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Postcard from GDC 2004: The Power of Collectibles: Leveraging Your Player's Inner Obsessive-Compulsive

Damion Schubert of Wolfbane Studios led a discussion on Friday morning about the benefits and challenges of developing systems of collectibles in console and online games.

Damion Schubert of Wolfbane Studios led a discussion on Friday morning about the benefits and challenges of developing systems of collectibles in console and online games.

A collectible was defined as any set of objects, either open or closed, that a player can acquire within a game. Often, these are implemented as lateral components of a game experience -- elements that are not integrated with the primary gameplay. Schubert and participants discussed the reasons for this trend, and talked about some of the challenges of developing games with heavily collectible-oriented components:

Collecting for the Sake of Collecting

Schubert identified two distinct situations in which players attempted to collect items within a game.

In developer-driven situations, collecting is motivated by a design decision, and serves to enhance the replay value of a game. For instance, collecting coins in Super Mario Brothers allows a player to gain more lives, and continue playing; collecting Pokemon in any of the Pokemon games gives players a motivation for fighting battles; and collecting cards in Magic: The Gathering serves as an enjoyable side-quest for players wishing to take a break from battle.

Damion Schubert leads the "Power of Collectibes" round table discussion.

In other situations, though -- particular in Massively Multiplyer Online games -- gamers collect for other reasons. The act of collecting is in itself a social activity for many players, and impressive collections of rare items can serve as status symbols in an online world. In these cases, developers support the drive to collect by inventing items and methods of collecting, but do not necessarily drive the collection process itself.

The key, Schubert said, is that players like to be able to choose to collect, but do not like being forced to. This is why collecting items or game elements is, in so many cases, what Schubert referred to as an "opt in, lateral gameplay" -- a side-quest or adjunct to a much larger game.

Collecting in Persistent Worlds

In console games, collectibles are manageable, said the roundtable participants, since space and time are both limited. In online worlds, though, challenges arise in attempting to manage item systems that are potentially infinite in size and scope.

Some participants noted that online gaming tends to employ a "variable reinforcement schedule" in the placement of collectible items -- a term from Behavior Psychology that refers to the random GIVING of a reward in reward for repeated attempts at an action. (Slot machine gambling is the class example from psychology.) These systems, which encourage players to, for instance, fight the same monster twenty-five times in pursuit of a rare item, result in potentially obsessive play habits that not all developers saw as positive.

Roundtable participants offered several suggestions for ways to implement collectibles that would resonate more closely with the desires of the user.

  • Collection Display Capabilities. In Star Wars Galaxies, players can show off their collections within a virtual space "house." Participants agreed that online gamers need ways to display their finds.
  • Interesting Collectibles. Research has shown that players look for items to collect even when there is no built-in support for the feature. That being the case, some participants thought that making collectibles more interesting all around would help players enjoy the experience of pusuing items, especially in cases where players are pursuing items in an open sets (i.e. sets that due to their nature cannot be completed).
  • Item Catalogues. Providing a comprehensive list of everything that can be collected, and then letting players try to collect it all, is another technique that some have found successful in their games. This is the model that succeeded for Pokemon, and is also reflected by user-driven "auction sites" in which players trade items with one another.
  • Completion Bonuses. Giving the player a reward for completing a given set of collectibles, or allowing the set to be traded in for something more useful, was suggested as a means of motivation the existence of lateral collectibles.

Integrated Collection Experiences

Overall, the focus at the roundtable was on finding ways to leverage the fact that players independently pursue items to collect, and learning from the successes and mistakes of other games that have done the same. The concescus seemed to be that collecting would continue to exist as potent form of lateral entertainment in games, and especially in online worlds, but it was walso clear that developers will need to find ways to better integrate these gameplay elements into their larger gaming experiences.

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