to create challenges for yourself, and to get involved with zones and stories that you might otherwise ignore. Unfortunately, they can also spur players and guilds to approach raid content in a way that's not necessarily fulfilling for all concerned.
Since Wrath of the Lich King, I've slowly gotten the sense that raiding as a whole is much less rewarding than it used to be, and this is a sentiment that's been echoed by a number of other players. Unfortunately, achievements -- originally intended to add another means of accomplishment to raids -- may well be among the causes.
EDIT: This article resulted in a lot of discussion, and the subject was revisited two weeks later. You'll find it here, at OverAchiever: Reconsidering achievements and raids.
During classic WoW and The Burning Crusade, raiding's difficulty lay in the encounters themselves. In the total absence of achievements and heroic modes, beating an encounter was itself the achievement. There were no drakes given for the completion of raid content, there were no "nerd points" associated with your first kill, and you knew exactly where a tier 5 guild that advertised itself as "3/4 TK and 5/6 SSC" on the recruitment forums lay in the game's internal pecking order. Beating a boss even once was enough to give your raiders an enormous sense of accomplishment, and your guild could rest somewhat, secure in the knowledge that advancing gear and greater experience would make the content increasingly easy to do.
While this meant that getting keyed was a big deal -- and it was the mark of a good (or at least competent) player simply to be among those with the privilege of accessing Mount Hyjal and Black Temple -- this raiding model wasn't necessarily good for the game as a whole. The appellation "guild-killer" grew out of the existence of notoriously difficult encounters like Kael'thas, Lady Vashj, Brutallus, and M'uru, all of whom needed to be killed even to see later raid content, much less beat it. Unfortunately, the phrase was no myth. Countless guilds broke up while trying to hurdle bosses with truly difficult mechanics, probably because the inability to progress inevitably exaggerated any existing fault lines within a guild.
Developers also found themselves programming for what was said to be less than 1% of the playerbase at times. Most people simply did not belong to guilds that were capable of getting past bosses like Kael'thas, and so the vast majority of the game's characters languished in a sort of no-man's-land at the level cap once they had exhausted options from battlegrounds (in classic) and badge gear/heroics (in BC).
The advancing raid model
Consequently, Blizzard altered its approach to raid content in the transition to Wrath of the Lich King. Keying requirements are largely a thing of the past, and the greater portion of difficulty associated with raiding has been stripped and reassigned. In Wrath and Cataclysm, a raid encounter's true challenge is determined by the annoyance value of the accompanying achievement(s) and/or the encounter's degree of difficulty on heroic. Encounters like Lady Deathwhisper and the Conclave of Wind weren't particularly tough on normal mode, but they were reasonably challenging on heroic, and then became a real pain in the ass once you added their respective achievements (Full House and Stay Chill, at least before the latter was nerfed).
Developers experimented with different means of adding achievements to raid content, first trying a model where achievements were themselves the "heroic" versions of encounters in tiers 7 and 8 (Naxxramas, Malygos, Sartharion, and Ulduar), and then settling in tiers 9, 10, 11, and 12 for turning heroic into a mode that must be toggled. The problem with this model is that, while it solves the issues presented by the bottlenecked raids and players in classic WoW and The Burning Crusade, it creates others. Guilds are eventually obliged to confront achievements, because that's where the most tangible rewards of raiding now belong. Raid progression on its own is no longer enough.
One of the sadder things I've noticed about modern raiding is how few screaming, hollering, completely off-the-wall moments were experienced with guildies. Beating an encounter used to result in the guild's going nuts on Vent because the encounter itself was the challenge. You got Kael'thas down? Complete pandemonium. The Eredar Twins? You'd have the ringing in your ears for days after all the screaming.
These days, it's just the beginning of a slog to the encounter's real rewards. Normal encounters aren't generally difficult, and it feels weird to celebrate getting them down after a few hours' work. Ditto the achievement; you've still got heroic to go. By the time you get to heroic, you don't much feel like celebrating because you've already beaten versions of the encounter several times over. The joy of the first kill is distinctly muted in comparison to its counterparts in classic WoW and The Burning Crusade, mostly because the first kill is essentially meaningless.
The problem with achievements -- and more particularly, the fact that tiers 10, 11, and 12 have required the heroic versions of raid content in order to get the metas Glory of the Icecrown Raider, Glory of the Cataclysm Raider, and Glory of the Firelands Raider-- is that they have an unfortunate habit of turning raid content into a seemingly endless series of hurdles. Many of the tier 10 and tier 11 achievements were and are sufficiently cumbersome to discourage guilds from attempting to tackle them on anything but normal mode, and so three consistent tiers of difficulty have emerged:
- The normal encounter Most guilds should be able to do these with a bit of elbow grease, but there's no real reward associated with this content anymore. Even gear drops, with so many options outside of raids now, aren't quite as encouraging because gear's just a means to an end.
- The encounter's achievement These range from very easy to very difficult, but most guilds will elect to do them on the normal version of an encounter if possible.
- The heroic encounter The most difficult version of the encounter and the one most similar to the original difficulty of classic and BC raids.
While this problem has always existed in one form or another (e.g., having to return to encounters like Lady Vashj and Kael'thas in order to key raid members who weren't in on the original kill), it's become particularly nightmarish in an era when progression itself is irrelevant. The end result of achievements and heroic versions of raid content is that you're never quite finished with it; there's someone else in the guild who's waiting on the version they need or waiting to upgrade a piece of gear to its heroic brother.
Are achievements ultimately good for raiding? I think the answer to this is a qualified yes. Despite their effect on raids, achievements are generally fun to do, and they make you think about how to beat encounters in new and often interesting ways. However, I'm not sure that the current design of raiding achievements -- and in particular, how they're required in addition to heroic modes in order to win a meta -- are doing players any favors. They extend the life of the content, but they do so in a fashion that makes you increasingly likely to resent it.
A lot of people have argued that the Ulduar model for raid achievements is ultimately the best way to go. Achievements like Firefighter, Alone in the Darkness, and I Choose You, Steelbreaker were themselves the heroic versions of encounters, and returning to this model would circumvent the annoying three-tier difficulty described above. However, it has to be said that this probably requires more work on Blizzard's end, as encounters have to be designed with activated achievement criteria in mind (e.g., Mimiron's button, XT-002 Deconstructor's heart).
I'm not sure it's a good idea to return truly difficult normal raids to the game, but right now, the true reward of an encounter is increasingly divorced from original intent of raiding. Progression was once itself a reward, and now, it's just a demoralizing beginning.
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