But for as long as this marriage as been, it's not always been a happy one. As time has passed, the strong foundations on which this concept was built have begun to crumble and erode. I think that this generation, more than any other, has demonstrated the cracks that have appeared in this once-harmonious relationship. The disdain felt by modern gamers towards collectibles seems almost universal. This seems especially true of optional collectibles - ones which have no significant bearing on a player's passage through the game's main component. The negative feelings seem to be even further compounded if the game is open-world in its nature - I've seen a lot of frustration directed at Grand Theft Auto IV's pigeons, for example, but none whatsoever at the retrievable enemy intel littered through the campaign of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
What I want to know is this - why do gamers hate collectibles, and is there anything that developers can do to remedy this?
Speaking from a completely personal standpoint here, I feel that the biggest problem that collectibles face in the modern gaming industry is the growing demand for ever-larger open game-worlds. The larger game-worlds become, the more space there is in them, and by extension, the more space there is to hide collectibles in. The other side of this coin is that there's also a lot more space for the player to search. The ultimate result of this equation is that the bigger a game-world is, the more time and effort it's going to take to locate those collectibles. In really large game-worlds, the time and effort is so great that whatever reward the developers might be offering for collecting their collectibles (if there is a reward) simply doesn't seem worth it. This is a real shame, in my view, because it's detracting from the positive side of collectible-hunting - the opportunity to more fully explore and appreciate the intricacies and details of a game's environments, and being handsomely rewarded for doing so.
Let's take a topical example of this, in the form of Team Bondi's L.A. Noire. Irrespective of what you think of the bulk of the game, I think everyone can mutually agree that the collectible situation in L.A. Noire is pretty messed up. To be fair, the landmarks aren't too bad - they're big, and you only have to be in their vicinity to 'activate' them. I'm more referring to the game's golden film reels. For anybody not aware, the game-world of L.A. Noire contains fifty golden film reels. That's fifty objects, each one about the size of a dinner plate, in a game-world that stretches across most of the city of Los Angeles. The game does nothing to point you in the right direction - no map markers, no checklists, no cryptic clues, nothing. About the best the game does is alert you to the presence of a film reel with a chime... when you're standing right on top of it. Your reward for finding them? A few more baby-steps towards the 100% completion percentage. At the time of writing, I've managed to find a total of three film reels in L.A. Noire, in as many hours of active searching. There is simply no way anybody could track all those things down without a guide or map of some kind. Perhaps more crucially, there's simply no way anybody could actually have fun doing it.
At the other end of the spectrum, I feel like some games released this generation have taken huge steps in the right direction regarding collectibles. To stay within Rockstar Games territory, one such example of collectibles done right is last year's Red Dead Redemption. Those of you who've played it might remember the Treasure Hunter challenges, which involved deciphering a series of treasure maps in order to track down sellable loot. Rather than simply dotting the collectibles around willy-nilly, developersRockstar San Diego encouraged the player to fall back on their own knowledge of the game-world, using notable landmarks as reference points in order to track down the treasure. Personally, I think that's a great example of making collectibles feel not only relevant in a modern gaming environment, but also challenging and fun to pursue. I know I had a lot of fun doing those challenges in Red Dead Redemption, and I wished there had been more of them.
I think the other problem that plagues collectibles in modern games is their apparent worthlessness in terms of the overall experience. Personally, if I'm chasing down some collectibles in a game, I want to be rewarded for it. I'm not talking about Achievement points or completion percentages here, either - I want tangible in-game rewards that justify my running around within the context of the game world. This is a hallmark of all the best kinds of collectibles, I feel. Casting my mind back to time spent playingGrand Theft Auto: Vice City, I remember tracking down a lot of the hidden packages in that game on my own. Every tenth package, the game would reward you with a new weapon, which would spawn at your Safehouse. If I ever got arrested or killed and lost all my weapons, it didn't matter, because I knew I'd be able to re-stock my inventory back at my mansion on Starfish Island. Similarly, completing the car-collection side-quests for the chop-shop was worth it because it meant you could later purchase almost any car you wanted at will. It's these kinds of rewards that make collecting things in games worthwhile. After all, would you hunt for Heart Pieces in a Legend of Zelda game if they didn't boost your health? Again, L.A. Noire falls foul of this - with the exception of landmarks (which become handy map waypoints), none of its collectibles have a tangible impact on the game experience. 'Collected' cars could have contributed to an extensive garage, from which Cole could pick his own police vehicle, but they don't. The film reels could have operated an unlock system similar to the hidden packages of Vice City, but they don't.
I think one of the biggest reasons I'm singling out L.A. Noire for a bashing here is because in many ways, I feel like they were at least half-way there in terms of 'modernising' their collectibles. I'm specifically referring to the game's cross-compatibility with the Rockstar Social Club, a means for players of Rockstar games to check their progress and compare it with that of their friends. The Social Club also features comprehensive maps for every collectible in L.A. Noire, with locations and little hints accompanying each one. This is all great, but looking at it as I type this, I can't help but wonder why this stuff wasn't included actually in the game. The fact this aspect of the Social Club exists suggests to me that it would have been possible to incorporate these collectible maps into the game itself, saving all players from having to constantly switch between their TV screen and their PC monitor. I can't help but think that I would enjoy L.A. Noire's film reel hunt a lot more if I could simply bring up the map from the Pause menu, turn on the collectible blips, and search for them at my leisure that way. It would also provide for a much more immersive experience, because I wouldn't be putting the controller down every five minutes. Just Cause 2 represented its artifacts as blips on the map, and that was great. If I happened to be passing one while doing something else, I could make a quick detour to grab it. Likewise, if I wanted to actively hunt them down, then I immediately had locations at my disposal. No faffing about with online guides or maps, just simple, convenient collecting.
So to recap, here's what I feel developers should be striving to achieve when incorporating collectibles into their games:
Incentive To ExploreDetailed, open-world game environments invariably take a lot of time and effort to design. Collectibles should act as an incentive to further explore and appreciate those environments. Be smart with locations of collectibles, too. If en-route to a collectible, I see something that makes me think 'wow', then that is a well-placed collectible.
Example: In L.A. Noire, one of the golden film reels I found was under a bridge. En-route to it, I stumbled through a camp of homeless people, living in the gap beneath the bridge. I thought that was a nice touch of detail.
Relevance To The Game-WorldThere are few things that annoy me more than collectibles thrown into a game just for the sake of it. I like my collectibles to be relevant within the game-world, so I can believe that they would exist. Collectibles that feel like they belong also go a long way towards maintaining a sense of immersion.
Example: The enemy intel in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a good example of a relevant collectible. It's understandable that military men would pick that up.
Guide The Player In Interesting WaysI appreciate that not every game can pull off something as awesome as Red Dead Redemption's treasure maps, but there's no excuse not to at least try something more innovative than just dumping a certain number of objects into the game and leaving the player to find them.
Example: Red Dead Redemption's treasure maps would be pretty tough to beat in terms of this, I think.
Tangible In-Game RewardsYes, we know that Achievements are flavour of the month this generation, but that doesn't mean that you can just tie a collectible to some Gamerscore and be done with it. If a player has taken time to explore and appreciate your work, you should do your best to reward them with something that will actually benefit their experience with your game.
Example: The PlayStation 2-era Grand Theft Auto games were undisputed masters of this. Pretty much every collectible and side-quest provided a reward in the form of unlocked weapons, vehicles, or augmented stats.
Keep Everything On One ScreenIf a player wants to hunt down your collectibles, please don't add a layer of tedium by forcing them to consistently switch between the game and a computer screen. Incorporate hints and maps into the game itself, to streamline the experience and hold the player's attention.
Example: Just Cause 2's inclusion of artifacts on the map and mini-map ensured that I never had to consult any online material while hunting them down.
If more developers go this route, perhaps the marriage between video games and collectibles can still be salvaged. Got anything to add, or feel differently about collectibles? Please sound off in the Comments. Considering how integral collectibles can be to the gaming experience, it always surprises me how rarely people talk about them in anything other than a negative light. Thanks for reading, guys. I'll see you around.
Currently playing - L.A. Noire (X360)