Back in late 2011 I was a student with way too much time on my hands. One day, to fill some of that time, I figured I'd try to complete 100 percent of Batman: Arkham City.
It became apparent that this was an awful idea when I realised there were 400 items to collect or smash. Four Hundred. Skyrim was coming out following week; I didn't have time for this. I'd finished the main story, of course. But that just bothered me more. I'd "finished" Arkham City, but I hadn't "completed" it.
I soon realised I'd never "completed" a game where 100 percent "completion" means doing stuff outside the bounds of the main storyline. Did that mean I was playing them wrong? The developers had put all this stuff in there to be seen, after all. Was I not getting the full experience if I didn't see everything? Or did that mean I simply wasn't a "completionist"?
Then you have all these statistics saying that huge numbers of people never finish the games they buy. If a decent percentage of people can't find the time to get to the end of the main story in your game, then how many do you think are going to go after all of the little collectibles? It also doesn't help that, for the most part, collectibles in games are utterly meaningless. Remember the pigeons in GTA IV? There were 200 of them littered around Liberty City. And what did you get for killing all of them? An Annihilator helicopter spawned on a helipad near Star Junction.
Batman: Arkham City – Riddler trailer
Imagine how long that would have taken, even if you were using a guide. Imagine the poor soul who had to write that guide.
But hey, at least you got a helicopter. The exact same helicopter you can spawn literally any time you want by taking out your phone and dialling 359-555-0100. Of course, that's cheating – and anyway, you were butchering all those flying rats to get 2.5 percent game completion, right? A fortieth of the game completed by doing something completely inane. Seems like a lot, tbh. And the pigeons aren't the series' only culprit. Remember the UFO parts in GTA V? Nah, me neither.
Going back to Arkham City for a moment, at least there was a purpose to it all. At certain points along your path of finding all the Riddler trophies (as Batman and Catwoman), destroying all of the cameras and lining up all of the question marks, you gained access to new side-quests, each with a mini story and unique dialogue. It added an actual incentive, other than, "Haha, dickhead, you haven't finished the game unless you've done all this other stuff."
That said, when there are so many things to collect before the final payoff, the incentive does have limited appeal. I ended up watching The Riddler side-quests play out on YouTube.
I suppose Arkham City would be an example of a game doing collectibles "right", even though I still barely collected any of them. So when there are good examples, why do so many games still take the wrong route?
Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity brings back the treasure chests that have been a mainstay of the series up until now. It's not like money is ever a problem in an AC game, yet here they are, marked on your map, glowing as you run by them, saying: "I'm important! Search me!"
In this year's Assassin's Creed iteration (or, one of this year's iterations, at least), the chests have different colours. The blue ones are tied to the game's companion app. So not only do I have to spend a few seconds watching the same animation play out, I have to download something else for my phone before I do it?§
What's more bizarre is when collectibles are done well and poorly within the same game. I'm going to pick on Ubisoft again. While there are a lot of talented developers over there who make multiple impressive open world games year in, year out, they don't half make a lot of the same mistakes every time they do it. Take Far Cry 3 as an example. Skinning animals to craft better ammo pouches, taking over outposts to get new side quests and fast travel locations. Good stuff. Not only useful, but fun to do.
Hold on, what's this? I need to go and collect relics, too? What do I get for it? A couple of weapons and a recipe for a syringe that makes me invulnerable for a while? Well, it's not like this game is very hard to begin with, so screw that, what else have you got for me? "Letters of the Lost" to go and find? I mean, I appreciate someone had to write them all, but I can't imagine the contents of these letters are going to be life changing in any way. Anything else? Collectible memory cards? These get me money and the occasional item. Great. It's a pretty world, but not pretty enough to methodically search in the hopes of finding something. Far Cry 4 is just a mountainous Far Cry 3, and has an almost identical collectible system. Don't get me wrong, both are brilliant games, but can't we revolutionise just a little bit?
I get it – you need to populate your open world with random bullshit, or else it feels empty. But is that really the case? Even if you don't go looking for stuff to collect in GTA V, it still has the most complete and "alive" world that's ever been created in a game. Especially now in the new console releases, with the updated polygon counts and extra facial animations. You can spend an hour just walking round and taking in the sights. Having to go and find said random bullshit: that would just remind me that I'm playing a game.
There's just too much. Open the world map on Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and you won't be able to see the ground for icons – side quests and stuff to collect and things to examine. I was doing the legendary weapon quests for a while, but eventually just ended up finishing the game's storyline because the missions happened to be nearby at the time. I was still nowhere near completing the side-quests. Why would I go back to them now that I don't really have anything to use them on? As for the artefacts and Ithildin? I got a few of them if I was passing by. Couldn't tell you any of the stories associated with them now, though.
Developers, I want my collectibles to mean something. Give me a cool reward or an awesome cutscene – something to make it worth my time. The best parts of your game don't have to be restricted to the main story. Give people a little credit. If you entice them, they'll go and find all the stuff you put in your world. Better yet, make finding them actually fun. Hiding 50 objects around your world and saying your game takes two more hours to complete isn't good design or giving the player "value for money", it's laziness.
I'm not a student any more; I don't have the time to do all the boring stuff it takes to 100 percent a game. I have other things to do. There are several coins hidden down the sides of my sofa. My reward for finding them is that I get to buy dinner today. Those are some good collectibles.