What makes a collection quest fun?

gaming, writing

I received the new Spider-Man game for PS4 for Christmas, and have spent pretty much every day since playing it (including at times when I should be doing other things, like homework or applying to jobs). I am always a big fan of single-player story-driven games, and Spider-Man quickly shot to the top of my list like it did for everyone else (it’s the best-selling game in PS4 history). What stands out to me about Spider-Man though, especially when compared to similar open-world games, is how I thoroughly enjoyed the side quests. Especially the collection quests.

If you’ve played other open-world games, then you probably know what I’m talking about. Collection quests (as I’ll call them for the rest of this post) are the kind of quests where you have to run all over the map collecting X number of objects that are placed in hard-to-reach places. Like the Shards in Dragon Age: Inquisition, or the Ancient Vessels in Horizon Zero Dawn. (I’ll assume you’re familiar with these two games for the sake of this post.) For Spider-Man, it’s his backpacks from high school and New York City landmarks (and others, like the Black Cat stakeouts, but I’ll focus on these two for this post).

The game in question usually gives you some sort of reward for getting all the collectibles. In the case of the Shards in DA:I, completing the collection fully unlocks a temple with difficult fights and rare loot. In the collection quests in HZD, you can trade complete sets of items for rare weapons and armor. In Spider-Man, collecting all the backpacks gets you a new suit and power (I don’t know if the landmarks get you anything, since I haven’t finished that quest yet and I’m avoiding spoilers).

You typically get a small XP bonus for each collectible picked up, in addition to a bigger bonus for completing the quest by getting them all. In Spider-Man, collecting backpacks and landmarks also rewards you with tokens you can use to craft better gear. Overall, collection quests are rarely necessary to the story of the game, but an optional side quest with rewards of varying value.

At first glance, Spider-Man’s collection quests seem a lot like DA:I’s and HZD’s–items in hard to reach places, catch ’em all for sweet loot and XP. So why do I like the collection quests in Spider-Man, and merely tolerate (or dislike) the others? (The Shards in particular are universally hated by DA:I players.) Where other AAA open-world games have failed, why are Spider-Man’s collection quests so fun?

One theory I have is that the story attached to the collectibles is engaging. The stories involved in gathering DA:I shards and HZD collectibles, in comparison, are… lackluster.

There’s some story attached to the temples that the Shards unlock, but the fact that I don’t remember it is a testament to its ineffectual engagement. There is a cool world-building bonus for the player when picking up collectibles in HZD, with references to the pre-apocalypse world through the Ancient Vessels and similar background info for other collectibles. But they’re not woven into the greater plot of the game, and there’s no real reason for the player character to care about collectibles besides trading them for better gear.

In Spider-Man, the titular hero has something to say about every backpack and every landmark. The backpacks, of course, directly relate to his past in high school; and as a NYC-based hero, he’s got a memory of every landmark, whether it’s where he first fought a villain or had his first kiss. Each collectible reveals something about Spidey’s character or background in addition to the world (I appreciated that taking a picture of the Avengers tower told me that the Avengers are somewhere on the West Coast… at least somewhat explaining why Spidey has to deal with everything by himself). Because we care about the character, we care about what the collectibles reveal about him. Which is more than HZD does, for all its world-building.

As I said at the outset, I’m a huge sucker for story-driven games. I’m also a longtime fan of Spider-Man himself. So connecting the collectibles to Spider-Man as a character, and in some cases to the world as a whole, is my favorite thing about the collectibles. But my friends who know nothing about Spider-Man and have no investment in the story–having picked up the controller mid-campaign for the sake of something to do at my house–still loved finding every backpack, which leads me to my other theory.

My other theory behind the fun of Spider-Man’s collection quests is that travelingto the collectibles in in the first place is fun. Collectibles, across all open-world games, are typically placed in hard-to-reach or -find places. This is meant to provide a challenge for the players, but sometimes the item isn’t really worth the challenge.

I once walked across a tightrope over a mountainside waterfall in HZD to reach a Metal Flower. One misstep and I fell, if not to my death, then to a tedious re-climbing up the mountain. Getting to Shards was especially frustrating with DA:I’s poor movement controls. Walking up a plank of wood to a one-story tall roof, in a game where jumping was a new concept? Harder than you might think.

Traveling to collectibles in Spider-Man, though, was so much fun. With the fantastic swinging mechanic, as well as the wall-running and parkour, even if I accidentally go past a backpack or landmark, it’s both quick and easy to go back to it. And there’s frequently more than one way to reach a collectible in Spider-Man, unlike many of the collectibles in HZD and DA:I.

When my friends wanted to play Spider-Man, I told them to go after collectibles to avoid fighting. They spent hours just finding backpacks and complained when I told them I wanted a turn. Finding backpacks is simple enough for a person who has never played before, and swinging through New York was too much fun for them to want to stop.

I actually think the traversal is the major factor in making Spider-Man’s collection quests fun, since it’s enough for people who have never played the game before and know nothing about Spider-Man. But the story element is important too–it makes the quests feel important and and like an integral part of the world, rather than tacked-on to fill up empty map space and add more play hours.

I haven’t played enough open world games to see if my two theories about fun collection quests–story and traversal–hold true in other games. For example, how can you make traveling to the collectible fun without swinging from skyscrapers? Maybe you can employ the multi-approach tactic I mentioned earlier? I have to play more games–ideally with fun collection quests–to find out.

In the end, I hope Spider-Man’s excellent handling of collection quests is a sign of collection quests improving overall in the open-world genre. I know I’ll be thinking about how to tie even the smallest side quest into the greater story in a way that matters, and how to make that side quest fun to complete, in future games I design.

TL;DR: Spider-Man’s collection quests are fun 1) because they’re tied into the story, character, and world in a meaningful way; and 2) because it’s fun, not annoying, to reach the collectible.

Thanks for reading!

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