By Shaun Quaintance – Collectables, something that’s been the cornerstone of many a game design. Collectables are one of my favourite parts of games when they’re done right, mainly due to my rather unhealthy obsession with hoarding and having to own the complete collection of everything in the world ever. However, lately their name has been dragged in the mud a bit by games that have misused them. Collectables should be fun, rewarding and, to various degrees, challenging to get. They should make you want to…well…collect them, they shouldn’t be an afterthought used purely for the sake of padding out the game and artificially increasing its length and/or replayability.
With this in mind I want to spend this article having a quick (quick…ha) little gander at how collectables should be used, when they should be used, recent games that have done the good name of collectables justice and those which have taken one giant steaming turd on them. But before we get into all that we need to ask a very simple question…what is a collectable?
What is a collectable?
As with many aspects of game design there isn’t really a set in stone definition of what a collectable is. Someone may give you one answer whilst another person sat across from the previous person shouts at the top of their lungs that person A is wrong and that collectables are really something else and that they’re definitely right because it’s their opinion and they’re the only thing that matters in the games industry. However, a personal definition that I like to go by when discussing the matter is the following:
A collectable is an item or set of items that the player can find, pick up and interact with through exploration, quest completing and puzzle solving. Collectables provide insight into the game’s lore and/or aid the gameplay of one or more systems rather than creating their own and are not necessary to complete the core game.
Even though that is the definition I use and as much as I would like to think that I’m perfect there is still one thing in that definition that I want to quickly expand upon as it does contravene with a few collectable designs.
“…not necessary to complete the core game.”. I still include this part in the definition as it remains true for a vast majority of collectable designs, the very nature of their name suggests that they are something optional, however games whose core mechanics and level design are built around collectables can go against this line. Banjo Kazooie’s jiggys are seen as a collectable however they are actually required in order to complete the game, sure you still don’t need every single one but if you want to see the final cutscene you still need a set amount of them. I thought it was best to leave this line in as it is with a minor technicality rather than bloat it out with additions that only apply to a small amount of collectable designs.
So, now that we have a little direction in what constitutes a collectable in this article it’s time to look at when to use them and what game designs can be used to compliment them.
How and when to use collectables: Challenge
Two very important notes to make before we look at how collectibles should be incorporated into a game are that if a game is making use of collectibles then the game should be designed from the start with them in mind (actually scratch that, every aspect of a game should be taken into consideration and designed around from the start). The other is that if a game’s core design and direction aren’t the best fit for collectables then developers shouldn’t still spend time and resources on integrating them into the game, collectables aren’t a necessity, they’re something that should complement the game’s systems and level design.
Now that I’ve done my trademark rambling for several paragraphs longer than I should, it’s time to get into the use of collectables. In order for collectables to draw a player in they have to feel rewarding to get, if there’s no challenge or significant benefits to getting them then players will either find themselves in a grind that slowly puts them into a deep deep slumber or they’ll skip them entirely. That is of course unless you’re one of those people who enjoy the lifeless grind of some games…bastards…I bet you also like working a 9:00 – 17:00 job with a nice steady income…unbelievable.
There are several ways to make a collectable feel challenging to get, the two that I’m going to focus on are exploration and puzzle solving. Exploration is one of the most self explanatory things I’ve ever seen, in order to earn the collectable you have to put on your old man safari hat and go exploring the surrounding area and environment to find it. This approach mainly affects the level design of a game, for exploration to feel challenging there needs to be multiple paths, hidden areas or simply hard to reach areas where the collectable is located. Simply putting a collectible in a, and I use the term very loosely here, hidden barn slightly to the left of the oh so linear path (looking at you CoD intel) or just placing it on a random object nearby like someone at a supermarket who decides they don’t want this lemon cake anymore and just chucks it in the crisps aisle (looking at you Gears of War COG tags) isn’t going to present much of a challenge at all.
Puzzle solving collectables require the player to complete a puzzle in order to retrieve the item. Now, when I use the word puzzle I’m not using it in the traditional sense that you may be thinking of, instead I’m using the word in the sense of a problem that has a correct solution and tests the player’s knowledge of one or more aspects of the game. A good example of the word puzzle being used in this way is Donkey Kong Country Returns. In DKCR the player can access a variety of small mini game style puzzles where a collectable waits for them at the end. The room presents itself with a problem and tasks the player with finding a solution using their knowledge of Donkey Kong’s abilities.
Of course, when designing challenges for a collectable you don’t have to stick exclusively to one style. Games often switch between several different styles as well as combining styles for a single collectable. It is important however that a single challenge doesn’t overwhelm the player too much and that each style involved is finely balanced.
One of the things I learnt through my many sleepless and caffeine fueled nights at uni was that when designing games rather than different aspects being black and white and set in stone you should instead place on them on a slider and find where on said slider your game fits well. If we use the slider example for a collectable challenge involving exploration and puzzle solving then exploration would be on the left end and puzzle solving on the right. The closer your challenge is to exploration then the harder it will be for the player to navigate the section, however it also means that the challenge is further away from the puzzle solving end of the slider and thus features easier to solve puzzles. The alternative to this would be a rather short area to make exploration easier while featuring a more complex puzzle. This method ensures that the collectable challenge is fairly balanced and doesn’t feel too easy or too hard.
How and when to use collectables: Reward
Once you’ve got your challenges set it’s time for the reward, the thing that the player has done all this hard work for…so it’s probably best to not fuck it up. Similar to the challenge for collectables the way in which the reward is presented depends on several factors including the other systems and mechanics in the game and what its target audience is. The reward needs to be something that will make the player feel like the challenge was worth it. The three types of rewards that I’m going to go over are lore, gameplay aid and secret endings.
Lore rewards give the player some insight into the world, characters and general storylines that the game is based around. These types of rewards are most effective in lore heavy games (duh) such as your RPGs as a vast amount of the players will be people who invest heavily in the stories of the games they play. If in Crash Bandicoot instead of getting a nice shiny gem you were presented with a codex page that went into great detail about the lore I’m sure many people’s reaction wouldn’t be “OOOOH SHIT! AKU AKU USED TO BE A HUMAN AND IS NOW ACTUALLY A SPIRIT REINCARNATED AS A MASK!”, instead they would simply spam A to skip before continuing on with their jumping and spinning goodness.
Gameplay aids are probably my favourite type of collectibles simply because they keep the game feeling focused and cohesive as well as providing benefits in future gameplay, they’re also the most versatile type of collectible as it doesn’t necessarily rely on a certain type of player as its benefit will vary depending on which game it is in and therefore automatically appeals to the audience that plays said game. An example of a gameplay aid collectable is Banjo Kazooie’s honeycombs, if the player collects enough honeycombs then they are rewarded with an increase in health. This form of collectable can encourage the player to not rush past sections of the game and instead take their time to find further aids because, if they’re like me, they will be too shit to complete the game with base stats and will unfairly blame the game rather than myself.
Secret ending collectables are something that I constantly go back and forth on whether I like them or not. I like the general idea of them but feel like many games execution of them is wrong. A secret ending collectable is something that when found provides the player with a secret ending (and occasionally secret content). What is about to follow is extremely rare and something that you should savor the moment of as I can assure you that the chances of it ever happening again is very slim indeed…I’m about to say something about Crash Bandicoot that I don’t like. In Crash Bandicoot if you collect all the gems in the game you are presented with a secret ending, this is all well and good however in Crash Bandicoot 2 the normal ending that you receive if you haven’t collected all the gems isn’t really an ending at all, instead it’s more of a tease with the proper ending being once you’ve got all the gems.
Now, I don’t have a problem with players being rewarded for collecting everything however the way in which Crash Bandicoot 2 did it felt like it was also punishing players who didn’t want to collect everything. As I said earlier collectables should be optional but Crash Bandicoot 2’s approach feels like they are more mandatory if you want to see the game’s story out to its true climax. Instead I would use the secret content as more of an epilogue, a brief story after the main story that provides the player with a bit more time with the characters and a little glimpse at what the aftermath of the main story is and what could possibly be in store for them in the future as a reward.
How and when to use collectables: Purpose
Once a game has its challenges and rewards all sorted it’s time to incorporate them into the levels. This stage can prove just as challenging as the previous and if not done right will see the collectables fall flatter than a month old bottle of lemonade, no matter how good the challenge and reward is. As always there is a multitude of factors to take into consideration when integrating collectables into a level, enough that if I were to try and explain them all this article would grow to a size that makes my hands cramp up just thinking about. The one I’m going to focus on is purpose.
Every aspect of a game needs to have a purpose, if it doesn’t have one then it should be cut and time and resources moved to other pieces with a purpose. Collectables are no different, if a game designer simply plonks down a load of collectables in a level just because they’re shiny then players are more than likely to reply in kind by not giving a flying fuck about said collectables. So, what purposes might call for a collectable?
Well, for a start if a game features collectables throughout then a collectable will be needed to introduce the concept to the player. Something that is an easy enough challenge to the point where the player will almost run into it just by playing through the level. This will let the player know that there are indeed collectables spread throughout the game and will also give them a rough idea of what sort of collectables to expect. Of course this collectable is simply a token one that won’t make too much of a difference to the gameplay but it serves its purpose of letting the player know about them, giving them a little sense of accomplishment and enticing them to pursue the remaining ones.
If a game does focus on exploration with multiple paths and hidden sections then collectables can be used to help guide the player through the world. How many times have you been playing a game when you come across a branching pathway? You want to cover every area of the level and so must decide which path you believe isn’t the main one so you can take that path first. If the challenge/pathway leading to a collectable is designed well enough you will be able to tell what pathway you’re on without having to go too far down it. This helps keep the flow of the level as you’re able to quickly decide whether you are on the intended pathway or not rather than having to constantly run back and forth trying to figure out where you want to be going.
Alternatively if a game features the use of multiple classes and/or characters that the player can control then placing collectables in areas that only certain characters and classes can reach is an effective way to encourage players to try all of the various play styles available. Not only does this form of collectable help improve the length of the game due to players going through the same content with different classes but it also provides a great reward system for players who have made the effort to master all of the game’s systems and mechanics.
Wrapping up now and I want to give one final example of a game that incorporates all of the above and, I personally believe, has done a fantastic job of designing collectables in general, it is also the game that inspired the writing of this article. That game is Skylanders, Skylanders: Swap Force to be exact. Skylanders: Swap Force contains a multitude of collectables, none of which are required to complete the game or punish the player for not collecting them. The collectables range from story pieces which expand on the lore, hats which provide stat boosts and bonus missions which unlock additional content not related to the main story. It’s a great show of well designed collectables and one of my favourite examples in recent memory.
So that just about does it, I promise one day I’ll write something that takes less than an afternoon to read. As always with everything I write it is simply my opinion and the overall scale of collectables in games goes way beyond the scope of this article. For example, we focused on collectable items and never even touched on the subject of games such as Pokemon where the main characters and abilities themselves can be seen as collectables. Either way, hopefully this article helped shed some light on what a collectable is, the decisions that have to go into designing collectables and how some games in recent years have mistreated them. Collectables can be a fun way to immerse players into a game, extend the life of a game or serve many other purposes. However, they are not a necessity and if they don’t compliment the core designs of a game then they shouldn’t be included. If a game designer is determined that they want collectables in their game then they should make sure that they develop the rest of the game with the collectables in mind from the very start in order to use them to their full potential and create the best possible collectable system that they can.
Keep on gaming.