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The Sins and Successes of In-Game Collectibles


Jog on, green dots.

I’m not much of a completionist. Sure, I’ll do my best to get my money’s worth out of any given game, and I generally finish the main story of almost any game that I play. But when it comes to collecting every item in the game, or fighting hundreds of optional bosses that can only be accessed at certain parts in the story, I’d rather just pass.

However, a recent push toward collectibles in various games has changed my stance toward completionism to some extent. Just for clarity’s sake, I’m going to define collectible in this article as any in-game item that is not peripheral to the main game experience, and are almost always counted (as in “You have 98 our of 100 collectibles”).

Crackdown has made (and continues to make) me pull my hair out as I search for that last ability orb (don’t even get me started on the hidden orbs). Assassin’s Creed forced me to print out huge maps of the game’s various areas in search of flags—and I still never found them all.

In essence, collectibles are the hot shit right now. They’re relatively easy to implement in games, from the linear experiences like Call of Duty 4 to the open-world games like Crackdown. In addition, they can increase the replay value of a game vastly, especially if the game offers a frighteningly huge number of things to collect.

Like anything that is suddenly adopted by many different people at the same time, there are many genuine successes and some utter failures. In each case, there are certain things that a game either did do or didn’t do that caused it to either offer a fun, engaging collecting experience or a total nightmare full of sadistic searches. There have been many instances of each lately.

If there were a jump here, this is the point at which I would tell you to hit it in order to read all about the sins and successes of in-game collectibles and those games that fall on the extremes of both spectrums.

Yer Doing It Right: Collectibles Done Right

A real world collectible that was sadly recalled. Kinda looks like this guy I know.

When we were kids, many of us had hobbies that involved some form of collecting. Whether it was baseball cards, pogs, comic books, action figures, stuffed animals, or stamps, it’s rare to find an adult that can’t point to at least one item that he or she collected as a child. There are plenty of theories about why we do this, from impressing our friends, hoping the items will make us rich one day, amassing possessions just like parents do, or the thrill of finding something “rare.”

Within the world of a video game, none of these really apply. We do it because we want to have fun and be entertained beyond the main content of the game. For that reason, collectible experiences need to have this as the main focus, and the actual implementation of the collectibles can’t interfere. The following qualities are what I see as the main contributors to a good experience.

Give us something meaningful or cool to collect. By meaningful, I mean to suggest that game collectibles have to have some bearing on the game overall. We shouldn’t be collecting things simply for the sake of collecting them or, even worse, just to unlock an achievement or for the ever-popular e-penis. Whether it’s a simple attribute boost, in-game unlockables, or a reward in the form of the game’s particular currency, there must be some sort of motivation for the players to go out of their way to find these items. Additionally, the collectibles could be something that is just plain cool. It’s hard to pull off in a game, as there’s no physical product, but even amusing action figures of the game’s characters can be a joy to find.

A Google Image search of “collectible” turns up some really weird shit.

Make collecting fun For many people, collecting just for the sake of increasing a number on your screen isn’t going to remain interesting for very long, especially if the items being collected are just laying around the game world in haphazard locations. How many people just walk around the streets of your town looking for pennies to pick up? Sadly, this is what many games have settled for. However, if you place collectibles in hidden locations, on top of high rooftops, or in the hands of a particularly nasty enemy, then we have added reasons to seek them out. The experience remains fun.

Help us out a bit. As game players, we’re not too proud to stop and ask for directions every once in a while. Just give us a little push in the right direction. You don’t have to hold our hands, but there are plenty of things that will greatly add to the fun of collecting without taking out all of the challenge. Whether it is a sound that gets louder as we approach a collectible, or a pillar of light that shows us the way, minimizing our frustration with these minor cues will avoid many “fuck it, I’m giving up” situations.

Keep us updated. This is a pretty obviously one that few games completely fail on, but some do. Tell us how we’re doing! If there are 200 collectibles, we’re not going to count them on our own. Showing our progress as we collect in item is great, but giving us a clear, easy-to-access menu screen that shows our exact progress is even better.

Yer Doing it Wrong: How Collectibles Can Fail

When the act of collecting makes you completely hate a game, you know that the implementation of collectibles has been completely botched. What could have been fun is replaced by frustration and boredom. To steal a line from Swordfish, it’s like masturbation without the payoff. You go through all that work and just end up regretting the time that you wasted.

What goes so terribly wrong in these situations? Well, there are a lot of poor choices that can lead to this type of experience.

Don’t go overboard. No one wants to spend hundreds of hours collecting thousands of items, no matter what the bonuses might be. This also extends to collectible types: don’t make us search out ten different types of collectibles totaling over 1000 individual pieces. When we start to feel that the goal of actually finding each collectible is out of reach, then it ceases to be fun.

Don’t make them damn near impossible to see or collect. Similar in nature to old adventure games that used to make us hunt for pixels on the screen, collecting is sometimes simply a matter of constantly keeping your eyes squinted in the hopes of spotting a completely nondescript and utterly tiny item. Even worse is when they’re not actually easy to collect, as in one particular game that requires you to shoot them. There’s absolutely nothing fun about stopping your progress for a minute or so to line up a shot on a tiny item that you can’t get any closer to.

Oh god where the fuck is Waldo I can’t see anything?!

Don’t put stupid collectibles in your game. Intel. Short for intelligence, intel refers to any sort of information collected about an enemy, its plans, etc. It’s also a really stupid collectible present in many war-focused games. More often than not, this “intel” consists of a laptop computer, random stack of documents, or briefcase that has absolutely no bearing on anything in the game. You’re not actually collecting intelligence on your enemies—you’re just collecting shit because it’s there. It doesn’t really add anything to the game experience, and it’s an example of one of the laziest way to implement collectibles that, consequently, leads to the least enjoyable game experience for players.

Don’t turn me into a fucking topographer. In more than one recent case, my quest to find collectibles ended with my printing out a fan-made map from the Internet and marking locations off as I visited them. Looking back, I’m actually a little disappointed in myself for reducing myself to this level. Sitting around with a map on my lap and a controller and pen in my hands is not my idea of a good time. The collectibles in a game should never be so difficult that they require a roadmap. For me, this constitutes a failure on the developer’s part to execute collectibles in a way that allows players to realistically find all of the items.

Hall of Fame: The Best Uses of Collectibles

There are some games that, for the most part, just get it right. The games in this section might not have perfect collectible experiences, and some of them might not even be very good games. However, some quality of the collectible implementation makes it deserving of a special mention.

Sonic the Hedgehog

I wanted to start with a fairly simple one that, actually, doesn’t entirely fit with my definition of collectibles. The rings in Sonic (at least the early games) aren’t numbered, and they don’t really count toward some achievable total. However, Sonic is one of the first examples of a game that gives you a valid reason to collect things: staying alive.

Because Sonic could preserve his life by carrying rings, the player had a great reason to seek out rings whenever possible. But the rewards didn’t stop there—collecting fifty rings allowed you to visit special areas.

It’s a simple example, but one that shows one of the better reasons for collecting shit.


You could easily call this the mother of all collectible games, and I almost didn’t include it since the actual collecting is so central to the gameplay. However, no one can deny that when it comes to “catching them all,” nothing is more addicting than Pokemon.

Perhaps a main draw to the collectibles here is the fact that you actually get some genuine utility out of them. Unlike most collected items, each Pokemon can be used, trained, developed, and transformed. Thus, there’s a vast amount of stuff that you can do with each monster that you collect. Hell, there’s even plenty of reason to collect the same Pokemon multiple times, as your pets will often evolve into new Pokemon.

Because the collecting is so tied to the main gameplay, it remains consistently fun. As you’re exploring, you’re collecting. As you’re fighting, you’re collecting. Without a doubt, this is a main reason for the series’ incredible appeal.

Brave Fencer Musashi

Really wanted to find an action figure image here, but alas…

Credit must go to the good Bjork for reminding me of this gem. Besides being a great game, Brave Fencer Musashi has perhaps the most interesting use of collectibles in the history of games. Not only is the act of collecting quite fun, but it manages to combine the fun of collecting in games with that of the real world.

Basically, the game contained action figures representing characters and enemies in the game. Many of these can be purchased from a toy store in the game, and others must be found out in the world. Like in real life, some are very common, and some are nearly impossible to find.

The way that this feature is implemented is especially impressive, as it adheres to many real-world rules of collecting. For instance, you can choose to open an action figure’s package and play with the toy. However, you’ll greatly reduce the resale value. Moreover, the price of an action figure goes up over time. So, if you purchase a figure right when it becomes available, it might be worth considerably more by the end of the game. Lastly, the figures were very well done. They looked great, and each one had a funny catchphrase not unlike those that you’d see on old action figures.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was original and fun as hell. I certainly didn’t collect all of the figurines (some were damn near impossible to come by) but I enjoyed seeking them out and experimenting with the system.


Putting Crackdown in this section was a tough choice, as the collecting in the game pissed me off to no end. There were too damn many orbs to collect, and I’m still stuck without one agility orb that I’ll very likely never find.

However, all things considered, Crackdown did a lot right, especially in the ways that it helped you out in your quest. The now-famous sound that played as you approached an orb was infinitely helpful, especially after a patch that increased the volume of the sound when you only had a few left to collect. Furthermore, agility orbs were brightly colored and had a slight pillar of light that shot upwards, making it somewhat easier to see them from a distance.

As the name suggests, these orbs boost your agility. In a game like Crackdown, this is easily the most vital attribute, as it affects your speed and the height that you can jump.

Crackdown also succeeded by placing these agility orbs in places that made sense. If you climb to the top of a high building, you’ll likely find an orb. Thus, you can limit your search based on the most likely locations. Hell, you’ll likely be visiting the tops of those skyscrapers anyway, as it’s great fun to ascend as high as you can. I can see my house from here.

The hidden orbs are a different story for me—I’m not even going to try to collect them all. They’re in ridiculous locations, and they’re not nearly as easy to see as agility orbs. In addition, they bring the total of collectibles up to 800—that’s way too damn many. So while Crackdown has its fair share of fail, it did some things very well. Let’s hope that Crackdown 2 offers all of the good without the fail.

Fallout 3

Speaking of action figures, Fallout 3 offers something reasonably similar and perhaps even more original: bobbleheads. Throughout the game, there are twenty Vault-Tec bobbleheads to find, most of which are hidden in the dank, dark corners of the game’s many dilapidated buildings. With some interesting and amusing designs, it’s always a pleasure to come across one of these silly items.

Each bobblehead increases a different stat of your character, whether it is a simple skill bonus or one of the all-important SPECIAL skills. These aren’t just inconsequential increases, either. Each bobblehead gives you quite the boost, making it extremely beneficial to seek them out.

Furthermore, Fallout 3 is a game that is built on its exploration. In a game like this, it just makes sense to have collectibles. I found myself wanting to explore every inch of the buildings anyway—the collectibles were just an added bonus that I always kept my eye out for. What’s more, you get an awesome display case for them. Bonus!

Again, Fallout 3’s collectible system isn’t perfect. There are a couple of the bobbleheads that are missable, meaning that if you pass a certain post in the game without picking it up, you’re shit out of luck unless you start a new game. Bad form.

In addition, the damn things are tiny. Even if you’re paying attention, it is easy to just walk right by one of them. There’s no indication that you’re approaching one—they’re just there, sitting among the trash on desks or, in the worst case, laying in a dark cave. While they weren’t that hard to find, a little help would have been nice.

Hall of Shame: The Worst Uses of Collectibles

They say that for every success, there are ten failures. Yeah, I just made that shit up, but let’s process under the assumption that it’s true. Anyway, I’m not going to throw dozens of collectible failures at you. But there are some instances where a game deserved to be flogged publicly for its crimes. These are those instances.

Grand Theft Auto 4


I alluded to this one above, but a simple allusion isn’t going to suffice to fully capture just how awful the pigeon bullshit is in Grand Theft Auto 4. Perhaps I have an aversion to pigeons now that they’ve invaded my balcony and seriously shit on every inch of it, but after finding about five of those winged rats, I was done.

There are a lot of reasons that the flying rat bullshit didn’t fly with me, but I’ll start with the most obvious one: you had to shoot them. Now, beyond the trouble of getting out your weapon, lining up a shot, and ending the pigeon, you often had to go to the most insane locations to do this. One is in the mouth of a shark, while a bunch are on top of the Statue of Fucking Liberty (ahem, Happiness). Come on.

Sure, there’s a slight red glow to the pigeons, but amongst the many other red glows of an inhabited city, they’re certainly not easy to spot. Finding all of the little shit factories is sure to take you on city the journey through Liberty City, but it’s not a journey that most are likely to take. Unless you happen to love maps.

Call of Duty 4

Who put that there?

Have you ever wanted to play a war FPS in black and white? If so, you’ll definitely want to put in Call of Duty 4 and start finding some of the game’s thirty piece of intel, stashed for no good reason in laptop computers all across the games many areas. What is this intel? No one knows, but for some reason, you just have to pick them up!

Really, there’s not much to the collectibles here. The main problem here is that collectibles rarely work in such a linear experience. It’s very likely that you’ll come across each of these laptops as you’re just playing normally. You might have to turn your head a bit, or keep an eye out in a dark room, but you’re hardly going off of the beaten path in order to complete your collection.

In addition, the reward for collecting this intel is—a series of cheats. Honestly, calling them cheats isn’t entirely accurate, as many of them just mess with the visuals of the game. They’re the sort of thing that you might turn on once, giggle at, and then forget forever.

Is there any fun to be had here? Perhaps, but it’s shallow fun.


I was going to get an action figure image in here one way or another.

It’s perhaps a little ironic that a game so similar to Crackdown—even in the way that it handles collectibles—could fail so much harder than the game that it imitates. Just as in Crackdown, Prototype offers two separate types of “orbs” that players are asked to find. These also lead to ability increases, and many are placed on the game’s highest structures. The main issue here is that where Crackdown attempted to help players in their quest, Prototype only seems to want to make things harder.

For one, the collectibles themselves are pretty silly. Out of the 250 orbs that you find, 50 are called “hint collectibles.” In name, these offer certain insights into the game that will help the player along the way. In practice, they offer the most inane bullshit. For instance, one hint explains the process of upgrading your character—something that the in-game tutorial screens have already done for you. Great work, Einstein. At least the landmark collectibles help you upgrade your abilities…

…That is, when you can find them. Despite the fact that the collectibles in Prototype are much larger than those in Crackdown, it’s far more of a pain in the ass to find them. That’s because, in many cases, they’re placed in stupid locations. For instance, I think I’ve found about ten of them in the game’s version of central park, just floating in random places amongst the trees and grass. So, unless you’re running through the park (which isn’t any fun), it’s hard to find them. Others are on the tops of very thin structures, like radio towers or smokestacks. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the game’s shitty camera, which constantly shifts for no good reason, thus shifting the character to the other side of the structure, making him lose his grip, and forcing you to start all over.

While there’s no sound or pillar of light to help out, we’ve still yet to get to the worst problem. Prototype is a game that just begs you to tear ass through the game world. You move fast everywhere you go. It’s unfortunate, then, that the graphics often don’t keep up, leading to plenty of pop in. The problem is that these collectibles are included in this. So as you’re leaping along, you’re likely to miss a collectible because the damned game hasn’t even drawn it in yet. And forget about trying to spot them from a distance.

Red Faction: Guerilla

Using this to mine ore is slightly more enjoyable. Slightly.

There a lot of shit to do in Red Faction: Guerrilla, and the fast majority of it is a lot of fun. The game’s built around breaking shit, and everyone likes to do that. Unsurprisingly, many of the “collectibles” are instead “breakables.” You simple go around destroying certain amounts of things. Sounds fun, right?

For the most part, it is. But Red Faction: Guerrilla is guilty of collectible gluttony, offering so damn many different things that it just becomes a burden. Destroying billboards is fun. Breaking crates open is fairly enjoyable. Finding radio tags (the only true collectible) is a pain in the ass, but not terrible.

Then, there are the ore locations. All 300 of them. To mine them, you have to swing your hammer a couple of times at the little bunches of rock and grab the red shit that comes out. It’s a little odd and a lot annoying. Worst of all is that many of them are hidden amongst the hills and valleys of Mars: places that you otherwise have absolutely no reason to visit.

Really, the main problem here is that, in a game like this, the possibilities in terms of collectibles are endless. The fact that we didn’t get something more meaningful—and instead have to break rocks like a chain gang—is just disappointing.

Bound to Reach the End
SERIOUS bonus points if you catch that reference. Hint: music.

This one turned into a monster, didn’t it? Anyway, I think there’s a lot to say about collectibles, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the games that I mentioned (or especially those that I did not) or if you have other musings about the good and bad of collectibles.
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About Andrew Kauzone of us since 5:10 PM on 04.30.2009

In loving memory: PAX 2009 (thanks ZombiePlatypus! And WalkYourPath, of course)

I'm Kauza, which is pronounced like cause-uh. My real name's Andrew Kauz, if you'd rather go for that.

I like talking to Dtoid people, so please add me on your favorite social networking site:
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kauza
Gchat: santakauz[at]gmail.com.

Basics: I'm 25, and I write things.

Eternal thanks go out to Y0j1mb0 for the amazing header image you see above. So, thanks, sir!

Look at some of the things I've written.

Things on the Front Page:

Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale
The Future: Demanding more from the voices of videogames
Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard
A warning: Regrets from a former life and experiences yet unlived
Top ten games for people who hate Thanksgiving
The wrong thing: Being evil should be more like sex
Staying dry in a sea of spoilers is a matter of building a boat
Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
Come, take your pilgrimage to gaming's one true mecca
Here's to you, random-JRPG-dialogue-writer-man
The forgotten: Crushing disappointment at the hands of Crash 'n the Boys
The people who have the power to change the world
Improving game communities: Enough with the negativity
The draw of exploration: Antarctica to Oblivion, Shackleton to Shadow Complex
I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs
I, the Author: My Everest
Untapped Potential: The Gamer's Education
Other Worlds than These: Our World, Only Different

A series sort of thing about status effects
Toxic Megacolon and other fresh status effects
Curse you, status effects, stop confusing my heart
Status effects are poisons that turn my silent heart to stone
Also check out the related forum thread.

The Fall of the Titans (wherein I talk about dead or dying gaming companies)

The fall of the titans part 3: What once was shall be again
The fall of the titans: Sega died so that we might dream of the future
The fall of the titans: Why do the giants of gaming die?

Stories from the Past (a series about my experiences playing certain games):

Stories from the Past: Tobal 2, Tomba! 2, and console double-vision
Stories from the Past: Diablo and the Dark Ride
Stories from the Past: What the f*ck, mom?
Stories from the Past: Xexyz and the battle aboard Turtlestar Lobsterica
Stories from the Past: The One-Balled Man-Bear
Stories from the Past: The Battle of Olympus
Stories from the Past: Suikoden 2

Storytelling (a series about, well, storytelling):

Storytelling: The Problem of Genres
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line (Yeah, it was my first post.)

Other stuff that is good:

Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands
Can games transcend good and evil?
Nothing is sacred: We won't let you go alone, but we have made a tragic decision
How Destructoid single-handedly changed my mother’s opinion of gaming
Why Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest sports game of all time
Seven reasons that I will end you in creative ways if you don't play Folklore
Mother Nature and the Impending Death of the Gaming Spirit
Times Games Forgot: The Dark Ages
The Sins and Successes of In-game Collectibles
The Lock is Broken
When Music Surpasses the Game
Truckasaurus Rex and the Humor of Games
I Want to Cry (storytelling related, but not part of the series)

I have others as well that you can check out on my blog. You'll enjoy them or your money back.

Since it seems like the cool thing to do, here a list of my favorite games that is coming straight out of my ass and onto your computer screen, and in no particular order.

Fallout 3
Uncharted 2
Suikoden 2
Mass Effect / ME2
Metal Gear Solid followed by any number you can think of
Tales of Somethingendinginia (OK, and the Abyss)
Battlefield: Bad Company
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PSN ID:santakauz
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