Need for Speed’s Autolog: LeaderBoards & Achievements from the Future

I’ve tired of achievements. For me, the novelty has worn off, and there’s simply too many of them, distributed on so many platforms: Xbox, PS3, Steam, Battle.net, etc. External opt-in systems like Raptr can’t remedy such fragmentation. As it stands, I don’t doubt the power of achievements to be a psychological motivator. They will remain an effective reward mechanism within the boundaries of a game. I’ll continue to need to push the lever and get the pellet.

The problem? Today’s achievement systems offer only the minimum support for the social side of gaming. It’s too much time and trouble to scan my friends list for what achievements they’ve earned. That’s especially true on the PS3 where the syncing of trophies is a disaster. Even on Live, the minor investment of effort to compare achievements stands as sufficient disincentive. Both MMOs and shooters do a better job with obvious RPG-like leveling systems, but the practical effect of a friend’s level-up doesn’t shape, alter, or make more meaningful any of my gameplay. I just keep investing the hours to catch up. Maybe jealousy could work to motivate me to acquire a given weapon or piece of equipment…

Today I believe there’s a new template to follow in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and its Autolog feature. (Full disclosure: Need for Speed is an EA product.) In practical terms, NFS keeps a leaderboard for each race across your friends list. Simple, right? It’s a good idea. This means that if I want to compete with my friends, I don’t attempt it on a game-wide level. I compete in the arena of a single piece of content, a single race. Manageable bits of content, with nearly immediate results. That makes competition approachable and the achievable.

An even better part of the idea? NFS leaderboards are push-based. I never had to ask for them, and I get them served up in real-time. During a race, I’m informed not only of my competitive performance against the obvious AI competition, but I’m told in clear terms how my results compare among my friends. This happens before, during, and after each race. Where I check the time and distance for my race, a few words and numbers reveal that Prismakaos has a race time that I have yet to beat.

Autolog has proven to be a very strong motivator. Each night of racing I find myself spending as much time re-racing old content (attempting to best a  friend’s time) as I do exploring races that I’ve yet to attempt. And then comes the Breaking Alert popup that informs me that while I have been playing, a friend has just beaten my best time on “Race for the Hills.” Do I want to race it again and re-take the lead? Do I!

The bad news? This mechanic can engender frustration and poor play experience. Specifically for this sort of time-based competition, frustration can rise quickly. Now, a certain level of frustration is fine: it indicates that I’m invested, challenged, and struggling to get better. The bad side is that half the time I begin a race to capture best time, I’m restarting within a minute or two as a result of a bad performance or a crash. Those failures are often my own damn fault (and sometimes the fault of AI performance getting me in trouble). Yet in the quest for near-perfection, frequent quitting and restarting seems a problem.

P.S.: Talking about this with some friends, and we opined that the best and fastest of industry adopters, Blizzard, is likely to adopt an Autolog-like feature into World of Warcraft’s segmentable and repeatable content: daily quests, dungeons, raids, arenas, and battlegrounds. Soon I’d expect to compare my performance not just with a leaderboard such as arena ranking, but against every one of my Facebook-integrated Battle.net friends.

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