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In case you missed it: Last week, a Taiwanese gamer whose name translates as “Little Gray” finally “beat” World of Warcraft by earning every single achievement possible in the game. Not only is this a mind-blowing feat of dedication and an example of someone who completely lacks a life, it flies in the face of anyone who claims that Achievements – specifically those in WoW – are for “casual gamers.”

It’s true that the arrival of the Achievement system in WoW with Patch 3.0 (the preliminary patch to Wrath of the Lich King) coincided with a shift in design philosophy that made end-game content more accessible to players who weren’t devoting their lives to the game. That’s a simple fact, and I’m not here to debate whether it was a good thing or not – though I will say that I have to fight the urge to find people who complain about the game catering to casuals and slap them across the face with a sock full of quarters, because a business model where the majority of development resources are used on content for <10% of the player base falls just short of “completely idiotic”.

Can you really claim that the Achievements themselves are for people who play the game more casually? On the one hand, it’s true that the Achievements provide a nice little carrot on a stick for the players who can’t find their way into the highest-end content. By providing a tiny psychological reward every time you hit the next multiple-of-ten level, loot X amount of gold, or defeat the final boss in a dungeon, it mimics the thrill that the top-tier raiders get when they down a difficult foe that they’ve been working on for three weeks.

For a player just starting WoW, they’ll be earning Achievements from the moment they hit level 10, complete their fiftieth quest, or get an in-game pet or a guild tabard to show their colors. It’s a series of road markers from the very beginning that provides another bar to steadily increase as well as gently nudging them in the right direction (“Oh, I just got my Scarlet Monastery achievement, looks like I should be going to Uldaman next.”) In that respect, Achievements are absolutely meant to reward people who play WoW as a hobby and not a lifestyle.

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On the other hand, the new design philosophy means that Achievements are also used to offer rewards to the hardest of the hardcore. Current WoW raid philosophy means that most bosses are by default set to “Easy Mode,” and while they’ll still take some work to down, the accomplishment still doable by less-dedicated raiding guilds. However, many of the bosses have an optional “Hard Mode,” where they hit harder and faster – and some even get more abilities – but the reward for killing them is better loot, and, naturally, more badass Achievements: Just try killing Algalon in sub-par gear, taking on the Old God Yogg-Saron without any of the Watchers assisting, or earning the aptly-named “Tribute to Insanity” – beating every boss in the Trial of the Grand Crusader without wiping once. Everyone gets to experience the content, but the dedicated players still get to feel superior.

Not only are WoW‘s Achievements used to guide new players along their path from newbie to ultra-l337, they’re used to inspire the game’s top dogs to go above and beyond the call of duty. These are the real Achievements – the early ones just give you a little fanfare and golden plaque, but hardcore raid Achievements award you the nifty things to show off like titles and mounts. Blizzard has codified the pride and honor in downing a difficult boss into a tangible thing in the game.

Everybody can get the “casual” Achievements without much fuss, whether devotee or dabbler, but the higher-end ones will still be out of reach to all but the hardcore. Which brings us to Mr. Little Gray – I don’t think there’s a person in the audience who would claim that this man was anything but a (scarily) hardcore WoW player. He’s so hardcore that he wasn’t even playing the same game as the rest of us: I was playing a game to kill the biggest bad guys, someone else might be playing a game to become the most renowned Gladiator, but Little Gray was playing a game where the objective was to earn every existing Achievement.

It certainly wasn’t something he could do accidentally. Not only did he get all the hardest raiding Achievements, he topped the arena rankings in all three brackets (2v2, 3v3, 5v5), devoted his life to tracking down rare and elusive pets and mounts, got his reputation to Exalted with almost every potential faction in the game, and still found time to trick-or-treat long enough to get all of the (randomized) Hallow’s End masks.

This is the subgame that WoW‘s Achievements have added to the world’s biggest MMOG. It was a game that I dabbled in, once upon a time, but I no longer have the time to pursue it. It’s a game that is impossible to complete unless you take the word “hardcore” to a whole new level of hardcorey-ness. Otherwise, all the helpful roadsigns to ease you along your way stop abruptly at the base of the near-vertical cliff face that is the “hardcore” Achievements.

Claiming that Achievements make the game more casual is incredibly fallacious. There are Achievements for casual gamers, and the game itself may be more casual-friendly in general, but the Achievements themselves form a subgame that is the most grueling climb WoW has ever had to complete.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a dirty sock and break open the piggy bank.

John Funk never got around to getting that damn red protodrake.

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