It has come to my attention that there’s a universal constant running through practically all the games that I’ve been playing recently… It’s not something like the fact they all have deep and immersive worlds, however, or that they all have excellent gameplay. No, it’s more the simple and mundane fact that I have spent a lot of time in all of them mindlessly running around collecting things. No matter the scenario, everything always seems to boil down to me wandering around picking yet another object off the floor, and all things considered it’s not always been the most fun of experiences. However, in yet another haze of boredom, this simple fact got me to thinking; what exactly does it take to make collecting things fun?
Well, predictably, I don’t think there’s really a clear cut answer; if there was, this would be a pretty short article, after all. Despite this, there’s a few things that I really do think help make the collectible experience a fun one, the first being that each collectible needs to come with an immediate reward for actually collecting it. Audio logs are the classic example here, but it’s by no means a bad one; these can provide you with anything from a nice insight into the story of a game right down to a simple laugh, after all. The Division provides a prime example of this in action; since the actual story is only sparsely told throughout the missions, it comes down to audio logs to successfully flesh out the world around you. It’s one of the few ways the game actually makes you want to explore; they actually contain interesting information about how the outbreak happened and the consequences of it, and therefore builds that desire you want to see when it comes to seeking out the next one.
The Uncharted series, for all the things it does well, actually provides the other side of the coin when it comes to immediate reward. For each artefact you find, you get rewarded with a sound effect and a little picture of the artefact in question… And that’s it. There’s nothing of any real interest to take from getting each one, and when you’re scouring the world trying to get 100 of them, it means things get old pretty fast. It’s just not very fun at all.
Thankfully, Uncharted does get it right when it comes to my next point; collectibles should come with a long-term reward for getting them all. I mean, this one’s pretty much a given in every game that contains collectibles, I agree, but it’s an important enough point to highlight anyway… Uncharted, for instance, gives you the ability to give yourself a rocket launcher at any time as a reward for finding everything – and it feels like a suitable and satisfying reward for the work you’ve put in up until that point. What constitutes a final reward can vary from title to title; sometimes even just an achievement or trophy that provides you with bragging rights can be enough. There just needs to be… Something, that little spark of motivation that makes you actually want to go for the gold and grab everything in sight in the first place.
Rewards are one thing, however; the actual act of collecting is another. Here, I think it’s important that collectibles shouldn’t be too so obscurely hidden they’re frustrating to find. Funnily enough, Uncharted again provides a good example of what not to do here. Many treasures are way off the beaten path or in places you wouldn’t think you could reach, but a special prize goes to one particular treasure in the third game; here, you are required to shine a light at a flock of bats, which then flee in terror and knock the treasure down to your level in the process. It’s a process and train of thought that had not been seen in the series up until this point, and is never seen after, so much so I wonder how people worked it out in the first place. Put simply; if I have to look up a guide online every five minutes just to find things, I’m probably not having much fun.
However, things get a bit problematic here, because I think the opposite also rings true – collectibles shouldn’t be ridiculously easy to collect, either. Pretty much every Ubisoft game ever is guilty of doing this; you always reach a certain point where everything is suddenly clearly marked out for you, removing any sense of exploration and making everything into a dull point to point affair remarkably quickly. There’s got to be a good degree of balance between the two contrasts, one that can only be achieved via clever game design and implementation; it’s not a simple case of just dumping a bunch of items into your map and calling it a day.
There’s also one last think I consider to be important, and that’s the fact that there can’t be so many collectibles that it’s off-putting to ever start getting them. Ubisoft games are another prime example here; open your map in any one of these games and zoom out a little, and it’s not uncommon for the map itself to disappear under a sea of tiny dots that mark each collectible. Again, to be fair, the opposite can hold true here – Crackdown had 500 agility orbs, for example, but the fact they each one made your character stronger (And also came with such a satisfying ‘ping’ noise upon their collection I can still recall it to this day) made it so that it didn’t seem a pointless endeavour to start hunting them down. Again, it all comes down to good game design – something I only realised was so important when it came to giving the matter some thought. It really can’t be under-estimated.
Overall, combine these things together and in my eyes it’s nigh-on the perfect formula for collectible heaven; something that you’re actually enthusiastic to do, instead of something that only manages to raise a dejected sigh out of you. It’s interesting to consider that I can’t actually think of any game that does it perfectly; Uncharted has good rewards but a depressing and difficult slog to get there, for instance, whilst The Division makes each collectible interesting but makes them simple to find and way too many in number. Perhaps one day a game will strike the perfect equilibrium, and create that collectible feast that’s impossible to ignore; until then, it’s probably left for us to fill in the gaps with our stubborn desire to be a perfectionist in everything we play. Or is that bit just me…?