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The Value of Repetition
by  [Design]

July 31, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

["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.]

Universal Goods

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.

Increasing Appeal By Increasing Variety: The Multiple-Trick Pony

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Game Designer


Tony Ventrice
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I agree that repetition towards perfection is a significant method of maintaining engagement, but you might also consider repetition towards creative expression. A repetitive task need not be 'non-trivial' if the player is expressing himself creatively. Most games don't go in this direction, but there are certainly a few (I think this was a large part of the appeal in minecraft and it was certainly component to MarioPaint - although you may not call that a game).

Ara Shirinian
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To be clear, I'm not sure I'd want to frame 'repetition towards perfection' as a means toward an ultimate end of maintaining engagement. After all, some of us may consider engagement as "just" a wonderful vehicle to facilitate learning and mastery - but that depends on if you think the ends is learning, mastery, or sheer engagement in the first place.

My first impression is that the interesting-and-repetitive aspects of creative activities could solely or primarily be thanks to their performance aspect. Or is there something else there?

Curtiss Murphy
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League of Legends comes to mind. That is the perfect examplar of your article. It's a 5v5 human vs human competition with only a single map (until recently). And, I played on that map for a hundred hours, maybe more. And I know others that spent thousands of hours. Every game follows the same pattern, beginning, middle, end. It's repetitive - on purpose. And yet, I can't stop playing. It compels me to keep playing, and keep getting better! Next time, surely I'll get a better team! Aw man! Our tank's afk! ... But next time... I'll crush them all! 10 kills, 1 death, and 10 assists! Hear me ROAR!!!!

LoL has the 4 pre-requisites of flow: clear tasks, immediate feedback, limited distractions, and most importantly, a perfectly balance difficulty. Every game I am pitted against players matching my skill. By design, I win/loose roughly 50% of the time, but every time I start it up, I have opportunities to learn more and improve my skill. It's simple to learn, difficult to master, and infinitely replayable.

I liked your article. Thanks for sharing.


Bernardo Del Castillo
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Actually, until recently there was another map that was removed when dominion was introduced. Twisted treeline... it was a very interesting 3v3 game. But yes.

However there is a clear pattern in LoL (unlike Dota). There is a pretty desirable end game win team situation, which is counteractive to positive repetition (with fear of sounding too geeky haha, for months and months, the "correct team composition is" Jungler, AP Mid, Tanky bruiser Solotop, ranged AD Support Botlane.) Dota has a way more nebulous end game priority, and it is more interesting because of that.

Another problem with that game is that you can be bad or someone in your team can be bad, or have problems.. and it can be enough to drag the whole team down. It is hard to learn from a situation in which someone just fucked up, with little option of bouncing back. Of course, this still comes down to team play, but the focus on champion play unbalances this. If you are behind, the gap rarely shortens. In this sense.. there is a problem with the teaching aspect of this game, since loosing makes it harder on the loser.

Keep in mind I don't really like any of those games haha.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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It seems that too often we confuse quality and quantity. I personally dislike the approach of games like skyrim, that tend to pack an amazing amount of repetitive content without particularly polishing anything or really thinking of the gameplay implications (as to give you "freedom").

There is an important distinction in sports and other similar activities, since the variety of functional actions is way smaller than the variety of possible strategic and theoretical actions, and the process for facing obstacles can vary greatly. Like chess, the physical game doesn't change at all, but as you point out the experience, expertise and process factor comes in. In the case of basketball, obviously bouncing the ball, then passing the ball and then running, can lead to a completely different outcome than running then bouncing the ball and then passing. And details go down to very precise bounces, steps, and speeds.

This is a repetitive activity, but not necessarily a repetitive action.

A lot of skyrim's challenges can be handled differently, although the problem I see in it is that for example to kill a dragon, there is a pretty established linear structure. In a way killing a dragon in skyrim feels like a repetitious chore UNLIKE when you face a witch in Left for dead. The witch although it never really changes its behaviour, it enforces players to change the playstyle drastically. It is not an "original enemy" but it triggers an original response from the players. This is a Repetitive -activity-, that can be deconstructed and requires original (non repetitive) -action-. Dragons (and every other enemy in the game) in Skyrim show just superficial variety for the sake of variety, to me, it seems like an empty exercise, far less interesting than a well thought variable obstacle approach such as The Witch in L4D.

I wouldn't even link it to the possible variation of the outcome, since very often the outcome is extremely binary: win or lose. I'd say the interest is in the process itself. This means that repetition is not always necessary when the lesson is well tought, because it flows naturally within the progression, and is not directly tied to the result but more to the very abstract "enjoyment of the player".

In the end, I personally feel that repetition is quite necessary, repetitive activities are present everywhere as a backbone to standardisation... I would not like non-repetitive door opening, or non-repetitive Keyboard layouts, or non-repetitive step heights in my stairs.

The trick in games is making this repetitive activities natural and intuitive. Enabling them to turn into tools used for non repetitive responses to this more complex activities. Problem is that often in games, seemingly original activities really require repetitive actions, becoming a shallow meaningless variation. Quality in-depth variation is needed not just a plethora of uninteresting menial tasks.

I always feel that there should be just enough incentive for players to grasp their options, extrapolating and experimenting to overcome obstacles.

Ara Shirinian
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Another reason why killing the skyrim dragons is chorelike is because there is a miniscule level of tactical latitude afforded to the player in the interaction- another common (maybe essential) attribute of the 'repetitive but uninteresting' class. If you're lucky, there's an obstacle that you can use as cover so you can stick and move with long range attacks, but in the vast majority of cases in practice, you don't have that luxury. The dragon breath attacks blind you completely. Deco foliage can severely reduce visibility. The dragon's turn rate while it walks on the ground plus its instakill option means you either run away or gamble with relentless hacking at it. The dragon can decide to randomly attack something else, giving you a huge (and uninteresting) attack window. The battle degenerates into one of statistics despite the wide latitude of action you have at your disposal.

Bart Stewart
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There's a very good piece of practical game design advice here.

As I read it, the main observation being made here is a distinction between skill-based repetition and what might be called chore-based repetition.

In skill-based repetition, the reward for acting is inherent. Perform the bottom-level action well and the immediate feedback will include some satisfying benefit, such as learning how to perform that action more effectively. In chore-based repetition, the reward is back-loaded -- it's something you get only after performing the simple bottom-level action a bunch of times.

It seems that most people find the inherent-reward structure a lot more enjoyable than the deferred-gratification structure. Even if the accumulated big prize is clearly more valuable than what a lot of little rewards add up to, most people will still be more motivated by frequent/immediate benefits.

That sends an extremely clear message to game designers about where to focus the fun in a game. It's not wrong to have a big payoff for an accumulation of successful small actions -- in fact, I'd say that's a requirement for a true strategy game. But the preference for inherent-reward repetition means that consciously building some form of small benefit into the lowest-level action loop appears to be a requirement for *any* game.

Of course, doing a good job of that will open you up to charges that you're purposely making an "addictive" game. But that's another conversation....

Ara Shirinian
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You could say that the 'inherent reward structure' is rewarding you for proving that you can meet some performance threshold or test. Whereas, the 'deferred-gratification structure' rewards you for achieving a simulated performance threshold... not unlike how the RPG character gains simulated ability (stats) by a simulation of learning over time (experience points). Of course the RPG character isn't really learning or getting better, and when you're a part of such a system, neither are you.

On a totally different note, 'inherent rewards' might also be gratified in a deferred way. They don't always come in small bits, although when they don't it means the game is asking for a lot of perseverance from the player... this is like when in Spelunky even though you feel like you are getting much better over many sessions you still can't beat your best score, or like in Demon's/Dark Souls when you endure dying at a boss over and over before you're finally capable of beating it...

It seems the difference is, taking 100 attempts to beat "challenge X" is not the same at all as performing a menial task 100 times to obtain the "challenge X reward", the former instills learning and true achievement, the latter is just a simulation of it.

Josh Foreman
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Bart: " a distinction between skill-based repetition and what might be called chore-based repetition."

Exactly what I was thinking.

David Harris
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Excellent article, sir. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I started my gaming in the 1980s, where virtually all games required repetition to gain enough skill to complete portions of the game. It was a very rewarding experience to eventually master all the skills necessary to play all the way through the game, and to feel the flow as you killed the next alien or finally successfully navigated the obstacles of that pivotal level. Thanks for a great read.