Saturday, March 14, 2009

Collection and other goal-oriented things

I was listening to the GameSpot podcast a while back, and the guys fielded a question related to challenge in games. The caller explained that games' challenge should not be 'watered down' to make the game more accessible to casual gamers. Furthermore, he claimed that the only fun to be had in games was defeating particularly difficult boss fights.

This opinion is in stark contrast to the opinion of my girlfriend. Her favorite thing to do in games is collect things. She likes things where there are many different objects scattered randomly throughout the game world, and she likes exploring to find all of them. She thinks that overly challenging bosses can be fun when you win, but if a boss is too hard it is just frustrating and will cause her to give up.

I, personally, find fun in exploring the game engine itself. I like finding new ways to do things, and I tend to get bored fast if I find something so abusive it degenerates the game. I tend to look at overly challenging bosses in a couple of ways. If the only barrier to victory is precision (you must do X boring thing over and over as perfectly as possible otherwise you get hit) then I tend to really hate those games. If it's strategic, where there is a formula for victory, I find a lot of fun in finding and implementing that formula, even if the execution is also difficult.

Anyway, the collection thing is what I wanted to focus on today. For some reason, we seem absolutely enamored with the idea of going out and getting things that have little to no ingame value to us. XBL has Gamerscore, which 'rewards' you for achieving random things within a game. But... this Gamerscore does nothing - we don't qualify for any sort of promotion or get to trade in gamerscore points for products on XBL. It's just there for cool points. So why do people go out and play games just to get gamerscore?

Another big example for me is games where doing collecting gives you an ingame benefit up to a certain amount. I am pretty excited about collecting a string of jellybeans if it means I get to do the EX Jellybean Throw after collecting 500 of them. However, if there are 2000 jellybeans in the game, I am pretty likely to give up after collecting 500. My girlfriend, however, will at least attempt to get all 2000 jellybeans.

Why is all of this fun? Why is it even important? Well, there are a few things we can really take from implementing collections in games (obviously this is not so important for writing).

The first thing that I think is very important to collections is to establish patterns for how you hide things. Most game designers of the ancient days did not understand this, but it is pretty often in modern times to see patterns in these things.

An example of patterns might be showing the player some clue (a small pickup, or coin, or some other item) in a place they think to be inaccessible, so that they search around trying to get to the clue. Once they get there, they find themselves on the road to a secret. This is very common in Half-Life 2, for instance.

Another thing that is important in developing collection quests is to make them meaningful. As I said before, I like being able to cherry-pick collection quests to only get the good rewards. If the quest rewards me periodically, I'll be more apt to keep going too. Bonus points too if the later rewards don't completely make the game trivial. It's not very fun to get the golden rocket launcher of infinite ammo and just blast through the last 15% of the game (this is subjective, but taking all challenge out of a game is usually unfun).

It's also really important that collection quests not be extremely frustrating. Hints or guidelines inside the game can help a player know how many objectives are left in each game area and possibly give small clues as to their location. The more cluttered the game areas are and the less help the player receives, the less likely the player is to find stuff in your game.

I guess the end goal is that collection quests should not be tedious. If they take a long time to do, that's fine, but a trail of breadcrumbs of sorts can really ease off the frustration. One of the things that caused me to avoid looking for secrets in HL2 was that I never really needed them. At best they would give me a little ammo or armor that I was short on, but many times I came across secrets that I didn't need at all.

So back to the player side of things, why is collecting stuff so fun? Is there some sort of magical rainbow land that people go to when they get all of the hidden packages in the game? Or is there some unusual region of fun left to be explored?

Leave comments, because I'm curious!

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