["Repetition" is usually a bad word -- and in games, often associated with grinding. Can it be the path to unlocking something more rewarding for players when properly utilized? Designer Ara Shirinian considers.]
Some traits of video games, like graphical quality, seem to be inherently laudable. Whatever the metric is, outside of avant-garde subversions, nobody ever criticizes a game for "looking too good". Graphics, while arguably secondary to (yet inexorably enmeshed with) the authorship of games, are universally appreciated, especially when done better than ever before. Indeed, many popular games today are not new games; they are old games with greatly improved looks.
Replayability is another universally regarded quality. If a game was "good" the first time you played it, then it would be considered even "better" if you felt compelled to play it again, right?
No interested party, from the publishing executive to the child who is just beginning to develop discriminating taste, will be found free from the want of better graphics or more replayability. Like money, these are qualities for which more is always better, at least at face value.
A third quality that appears to belong to this set of universal positives is variety. Of particular interest to us is the variety of activity. This kind of variety is one way to increase the replayability of a game. In fact, it could be the most obvious and easiest way, in terms of planning, to ensure there is "sufficient" novelty of experience to keep the largest number of players across the gamut of skill and preference engaged.
For any imperfect system or activity of gameplay you may have developed, particularly when there are substantial doubts about its efficacy, you can choose to scrap it altogether, devote additional development effort to improving it, or leave it as-is and develop some other complementary gameplay activity as an alternative for those who tire of the first activity.
It is difficult to deny the great commercial success of games that have maximized novelty by implementing myriad disparate activities, as evidenced by the explosive popularity of so-called "sandbox" or "open world" games, which started with Grand Theft Auto III and continues with products like Skyrim or World of Warcraft.
Conversely, repetition in games is almost universally viewed with disdain. No marketer in his or her right mind would try to sell anyone on the promise of repetition. At face value, this makes perfect sense. What could ever be good about repetition? It's novelty we seek -- in games, consumer products, and life in general.
However, there can exist valuable and intrinsically good things about repetition. The reason repetition has such a bad rap may be that the good things about it are far less salient than the bad ones. We notice repetition far more often when it is bad, compared to when it's good.
Consider a surface comparison of this "sandbox" format, with its wide and vast repertoire of activities, against the traditional game format, which is like a pony who only knows one trick.
In the traditional game, there are lots of situations that can compel a player to give up. The game can become too hard, it can become too repetitive, it can become too boring, it can become too unfair, it can become too annoying. However arbitrary and personal the reason, any game can become unappealing to the point that the player doesn't want to play anymore.
When the experience wears thin to this point for the player, in the traditional game, the only choice is to stop playing. It could mean you give up today, but tomorrow you're reinvigorated to try again. Or, it could mean that you give up playing that game forever.
On the other hand, the sandbox game leaves you with other options. If a particular mission is too hard, you can give up on that and try a different mission. If you're tired of the mission format altogether, you can steal a taxicab and play as a taxi drive -- with a legitimate game structure wrapped around it so you're not just playing pretend. If the driving becomes too repetitive, you can explore the city and try to find hidden things in dark alleys and atop buildings. If searching aimlessly through the city becomes boring, there's still yet another activity different from all the rest waiting for you.
Because games demand performance, inadequate achievement is perhaps the most significant reason a player would want to give up (regardless of whether that evaluation of performance comes from the game or from the player). In fact, the actual scope of game choices available to any player are necessarily limited to those they feel they can play, or perform with some level of competence.
Considering that the available options of what to play are greater than ever before, the structural craze that started with GTA III showed just how effectively the sheer availability of variety can take advantage of the whimsical nature of consumers -- as well as the vast range of competency among them.
The industry, with its primary goal of accelerated profit-seeking, had no choice but to devise a way to market and design its products to attract larger and larger groups of consumers. Video games needed to offer something new to attract these big groups, something other than challenge, difficulty and depth, because in the '80s, consumers seeking challenge, difficulty and depth were all already active purchasers in the market. The industry's answer was to increase the entertainment value while decreasing the barrier to entry for all consumers as much as possible.
The industry, being an economically efficient vehicle, also sought to do these things in the cheapest and easiest way it knew how:
It increased entertainment value by offering better and better audiovisuals, and by increasing the prima facie variety of features or activities in a game.
It decreased the barrier to entry by producing games that placed fewer and fewer demands on the player.
It did not, by and large, increase or cultivate depth in gameplay while improving accessibility at the same time. While such a thing is feasible, and even heralded as a best practice of game design, in reality developing in this way is more challenging, can be more costly, and designers and teams with the requisite skill and knowledge of player psychology are rare. It was also less apparent how following such a best practice could improve sales, compared to the other methods.
In short, it was just easier to add more, better-looking content and utilize the cheapest methods that would allow more players to experience the most amount of that content, while demanding the least amount of performance from them.
We can see the consequences reflected in the biggest, most popular games of our day. However, many are left unsatisfied, and in some ways even less satisfied when compared to the games they played years ago.
We can see both sides of this very phenomenon reflected recently in the press. Consider Christian Nutt's recent interview with God of War's combat lead, as well as some of the user comments about Sony Santa Monica's philosophy of variety over depth.