I’ve opened a lot of treasure chests in my life, probably hundreds of thousands of them. Some contained amazing weapons, others contained piles of gold coins, and the best of them, hidden in the deepest dungeons and guarded by the toughest enemies and most devious traps, contained coveted items that could be found nowhere else. Unfortunately, the majority of the treasure chests that I’ve opened—especially recently—have been hidden in plain sight, left unguarded, and filled with useless crap. The fun of seeking them out and opening them has been lost and replaced by exasperating tedium.
Lots of sticks and no carrots
I’m going to use Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as an example because it is the game that I am playing now. In 46 hours I have completed 75% of the game, and that includes locating and opening the majority of the game’s treasure chests and finding almost all of the other collectible objects scattered throughout the vast oceans and abundant islands of the game’s world. Have I had fun doing this? No, I haven’t. I honestly don’t know why I bothered aside from my obsessive completionist tendencies. But as a lifelong gamer and as someone who is heavily invested in the industry, I’m struggling to understand why there is so much content in this AAA game that is simply not fun to experience.
What makes opening treasure chests and acquiring collectibles fun to begin with? I’ve always thought it was a combination of the challenge that stands in your way and the value or usefulness of the prize itself. But in Assassin’s Creed IV, the treasure chests appear on the map as soon as you’ve climbed to the top of a building or tree, or when you have taken over a fort. The majority of the chests and collectibles are unguarded, and even those that are protected by a few soldiers contain little of value.
At most, you might find an item with an interesting bit of lore attached to it, or if you’re really lucky, something actually useful like a blueprint. For collecting large quantities of items and opening chests you might eventually earn a cosmetic option for your character or your ship, or an unlockable for a multiplayer game mode that—let’s face it—the average single player gamer has no interest in. You don’t have to search to find them, nothing stops you from opening them, and their contents are almost always worthless. Where is the fun in that? Without the carrot on the stick, the horse won’t run (unless it’s a completionist horse, anyway).
Waste of time
But the worst part is the amount of time seeking out these collectibles takes (or wastes, as the case may be). In Assassin’s Creed IV, the map becomes peppered with little icons representing treasure chests and the like, and it’s really, really hard to ignore them when they show up on the mini-map. There are dozens of treasures sitting around on random islands just waiting for you to sail up, jump into the water, swim to shore, run to the chest, struggle with the controls and accidentally jump over it a few times and finally open it before you run back into the water, climb up the side of the ship, and rush over to the steering wheel before continuing your much delayed journey. All that work for a minimal amount of currency, and not the slightest trace of fun gameplay to be found.
If you take that process and multiply it a few dozen times over and add all of the other collectibles to it, you get around 30 hours of sheer time wasting tedium that has very little impact on the game aside from padding the number of hours of content the publishers can brag about on the back of the box. In my opinion, games like Assassin’s Creed IV have stripped all of the fun out of treasure hunting and replaced it with busy work.
What’s worse is that all of this treasure hunting breaks up the pace of the storyline, which is disjointed enough already considering the open nature of the game world and how much other, much more preferable optional content exists, such as completing assassination contracts, improving your ship and hunting animals for upgrades. If only the treasure hunting aspect of the game was as rewarding I probably would not have been inspired to write this article. But in this case, I would argue that Assassin’s Creed IV would be a better game if the majority of the collectibles were removed from it.
Open book test
The answer to this problem is not hard to find. There are hundreds of existing games that have made it incredibly fun to open a treasure chest or to seek out collectibles. The Zelda series is full of good examples! The dungeons throughout the series almost always contain a large chest that is guarded by traps, puzzles and enemies and which contains an item that adds a new layer of depth to the gameplay. Granted, you also occasionally find small chests with a pitiful number of rupees in them, but I digress. There is nevertheless something special about the way Link opens up a treasure chest, complete with that recognizable triumphant four note tune that plays as he holds the treasure over his head for the world to see.
In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Link is tasked with collecting 100 Maiamai babies that are hidden throughout the two worlds. While this could have easily been as tedious as collecting items in Assassin’s Creed IV, it is instead a lot of fun. Not only are they well hidden in a variety of ways that require Link to utilize all the items in his inventory to find them, but the prizes for collecting them are fantastic, and come frequently. Every time Link returns 10 rescued babies to their mother he earns an upgrade to one of his items, increasing their power or effectiveness. I can’t think of a better carrot on a stick than that.
But for every game like that, there’s an Assassin’s Creed IV and tons of other games like it where we are expected to collect items for no better reason than to remove an icon clogging up a mini-map or to make games longer than they need to be with meaningless busywork. I hope that tomorrow’s game developers avoid such design decisions and instead focus on the reason we play video games to begin with: for the fun of it.