Video games are a young medium. We've barely started. Games haven't settled on any final form yet. They're still in a state of flux and maybe they always will be! As technology marches forward games change but certain ideas remain. Game mechanics are like the genes of video games; some survive and propagate, others dead-end and die off.
One of the mechanics that survives from the early days of video games is the completionism pattern.
The player is given a finite list of tasks to perform and they can view their progress through the list.
There are numerous ways to implement this pattern. The key point is that the player is given bite-sized tasks to perform and each one contributes a little to a greater goal.
Humans like to complete things.
Collect X Items
There are number of items scattered through the world or levels for you to collect.
You can see an example here in Assassin's Creed where need 100 feathers need collecting from around the game world.
Explore X Places
Discover 100% of the level. Each room you enter increases the exploration progress.
Here's an example from one of the Castlevania games. The map shows the areas the player has explored and a percentage counter to show how much remains. (Of course )Castlevania twists this pattern by having a maximum exploration value of over 200% rather than 100% as you'd expect).
Perform X Tasks
The player is given a list of varied tasks to complete. This is often in the form of quest log or mission objectives. The player can view the log and get information about what needs doing next.
Here's the quest log from Skyrim, displaying a list of tasks for the hero to complete.
The game may present your progress in a number of different ways.
- List of items for you to tick-off
- Ordered list. Item 1 must be completed before Item 2 etc.
- Unordered list. You can complete any item at any time.
- Partially ordered list. A mix of the two.
- Progress towards a number. e.g. 64/100.
- A percentage. 59% complete.
Choosing which type of progress tracking to use depends on the nature of the task list.
Not All Humans
There's no platonic player, people play games for different reasons. As more and more people get into to games there are more and more types of player. Swords & Circuitry by Neal and Jana Hallford proposes six types of player archetype.
- The Warrior - wants to kill things.
- The Critical Thinker - wants to out-think the game.
- The Navel Gazer - wants to become as powerful as possible.
- The Story Chaser - want to hear a good story.
- The Treasure Hunt - wants to acquire the best loot.
- The Tourist - wants to explore the world.
In this vein, some players are completionists, they love to 100% a quest, they love to tick off all the items of a quest list, to fill all the silhouettes of treasure in a trophy cabinet or to collect all the secret stars in Mario. If a mission gives six optional objectives, all players want to tick those off, but for some the desire is stronger.
Completionist goals go way back to the very origins of video games. Take Zork from 1978 it has a mechanic that would be very recognizable to a modern player.
The player starts outside a small house, inside is a cabinet. You get points in Zork by filling this cabinet full of treasure from the caves beneath. There are a finite number of treasures to collect but the game does not explicitly tell you how many there are to collect. You are told the total score, 0/350 but the score is only made up partially from the trophies retrieved.
Let's jump to present day and look at Grand Theft Auto 5, widely claimed to be the best game of 2015. Almost 40 years have passed since Zork! And yet, completion is still with us. To take a quest at random there's a part of the game where you're asked to retrieve 50 spaceship parts scattered around the map.
If anything the GTA 5 mechanic is simpler and a more pure implementation of the completionism pattern than Zork's. In GTA you run around the map, find the pieces, push the percentage up to 100% and get rewarded. In Zork you don't know which items to collect and it's not always obvious how to collect them once they're identified. This doesn't mean Zork is better, if anything, it's worse because it's not playing by the rules as we've now established them for computer games. (The rule being something like: Games shouldn't ever require you to guess. You should always be able to work out what's required to achieve a goal.)
People like to complete a finite list of tasks. Run down the top ten games of 2015 and most will make use of the completion mechanic. In another 40 years we'll probably still be completing lists in games. That doesn't mean it has to be a tired mechanic but if you want to make it fresh, you'll need to add your own twist, or tie it deeply into the game.
The completionism mechanic makes it very clear the next action the player needs to take. Actions are small and often easily within reach such as: kill 1 more orc. Breaking goals up into small achievable tasks can create that "just one more" feeling and get you into a state of flow.
Instead of the player focusing on the ultimate game goal they're given a concrete next step to take. The next action always feels within reach. Completionism on it's own doesn't make a game better but it can make it more compulsive. It should be used with care!
The completionism mechanic can pull the player through the game. They always know roughly what to do next and how to progress. For a certain type of player this can be very satisfying.
It can also be used to add an extra layer of content to the game, collecting all the secret coins etc.
The mechanic is best used when it's linked with something else. Collecting items should give the player some new way to interact with the game world or open up new areas. If it's just a number that counts up to 100% that can feel a little hollow and unsatisfying for the player. Remember to make your game acknowledge when the player completes the listed objectives!
Have fun with the mechanic and give it your own twist, mutate the gene!