Assassin’s Creed: Rogue is a curious beast. I don’t think it offers a well-put narrative, main campaign, or a cohesive overall experience. And the implementation of Assassin turned Templar concept is underwhelming at best. It does, however, offer some amazing side-content. It’s an Assassin’s Creed game where you just enjoy travelling around the world, exploring, and completing very well-designed side missions and activities. Including getting quite a lot of collectibles, which is the main topic of my today’s post.
Collectibles is sort of a painful topic when it comes to open-world games. On one hand you kinda need to have them for intermediate goals for the players while they travel around the world, as well as to incentivise exploration, on the other hand for the most part they’re kinda boring and people don’t particularly enjoy them.
But you can make collectibles interesting. I’ve already tackled this topic in my post about Rayman Legends, how it does it for the 700 teensies we need to free throughout the game. But it’s a 2D platformer with principles quite different from open-world game. For open-world game example I would like to use Assassin’s Creed: Rogue. While in other Assassin’s Creed games getting most collectibles is not an activity that I am particularly invested in (there’s only so many times you can be excited about opening up another chest), while playing Rogue I found out that, while not always, I did find enjoyment and satisfaction in getting even ‘boring’ collectibles. So I started thinking, why?
Take a look at this video that shows the process of getting all 7 native pillars in Rogue:
What you can notice while watching the videos is that even when an icon is present on the map, it’s not just a matter of ‘simply go to the icon and get the thing’ like it happens with most of collectibles in open-world games. There’s a process of exploration, of figuring out a way through the environment. Though it may not be apparent based on the walkthrough, but the pathway to a Native Pillar is not straightforward, with different side pathways leading to smaller collectibles present in the area.
Not all Rogue’s collectibles are done this way, but this can work even with so to speak ‘boring’ collectibles, like Animus Fragments. As an example, there was one moment where I saw an Animus Fragment on a branch high above any visible pathway, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I get to it?’. What usually was a nuisance to me, i.e. having to divert from my path to quickly grab a fragment, became an engaging process of figuring out my path to it.
So what differs these situations from standard run-of-the-mill collectibles that you find aplenty in open-world games? What components make a collectible good?
1 – Intrigue
First and foremost the collectible must bring out player’s curiosity. This can manifest in several ways, for example by placing it in a spot that’s not straightforward to reach so players would ask themselves, ‘hm, how do I get to it?’
2 – Engagement
The process of getting the collectible must be interesting for the player. This doesn’t mean that every collectible needs to be a unique puzzle (though it certainly helps if at least some collectibles would require considerable effort to get), but it does mean that the process of getting the thing must not be brainless or feel like busywork.
3 – Reward
The player must get something for going after the trouble of getting the collectible(s). It doesn’t have to be after each collected item of course, there’s nothing wrong in setting intermediate or long-term goals based on getting a lot of them, but it doesn’t have to feel like wasted time.
4 – Context
When going through the process of getting collectibles, it’s important for the player to understand why he does it. Why the character would do that, how it connects to the world, why the player himself would do that.
As a rule of thumb, if the collectible has 3 out of 4 components, then it’s a pretty good collectible.
Let’s take a look at Sea Shanties introduced in Black Flag (and later reused in Rogue). Sea Shanties proved to be very popular among players, and they would strive to collect them to broaden the ‘shanty playlist’ on their sea travels. And it has all the necessary components of a good collectible.
Intrigue: while most shanties aren’t placed in any tricky locations in the open-world, there’s visual and audio cues indicating their location, and the player is intrigued by the mystery of what song this shanty holds.
Engagement: to get each shanty you need to go through a little navigational challenge to reach the pages as they’re being swept away by the wind.
Reward: each shanty provides a new song that your crew can sing while you travel on your ship.
Context: it fits the pirate thematic of the game and is very atmospheric.
Shanties in Black Flag have all 4 necessary components of a good collectible. In Rogue, the context is questionable as it doesn’t fit well when we’re not dealing with pirates, but as it still has the 3 other components, shanties remain engaging collectibles to get.
However, the concept of a ‘flying page’ collectible was actually first introduced in Assassin’s Creed III, where it wasn’t really successful among players. Why? The game still had the ‘intrigue’ and ‘engagement’ components that Sea Shanties of Black Flag have borrowed, but it lacked meaningful reward or context.
The reward for every set of flying pages would be a small cosmetic item, – one of Ben Franklin’s inventions, placed in one of the Homestead rooms. Players wouldn’t really know even which room those items were placed in unless they specifically search the whole mansion, so it’s already underwhelming in comparison to the Sea Shanties. But the context is lacking as well. These collectibles are introduced as Haytham, the father of our main assassin Connor, meets Ben Franklin in one of the prologue sequences as the inventor loses some pages from his book. But we collect most of them as Connor who has never even met Ben Franklin or knew about the flying pages. And because of this you can’t help but question ‘why am I doing this?’ while running after one of the Ben Franklin’s pages.
But even that can’t be compared to flags from the first Assassin’s Creed game. They’re just placed all over the world in random spots, if you actually see one then it’s very straightforward to get to (with the exception of one particular flag in Kingdom area, which is not much considering there’s 420 of them), there’s no meaningful reward other than a ‘checkmark’ in the menu (and an achievement if you were an XBox 360 player, as PS3 and PC versions of the game don’t have achievements), and there’s no context in the game why we’re getting those flags in the first place.
However, if we take a look at very similar flags from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, we can notice that they’re handled much better.
– About 1/4th or 1/3rd of the flags are placed in a way that’s not very straightforward to get, meaning the player has to think a little bit about how to get to them. It’s not vast explorable areas like in Rogue, of course, but it’s enough to not have every flag be boring to get, so there’s a little bit of engagement and intrigue.
– After getting all the flags, player gets a cape which when equipped keeps their notoriety at 0 level. So there’s a cosmetic and functional reward to the flags.
– The flags are of the Borgia family. The overall experience of the game is about taking down the Borgia rule, so removing their flags from the world makes some sense.
One other thing that should also be mentioned is the amount of collectibles. The Native Pillars from Rogue that I’ve mentioned, there’s only 7 of them in the entire game. What this allows to do is to create a unique environment and experience for each of them, getting each collectible transforms into a mini-level in the open-world.
It’s not strictly better though than more but smaller collectibles. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both ways, and for the overall experience it’s important to find balance. Native Pillars + Sea Shanties is better than just Sea Shanties or just Native Pillars. Though I do want to stress that if amount of collectibles gets to a ridiculously high amount, it can feel like chores and busywork regardless of how engaging it is to get them (and Assassin's Creed does have a tendency of adding a LOT of collectibles).
One type of Assassin’s Creed collectibles that I really believe would benefit from being mini-levels in the open-world are the viewpoints. Even though you don’t actually get any item, viewpoints are essentially collectibles that open up the map once you activate them (and in some of the games – fast travel points as well). Most of the viewpoints are pretty straightforward to climb, even the most complicated ones are usually just a series of moving around the walls to reach climbable ledges. This worked for the first Assassin’s Creed game where there was a sense of awe to the viewpoints as they were still new, but after 10 years it became quite a chore (of course this doesn’t apply if you’re a new Assassin’s Creed player, but still).
Viewpoints would really benefit from becoming mini-levels. For example, in Assassin’s Creed II there’s a viewpoint on the top of Giotto’s Campanile at Il Duomo – that’s the highest viewpoint in the game. And while it’s not a straightforward climb, you can still easily access it from the very beginning of the game – climb the Cathedral, jump to the tower, climb it a bit, go inside through a window and climb there.
There’s a little bit of navigation, sure, but imagine now if we couldn’t climb the top of the cathedral just like that to get to the tower. There’s a tomb level inside the cathedral which ends with you leaving through the window at the very top of it. Imagine the tomb level and the cathedral in the open world are of the same scale (like they would be in later next-gen games where scale is close to 1:1). That to get to that highest point in the city you first have to go through a lot of navigational challenges inside the cathedral, then as you get on the top of it you climb down to the part of the roof from where you can reach the tower, and only then you can reach the viewpoint.
That way getting to the top becomes an adventure, an experience, with the reward being the view from the highest building in the game. This is how climbing the top of Notre Dame in Unity should’ve been done, I think. As it stands now, though, getting to the highest tower viewpoint in the whole Paris consists of two straightforward climbs and one jump between towers, so while the view is amazing, there’s a feeling of unsatisfaction lurking somewhere.
To wrap things up, though. Good collectibles can be defined by a set of components that they have, but you also must not forget to keep in track the amount of collectibles and the complexity of getting them. The wild areas of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue are a good example of designing the world and placing collectibles in a way that it’s interesting to explore and search for them.
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