Here’s something I wish more game designers understood: If you put an interaction in your game, I am going to interact with it. Anytime a game responds to its players, the rats—or at least this rat—are going to press the lever for more cocaine pellets. Jenova Chen, during a talk about the design of Journey a couple years ago at the Game Developers Conference, put it this way: “If you give me a gun, and you lock me up with another guy in a room, I think I’m going to use it someday.”
If you give me scrap to pick up, I will pick it up. If you ask me to destroy insignias, I will destroy them. If you reward me for knocking over poles with my car, I will knock them over. Don’t fool yourself that I will have the willpower to resist engaging with the parts of your game that I don’t like. I am not that strong.
For example, I’ve heard designers say that players who don’t like collectibles can just ignore them, but here’s the thing: I hate them and I cannot resist them. Gathering items off the ground must provide a shot of serotonin into the reptilian hunter-gatherer core of my brain, because I won’t stop doing it even though it provides me very little conscious pleasure. I call interactions like this—a game mechanic that you keep engaging with, even though you despise it—“thumbworms,” after the term “earworm,” for that summer song or commercial jingle you can’t get out of your head even when it drives you mad.
Mad Max thumbwormed its way into my brain, despite itself. When my Max was infiltrating a base, he couldn’t help but stop to pick up some scrap lying on the ground or to hammer at an enemy insignia. It’s true that you don’t have to do these things. It’s also true that the game rewards you for doing them. It’s as if Grand Theft Auto V were a game about driving around San Andreas to knock down telephone poles and then pick up loose change off the ground.
There are games with collectibles that I’ve forgiven: The thermoses in Alan Wake broke my engagement with the game’s fiction, but the rest of the game’s B-movie pleasures made up for their presence. There are even games with collectibles that I’ve been able to resist: The character and storytelling is so strong in Red Dead Redemption that, with time, it became easy for me to think, “John Marston doesn’t pick flowers.” There was so much to do in Assassin’s Creed II that I was never really tempted by the feathers. I think each of those strong games would be stronger, though, if they dispensed with the collecting entirely.
Sure, a sprinkling of alluring items can help guide players to interesting parts of the map or serve as currency to spend on upgrades—which is what scrap does in Mad Max. Except gathering scrap is not that game’s sauce or a side dish. It’s perilously close to the main course.
While playtesting Journey, Chen noticed that players kept pushing other players off hills and mountains. Even the game’s designers, who knew that the game was supposed to be about cooperation rather than conflict, couldn’t stop doing it. “For quite a while, I was disappointed by humanity,” Chen said at GDC. Then he decided to remove the physics in the game that allowed players to collide. If your game has pushing in it, it’s unreasonable to expect that players won’t push one another.
And if you put tedium in your game, tedium is what players are going to get out of it. I am the George Mallory of collecting. Why does Mad Max pick up scrap? Because it’s there.