Friday, June 4, 2010

Collect Everything

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Collectible items have become standard fare in video games. If you haven’t collected all the flags in Assassin’s Creed or shot all the stars in Resident Evil 5, there’s still some meaningless task left to be accomplished. As irritating as those two examples are, however, it is possible to make collectible items a valuable part of the game experience.

Let’s talk about how:

1.      They should be relevant to the narrative –In some way, shape or form, the collectible items being gathered should make sense in the game world and serve some narrative purpose. Alan Wake provides one excellent example of how to do this well: The pages from Wake’s manuscript, scattered around the world, offer details on the characters and situations in the game. Some of them are easy to find, some require thorough searching. Alan Wake also provides a terrible example of collectible items in the form of coffee thermoses. They’re irrelevant, out of place, and clearly just there for the achievement points.

2.      They should serve some purpose other than achievement points – Any in-game item or activity which yields nothing but achievement points should be removed. They are distractions from the game. Again, one game gives an excellent example of how to do this well and how to do it poorly. The agility orbs in Crackdown were fun to find and yielded a clear benefit in the form of increased jumping ability. Once you’ve achieved the maximum height, however, they serve no further purpose. So why are there still so many left? At least the blast shards in inFAMOUS continued to be useful throughout the game, even if finding them was tedious and obnoxious.

3.      They should be fun to collect – Obsessive collection alone is not fun. Jumping around in Crackdown is; that’s what makes the agility orbs worth seeking. If the actual act of finding hidden and collectible items is not interesting, why would collecting them be worthwhile? There are (many) reasons why Ocarina of Time is so well-respected. Hidden pieces of heart served a purpose and were usually hidden by interesting challenges and puzzles. Plus, they make you more powerful, which fulfills criteria number two.


4.      It should be something worth collecting – People do collect rare bugs, and collecting rare golden bugs would be even more lucrative, so that’s a check mark for Twilight Princess. The bobbleheads in Fallout 3 are immensely collectible items; they even have their own collectible item stand. Mario collects stars, which is pretty weird, but he’s a weird guy. I believe it. Soldiers collect dog tags, sure. But seriously, no one collects identical coffee thermoses or identical flags or identical anything. At least make the items somewhat different from one another. The little statues in Assassin’s Creed 2 were approximately 300% more interesting than the feathers in the same game for that exact reason.

That’s it. It’s a short list. All you need to make a collection quest fun is that it be relevant, purposeful, fun, and worth collecting. It doesn’t seem like very much to ask, but another bad example hits the market every week. Let’s forget artificially-extended gameplay and stop breaking immersion. If every game followed these guidelines, collecting everything wouldn’t seem like such a waste of time.


  1. Great list! You could've called it "A list of properties that the coffee thermoses in Alan Wake did not have."

    I'm really a big fan of the achievements and collectables in Red Dead Redemption. Though they're really not collectables... which is why I'm a fan.

    Instead of doing the usual GTA thing of having a billion tiny hidden collectables like the packages or pigeons, they basically removed collectables altogether and focused on other more fun things.

    Most completionist-type achievements in RDR come down to ranked challenges, hunting certain types of game, pulling off crazy sharpshooting feats... it's the first open-world game where I've ever felt like I have a chance of getting to 100%. And the fact that I'm even contemplating that means they've done a lot of things right.

    Though with Infamous and Crackdown both about to launch sequels, you know we're gonna be chasing blast shards and orbs into 2011...

  2. I'm not sure even obeying all your precepts would work. If the game has story and you don't need to collect everything to beat it, people will skip the quests because even if beneficial, they are filler and not the primary point of the game for many people.

    I think collection games are just included because it is a thing games do. When you think about it, it makes no sense to spend most of your time as a super FBI agent running around town picking up glowy orbs as opposed to beating up criminals.

  3. Dblade,


    I don't see the problem with people skipping the quests to beat the game if they want to rush through. It would just mean that they would understand the game a little less. I didn't collect all the manuscript pages in Alan Wake on my first playthrough, but I still understood the plot. If I had collected all the pages, however, I might have understood a great deal more about the characters and situations.

    The player who does not collect everything will know less about the game than the player who does. Isn't that a more worthy reward for the completist than a few achievement points?

    I also agree that picking up glowy orbs doesn't make much sense in-character for the crackdown agents, but that's why it makes more sense as an example of something that is fun to collect and not something that feels relevant to the plot. Ideally, they would be fun and relevant. Not sure how agility orbs would pull that off, so they might have to settle for fun. That's still better than Wake's thermoses.

  4. I'd actually like to see more games start with collectibles and build outward. I'd like a "Collectibles Game" genre. It seems as if a great deal of gamers are fully content with pure resource collection, and merely put up with the rest of the game the way prurient minds tolerate the plot of a steamy late-night movie.

    This would leave the rest of the genres to concentrate on what they do best, rather than trying to appease collectible-hungry players; i.e., they could focus on making games for people who don't consider "gameplay hours" a relevant metric when deciding which games to purchase and me. The back of the box for Freecell would have to read, "5-10 minutes of gameplay!" and I've played that game more than any game I bought for $60.

  5. For some time now I've been poking a stick at a theory of gaming psychology (and thus of game design) that says that the Bartle Types and several other models (Ron Edwards's original GNS model, Nicole Lazzaro's "emotions" model, etc.) are all gameplay-specific versions of David Keirsey's general "temperaments" personality model. (I've spelled out this theory in geek-like detail at .)

    I mention it here because I wonder if the four rules that Daniel proposes for collectibles are really another way of saying "a collectibles mechanic (or any well-designed gameplay feature) is one that's consciously designed to satisfy multiple ways of playing games."

    The associations I think I see that lead me to this line of thought are as follows:

    Idealist | Socializer | relationship-seeking | relevant to a narrative about personal interactions
    Guardian | Achiever | security-seeking | serves some functional gameplay purpose
    Artisan | Killer [Manipulator] | sensation-seeking | the activity of collecting is fun
    Rational | Explorer | logic-seeking | the collectibles make sense within the gameworld

    To examine collectibles systems in light of this theory (to see if it makes sense), I'd note that these systems are usually focused on satisfying the security-seeking impulse -- in other words, they're particularly fun for Achievers. This means that collectible items exist primarily as objects that confer some in-game advantage, but they're unlikely to have much bearing on the plot (no Narrative connection); getting them may be frustrating exercises in randomness or mindless repetition or irrational puzzle-solving (no Fun connection); and they probably won't have any intellectually plausible relationship with the world in which the game's action takes place (no Worthiness connection).

    Happily, this analysis also points the way toward improving collectibles (or other) systems: don't make them just about satisfying the security-seeking preference (i.e., the Guardian/Achiever) -- try to design the system so that it has something for the other primary playstyles as well. Make looking for items a fun experience (for the Artisan/Manipulator), make items help tell the story (for the Idealist/Socializer), and make them make sense in the context of the world in which the game takes place (for the Rational/Explorer).

    It seems to me that the practical advice Daniel offers in his original blog post here regarding the design of collectibles content is supported by the theoretical model I've been working with.

    Coincidence? ;)

  6. Wow. Do we have a "Most Fascinating Comment of the Month" award yet?

    Thanks for joining the conversation, Bart. This is great material. I would respond in more detail, but I would much rather just go visit your blog.

  7. Ocarina of Time did not come up with heart pieces, A Link to the Past did. Heart pieces are also just a variation of heart containers that were introduced in The Legend of Zelda, i.e. the very first Zelda game.

    If heart containers and pieces are collectables, then so are 1ups in games like Mario. In Mario games they are hidden and sometimes difficult to retrieve, and they make you stronger by giving you extra lives. But these are not collectables, they are simply game items that bestow benefits to the player character. A collectable is something that has no purpose other than to be collected (and possibly unlock an achievement), and at most provides you with some incidental reward (collecting hidden CDs unlocks music tracks in Saints Row 2).


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