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The Collectible Conundrum

Hunting down collectibles has become a staple of the open world genre, giving players an added reason to explore. Like all mechanics, there are important considerations to keep track of between the right and wrong way to implement them.

Hunting down collectibles has become a staple of the open world genre, giving players an added reason to explore. Like all mechanics, there are important considerations to keep track of between the right and wrong way to implement them.

What do feathers, cocaine, orbs and skulls have in common? Each one was a collectible in a popular open world title. Collectibles act as something the player can look for while exploring the world and a reason to go off the beaten track. However, designing a good collectible system is more than just plopping objects randomly in the world, and more about motivating the player to find them.

1. A Reason To Search: First, there has to be some game-play purpose for collecting them, above going for 100% completion. In Assassin's Creed 2, feathers once returned to the player's mansion will increase the amount of money earned, however at some point this becomes worthless, once the player has bought everything.

One area that should be avoided, is only giving awards after a group of collectibles has been found. In Grand Theft Auto 4, the collectibles were in the form of shooting pigeons, in which the player will only receive an award for killing them all.

If you can tie the collectible into the gameplay that will motivate the player more to seek it out. In Infamous, finding enough "blast shards" will increase the player's energy supply allowing them to use more special attacks at once. While in Just Cause 2, to upgrade your health, weapons and vehicles, you need to find supply crates hidden all over the place. The best example of tying collectibles to gameplay would be from Crackdown.

In Crackdown, there are agility orbs scattered around the city and collecting them gives both a short and long term bonus. Each orb picked up, will increase the player's maximum jumping height and over time, the experience earned will improve the player's agility level, allowing them to run faster and jump even higher.

2. Push The Player In The Right Direction: Hiding miscellaneous doodads is all well and good, but you have to give the player some way to find them. In Assassin's Creed 2, feathers can only be detected by looking at them, requiring the player to scour around for them. Likewise in GTA 4, picking out a pigeon is very hard to do and there aren't a lot of indicators as to where they are.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Just Cause 2 has two mechanics in place to help the player find everything. First, is a signal reader that appears when the player is in the general vicinity of a crate and grows bigger the closer the player is to them. Second, every major area in the world has a % completion that tells the player if there are any more items nearby or if they can move on.

With Crackdown, besides the visible green glow, orbs make a distinctive hum when the player is close, cluing them in as to where to find them.

3. Make The Player Work For It: In order to give a sense of accomplishment with finding collectibles, there should be some sense of challenge to get to them. In Crackdown, this was in the form of requiring the player to find the best way up buildings, bridges and more to reach the orbs. Coupled with the immediate reward for finding the orbs did a lot to motivate people to continue collecting. As opposed to Just Cause 2, due to how agile the main character is, there really isn't any challenge in collecting them, other than finding them in the first place.

Batman: Arkham Asylum had an interesting system. In each area there was a map hidden that would reveal the general location of all collectibles in the area. Even though it made things easier, the player still had to find the map in the environment.

There is a fine line between making the player work for the collectible and creating an outright challenge. One of the complaints in Crackdown 2 was with agility orbs would run away from the player forcing them to give chase. The purpose of finding and interacting with the collectible should be enough of a challenge. The lure of finding collectibles is that it's a way to "zone out" in a sense, instead of focusing on missions or side challenges. If you want to design something to challenge the player with a specific task, make it a side mission in the world.

The best indicator that the designer has succeeded is when players decide to blow off missions in lieu of wandering around looking for collectibles. Personally, I've done this in Crackdown and Just Cause 2 plenty of times. I spent so much time exploring in Just Cause 2, that I unlocked every story mission in the game, before I started doing them.

There are different mindsets for participating in the different activities of an open world game, some players will want to go through every mission and side quest immediately, while others will want to explore around and take in the scenery. Understanding the differences between the two and designing content around them is a must for creating an excellent open world game.

Josh Bycer.

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