Completionists and Wanderers

There are a lot of ways players differ, but one frame I’ve been thinking about a lot is the spectrum from being what you might call a “completionist” to a “wanderer.”

Completionists are goal-focused. They want to understand a game’s rules, master its mechanics, and conquer its objectives. They don’t want to miss anything.

Wanderers prefer to explore and experiment. They like surprises and like to feel like a game’s world is organic and huge - perhaps bigger than can ever be fully understood.

Most players are somewhere in between. I personally am pretty far on the completionist side. While there certainly are games that can appeal to players regardless of their position on the spectrum, many design elements will hit players differently - the point where “good design” for wanderers can be “bad design” for completionists and vice versa.

For example, I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the fact that in open-world games in the Ubisoft formula, you end up with a huge checklist of map icons instead of a world to explore. These people tend to also celebrate the approach used by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which doesn’t give you much in the way of automatic icons, instead tasking you with looking through binoculars and marking points of interest yourself. To wanderers, the latter feels more like actual exploring and is far more satisfying. To completionists, it can be nerve-wracking - it puts all the pressure on the player to notice and keep track of everything (I’ve even seen reviews suggest playing with a notebook and maintaining a to-do list) lest they miss something.

This can pose a challenge when designing games for large audiences and there aren’t always viable compromises. I find that what helps me a lot is having some kind of safety net: if there’s an unobtrusive checklist tucked away in a menu or something, such that I know I can always check in on it and be sure I’m not missing any objectives or sidequests, then the pressure is off and I can stop worrying and can actually enjoy exploring. But I’ve also seen people (who are presumably far on the “wanderer” side of the spectrum) complain that the mere presence of checklist features, even optionally, can ruin the feeling of free exploration.

One of the absolute best implementations of a completionist safety net I’ve ever seen comes from inFAMOUS 2. Both of the first two inFAMOUS games feature hundreds of collectible “blast shards” scattered across the games' respective cities. Collecting them increases how much energy you can store, but you don’t need all of them in order to max out. But there is a trophy for finding them all. And unless you keep careful track as you play, if you find yourself with 349/350 shards in the endgame you have no recourse but to scour the entire city for that last damn shard. Not a big deal to wanderers, but potentially infuriating for completionists.

inFAMOUS 2 had a similar setup, but with a simple addition - a late-game optional upgrade that let your map radar always point you in the direction of the nearest shard. It’s such a minor change and it doesn’t disrupt the game’s balance, but it’s a lifesaver if you find yourself in the position of missing one or two shards at the end. Knowing this is there, you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the shards you do collect. You can just play the damn game.

And that, I think, is key to the difference between wanderers and completionists. To a wanderer, a completionist might seem like someone who should just relax and enjoy the game. But the completionist might be wishing they could do exactly that! They don’t choose to have anxiety about missing content. And a couple of simple accommodations can usually cut out that anxiety and let the completionist enjoy the game just as much as the wanderer.