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The Myth of Replay Value
by Adam Bishop on 10/06/10 02:04:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Game reviews almost always mention the concept of "replay value".  Since video games are fairly expensive consumer products it makes sense that gamers want to feel like they're getting good value for the money they put in, but what exactly is replay value anyway?  I'm going to try to outline the kinds of things that are typically viewed as providing "replay value", but then I'm going to finish up by explaining where I think replay value really comes from, which is a good deal different.

Standard Notions of Replay Value
Branching story paths - this is believed to give a game replay value under the assumption that players will want to go back and see how things might have alternately turned out if they had made different choices.  This applies almost exclusively to western RPGs, though some newer adventure games like Heavy Rain fit this mold as well.

Multiplayer modes - this is believed to give a game replay value under the assumption that human opponents are less predictable than AI opponents, so players will have novel interactions frequently and not be able to get by on rote learning.  Because the experience is constantly fresh, players won't grow tired of the experience.

Different classes/skill trees - this is believed to give a game replay value under the assumption that players will go back and play a game again using a different character class or set of abilities.  In this way a game has replay value because players can go back and experience the same set of linear content using a different set of abilities, thus providing fresh challenges.

Random levels - this is believed to give a game replay value under the assumption that a player will have to develop new strategies on the fly each time they play due to things like level layout and available resources.  Think of this as a kind of automated version of the appeal of multiplayer content.

What's Wrong With That?
There are two problems with viewing replay value in this way.  The first is that, regardless of how much variety these experiences are purported to offer, the actual gameplay will be more similar than it is different.  Individual players may sometimes act in unexpected ways in an online FPS, but there are always dominant strategies, and these tend to be repeatable.  This is true of a game with random level/resource generation as well.

The second is that, in truth, replay value is only one thing - it is a simple question that players ask themselves after they've finished a game.  That question is "how much did I enjoy that experience?"  That's it.  If a player enjoyed the experience enough then they'll want to have it again.  If they didn't enjoy it very much, no amount of variety or novel interactions is going to get them to go back and do it all over again.

Allow me a personal example to try to illustrate why this is.  Metal Gear Solid is a clearly defined, linear game.  The player always traverses through the same rooms in the same order.  The enemies are always in the same places, and they always have the same patrol routes.  The story is always the same, aside from one minor change made to the ending depending on whether or not the player successfully completes one particular sequence.  And yet I have played Metal Gear Solid from beginning to end probably about ten times.  Why have I done this?  Because the experience of playing the game is exceptionally compelling.  Branching paths, random levels, etc. would not make me play the game any more.  I've played it many times because it is a great game.  Greatness, not variety, is what gives a game replay value.

Let's Talk About Sports For A Minute
Perhaps this is most easily demonstrated by looking at sports games.  Football and hockey are the primary sports I'm interested in, so I'll talk about those, but in my experience this is true of all sports games and, I think, to most games in any genre.

When I play sports games I almost always play in franchise/general manager mode, where the goal is to play as the same team over the course of multiple seasons, managing the roster as well as playing the games.  I recently saw a statistic that for one major sports game (EA's NCAA game, I think?) something like 3/4 of players primarily play the single-player franchise mode, as I do.  For a football game, this means playing between 16-20 games per season; for hockey it can be upwards of 100.

The interesting thing about a sports game is that the gameplay doesn't actually change much between games.  It's entirely possible that I'll play a few games of hockey in a row where I'll win 4-2, usually with the same players doing most of the scoring.  In a football game I'll almost always choose a running play up the middle on first down.  As explained above, I'll do some of these things literally hundreds of times over the course of a season.  So why do I (and others) keep coming back to it?

The reason we keep doing it is that the mechanics of playing hockey or football (or an online shooter, etc.) are compelling.  That's what gives sports games replay value - the actual process of playing them is enjoyable, regardless of whether they're novel.  And while the underlying mechanics at play are very different in other genres, ultimately it's the same thing that will get players to play again - how much did I enjoy this experience?

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Robert Boyd
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I think you're looking at this in too simplistic of a manner. There are many games that I loved playing the first time that I have absolutely no desire to replay whether it's because of too much filler (see Persona 4 or Mass Effect) or feeling like I have already mastered the game (like Half-Minute Hero).

The games I like to replay have a mixture of fun gameplay and the standard notions of replay value elements. For example, games like Titan Quest & Civilization V have a good amount of randomization AND let you try out widely varying strategies with each playthrough. Score attack game like Pac-Man:CE have a focus on constantly improving your skills. Stuff like that.

But really, replay value is a very personal thing. MGS has tremendous replay value to you, but I got bored with the game halfway through and haven't touched it since. Some people felt that Mirror's Edge was a short game, but I probably got a good 30 hours of play out of it with all the Speed Runs, Time Trials, and the like.

Joshua Sterns
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"Greatness, not variety, is what gives a game replay value."

Variety can add to a games greatness.

Bioware RPGs wouldn't have the same impact without their moral variety. FPS games that lack a variety of MP maps and modes will get old quick. Sports games that lack a variety of features have less staying power. Hack N' Slash games lacking a variety of enemies, moves, and weapons are dull. etc. etc. etc.

The relationship between quantity and quality has always been an interesting one. I believe neither can support a game by itself. I've played games with great quality and little variety (Batman:AA) multiple times, but I've clocked more hours playing titles with great quality and great variety (Halo: Reach).

Adam Bishop
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Do sports games with less features actually have less staying power? Sports games have been adding new modes for years, but I still spend about 95% of my time in them in a franchise mode and the other 5% playing with friends.

As for a game like Mass Effect, I think the moral variety you reference is actually what makes the games initially fun rather than giving them replay value. The ability to play scenarios out in a way of my choosing is what makes the *initial* playthrough so satisfying.

Joshua Sterns
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Arcade sports games have less staying power because they lack many features like franchise mode. NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz, and NBA Jam have been less popular then their simulation counter parts. People will still enjoy and play the arcade games, but the greater variety in simulators will keep people playing longer.

Within the franchise mode itself variety is key. Do people really buy the new sports simulators each year just for a roster update? Or are there enough additions to warrant the purchase of a new game?

In regards to Bioware tittles, the initial playthrough is satisfying for a variety of reasons, and I don't doubt a part of it derives from the freedom of choice.

I also don't doubt why I play any Bioware title more then once. I want to see/hear everything, and to do this requires at least two playthroughs usually focusing on good or evil (for Dragonage Race and Class motivated me to playthrough more).

There are plenty of parts within a game I loath going through again (usually the beginning), and these dull moments often deter me from playing Bioware RPGs over and over again. So with this developer the variety is what motivates a replay.

Overall it's up to the individual gamer. Like many things in life we are all motivated for different reasons.

Tim Tavernier
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Actually, I agree with Adam with this one. In general indeed Replay Value comes from the mechanics of the game with all the others acting as secondaries. If you look at the Arcade scene, the NES years and so forth, the most replayable games are the ones with the best mechanics. You can replay Super Mario Bros. right now and almost everyone will have fun with it. Tetris is enormously replayable with only the random element going for it. And so on and so on.

In Videogames, mechanics are the base-value to all the rest of the game.

Adam Bishop
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To clarify, I'm not saying that replay value comes specifically from mechanics for *all* games, just for sports games. There are plenty of other things that can make games enjoyable - one of the reasons I've played MGS so many times is that I enjoy the story. That's why I used the phrase "enjoy the experience" rather than "enjoy the gameplay".

Michael Hayes
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The average gamer is in his 30's now. With a full time job and family, the question is: Do you even have time to finish this game once?

Jonathan Gilmore
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I tend to agree except for the online competitive multiplayer aspect. To me it just never seems to get old, and I don't think it's because there are always new scenarios or wahtnot. It's that it really appeals to my lizard brain need to dominate other human beings. Maybe that's why it is so common for people to hurl vile epithets at other people in those games, because it really taps into that aspect of the human personality (I don't get into that myself).

Also, unlike video sports games (unless you are perhaps playing against human opponents) the online shooters are like actual sports. A pick up game of basketball involves the same basic mechanics and experiences, but the competition and "beating" the opposition is extremely gratifying each and every time you do it. I've played actual basketball for close to 30 years and I enjoy it as much now as I did at age 8, or age 12 or age 20. I don't think I've played through a Call pf Duty campaign more than twice, ever, but I've logged untold hours on MW and MW2 playing online.

And maybe I'm atypical from the norm of who reads and posts on this site, but 14 million+ sold of MW2 suggests that there is at least a sizeable group who love that experience, and people like Pachter who note how compelling those games can be weeks, months and even years after the initial purchase.

Joshua McDonald
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I'm mostly in agreement with the article, but I'd like to add to the point where it's talking about games that survive through satisfying mechanics. Two things that I think are necessary for mechanics good enough for long-term play are great skill potential and a challenge which stretches that skill potential.

In the case of the sports games (and this is a question, since I don't actually play them myself), Do you ever hit a point where either 1) You can't find any ways to improve your skill or 2)The level of skill you've achieved makes everything super-easy? If so, do you still play after one of these happens? My guess is that neither of these occurs or if they do, you will quit shortly afterward.

Online multiplayer and randomized levels (done right) are a way to provide the second of my two requirements--something to challenge your skill. You develop the deep, interesting mechanics, and the other players or randomized levels provide the challenge to your skill.

The reason that I think many hard difficulty levels fail to provide this is because they are usually more focused on memorizing the levels and patterns than challenging your mastery of the mechanics. Even if Warcraft III's hard setting for campaigns actually was hard, it wouldn't suffice because it would just be about walking through the developer's pre-planned path but doing it more efficiently. Skirmish/multiplayer, on the other hand, allowed you to go up against as many as 11 computer opponents (which I seriously doubt anybody ever beat without cheating) or players who are near your own skill level, and the way to beat either of these two is by mastery of the mechanics.

Note that my comments are specifically focused on games that rely on mechanics for long-term play as opposed to those that rely on story or social value.

Justin Speer
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I realize I'm kind of echoing some of the other comments, but I think you're underestimating the standard notions of replay value... particularly multiplayer and randomization.

Speaking to multiplayer (and also tying in to sports) there's an original NBA Jam cabinet in my office that has seen a ton of play over the last two years... and it's almost always two human players facing off. There's also this competitive game called Money Puzzle Exchanger, and while there's a challenge mode with the exact same mechanics, it's almost exclusively played competitively between two humans.

As for randomization, I feel like I can just say "Nethack" and instantly have a very strong point. Nethack -is- randomization!

Meanwhile branching paths (which are in plenty of JRPGs too, although it's not typical) and multiple skills/classes are part of a game's underlying mechanics and identity. They're help give the game its core value and therefore add to the game's "replay value" intrinsically.

Fox English
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The branching paths comment is tricky. Though the intent of branching paths for replay is most likely, as you say, to offer the player the incentive to play again with other scenarios, what happens when -I- replay a branching path game is that I always pick the same path, because that's how I wanted to play the game and that's what I enjoyed the first time. Most often I'm not interested in being an in-game jerk to every NPC to go down the evil path, because that's just not how I have fun.

Branching paths can also contribute to the premise that the experience should be great to encourage a replay, if the path chosen is rewarding enough to the player. For example, if I choose to play one way and the developers just didn't put as much effort into it compared to the way they obviously wanted everyone to play, then I won't be replaying that game, because my experience the first time was bad. I wouldn't care about seeing the other path(s) because my first path was junk.

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Adam Bishop
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I think you've misunderstood me, because I'm not saying that replay value is not important. What I'm saying is what you get at in the last sentence. I think that, as you say "it means THE GAME IS SO GOOD you want to replay it again."

Andre Gagne
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I personally would like to see some data to back this up, as it seems a bit of one person's personal experience leading to them making an insightful statement about what they look for in replay.

The EA sports franchises would be awesome to get public metrics data on, who plays what kind of gameplay? how many people are playing older NHL or NFL games on multiplayer?

This would be awesome, though more difficult to do with RPGs and FPSes; these games might also be affected by competition, people will keep on playing them until something new comes up that's rather similar.

Jamie Mann
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Personally, I tend to find "replay" elements such as unlockable content and multiple endings to be a pain.

I'm happy with the idea of being given new items and powers as the game progresses, but too many games take the idea to an extreme - the original Rock Band and GHWT were perhaps the best examples of this, with players having to put in 4-5 hours of solid playing to unlock all of the content for party mode (unless they knew the cheat, natch). I suspect more than a few early parties involved playing Radiohead's Creep, over and over and over again...

Multiple endings can be good - and they can also act as a reward for playing the game in a certain way - but the way in which you switch from one ending to another is often unclear (deliberately - finding out is part of the game!) and/or involves a single choice towards the end of the game. With the average story-driven game involving around 20 hours of playtime, is it really worth the effort? One game which perhaps took this too far was Eternal Darkness - you had to play the game three times to get the "final" ending. Though to be fair, the gameplay was interesting enough to justify this and I did actually make a start at doing exactly this but (IIRC) was put off by the fact that the cut-scenes weren't skippable during the second playthrough...