Collecting For Who?

September 9, 2013 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Samantha “Kitten” McComb

What exactly is so exciting about collecting? Why has it become gaming’s universal low-hanging fruit? What do we do with our coins in Mario, our excess treasures in Final Fantasy, or our gamerscores on our Xbox 360’s but hoard them? What do you do with those coins but – at the very best – receive another now long useless 1up? What purpose does another megalixir or final weapon serve when you will never need to use it? What do half of achievements do for you but tell people you collected baubles or progressed the story?

I played a game called Cookie Clicker, recently. In Cookie Clicker, you click a giant cookie to gain a cookie, then spend your earned cookies on objects that autoclick or automatically generate cookies on set intervals. Play the game for a few minutes and clicking becomes obsolete, you only need to check back periodically to buy newer and better generators. Your objective in cookie clicker is ultimately to watch numbers go up so that you can watch numbers go up. The goals you set for yourself are entirely up to you, and your reward will always be faster cookie generation.

Your natural reaction might be to consider this game a wretched waste of time, but take a good look at the games you’ve been playing and collecting items in lately. Do any of those items have any utility other than to fill out a counter, and maybe at the very best unlock some concept art you could look up on the internet? Maybe an achievement? Perhaps you received an item that has long since become useless, now that every hurdle has already been jumped?

If you’re able to look at cookie clicker and identify it as a waste of time, have you considered pondering the double standards you may be holding for your Marios, Castlevanias and Final Fantasies? I enjoyed Cookie Clicker for the time that I played it, and it made me give pause to think about why. The answer I came to was that the game possesses full transparency of the utility of its single collectible, the cookie. You know exactly how useful a cookie is at all points in time, and each cookie has the capacity to be a part of something larger.

By no means am I trying to say that Cookie Clicker is any work of genius, but it is honest with the player and doesn’t try to subtly rope them into some metagame full of fluff, because you can immediately identify its entire substance as fluff. Collecting is often viewed by long-time gaming enthusiasts as one of the big banes of modern game design, but is it collecting that is so evil, or is it how it is implemented that really ruins a game?

How many games disingenuously inject collectibles as a shameless metagame, there only to pad corners and reward players with a little chime or melody and progress toward a counter filling out? Forgetting whether or not the collectible has any utility, is it even rewarding to obtain? Did you feel any sense of accomplishment in finding that last hidden little treasure in Uncharted, or were you merely relieved it’s finally over? Many older platformers would at least have the courtesy of hiding the bauble in plain site and make the challenging journey to get it its own reward.

If your game is going to be built with so many things to collect, why not give purpose to those things? Take a look at Minecraft – I feel like its immeasurable impact and success is largely because it is one of the first collection-centric games to understand that people would like to actually be able to [i]do something[i] with all that junk they’ve been hoarding. Even [i]dirt[/i] and [i]sand[/i] have significant utility, and if you don’t like collecting, there’s a game mode that allows you to entirely bypass that and do whatever you want.

It’s not as if I find collectibles to be entirely without merit, it’s just that I ask they not insult the player or dishonestly rope them into a mindlessly tedious metagame. At no point in Batman: Arkham Asylum did I feel a thing like Batman while collecting any one of the over one hundred collectibles the Riddler had hidden around, frequently gated by power-ups I would need to advance the plot to obtain and backtrack to use – I simply felt like the game dev’s stooge, like an errand girl.

Is it really so much to ask for collectibles to either be a satisfying challenge to find/obtain or serve some sort of utility within the game? Do they really need to reach new and more patronizing lows in how little they regard the player’s time and interests? When you ask someone why they bought a Batman game, none of them are going to tell you “to smash hundreds of chattering teeth and find dozens of glowing trophies.” What they’re most likely going to say is that they bought it to “be like Batman.”

On the other hand, when you ask someone why they bought Minecraft, chances are that their reasons will include “mining” and/or “crafting.” When you ask someone why they’re playing Cookie Clicker, the reasons will more than likely involve “getting cookies.” I really don’t believe it should be considered demanding to expect that same level of honesty and respect out of all games you buy.