Replayability – Do you have it, Game?
If I was asked to define replayability in terms of videogames, then quite possibly the best short descriptor would be along the lines of “the capacity of a game to provide a high amount of entertainment on multiple successive iterations of itself”. Well, something like that. I’m really not sure how to give the meaning of “playthroughs” without using videogame-specific terminology. ANYWAY that is beside the point. The point, this time at least, is about what makes games be replayable – what are the intrinsic qualities of a game that provide for this arcane characteristic. Looking at most of the games that are “popularly” (this is the word I use to indicate when I’m talking out of my own arse and assume it’s something to do with “most of the people”) lauded as having high replay value, there are a bunch of factors that would seem to contribute. Well, why not take a look at some of those factors, and do a little thinking on whether they truly are inherently crucial for a game to be properly replayable or not (another explanation bracket thing – by properly replayable, I don’t mean simply having the ability to start over again, I mean a game that provides enough of ?? to entice players to play the game through over and over).
Level-specific score points
Associating videogames with “score” is something that’s almost a meme – it’s how those people not into the whole gaming culture most likely think of videogames. Well, obviously they would be missing the mark by a large margin on that, but then again, there really are games that are all about scores. And you could argue that this is a really good factor to create replayability in a game – it is the most blasé method of making players repeat the game’s levels/missions there can be. “Do this again, do this somehow better, and you’ll get more points!”. Tie this in with some sort of online leaderboards, and you have the perfect baseline for gamers to measure their virtual iPhallus length against each other. What more could you hope for, amirite?
But this method of approach – making stuff in the game score-based – is not all that good of a method, in my opinion. And here’s why. For starters, this is a mechanic that will inherently only affect a fraction of the overall gamers that could play the game. I cannot rightly say whether it is the majority or not that doesn’t care about scores – I can only make assumptions based on what I know, so it’s hardly indicative – but for what it is worth, I do know more people who wouldn’t give a wilted unicorn liver about scores than those who would. By making the game’s entire replayability hinge on the score mechanic, the developers would definitely be limiting the replayable scope to a subset of all players.
What’s worse, I’d argue that merely attaching a score framework to a game does not present a genuine replay value. Yes, it is an incentive to launch a game’s level again and again, retrace the in-game steps in hopes of achieving something better, but on the other hand, it.. well, it is a bit of an artificial carrot on a stick, isn’t it? If the score is the only thing driving one back to the game, then there is nothing else of interest, nothing in the game’s own mechanics that would encourage successive playthroughs. A score framework is the most obvious kind of a mechanical crutch, it is something that’s easy to add on top of almost anything (admittedly not with equal results, of course) without even needing to alter other aspects of the game. If you have score, you don’t need to “fix” the plot, or the gameplay – gamers will just repeat the same old crock to get more “points”. I will admit that a score system – a well-implemented one – would be beneficial to providing replay incentives, but it really cannot be the only aspect on which it hinges. It’s flavouring, an additive to make the other, core components have a greater draw, but it’s in no way a standalone.
To cap off this section, let me posit that a score system is inherently flawed as a replay-value-provider because it does not really fit in all games. Where it would feel right on it’s own – and not as a multiplayer subsubsubcomponent at the end of a match, because let’s face it, multiplayer doesn’t properly count for replayability, it counts for extending the game’s length, because you never truly “start over” in multiplayer – is inside racing games and skill-based platformers (Super Meat Boy comes to mind here). But open-world driving/mission games? Role-playing games? Stealth games? Anything with a focus on plot, characters? Yeah, no. Those are the avenues that are impenetrable to a score system – yeah, sure, it can be strapped on, but it won’t feel right, and quite likely the intended audience of those games won’t bother with score-whoring.
And this is what games that are heavily plot-based tend to do to increase their replay value. Make it so that there are a multitude of different paths of progression through the game’s plot/missions, so that players would have no way of seeing all possibilities within a single playthrough. The most obvious examples of this are the Mass Effect games, The Witcher 2, Dragon Age: Origins. On some fronts, this is a better incentive for replayability, because it affects not an artificial, superficial and idioficial (idk what that means) overlay, but an inherent aspect of the game, something that very much defines what the game actually is about. But, as with scores, the multiple-choice-path also has a bunch of downsides that marginalize it’s effectiveness as replayability enhancer.
The necessity of multiple-path plotlines means an increased workload on those developers that have to deal with plot-related assets. Writing and cutscene design (it doesn’t have to be a pre-recorded fmv; every time characters or objects do a unique predefined set of activities, as opposed to general AI-motivation-created acts, could be called a cutscene) are the most obvious casualties in this situation – each added choice doubles the workload, and if the choices are multiplicative as opposed to cumulative (which they should be; if they are cumulative, it means that the choice points are completely independent of each other and thus, ultimately, meaningless), then the workload increase is practically exponential. Which is why you often see developers trying to merge all divergent threads into a few standard lines – providing the illusion of choice without backing it up with reality, in other words. This is exactly what Mass Effect games have done – especially the two sequels. Or, really, almost any recent Bioware game that has any pretensions of being “an RPG”.
And since we’re now reaching the illusion-of-choice argument.. Well, isn’t that actually harmful to replayability? Illusion of choice works the first time because it is an illusion, everything is framed and masked to appear as a consequence of what you just did. But, on subsequent playthroughs, if you pick different approach methods, you see through the illusion. You see how doing, or saying something completely different still leads to the same outcome. So suppose you have just played through something twice. You have breached the illusive nature of the choices presented by the game. Will you really, really want to play through the game again “for the plot”? When you know how inherently meaningless your actions will be? If you say that you simply want to re-experience the great writing – which is not an invalid point to make in any way, of course – you are not replaying because of the multiple nature of it, you’re replaying for the quality of the familiar experience – and that’s a different aspect entirely.
That’s another chink in the whole multiple-choice path’s armour, by the way. It doesn’t do anything for those people who have a set way of playing. The people who will always make the same decisions, because that’s what they would do themselves. Or, that’s what they character would always do. For such cases, the multiplicity – real or fake – doesn’t really benefit in any way, in fact, it actively detracts from the experience, because the time spent on developing those alternate versions that are not visited in this scenario could have been spent on extra polishing of this one plot thread.
All in all, this is not to say that the divergent-plot method of adding replayability to a game is invalid. Not at all. It’s just that there are certain issues with the model that need to be acknowledged and accounted for. Because it’s not the be-all end-all solution, not matter how much we like games that really go all-out on this matter.
Now this is a painfully obvious method of adding supposed replay value to a game. Nearly everything and their long-lost hobo uncle seem to do it these days. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be explicitly bad. Mass Effect 3 had a pretty kickin’ multiplayer mode – I probably spent four times as much on that than on the singleplayer game itself. Or, let’s take Grand Theft Auto 4. That had a multiplayer section as well. Was pretty fun, even if critically impaired by the amount of cheating. Or, let’s take Saint’s Row The Third, a game that had a really smooth co-op ability for its entirety, allowing the player to approach any mission from either solo or bro-op side without discrimination. On the whole, this seems to be a really strong way of ensuring that the game has lasting replay value. And yet there are issues that I’d like to bring up regarding this method as well.
Most obviously, this again requires a fair amount of extra development effort. Moreso than the plot thing, in fact, because here you’re looking at a whole another caste of development resources – people able and competent in constructing an online-capable framework and tweaking the game to function well in the extremely sub-optimal environment of networked play. This is a different skillset, fairly unique and, unfortunately, completely mandatory for the game to work well. Adding a multiplayer mode on the side is hard enough as-is, but implementing fully functional bro-op for the entire game? That’s borderline insane. That’s encroaching on territory that modern AAA titles seem to occupy – a place where even incredible success and multi-million sales don’t guarantee the game breaking even, much less generating profits.
Another thing to look at is.. well, it is largely semantic, really, but what the heck, here it is: is multiplayer truly a “replaying” of the game? If it is an additional mode that sits outside the game’s plot and progression lines, I’d argue that it really doesn’t count as replaying. Because of the persistent nature of online interactions (for the most part), you’re not truly replaying because you never reset to a “start” state – there’s always some benefit from previous multiplayer matches/plays/whatever. Perhaps it’s the experience gained. Perhaps it’s the virtual credits and the new weapons bought for it. Either way, I’d classify multiplayer as something that extends the lifespan of the game, sure. Something that keeps the playerbase, well, playing. But it’s not adding any real replayability in the same way that you cannot say that a 10-hour game that is played thrice is the same as one 30-hour game.
As for Co-op, it presents an issue for the game’s design. It’s practically unrealistic to merely take your average singleplayer game, add in networking code and allow for two-player play. The entire structure of the missions has to be adjusted to suit both situations. More than that, the gameplay itself has to accommodate bro-op standards. Unfortunately, this means accommodating people acting like complete idiots for most of the time. I know that this is harsh, but there’s no beating around the bush – most games when playing in co-op completely lose any pretence of seriousness or relevance, and make room for plain old dicking around. If you want proof, just look up any youtube let’s-play series where two+ people are playing a co-op game. Chances are, they will be just screwing around for the most part. It’s not a bad thing to do – I’m not condemning it (too much) – but it necessitates a certain overall design strategy to make it all properly work.
This is the final factor I wanted to bring up, one that, at least in my mind, is the most important of the lot. To put it in simple form, the way the game plays has to provide something new from a mechanical viewpoint on every iteration. There is practically no replay value in a game if it’s gameplay is pre-locked entirely and repeats everything along exactly the same lines as on previous runs. If equated to chess, it would be much like playing against someone and using the exact same move and counter-move set without varying the strategies at all. This is by far the largest issue with Dragon Age: Origins, by the way – almost everything on a mechanical gameplay level is fixed. The items you find or are rewarded? The exact same. The enemy encounters? Exact same. There’s no inherent variety in how the game plays; even though you can pick many different character builds, ultimately it all feels the same.
So, yes. The gameplay mechanics of the game must be enjoyable. I know that this is individual as hell, but there’s no way around the simple fact that if you enjoy the way a game plays, you will come back to it. It may lack any sort of score-systems, it may not have co-op, you may play through all the plot choices in the exact same way, it doesn’t matter as long as you find the game aesthetically pleasing on a mechanical level. That is why, for example, my “most replayable game I can think of” is Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’ve played it over and over, and I would and probably will play it again and again. And I know for a fact that I’ll make the same decisions for the most part. I will always use non-lethal weapons and takedowns. It doesn’t matter – I just really, really, really like the way it plays and feels, the way the story and gameplay go together to form a cohesive whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. For different people, there’s different aspects that make a game pleasing, naturally. But the point remains – if the game is pleasing to play, you will replay it. And if it is a massive pain to slog through, then you very probably won’t want to replay it all.
As much as I hate separating videogame plot from videogame mechanics – it is an inherently flawed stance, since the two have to work together and form a cohesive whole to truly utilize the uniqueness of the medium – there is something to be said for the benefit of pure, mechanical diversity as opposed to plot-based diversity. Even if the game has multiple plot threads, at some point you will exhaust all the options. It is an inherently limited choice set with a maximum cap of however many threads the game’s developers managed to create. Moreover, a plot – a story – of any artwork is not defined purely by the amount of divergence points, it is defined by more abstract aspects such as themes, general progression lines, moral areas, and so on. Those aspects do not depend solely on divergence points (player choices), they go above and beyond those – and as a result, often what may seem like a choice does not truly matter in the narrative progression and feel. A variety in gameplay, however, can provide that endless diversity, because it is all in all a question of numbers – and computers are very, very good at dealing with large numbers. Modern games have non-player characters driven not by line-by-line instructions for one response to every single input, but by pseudo-AI agents that take in their surroundings on a virtual level, and decide by involving a fair amount of apparent randomness and emergent procedure. With there being many NPCs active, there really is no way to predict and re-iterate their actions completely. Even if the AI agent code is completely predictive, there is always an aspect of chaos from the player side. Human beings simply don’t do iteration, whether they know it or not – every single action is at least subtly different from a previous one, and thus any AI response that involves the player will, as a result, be different as well. Beyond that, there are more ways to provide practically unlimited variety – by randomising loot systems, for example. Point being, while replayability based entirely on plot variations is inherently limited, replayability based on mechanical variations is just so much larger. That’s precisely why games like Dungeons of Dredmor and The Binding Of Isaac are so potently replayable – every replay has the potential to be mechanically different from the previous ones on a meaningful level.
A final sales pitch I’d like to give on this gameplay repetitiveness thing is that for a game to be properly replayable (and keeping in mind that this is just my opinion – and thus, of course, the single absolute truth of the universe), it actually must not have gameplay repetitiveness. This is the issue of foreknowledge; if the very mechanics of the game are so predictable/familiar that you as a player know exactly where and how everything will play out, well, what’s the benefit of replaying it at all? Entertainment in human beings is, I believe, inherently linked to novelty and the act of discovering something unknown. It doesn’t matter that it is a small thing, it has to be different enough to spark that “oh, I didn’t know that” deep down in your reptilian-based psyche.
The part where I wrap things up before they get too long even for me
On the whole, it should be fairly explicit that the value of replayability for a game is a really, really individual thing. What may work for one person – stuff like scores, co-op modes – will most likely not work for another. It is very difficult to objectively claim that a game is replayable or not without involving personal judgement on it. I suppose that if you would find a game that has all of the aspects providing replayability, then you might say that the game is objectively geared towards replayability. But such games are really, really rare, because those aspects themselves are not always applicable to a game, depending on it’s design philosophy, genre, and audience focus. If someone says that game X is replayable and you disagree, it’s not that either of you is wrong. Most likely, it’s merely that you both have varying personal definitions of what makes games replayable. And that’s fine.
As far as I could define what makes a game truly replayable for myself, well, I’d say that it simply needs to evoke the same feelings on successive playthroughs that it did on the very first time it was played (this is, of course, assuming that we discard the games that I consistently dislike from the get-go). That’s why gameplay repetitiveness is quite possibly the worst factor imaginable in a game. If it is predictable, if it is much like an overbearing DM trying to run the exact same campaign over and over, then I won’t bother to play it again. Why should I? I already know what it’ll do. And, unfortunately, I am arrogant enough to suspect that a lot of other gamers also share that sentiment, that need for something new, no matter how slight.
Oh, yes, and because of a recent clash with Games For Windows Live, I’ll add one more thing that a game needs to have to be replayable. It needs to be playable in the first place. If I can’t start it up because of some butt-backwards DRM Charlie Foxtrot, then it has exactly 0 replayability as far as I’m concerned.
~X2-Eliah is very, very touchy when it comes to games getting over-familiar. Because familiarity breeds contempt, as they say, and a game held in contempt cannot be replayable in a meaningfully entertaining way. Also, including the headlines and stuff, this article has precisely three-thousand, four hundred and fifty-six words. That’s pretty damn cool if I do say so myself. Such a shame that word-count doesn’t really matter.