Wednesday, September 29, 2010

First, Do No Harm

In this article, gameplay programmer Nels Anderson warns that more does not equal better when it comes to collectables, especially when their very presence may contradict the gameplay experience.

Designed correctly, collectables can enrich a world, making it feel larger and more robust. Designed poorly, they exploit some of our worst tendencies as gamers. Usually games feature one or the other, and it's unusual and interesting when both exist (at times, literally) side-by-side.

Lately, I've been playing longer single-player DLC from some of the bigger releases earlier this year. Along with Minerva's Den for Bioshock 2, I've been playing The Signal for Alan Wake (it came free with the game). It reminded me of the stark contrast Alan Wake presents in its collectables. I wrote about Alan Wake previously, but I wanted to go into more detail about the collectables themselves.

To be clear, Alan Wake has far too many collectables. There are: manuscript pages, coffee thermoses, supply crates, can pyramids, radio clips, TV shows and local history signs. The Signal adds two more, ticking clocks and cardboard standees. And, of course, there's an individual achievement for collecting every one of these. It's absurd. I can only imagine it emerged from group-think that concluded, "People like collectables, and some collectables are good, so more must be better!" And Alan Wake isn't even a sprawling open world with vast environments the player is never required to visit but can explore at their leisure. It's a linear, level-based game whose environments are, if anything, too big.

I'm not trying to pick on Remedy or Alan Wake, because they did some very good things with their collectables. It's just that the good things are sitting right next to some things that are ... less good. And the good collectables are quite good. The two most successful were the radio segments and Twilight Zone-esque TV shorts. They follow the guidelines for good collectables: 1) they're rewarding in their own right, 2) they enhance the game thematically and 3) they're sensibly located. They're rewarding because they are (at least potentially) amusing or provide some backstory. They enhance the game thematically because late night radio feels both lonely and creepy (Mitch called that one) and the TV spots are appropriately absurd. And they're sensibly located because they're both found in man-made structures (that are not ruined/abandoned).

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum are the game's one hundred coffee thermoses. They have no purpose in the game beyond provide an achievement, and beyond a tenuous Twin Peaks joke they're not thematically appropriate and they're scattered from hell to breakfast. You're as likely to find one in someone's kitchen as you are to find one perched on top of a boulder deep in the woods. The can pyramids are just as bad, while the manuscript pages and supply caches fall somewhere in the middle.

But why are "bad" collectables bad? If some people don't like them, they can just ignore them, right? The problem is poorly designed collectables can have subtle but dramatic impact on the game's pacing (again, see Mitch's piece). In Alan Wake, you're often chased or running toward something important. You're supposed to feel rushed and threatened. But as this is a pretty standard game and the world's state cannot actually change until the player is nearby, that's entirely smoke and mirrors. Now that would be okay (a lot of great games are mostly smoke and mirrors) except the presence of the poor collectables encourages the player to take the game very slowly and methodically, scouring an environment entirely before moving onward. Once again, it's that old chestnut where the game's fiction says one thing ("Run! Hurry!") and the game's rules say another ("Slow down and find all those thermoses").

There's no doubt in my mind Alan Wake would be a better, more cohesive game without those thermoses. The danger really is thinking that arbitrary, pointless collectables are good because people like them. It's true that they're effective for many people, but they might be effective for all the wrong reasons. And effective isn't the same thing as good. Alan Wake shows us how seamlessly good collectables can integrate into a game. And in the next breath, it shows how harmful poor ones can be. More isn't always better. Let's not forget that, okay?

Nels Anderson is a gameplay programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design at A version of this post originally appeared there.


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