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I recently decided to try out or replay a few “collectathon” games. A collectathon game is a specific type of 3D platformer (I supposed a 2D platformer could be a collectathon, but I am hard-pressed to think of any such entries), one which focuses on placing the player within small levels and asking them to, well…collect a bunch of different things.

The most prominent entry is arguably Banjo-Kazooie, a game for the Nintendo 64 developed by Rare that came out decades ago. A lot of things went right with that game – charming visuals, decent controls especially relative to the time, good music. Many future games have tried to capture a similar spark. In fact, various former Rare employees formed a new development studio called Playtonic and created a spiritual successor – Yooka-Laylee. The premise of a Banjo-Kazooie type game developed by people who made Banjo-Kazooie held a lot of promise, and the game was pretty highly anticipated among a lot of gamers from my generation.

Yooka-Laylee was pretty mediocre.

I had actually begun this foray by visiting a different older game series – Spyro the Dragon. The Spyro trilogy from the Playstation 1 era was remastered and released a few years back, and it was a series that I never really played. But I knew a lot of people enjoyed it (after all, they did remaster the whole series), and I had a free copy…so why not? I wound up playing all three games and…not hating the experience, but also not having a lot of fun, either.

After that I decided to retry Yooka-Laylee for a bit, and immediately remembered why I did not care for it before.

And then I tried A Hat in Time. I had actually seen this game played a bit before, and had basically written it off. The visual design felt a little too…“off”…for me. But I ended up being fairly hooked, enough to want to keep going to get to the end, and not just out of some sense of completing the game.

But in going through these three games, I started to get a sense of what you kind of need to make a good collectathon game. Specifically, I was able to see what some of these games were doing right, and what some were doing wrong – in some cases, really wrong.

Laying Down the Rules

Before I begin, it might be useful to explain the basic idea behind collectathons beyond “you collect stuff.”

The range of “stuff” that the player collects differs, and in some sense it’s the amount of different items the player collects that determines whether you’re dealing with a “collectathon” versus a regular old 3D platformer. Although that dividing line is vague. Arguably the 3D Super Mario games could be called collectathons, even though the number of collectibles is fairly limited. There’s not an exact number we’re looking for.

Perhaps another aspect that serves as a bit of a distinction is how much the game literally encourages you to collect everything. Because can you really call it a “collectathon” if the player doesn’t collect everything? Yes. But you’re still trying to push the player in that direction.

Usually your collectibles will vary, with a “Big Item” (in Super Mario games they’re stars, in Banjo-Kazooie they’re golden jigsaw pieces, etc.). Then there will be various smaller items that might give health, currency, ammunition, or just be something else entirely. Sometimes even having a certain number of the smaller items lets you get a Big Item. The point is that, well…the player is on the lookout for things to collect.

What kinds of rules can we take from all this to help influence the design of such games?

Level Size

So let’s begin with the following rule: levels should be fairly dense and small. The exact parameters are vague, but the basic idea is you want the player to be spending relatively little time exploring, and instead focused on interacting with elements of the game. Usually the focus of the player’s journey is going to be on gathering the Big Items in the level, which will be locked behind various challenges. So having those challenges in a small sandbox that are pretty close to one another and easy to access is key.

You can think of Super Mario Odyssey’s levels as a kind of benchmark. The zones in that game weren’t that big, making them fairly easy to get around quickly. Then you had small challenges laid out in a dense pattern – sometimes multiple Big Items (moons, in this case) – would be received from challenges right next to one another (or even from the same quest-giver). Some of Odyssey’s levels might have been a tad too large, but even then that gives us a good sense of how big the levels should ultimately be.

We can quibble about exact numbers. Did Odyssey have too much? Or should other games have the kind of item load that Odyssey does? Whatever your answer, the core of the rule is intact – we still want a dense level that is easy and quick to navigate.

I think the Spyro games did this relatively well, but Yooka-Laylee and Hat in Time struggled here. Both had fairly expansive levels with collectibles scattered a little too far away. Yooka-Laylee’s issue ended up being that the levels were bigger than its spiritual predecessor, but the number of collectibles didn’t seem to change…you were just spending more time running around. And in Hat in Time, the problem was that there was just so much to explore and so many nooks and crannies to poke into, making it incredibly easy to miss something valuable. In a sense, it almost feels like when the level is really big or really difficult to navigate, the game doesn’t want you to collect stuff.

Character Progression

There’s something special about learning new abilities in a game. Attack abilities. Movement abilities. It’s all tied to a very tangible increases in your power. Sure, an extra hit point is neat…but that pales in comparison to being able to fly or dash or shoot enemies with eggs.

Which brings us to another important rule: the player should be given some upgrades throughout their journey. These upgrades will usually be used for solving certain puzzles to collect more stuff, but that just makes the upgrades feel useful, reinforcing their value.

You also want these new abilities to help the game feel fresh. Running through levels and collecting items using the same basic abilities over and over again gets tedious. This wound up being a problem with the first of the Spyro games – you had a bunch of levels which were of a good size, but where every problem was solved in the exact same set of ways.

And speaking of which…

Collectible Usage

It’s important to make the various collectibles feel worthwhile on their own, beyond just “here’s a thing to get.” This promotes a kind of intermediate usage of your various items and gives players a reason to pursue them.

There are a variety of examples of this process in action. Many of these games tie progress to collecting the Big Items. You can’t get access to the next set of levels until you’ve collected a certain number of Big Items. But we can do more than just that.

For example, maybe abilities can be tied to other kinds of collectibles. In the second Spyro games, you used the gems you collected throughout various levels to buy some upgrades and access to other areas. The same was true for Hat in Time, you could collect “pons” as a currency to buy various special abilities, you could collect “yarn” to create hats which served as player upgrades, and you could find “rift tokens” to buy cosmetic items. Each individual thing feels useful, and thus worth collecting.

Item Variety

Just as doing the same task over and over again can feel boring, so can collecting the same item over and over again. As varied as many of the actual challenges in, say, Super Mario Odyssey are, there’s something a bit annoying about getting “yet another moon” from your work. A similar problem exists in the Spyro games – there’s plenty of stuff, but that stuff usually fell into two categories – gems and Big Items. So you want to be sure that there’s a good variety of items to collect in each level.

By comparison, your Banjo-Kazooie, your Yooka-Laylee, or your Hat in Time have a much bigger variety. Banjo-Kazooie has around 10 different collectibles hanging around any given level. The variety helps keep the process of running around and completing challenges feel fresh, and makes the items all feel relevant.

It would be possible to have too much variety. A hundred different collectibles would overload the player’s brain. But something like two or three, or maybe even four, different items feels conversely too low.

Guiding, not Hiding

There was a very particular part of my replay of Yooka-Laylee that immediately stuck out to me, and was something I distinctly remember hating about the game. It was a similar problem I’d had with the Spyro games.

Since you’re collecting so many different items, you’re naturally exploring all around the level. But what if something is just tucked off into a little corner? A place that’s easy to miss because the rest of the level is pushing you to rush in the opposite direction? Well, if that happens, then you wind up needing to run backwards and comb over everything to find whatever you’ve missed. And that backtracking usually winds up being tedious and dull and just plain unfun.

I am reminded how the design of various items in Banjo-Kazooie was designed to guide you as the player throughout the level, connecting different little challenges. A little trail of items would help direct you to something useful, and usually along the way you’d notice additional collectibles. Somewhat counterintuitively, by directing the player a bit more, you get them to explore the level more thoroughly than if you hide stuff in the corners or over the edges of the map. A player who sees something in the distance will probably want to investigate it. A player who has to backtrack is more likely to just give up or look at a guide. So rather than hiding collectibles in obscure corners, use them to direct players to where you want them to be looking for more challenges.

Go for 100!

And what would ultimately be the fun of a collectathon without collecting everything? But if you’re going to do that, you want some kind of reward for it. Anything might be good enough, but the better the reward, the more likely players are to feel like the effort was “worth it.”

Banjo-Kazooie gave you extra power-ups at the very end to make you much stronger. The Spyro games gave you an extra level or a special power-up. I think power-ups are maybe a bit of a bad idea, because they tend to become…useless. Sure, you have infinite health or can fly forever…but what does that matter now that there’s nothing to do?

I don’t know the exact amount of stuff to provide a player with to make 100% feel worthwhile. Part of that answer may well depend on what 100% actually means. Not every item may be needed. Hat in Time only includes its Big Items in its completion rankings, as does Super Mario Odyssey. Comparatively, Banjo-Kazooie and the Spyro games require usually two or three different collectibles to be “complete.” I think the more demand you put on a player, the bigger the reward you need to give them.

Concluding Remarks

I find something almost relaxing about a good collectathon. These games usually aren’t meant to be intense tests of skill. They’re fairly low-key, maintaining their origin as games for a younger generation of players. What older players can enjoy is the simplicity, maybe with a bit of struggle in a handful of challenges while trying to collect everything.

But I think one problem we’ve run into is that our demand for games to be bigger fundamentally ruins the value of the collectathon. Bigger sandboxes or too many maps make the whole process feel tedious. The fun of a collectathon relies on the player having a good sense of what they’ve already done and what they still need to do. The more noise that gets thrown into the game, the harder it is to keep track of that information.

I really hope to find a solid modern collectathon someday. They’re not games for everyone. But they’re games that definitely appeal to a subset of gamers (why else would the promise of a collectathon developed by people who made Banjo-Kazooie raise a record-breaking amount of money on Kickstarter?). And I feel like we’re still waiting.

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