Friday, 3 June 2011

Collectibles in Games and Player Reward

This was something I started thinking about this evening (okay, yesterday evening since I'm late in finishing this), when looking at some of my favourite games which utilise collectibles, and how well they reward the player (if at all!). I wanted to make a small study on this aspect of games, so that I had something to base my design on when creating a game of my own with collectibles involved.

col·lect·i·ble also col·lect·a·ble (k-lkt-bl)
1. That can be collected: a collectible loan.
2. Worthy of being collected: collectible antique coins.


That last line is the key. How do we define what is worthy of being collected in games? Is something worthy of being collected simply if it has a reward of some sort at some point? I wouldn't say so. We still call them collectibles regardless, but that doesn't mean they're good collectibles that players will actually want to go out of their way to find.

For this blog I've decided to analyse a couple of examples of collectibles used in games from the last ten years or so. Yes, let's just ignore the 90s right now and all of those platforming games which focused on practically nothing but collecting junk.

Collectible Example 1: Assassin's Creed - Templar Flags
Number: several hundred
Payoff: Eventual (after collecting all of a certain kind)
Reward: Achievements

Ubisoft has gotten slightly better with the AC flags as the series has gone on, from a terrible collectible in the first game to a sort-of-tolerable one in the most recent game, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood.

In the original game, there were roughly 100 flags in each area, with the exception of Masyaf. They could only be seen from a certain distance and from the right angle and had no real indicators of being there aside from some sparkly-ness. The player was only rewarded with an achievement after collecting every single flag from a particular area eg all the Jerusalem flags. They did not affect the story or the player's abilities and were only used for achievements.

In Assassin's Creed 2, flags were replaced with feathers. There were only 100 feathers in the entire game, and this time a reward for collecting them all was not only an achievement but also a special cape to wear around as an in-game trophy of sorts. Better, but not perfect.

In Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, there were 101 flags in the entire game along with 30 feathers to collect. From what I remember the only reward for collecting these was an achievement/trophy. However, the developers still managed to design these collectibles fairly smartly. For one, 101 flags was just enough to make finding them all a challenge for the most devoted of players. Second of all, the game introduced special maps which could be bought from stores, which would reveal the locations of most feathers on the map.

While it's arguable that revealing the locations takes away some of the reward in discovering a flag on one's own, showing them in this way also gives the player enough motivation to collect them, to go out of their way to collect a flag which wasn't in plain view.

The collectibles in the Assassin's Creed games have never been perfect, but it's easy to see from analysing each game in the series that they've definitely gotten better.

Collectible Example 2: Metroid Prime - Missile/Energy Tank Expansions
Number: 50 missile expansions, 14 energy tanks

Payoff: Immediate and Eventual
Reward: Increasing Player Strength, Unlocking Hidden Endings

To be fair, this type of collectible didn't start with Metroid Prime - it's been around since the original Metroid, Super Metroid and Castlevania: SotN. While games may have evolved tremendously fast over the past twenty years, this element of design continues to rear its head in new games like Shadow Complex -- because it's just plain fun and works!

I immediately use Metroid Prime as my example here because it's one of my favourite games, but feel free to replace Prime with any of the other games I've mentioned above. The difference with collectibles in Prime, as opposed to games like Assassin's Creed, is that the collectibles have an immediate payoff. In Metroid Prime, one of the protagonist - Samus's - key abilities is a missile launcher built into her firearm. While the player starts off with a measly 5 missiles, they can increase their total missile capacity by collecting missile expansions. The same applies to the player's health - while the player begins with 99 units of energy, energy tanks can be collected to increase the total energy high above that amount.

How this works, I liken to traditional roleplaying games, where the player would constantly be trying to improve their abilities and stats through experience - either by defeating monsters or completing tasks. The only difference in Metroid Prime is that you improve your abilities by exploring and seeking out these upgrades, rather than fighting more monsters than required.

This system puts the player in control of the game's difficulty. Seasoned players can choose not to seek out energy tanks if they wish to be challenged by particularly tough boss monsters. On the other end of the spectrum, new players who are having trouble with certain parts of the game can take a break to explore and build their strength before continuing.

The game also puts rewards in place for those players committed enough to retrieve all of the game's collectibles, though these could possibly be improved upon in modern games. A hidden ending probably shouldn't be used as the reward for the more dedicated players unless there is additional gameplay involved or something else interactive involved. I know this from my own playing habits - if all I'm missing out on is a hidden ending by skipping all of those monotonous sidequests in a game, then I'd prefer to just look it up on youtube instead.

Definitely something to think about though, both for myself and anyone else interested in designing something. Is that collectible you're using really worth it, and have you thought about why players might want to go out of their way to pick it up? If not, stop, go back to the drawing board for a second and rethink your implementation. A collectible used for the sake of having a shiny thing in your game is not good design.


  1. Great post. I agree with you in regards that having a collectible for the sake of having a collectible is poor game design. My favorite collectibles have always been ones that will benefit me in my gameplay in some manner. The one that springs to my mind is in Grand Theft Auto 3 (and others in the series) when you would collect a certain number of packages you would be given a reusable item at your base such as body armour, different guns, etc. At least for me, having body armour and some decent weapons at my base always was beneficial and gave me a reason to hunt down the packages. In Assassin's Creed 2, although you got a cape for your efforts, I felt the only reason the cape was there was for me to pick up an achievement. I do not feel the AC franchise does a great job in their collectibles and they have always been strictly for achievements for me.

    You bring up an interesting notion regarding metroid's energy tanks, missle tanks, etc. I had never considered those items to be a true "collectible" because I felt those items were directly useable and beneficial to the character. I have always considered a collectible to be something acken to a long-term benefit. My question I posit to you is where is the distinction between an upgrade and a collectable? For example, in Final Fantasy VI, you do not need to collect all the Espers. Would collecting these magicite be in the realm of a "collectible"? The same goes with Djinns in Golden Sun. I guess my question truly is what defines a collectible? I find that your definition above is so broad that one could argue that anything picked up is a collectible. When I get a new sword, is that a collectible? How big of an effect does this collectible have to have in order to be defined in such way? And finally are collectibles only relevant to specific genres of games? For example, in many RPGs you collect things but would you define them as a collectible? In Dragon Quest games there are usually 50-100 golden medals which give you rewards at specific intervals (usually per 10) but in games like Chrono Trigger would you consider Power Tabs or Speed Tabs collectibles? Just some food for thought. I look forward to your future posts.


  2. That's really hard. I mean yes, they are upgrades but the game puts all of them towards a percentage total - so in picking each of them up I felt like I was pushing forward towards an eventual goal of collecting them all.

    In Chrono Trigger there were a set number of Power Tabs, but you didn't know that number unless you looked up a guide so you would never really go out of your way to find more of them - you'd just pick them up if you found them along the way.

    It's a really hard line to draw. I don't think it's defined by the genre, but there are a few characteristics which can make me lean towards calling something a collectible or not, in any case.

  3. Great post Nathan! I am currently studying Game Design and one of my Projects is to create a High Concept and Overview Documents for an original concept.

    In the Outline for the Project there is a Section on Achievements. This caused somewhat of a conflict for myself as I have never really gone out of my way to collect "Collectibles" or to make the Achievements since they became popular.

    For me, the Story and the Gameplay has always been what it's all about. I think growing up with so many of the platform games with pointless collectibles, as you mentioned, is what has led me to ignore collectibles.



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