In Defense of Collectibles

collectibles

This article is a response to the video “Into The Black”, which is in itself an elaboration on some of the thoughts and ideas expressed in these two articles. The video is sort of a treatise on how the intrinsic value of exploring virtual worlds is damaged by the introduction of gameplay, pulling out collectibles as a particularly bad example.

I do not think that the point of “Into the Black” is that collectibles are universally bad. Although the video itself is somewhat vague on this, the articles upon which the video is based are quite clear in their terminology. Joel Goodwin uses the term “mass-produced collectibles” to refer to a very specific type of collectible which he despises. These are self-serving items, which exist with no other purpose than to be collected. Like the thermoses in Alan Wake, they are scattered across the world with no regard for believability or relevance to the rest of the gameplay or story.

I don’t think that these mass-produced collectibles (those that more or less serve no other purpose than to be collected) are that interesting. I am typically a holistic game designer, so I like to have reasons for things that I put in games. The reason could be as dead simple as the strings of notes in Banjo-Kazooie levels, where they are used to lead you to a point of interest, but you should not put anything into a game willy-nilly without thinking about how it affects the whole of the thing. If the only reason you have some item hanging around in your levels is “because you could”, then that’s not a good enough reason.

However, it is actually very rare in games to find this pure type of collectible. Usually the collectible is intended to encourage a specific type of behavior in the player, a way of playing that they would not have normally done. Now, in many cases the behavior is really just an obsessive Easter-egg hunt, but this is not the only possibility. Generally the best uses of collectibles are when the collectible really only exists to set up a challenge.

However, before I continue, I must digress that for many years people have used this same argument in favor of achievements—that they encourage alternate forms of play. In that sense, the achievement acts in much the same way as a collectible, as an integrated part of the design. But definitely achievements can be and often are bad, primarily because they are usually seen as an afterthought, when in fact they are a core part of the game design. Their mere existence can sideline the inherent enjoyment of interaction and play. This is why some people are less likely to play a game if it isn’t going to contribute meaningfully to their overall metagaming score.

As a game designer, you cannot ignore anything that affects how people play your game. So that argument that achievements “don’t matter” is utter bullshit. They, just like collectibles must be an integrated part of the game design process. Unfortunately, the industry has treated them as more-or-less a bullet point marketing thing. “Every game should have achievements, and it is really more the purvey of the marketing department to decide what they are”.

I can see why someone would want to say that collectibles are universally A Bad Thing. Design trends have swung so far in favor of their liberal usage that it’s reasonable to take up an aggressive stance against them. Collectibles can ruin games when used carelessly (see Donkey Kong 64 or modern Ubisoft open-world games), but I’m not about to go out of my way and say they are always bad. Some of my favorite games have loads of collectibles in them (Banjo-Kazooie), and although they perhaps could be better without them, there is really no way to prove that without building a version of the same game that does away with them.

Collectibles give space meaning in games and drive player behavior, so whether or not they are good or bad really comes down to how they are used.

Returning to the idea of collectibles as mere setup for a challenge, at perhaps the far end of that spectrum you have Braid; where the entire game is built upon collectibles, but the collectibles themselves only exist to provide structure for the game’s puzzles. I’m not sure you can make the argument that Braid would be better (or even still function as a game) without the collectibles. Yes, there is perhaps a version of Braid which exists as simply a big sandbox which you can explore at your own volition, but I think the game gains essential clarity through its use of collectibles as a motivator for player action.

Perhaps something is lost in that transition to a more structured game world. The loss is ephemeral, but I believe Braid does at times try to preserve some of that open-endedness through “soft puzzles” that are not marked by any particular reward. The primary path that most people will follow with the game remains highly structured, though.

I suppose it depends upon your opinion of Braid, but I argue that, in this case, structure and collectibles do not make the game worse as an absolute, but they do change the way in which the player relates to the game world.

Sometimes designers do use the “mass-produced collectible” somewhat carelessly, engendering an obsessive easter egg hunt. I think in open-world games this is a particular design failure. Unless the designers were really intending to encourage obsession, they were likely just following what they see as game design best practice: “never let the player find a dead end with nothing there.” This comes from a desire to not have the player be frustrated. And it is true that it just feels bad to be exploring a level and reach a complete dead-end with no reward. If you are viewing the world as a place that has been thoughtfully designed around you, in that moment it feels like the designer has betrayed you and disrespected the value of your time.

Although game worlds can be centered entirely around the player, that is not the only type of world that exists in games.

I would set out two main types of spaces in games: virtual realities and levels. In order to explain the difference between them, I need to define a term which I call “sense of place.”

Sense of place is the feeling that you are really exploring a world that exists beyond the confines of the screen. A world that the player is not at the center of. This feeling exist whether or not the design was intended to evoke it, and is not limited to 3D open-world games.

A good example of how sense of place is separate from the intent to evoke it is Yoshi’s Island. Unlike games like Grand Theft Auto, that have an obvious attempt to echo things about the real world, Yoshi’s Island is a side-scrolling platformer with discrete stages that you progress through in a linear order. It’s a highly directed experience, and yet it still has a very strong sense of place. Going into the exact reasons why is beyond the scope of this article, but the point stands that sense of place can be present whether or not it was intended.

So, therefore the difference between levels and virtual realities is not defined by whether or not they have sense of place, but whether their intent was to evoke it. Virtual realities intend to evoke it strongly. Levels do not.

Unlike many early games, with discrete and highly artificial levels, modern games are often sprawling and miles large. They strive for a verisimilitudinous experience, with sense of place as a core part of their appeal. The continued dominance of open-world games is evidence that this type of experience is very compelling to both designers and players.

However, because of these differing goals, I think that some of those old game design rules don’t necessarily apply. Dead-end alleys with no gameplay purpose are fine in virtual realities as long as they do not damage the suspension of disbelief. In fact, when the design goal is believability, adding collectibles actually has a detrimental effect. The real world does not have collectibles scattered about randomly, so adding them changes the nature of the the player’s relationship to the world. They can no longer see it as a world like our own, but instead see it as a big level. Thus, if they do find a dead-end with no reward, it is fair to see it as a waste. The player rightly expected a collectible, because there very well might have been one.

Once collectibles have been added to this virtual reality, the player feels obligated to explore, not because they enjoy the scenery, but because finding all the collectibles is part of playing the game effectively. The collectible has become a red herring to the player’s pursuit of enjoyment, because it actively encourages a degenerate method of play. Hunting collectibles obsessively might be the least fun way to play, but players will do it in misery because they feel it is the correct way to play.

Collectibles give space meaning. They are the hands of the designer reaching out to explicitly shape the experience of the player. So be careful what you incentivize.

I can understand the frustration with collectibles, since they are perhaps the most basic boiled down form of game design there is. Sometimes I find myself burnt out at the repetitive nature of game design. Why do we always need to collect, to expand our empires, to build bases, to loot, to kill? Just the other week I made a joke game about the futility of many of our core activities in games.

The lack of collectibles is a big reason why Far Cry 2 is one of my favorite open-world games. Unlike its more polished sequels, in Far Cry 2 you don’t “clear” a bunch of outposts by hunting down icons on your map. You don’t expand the borders of your burgeoning empire piece by piece. You don’t skin a shark to make a wallet. The world in this game has a obvious disinterest in the player. The mission design is always very light, never having that moment that other open-world games have, where you feel as though you have been pulled out into a separate world for a story mission to occur.

Playing Far Cry 2 feels like a seamless lived experience of a real place. The enemies in this world are not mere toys for you to express your dominance, but instead are set up as equals to the player. You will die a lot, often without warning. Some players even enjoy playing Far Cry 2 without using saves. They start a new game and when they die for the first time, they shut it off. The enjoyment of the game comes from its sense of virtual reality.

But I digress somewhat, as this article is not for me to gush about Far Cry 2, but instead to talk about world design in games and how it is or isn’t affected by collectibles. And in this sense, I think Far Cry 2 is perhaps the best evidence that for a certain type of game, not having collectibles is of great benefit to that world’s believability.

In a game that intends to create a world that is analogous to the real world, collectibles will tend to push it back towards the other end of the spectrum, where it feels more like a video game level. This is essentially a restatement of the argument in “Into the Black”. By turning virtual worlds into video game levels, you lose something pure in that transition. I agree and won’t argue with that. But I would also say that you can still gain things through use of collectibles.

I collected every single Riddler Trophy in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and had a lot of fun doing so. It was a valuable part of the game for me. Even still, perhaps the riddler trophies themselves were not entirely necessary. Many of them are earned by using an in-game camera to take a picture of something hinted at by a somewhat obtuse riddle, therefore the trophy itself is somewhat inconsequential, and could easily have just been represented by a number. The riddles are the core of the gameplay, and the trophy is really just a trinket showing your level of completion.

That leaves an open question as to why they decided upon having the collectible items at all. There are a certain number of them which are in hard to access areas in the environment, which makes sense, but there is no reason that those couldn’t have been replaced with other items which actually served a gameplay use.

I suspect that there is some sort of market research saying that a game is less likely to be resold if there are a large number of collectible items in it. This may be the reason that Asylum’s “bigger, better, and more badass” sequel stumbled over itself to double the number of trophies and took something that was an enjoyable activity in its predecessor and turned it into a chore.

So again, like achievements, business concerns can sometimes be the reason for adding collectibles to a game. To that, I will simply restate my earlier point: If the only reason you have some item hanging around in your levels is “because you could”, then that’s not good enough.

So let’s take a moment to think about the other question posed by “Into the Black”: whether or not the process of adding gameplay at all to a virtual world diminishes it. An example that comes to mind is Raph Koster’s bird flapping toy, which became much less fun to play with after goals were added. Adding challenge stripped out most of the joy of the thing. This perhaps means that there is merit to the argument. Either way, I am convinced that games are not the end-all-be-all of virtual worlds. As for what’s next, it is difficult to be sure, and definitely the subject of another article.

So, let’s sum up.

Collectibles, like their dark cousin achievements, need to be used wisely. You can’t just toss them around frivolously without thinking about how they affect the design of your game. If you’re making a game that demands sense of place, where you want to emphasize that the space may not mean anything, then collectibles are probably bad. If instead you’re making a game where space has very explicit meaning–such as a puzzle game– collectibles are not an inherently bad way to go about that.

Still, if you can achieve a design goal without having some sort of collectible bauble, then that is probably the better way to do it.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.