I’m a sucker for collecting crap in videogames. The universe could be perishing in fire and blood but if I haven’t found all of the hidden dentures scattered around the current level then by God the universe can just die without me. Collecting things is one of the great dichotomies in contemporary videogames: you are either its petulant slave or you have no idea why anyone cares about such a stupid feature.
I’d like to make this stupid, indispensable feature better.
For starters, let’s hit the obvious problem: what’s the point? This varies from game to game. My current collection fetish object, Assassin’s Creed 2, places little treasure chests all over the level and each time you find one you get some cash; that’s a nice incentive until you realize that just buying a small bag to hold additional items costs about 30x the typical chest loot. In Crackdown, every time you grab a green glowing orb your Agility stat goes up a little; you can also raise it by winning races and shooting punks from the high ground. Grand Theft Auto IV has you kill 200 pigeons in exchange for an Annihilator Helicopter spawn point; the same chopper is also available in five other locations without shooting all those pigeons. In MMOs, collections are either assembled from random dead-monster loot drops (“Collect ten rat fangs!”) or by finding them in the environment (EverQuest 2‘s “Find the twenty different butterflies!” quests) and either way they give you XP for completing the quest and possibly a quest item.
I’m going to posit that the incremental advantages given by Assassin’s Creed 2 and Crackdown are the way to go. Getting a tiny benefit for something you do frequently is satisfying in a trail-of-breadcrumbs kind of way. The fact that you can take the accumulated benefit and occasionally turn it into a useful item (by spending the money you find in Assassin’s Creed 2) or that at major thresholds of Agility you gain a new power (as in Crackdown) means that there are bigger breadcrumbs interspersed with lots of little ones, which neatly marries the “periodic plateaus of power” game design philosophy with the “always be grinding” approach, resulting in a situation where every item you collect gives you a tiny hit of happy progression but every so often the same action gets you a much bigger result. This experience really satisfies.
Unlike, say, GTAIV‘s pigeon-collecting, which practices a Puritanical delayed-gratification ideology: you get nothing until you kill the 200th pigeon and then you get something that you can already get in five other places for free.
For that matter, I’m not a fan of MMO collection quests either. Awarding XP isn’t nearly as satisfying as cash (which is liquid and therefore instantly useful and rife with fun trade-offs) or incremental ability improvements (where you are always getting better instead of waiting until you grind up to that next level).
So here’s our happy model thus far: in my hypothetical game, you collect items found in the world and every one you grab improves an ability score. At regular thresholds of those ability scores, you unlock a new power or major improvement to the ability. Every item you grab boosts you and at intervals you get a major boost.
But there’s a dark side to this feature. Compare the experiences of the player who gleefully collects items with the player who thinks collecting items is stupid busy-work meant to inflate a paltry set of content. (And yes, they’re both right.) The player who collected items is getting more powerful in exchange for spending more time exploring and less time progressing through the main storyline. The player who didn’t is still getting more powerful but he’s doing it purely through storyline play instead of exploration. Hypothetically, let’s say that after five hours of play the collecting player hits 50% maximum power when he’s 25% of the way through the storyline while after the same five hours the mission-focused player hits 50% maximum power when he’s 50% of the way through the storyline. They’ve both hit the same power level in the same amount of time – beautifully balanced, right?
Wrong. Behold the dark side: the collecting player is now overpowered for the portion of the storyline between 25% and 50% completion. He hit 50% max power much earlier in the storyline than the mission-focused player did and that means the storyline missions he’s playing through to catch up with the mission-focused player are substantially easier than they should be.
In other words, by providing an alternate advancement path you’ve enabled the player to level past the core content way too soon. Let’s say, for example, that when your max power hits 50% you unlock the ability to teleport and that your average damage-per-second has reached 50. That next set of storyline missions was designed for the mission-focused player, who doesn’t have the teleport ability yet and whose DPS at that point in the storyline was 25. As a game designer, you’re going to have to find a way for that content to work both for the collector (who can teleport and has 50 dps) and for the mission-focused player (who can’t teleport and has 25 dps). The fact that both players spend the same number of hours reaching that power level doesn’t reduce the need to find a way for your storyline content to be fun and challenging for players in both situations.
We can choose to wave our hands and say “Why, we’ll have dynamic difficulty that can adjust to your dps and we’ll just make sure the level designers know the player might or might not have the teleport ability!” But how many axes of advancement will you have and how many alternate scenarios must you account for? If I’ve collected all the Agility Orbs and boosted that stat to 50% of maximum but I didn’t grab any of the Speed Orbs and that stat is only at 25% of maximum, how well will your content cope?
It’s at this point that many people decide not to get themselves into such a crap situation in the first place. But we’re not here to chicken out. Let’s win this land war in Asia!
Here’s my proposed solution. The problem is that advancement via collecting is uncapped: if you put off all the storyline missions and just grind orbs, you can max out your stats and then cakewalk through the whole game. We need to cap collection progression. Doing it globally sucks rocks, since once you hit the cap further collection is meaningless. Instead, it’s time to better embrace those sporadic plateau rewards (“At 50% you get Teleport!”) and think of them instead as tiers.
Let’s say that in addition to ability scores, you’re also earning XP (Experience Points) for typical game actions like killing things. XP is how you rise from tier to tier. Imagine this game’s progression system has 5 tiers: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. I start in Bronze and start racking up XP to eventually move myself into Silver. In parallel, I’m grabbing Defense Orbs that incrementally improve my defense score. My defense score ranges from 0 to 100 but it’s also tiered, so Bronze Defense goes from 0 to 100 and then Silver Defense goes from 0 to 100 and so on, with each new tier’s ability entirely supplanting the previous one. By grabbing orbs, I can max out my Bronze Defense at 100 earlier in the storyline than the mission-focused player can. But the cool new threshold ability is granted at Silver Defense 0, not at Bronze Defense 100, and I can’t go from Bronze to Silver until I get enough XP to change tiers.
So as a collection player, I get to enjoy the incremental improvements from cranking up my Bronze Defense score to 100 faster than the mission-focused player. But I hit my tier ceiling and when I do, the orbs disappear until I earn enough XP to change to Silver tier. Then I get my Silver Defense score of 0, my new threshold power unlocks, and I’m back to collecting orbs again.
Meanwhile, our content is mostly gated on tiers. I can’t play Silver storyline missions when I’m Bronze. And while I’ll be a little overpowered in the final Bronze missions relative to the mission-focused player who isn’t collecting, we both reset to being even each time we advance a tier. All my history of orb collection is meaningless when we both hit Silver tier and start at 0 again.
By yoking two parallel progression tracks and capping one at each tier, I can enjoy the benefits of my collecting mania without running so far ahead of the power curve that the missions get too easy. The game is far easier to balance and both kinds of players hit major power plateaus at predictable points so we can plan our content safely.
It would be a happier world, I think, even if I don’t stop obsessing over the next one of those goddamn pigeons.
John Scott Tynes would like to explain to the world that Zynga’s Mafia Wars is nothing more than a progress bar you can click on to make it go faster. Which, if you’ve ever used Windows, turns out to be a potent but untapped fantasy shared by millions of people around the world.