Collectibles are everywhere. Be it coins, ammo, orbs or pegasus feathers, it's hard to find a game that doesn't have them littered throughout. They can serve as currency, health, or points towards a high score. They can be hard to find, or generously scattered everywhere the player looks. They can add a lot to a game or just as easily detract and pull the player out of the experience. So let's look at what collectibles can really add to a game. You have already found your internet display device, this article, and the +1 stat token that can be slotted in GameDesign, so you have collected everything you need to move forward.
Collectibles as Rewards and Currency
This is the one players have most grown to expect when they see shiny things laying about. If they pick it up, they assume they will get something from it. Most often times that is some in game reward, be it a power-up they can use instantly or some form of currency they can amass towards some fantastic purchase. If the collectible has no statistical worth, then players hope to feel some sense of achievement for collecting them. It could be a keepsake to prove they made it to the end of some hard to reach navigation puzzle, or as a gag for finding some hidden room. If a collectible doesn't deliver on one these points, they player is going to lose interest in not just the collectibles but possibly the game, for not having a meaningful in game purpose.
The flags in the first Assassin's Creed, the thermoses in Alan Wake, or the gold movie reels in L.A.Noire are perfect examples of collectibles that are lacking in meaningful rewards. Meaningful is of course the key word, because simply attaching achievement points only shines a light on how frustrating and meaningless they are to the core experience of the game.
You can't establish an honest value to a collectible of course until you dictate the quantity of the collectibles. This definitely falls into the discussion and study of balancing a game's economy, player progression, and an item's abilities, which is a topic best explained by those more experienced than I. Something worth mentioning however is that the quantity of collectibles and how they are visually categorized can affect the feel or mood of the player in a big way. Let's look at Zelda, Ratchet & Clank, and Lego Harry Potter, using my wife as the case subject.
In Zelda, she doesn't mind smashing every pot, cutting every piece of grass and lifting every rock in search of random rupees. Yet, when playing Ratchet & Clank, she is put off by having a million bolts fly about every time she smashes anything. With Zelda, the rupees aren't a guarantee from every object you hit with your sword, and when they do, they are color coded to show how much value they have. The random nature of both make even searching for money a game. It also makes each rupee found special. Contrast that with the countless number of bolts Ratchet & Clank gives out for every swing of your wrench, and suddenly each bolt feels less special. But since they are needed to purchase better guns, armor and ammo, it feels like a requirement to smash and run to every bolt, even when the value of each turns it into a grind.
Lego Harry Potter has the explosion of collectibles like Ratchet & Clank but adds the color coded pieces to show which are worth more than others. This adds in a sense of urgency to collect some, but makes others feel even less valuable. So as they spewed forth, my wife would run after the high value ones first, but still felt compelled to pick up even the less important ones. Again, it resulted in her being turned off by the whole experience. In my wife's case, less is more when it comes to using collectibles as currency.
If I had to guess, I would say certain demographics, such as age, probably have different appreciations for the quantity of collectibles in their games. Being skewed towards younger audiences, Ratchet & Clank as well as Lego's explosion of goodies is probably a part of the experience that they love. Heck, the first few times I break open a crate bursting at the seam with bolts I get a little giddy. But like too much candy on Halloween, if left unchecked, it can cause some upset stomachs.
Collectibles as Compass and Clock
Using collectibles as bread crumbs, to entice the player to new areas is an age old trick. Like wise, many games have trained players to know that going towards the collectibles isn't the main path, but a side room with a stash of goodies. How you use this directly ties into the worth of the collectibles. If they are valuable and rare, then going after one often means it is a side path meant only to lead to goodies, not the main objective. But when they are less valuable and more common, using them as markers to lead the way makes sense.
One of my favorite use of collectibles as a compass is in Tony Hawk games. The Hidden Tapes and S-K-A-T-E collectibles point out areas and runs that can lead to big points as the player tries to grab each item. Their placement highlights the internal reward of completing the objective and the extrinsic reward of personal achievement for feeling like a master skater.
Collectibles can also add to or detract from the urgency of the game, and slow down the internal play style clock. If the player is being told through the narrative that there is a dire need to move quickly, but there are collectibles littered about, with nothing to keep us from collecting them all, you have a problem. The gameplay is at complete odds with the narrative. Enslaved is a perfect example of this. Often times the story and characters projected a real sense of urgency in needing to move forward and continue onwards, but there would be red orbs lying all about, which are needed to upgrade your abilities. So instead of continuing on my important quest, I ran into every corner of the area collecting little orbs. As soon as I saw orbs, I lost all sense of the urgency the characters projected. Especially if it required me to run back an alternate/branched path my AI had been started on.
Collectibles as Characters
You have established what your collectibles will do and where they will live throughout your game. But why stop there? Add a bit of contextual meaning to them, to make them feel like an honest part of the world. It is that final step towards making them a strong part of the experience. Many games get this right, but to varying degrees.
Let's look at Enslaved again. The red orbs say nothing to how or why they would allow the player, Monkey, to suddenly unlock new abilities when enough are collected. Furthermore, in order to upgrade Monkey's abilities, the player must interact with the companion AI, Trip, who then uses the orbs to unlock the upgrades. Interestingly enough, Trip is unable to collect the orbs however, even if she runs through them. So narrative wise, this is all rather dissonant. It all works mechanically, collect the orbs as the player to purchase upgrades through a menu when enough are amassed, but for a game that tries so hard to push character and narrative, it falters in this regard. So, how could we fix it?
Have Trip explicitly mention that if the red orbs, a latent energy used to power their technology, are picked up, she can upgrade Monkey to help on their adventure. Then, let her also absorb orbs she is near, especially on branching paths where it feels odd that the player would run all the way back to where she was just to get orbs she initially deemed necessary. This will add a further connection between the characters, as it appears she is as much looking out for Monkey's well being as he is hers. If for some reason there is a tech problem that keeps the AI from collecting the orbs, add into her explanation at the beginning that only the technology that absorbs the orbs can be upgraded, so she can't pick them up for Monkey. But if she is near them, she will call out "Orbs here!"
Alan Wake's thermoses, called out at the beginning of this article as having no real value, do have character and fit with the narrative of the game. Thermoses are a nod to Twin Peaks, an inspiration to the atmosphere of the game, as well as fitting with the idea of a person chugging coffee in hopes of staying awake. This is a perfect example however of the narrative of a collectible not being enough to make up for its lack of value. While not pulling me out of the tapestry of the narrative, I quickly lost interest in searching them out when the only value they served were achievement points.
When looking for a game that gets the narrative and game mechanic just right, let's look at Infamous. The player collects blue glowing shards, which were scattered all over the city after the explosion caused by the player at the beginning of the game. When enough shards are collected, they give the player more energy. It all ties together so perfectly. Their power source is tied to the players from the outset and their reason for being littered all over the city makes sense. The shards serve the gameplay and narrative perfectly.
Collectibles are a video game institution and much of how they are used is almost second nature to both players and designers. But that can often lead to them not getting the proper attention they deserve. Next time a collectible shows up in the game you are working on, look at it and decide on its value, what it is subconsciously telling the player, and how it fits into the world you are creating.