You have died. Release to the nearest graveyard?

I sigh and click the button, my lifeless corpse turning into the glowing wisp I’ve come to know and love. Over my headset, I hear someone speak. “We have to get those elementals down or they’ll just keep killing Tie.”

Someone else chimes in: “Val, do you think you could go up there and kill them as they get in line-of-sight?”

I key my own microphone. “No way. If he goes up there the chain lightning will jump to him. I can barely keep Lef up as it is – I can’t heal both of them.”

“Well, Iggy is our only ranged DPS. I guess he’ll have to do it.”

For the uninitiated, the game is World of Warcraft. We’re currently running the Nexus, a high-level dungeon in the frozen continent of Northrend, and attempting to make an easy boss hard by ignoring the warp rifts he spawns – resulting in 45-second periods of invulnerability, constant enemy spawns and a barrage of chain lightning that tears through any non-tank like tissue paper. Take the warp rifts out of the picture, and he’s a loot piñata.

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So why are we doing this the hard way? Because there’s an achievement for it, of course.

I used to laugh at achievements. You were one of the many who obsessed over running up your Xbox Live Gamerscore? Ha! So pointless. Your precious PlayStation Network Trophies? Double ha! XBL, PSN, Steam – achievements were surely a waste of time.

Then, they came to World of Warcraft – and I became hooked. I went out of my way to get achievements – hell, I leveled my Cooking and Fishing from square one just so I could earn a time-sensitive holiday achievement. Some people play WoW for the PvE, some play it for the PvP. I partook in both – as long as there was an achievement involved, anyway.

Why had I gotten so hooked? What was it about WoW‘s achievements that grabbed me in a way that no other system had done before? Why was I now running all over Azeroth and Outland to explore every inch of every continent? Upon reflection, I found three factors that, in combination, make WoW‘s achievement system so fiendishly effective.

The Peggle Effect
Let’s start with the obvious: When you earn an achievement in WoW, it’s a celebration. Earn an achievement on your Xbox 360, and a small notification pops up with a little “bleep.” How boring. But when you earn an achievement in WoW, a gold box appears at the bottom of your screen with sparkles and a triumphant crescendo of music.

It isn’t just the flashy presentation, though. Every time you earn an achievement, WoW tells people about it. Anyone in your guild, anyone in your group, anyone even standing near you, no matter their faction, will receive a message – “[Tieria] has earned the achievement: [Tastes Like Chicken]!” Friends can whisper you their congratulations. That dirty Horde can know right before his spirit leaves his body that yes, he was your 10,000th PvP kill. And if you’re dedicated enough to earn a server-first achievement, the message will be broadcasted to everybody. Yes, everybody. They’ll all know how much ass you kick (or how much free time you have on your hands).

If you’ve ever played the nefariously addictive PopCap game Peggle, it’s the same thing: When you beat a level, fireworks go off as a chorus gleefully performs Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The game is celebrating you. “Hooray! Awesome! Aren’t you great?” Maybe it’s a cheap trick, but it works.

No “I” in Azeroth
Blizzard designed many of the hundreds of achievements in WoW to be completed alone. But for the real prizes, you’ll need to bring some friends.

Whether you’re in a five-man group trying to kill Moorabi without letting him transform into a mammoth, in a 10-man raid aiming to vanquish Thaddius without anybody crossing charges or with 24 others seeking to kill Sartharion while leaving all three of his guards standing, many of the most prized achievements in WoW require a helping hand (or eight).

Group achievements provide a shared experience – everyone works together through trial and error, chiming in with strategies and ideas. These achievements also strengthen the connections you have with other players. It’s about trust: My friends invite me to heal their achievement runs because they trust me to be a good healer. I need to bring people I trust to be on the ball to handle adds and be aware of the situation. The tank needs to be someone I trust to keep the bad guys off of our squishy little groupmates.

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And when we finally triumph – when hours of wiping and rezzing finally result in that little golden flash across the screen – we know that we succeeded as a team. It feels more rewarding to be a part of a whole, knowing that you didn’t just earn an achievement for yourself, you earned it for nine of your friends. You wouldn’t have it without them, and they wouldn’t have it without you.

Bragging Rights
The joyous presentation and emphasis on cooperation make WoW‘s achievements more appealing, but they’re not enough to send players scouring Dalaran for rare magical books that randomly appear and disappear every few hours . No, to get players to do that, you need cold, hard loot. In WoW, earning certain achievements also gets you in-game rewards. Warcraft isn’t the only game to do this – that’s how you unlock the class equipment in Team Fortress 2, for instance – but few other games contain the sheer number or variety of achievements that WoW does.

Even better, WoW gives you a place to show them off. If you have all of the Scout items in Team Fortress 2, people might recognize that while you’re playing – but once you log out, they won’t care. Unless you’re a server regular, they won’t even remember who you are. But when I go AFK outside of Dalaran on my flying albino drake, people see that I’ve been able to acquire a hefty 50 mounts.

MMOGs like WoW are successful in part because they cater to a wide range of play-styles – and achievements demonstrate your play-style to the world. In-game rewards tell everyone else what sort of things you like to do in the game, not just how good you are at them. Even if you’ve never once spoken with my friend Jovis, the moment you see her running around town with her little fawn companion in tow, you know she’s snagged a whopping 75 pets.

Run into somebody with “The Flawless Victor” title in a Battleground or an Arena? You’re about to get stomped. The tank and healer in your Heroic Halls of Lightning group have “The Immortal” title? You’re in good hands. See somebody with the “Salty” title chilling by the fountain in Dalaran? That means they’re patient enough to fish up the rarest catches in the game.

On Xbox Live, you have to manually inspect someone to check his Gamerscore, and you have to go even deeper to peruse his individual achievements. Maybe he has 10,000 more points than you do, but is that because he plays a lot of games, or because he’s very good at a select few? Your opponent in Street Fighter IV might have topped the rankings in Halo 3, but I’d never know unless I took the time to look.

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Perhaps that’s what it all comes down to: For me, it was never enough to just get points or trophies. It’s like buying cosmetic DLC for single-player games – if you can’t proudly parade your Oblivion horse around Altdorf or Orgrimmar or Jeuno, what’s the point? No one will know you have it, and that kind of spoils the fun.

We never did defeat that boss in the Nexus that night. Instead, we went on to knock off some of the other achievements that stood between us and virtual glory. Sooner or later, we’ll be back with some fresh new strategies to try, and it won’t be long before you see me flying around Shattrath on my shiny red proto-drake. Then the world will finally know how awesome I am.

John Funk (The Undying) has 5240 achievement points and climbing.

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