Today at lunch, Pete was talking about how he had bought a house in Oblivion and how he had amused himself for a few minutes collecting things to put into the house. He had found the odd trophy, various books, but of course no candles.
Item collection is a dominant gameplay mechanic in almost every major genre of video game fantasy. We collect coins, clothes, money, weapons, health packs, experience points, gay porn cards, magic items, racing medals, houses, pets, keys, and plants. The list is too long to complete.
I think it’s no surprise that collection is such a major form of gameplay. After all, gamers themselves have an in-built compulsion to collect things in the real world, so it’s obvious that they would be attracted to the same kind of behavior in virtual worlds.
It is also no surprise that there are entire games which, when you get down to it, are about nothing but collecting. Animal Crossing and The Sims are the prime examples of these “sandbox collecting” games.
But, what about all the other games? Why is it that while you are saving the world, you find yourself needing to stop off to pick up that purple velvet suit of +5 speed, or that nice gay porn card which you can trade for a magic dress?
Often, the items are just a different way to keep score. Rather than the more mundane and abstract accumulation of “points”, the player instead accumulates something that is more like an actual concrete object, like money, or zombie heads. It’s amazing how compelling even the simplest collection mechanic can be. Just think about the “brain” levels in Robotron, where you would risk throwing away a whole quarter’s worth of lives just to collect a couple more of the pink humans.
The next logical step is to tie the collection of objects to actual progress in the game. Platform games, for example, will often require you to collect a certain number of widgets to clear a stage. Or, you might have to rescue a certain number of humans to progress to the next mission.
In these settings, collecting can also be a smokescreen for the in-built linearity in the game. You really can’t do anything but progress from area A to B to C, but along the way you have to do a lot of “free” exploration in the name of finding the required number of coins.
Other games allow you to trade in what you have collected. Here is how it goes: you walk into an area, you defeat some enemies, the enemies turn into money. You can then use the money to buy things that allow you to defeat more powerful enemies and get more money. And the game goes on. This is just the ever-increasing R in a different form.
This pattern is everywhere. In action games like Devil May Cry or God of War you get Orbs which you use to upgrade your abilities and weapons. In Resident Evil 4, when the zombies die, they leave money and items behind. In Zelda, you chop stuff up and it turns into money, or healing potions, or magic points, or hearts. In racing games, you win races for medals and money, and use these things to progress in your “career” and buy new cars and upgrades for cars. In Madden you collect bonus points that you can trade for cards that let you cheat. And, of course, in Lego Star Wars you blow stuff up, collect the lego blocks, and trade them in for various unlockables.
But, of all the genres, the RPG, and in particular the so-called “Western” RPG takes collecting the most seriously. Where other games conveniently make their treasure big and shiny and easy to find, Western RPGs make you scour entire dungeons for a meager few coins and piles of dirty clothes.
Consider the typical encounter in one of the most widely acclaimed RPGs of all time: Knights of the Old Republic. You have been tipped off that 4 beasts of great power are hanging out in a nondescript square room. You approach the room. You spend five minutes in the menu system turning on all your armor and various force powers. You dive into the room and vanquish your foes with your overwhelming tactical advantages. As a reward, the game then makes you
1. Walk up to each of the dead bodies, hit A, find out that they are carrying a few bones.
2. Walk around the room to each of 5 barrels of identical construction (sometimes the barrels are trunk shaped, or basket-shaped, but they are always the same).
3. One of these will contain money.
4. One of these will contain a useful item or two.
5. Two of these will be empty. The other one will be locked, and require you to either win a roll of the dice to open it or play some lock-opening mini-game. Then you’ll find out that it’s empty.
Oblivion puts you through a similar level of torture. As an added twist, your four pieces of copper will often be in a hole you can’t see because you are in a cave with no light! What fun!
You are then left to consider that without all this useless looting, the game might take half as long to play. But wait, there is more.
Half the time, the game won’t even give you money. It will give you some item that you already have, but which you must schlep around until you can find some store in which you can sell it for some tiny amount money. In other words, not only is the game insulting you skimpy rewards, it makes you do an extra level of indirect work to collect on them.
The Japanese RPG, in general, handles this better. You beat up some thugs and the game just drops money and stuff you will actually use right into your pocket. Your pocket also tends to be infinitely large, which is another great feature. This is because the only thing more boring than selling stuff in a game’s store is the inventory management required to get the stuff to the store. Finally, when the game does make you open a chest, it’s hardly ever locked or empty.
My suggestion to game designers, and especially RPG designers, is this. After each encounter, I should be able to hit the A button and have everything in the room that I can collect instantly turn into money. Then I can trade the money for whatever I want.
Of course, if you actually made this improvement, it would lead to howls of rejection from the hard core simulationist RPG contingent. These are the people who think it’s fun to go to an in-game weight room and do “curls” to increase their character’s strength. This is “fun” because it is so “realistic”. No amount of tedious busywork is too much for them. Faced with this streamlining, they will undoubtedly fill the Internet with forum posts about how your game is a stupid dumbed down sell-out to the mass market.
Don’t listen to them. The rest of us are all tired of running around looking into empty barrels and locked chests. We want move on to something more interesting, to see the next dungeon, or explore the forest that is on the other side of that hill. It would be a shame if your game kept us from that because we were stuck in a cave looking for those candles we accidentally dropped because the +5 Sword of Flensing was too heavy for us to carry back to town. Those candles were gonna look great on Pete’s fireplace. But now they are lost forever.