Collectibles have been ubiquitous in video games for as long as video games have existed. This is because collecting things is not a video game thing, it’s a human thing. It crosses economic, social and taxonomic borders; it’s hard to find a thing that isn’t being collected by someone (be it expensive paintings or oddly shaped rocks), and just as hard to find a demographic that’s aloof from collecting things.
Video games have naturally imbibed this innate human impulse to an extent that it has become silently omnipresent as a game mechanic. Nearly all video games try to tap into this impulse with varying degrees of success. Making a collectible that actually engages players is difficult.
While it’s easy to think of collectibles as orthogonal to the ‘main’ gameplay, nothing could be further from the truth. The success of one of the longest running video game franchises in history is predicated in no small degree on the psychological allure of collecting. I speak, of course, of Pokémon.
Collectibles can be evaluated on three fundamental metrics. First, how they are presented to you (more on this soon). Second, what it takes to acquire them. Third, what inherent value they bring to you once you manage to get them. Presentation, attainment, and value. What, how, why.
Looking at collectibles through this lens, it comes as no surprise that the act of catching Pokémon scores highly on all of these dimensions. Let’s look at the first.
Pokémon are presented to you in a number of ways. You can encounter them in the wild. But you can battle another trainer with an exotic Pokémon, which you then hope to run into later and catch. In the case of legendary Pokémon, the game’s lore primes you for the challenge of finding and catching them as you progress through the game. The point is that Pokémon don’t become attractive in a vacuum — the game organically finds ways to make them interesting to you through design and narrative. While collectibles are often perceived as curiosities that are ‘seen but not heard’, it doesn’t have to be that way. A collectible can be increased in value to the player simply by the game presenting it artfully. Later in the article, we look at other, less explicit examples of this.
On the dimensions of attainment and value, the appeal of collecting Pokémon is readily apparent. You have to train Pokémon and develop skill so as to be able to catch them, and once caught they further enrich your battle repertoire.
Let’s look at more recent examples of collectibles. In God of War, you are asked to kill Odin’s ravens which are scattered throughout the world. Odin’s ravens are often in hard to reach places, requiring you to skillfully use your axe to hit them. The axe mechanic is the crowning jewel of God of War, and you tend to appreciate the opportunity to toy with it.
But Odin’s Ravens are not presented in an interesting way to the player — the lore underlying them is fairly shallow and they’re not visually arresting. Nor does slaying them bring you any kind of value. Thus, while I found myself trying to hit any Odin’s Raven I did see, I wasn’t particularly interested in actively looking for them. The collectible fails on the first and third dimensions — presentation and value.
The other collectibles in the game (Atreus’s toys, and other such curios) fail on all the dimensions. They seldom added much to the lore (value) or engaged your curiosity (presentation). And they’re not obtained through interesting gameplay (attainment).
Another instructive example is found with backpacks in Spiderman (PS4). Hunting down backpacks can be — Spiderman’s New York is a city with personality, and exploring it to find these backpacks is often rewarding in of itself. When you find a backpack, there’s a small value attached to it — you get a token that you can use to craft items, but you also get a snippet of lore from Peter’s history. This Peter Parker is a seasoned Spiderman with a complex history, and the backpacks do a very good job of fleshing that out.
One of my favorite video game collectibles is Gwent cards in The Witcher 3. Gwent has been so successful as to be endlessly memed and command its own spinoff video game, and it’s worth looking at how that came to be.
First, Gwent is presented and valued brilliantly throughout the game. It’s neatly woven into the narrative of the game so as to strike your curiosity without being intrusive. In many situations, Geralt can use his skill with the game to solve problems without using violence or money, thus incentivizing you to build a stronger deck. When available, the option lends a beautiful levity to Geralt’s approach to solving problems. Your old friends talk about Gwent, and you can win unique cards from them. You can walk into any bar in the Witcher world and find someone to play with.
The game itself is well designed— simple enough to not frustrate, but complex enough to require some thought. I can honestly say that hard-won Gwent battles have formed some of my Witcher 3 highlights.
Surveying recent big budget titles, we’ve seen cigarette cards in Red Dead Redemption 2, trading cards or coins in The Last of Us 2, and headbands in Ghost of Tsushima. None of these are particularly compelling. Headbands have a certain novelty in that the player is given agency to create certain headbands by picking what haiku to write. While the idea ends up lacking depth, it’s definitely something I’d like to see explored further.
In most video games, collectibles are afterthoughts that exist to keep completionist players occupied and make it more challenging to 100% the game.
But when game designers actually think deeply about the what, how and why of collecting, the results can be fascinating and endlessly rewarding. Collectibles can be used to present lore, to develop characters, or to embellish the core gameplay and narrative into a more multi-faceted experience. Collectibles remain an under-developed game mechanic with considerable potential.