Nick F. ponders the importance of replay value, and counters the accepted wisdom that console games are ‘simplistic’…
oes a game need to be re-playable to be a good (or even great) game? I would argue that it doesn’t. Some of my fondest console experiences are of games I enjoyed immensely but wouldn’t want to play again in a hurry (Panzer Dragoon Saga comes to mind). Conversely, there are games I’ve been playing for absolutely ages and I keep coming back for more – Goldeneye, Super Mario Kart (the SNES version) and of course, Gameboy Tetris. Whereas my favorable memory of Resident Evil is largely focused on a particularly creepy fortnight’s gaming three years ago, the brilliance of Tetris strikes me every time I plug the cart into my Gameboy.
What is it that makes a game re-playable, anyway? Can you define "replay value" in some way that makes it possible to rate alongside "graphics" and "sound"? In the interests of gaming science I went through my console collection, made a list of games that I really enjoyed (many I would consider ‘classic’) and divided them in two: titles I always seem to be loading up, and games that haven’t seen the light of day since I stopped playing them…
Full of replay goodness:
Goldeneye, Super Mario Kart, Strider, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Tetris, Bust-A-Groove, Tekken 3, Ridge Racer Type 4, House of the Dead, Super Mario 64, R-Type.
Lacking in the replay department:
Silent Hill, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Tomb Raider, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Metal Gear Solid, Diddy Kong Racing, Resident Evil, Abe’s Exoddus, Final Fantasy VII, Starfox 64.
What hard scientific conclusions can you draw from the above lists? It’s certainly possible to make a few generalizations, but there are exceptions to each. I am tempted to say that games with the most replay potential seem to be arcade or action titles, possessing a relatively intuitive control system. However, a game like Goldeneye is certainly not simple to get to grips with (no matter how thoughtful the control method, it takes some getting used to initially) or particularly simplistic in terms of gameplay experience, whereas the superb Starfox 64 would seem to possess both qualities in abundance (but it remains one of those games I haven’t played for a long, long time).
An observation that seems to make sense is that plot-heavy games (Resident Evil, Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid) lack replay value. I suspect that in these titles the plot and atmosphere help mask a somewhat weak set of gameplay mechanics; Resident Evil makes great use of ‘events’, generating surprise and suspense, but when the effect of these crucial elements are removed (i.e. you know in advance what happens) the tiresome routine of "find-the-key, solve-the-puzzle" is very much exposed.
In Final Fantasy VII, I found myself enduring stretches of playing time which I found less-than-exciting just to see the next beautiful FMV clip. I think Squaresoft got a lot of mileage from their beautiful visuals and clever combat system, but the melodramatics of the meticulously constructed plot didn’t prevent me from getting fed up of dull, repetitive (and extremely annoying) random minor battles. I didn’t get that far into Disc Two before giving up…
Metal Gear Solid is an interesting case, as the basic gameplay components are much more sophisticated and enjoyable than the two titles mentioned above. However, frequent and lengthy breaks for plot-heavy conversations make it an unsuitable title to just pick up and play for an hour or so on a rainy day. Metal Gear Solid gives you the chance to fool around in cardboard boxes, sneak around rooms hiding from guards, and make the occasional discovery off the beaten track, but you’re playing along a very narrow (if deep) groove. A curious blend of the interactive and the linear, I find myself attempting to beat my Virtual Mode training scores more often than playing the actual game. Perhaps Konami realized the potential of this section when they announced Metal Gear Integral (which includes 300 new training rooms), due this summer?
It seems to me there are certainly two broad types of console gaming experience. There are games that require fairly dedicated player involvement, playing for a number of hours at a time and some sort of emotional investment from the player. These titles would tend to be the complicated adventure and role-playing games, mostly found on the PlayStation (and, of course, the PC). The use of CD media enables cheap storage of FMV, large numbers of textures, sprites and 3D models as well as the use of high-quality sound. Development costs have spiraled as these endless trappings that compliment the basic gameplay of a title become essential in order for titles to compete. But how much has the actual design of many games improved since the days of the 16-bit consoles? Imagine Final Fantasy VII (or, for that matter, VIII) without the glorious trimmings and it all seems a bit less fabulous. RPG combat systems (the real meat of the FF series) have advanced since the days of the SNES, but not all that considerably.
The other form of gameplay experience is the arcade-style game. This is the stereotypical console title, the type of game that crusty PC owners sneer at because of its ‘simplicity’. As if simplicity is a bad thing! Take Tetris, the greatest puzzler in the world, and ask yourself how many ten year-old games you still play (and no sly remarks along the lines of "but so many ‘new’ games are just re-workings of ten year-old games")? I would also take issue with the idea that arcade-y games are simplistic. Yes, the controls are often intuitive and easy to pick up, but the depths of skill and mastery possible in a well structured beat-em up, or a classic cartoon racer like Super Mario Kart, show that when it comes to meaty content, the best console games can easily compete with the more ‘complex’ (although ‘clumsy’ is a more appropriate term) PC games.
Of course, there’s the inevitable impact of multiplayer modes. There is nothing like a strong multiplayer element to increase the replay value of a game. Human opposition is always going to be more fun (if not always better!) than AI, but the real appeal of console multiplayer, to my mind, is the actual social experience. Deathmatch on the internet is a lot of fun, but it can’t quite compare to the same experience on a LAN, where you can see the people you’re blasting, or at least approach them after the game to gloat (or moan about how your "mouse went all funny"…) Playing a console game with two to eight players huddled around the same screen is, to my mind, much more fun. Sometimes I wonder if the "geek" stereotype foisted upon gamers’ backs isn’t somewhat deserved, the number of people who seem to prefer playing games over the net to actually being in a room full of people: laughing, joking and generally having a good time. All you online heroes out there, don’t look so po-faced (I can just imagine it)! Personally I think games played over the internet are very enjoyable, but I think there’s a tendency to take the impressiveness of the technology as a substitute for fun (a disease the development community seems to share as a whole).
Leaving multiplayer aside, how can developers enhance the replay value of a single player mode? James Rutherford says that the appeal lies in ‘mastery’ and ‘novel challenges’. Super Mario Kart still gets played in my house, largely because myself and my brother are so darn good at it (and we revel in our mastery)! Game designers should recognize that if somebody makes the necessary effort to complete their game (often requiring a not-inconsiderable period of time spent playing it), they have every right to expect to be rewarded in some way, aside from the obligatory ending sequence. Random elements may be one answer, although this introduces design headaches (perhaps the levels have been designed with specific enemy locations in mind). Perhaps the answer is to give the player greater freedom in how they choose to play the game – giving Mario 100 lives and a super-jump at the end of Mario 64 was a license to go out there and explore! Even the easiest levels in Goldeneye become a challenge when I fiddle with the 007 editor settings (only available after playing through the game thoroughly) to give the opposition cat-like reflexes and lethal damage settings. Talk about a novel challenge! You can’t force a player to replay your game, but if you provide some avenues for exploration it becomes a lot more tempting...
At the end of the day, the player has to feel they have a reason to play the game again. If their primary goal in playing was just to beat the game, see the ending sequence or solve the mystery, perhaps there really isn’t a reason to do it all over again. However, if the game was just fun to play, it isn’t too great a hardship for the developers to think long and hard about ways of maximizing the title’s life span. Players don’t want to repeat the exact same experience, so think about ways of changing it! Multiple-endings are a popular choice in story-driven genres, but what about games that rely more on the gameplay mechanics? Different stages of a game create different feelings and emotions in the player (leading to very different play experiences), so I feel a level select can be a valuable addition (this is my major beef with Starfox 64). A mode like this enables players to play parts of the game they really enjoy over and over, perhaps skipping the less appealing (and replay-limiting) sections. Developers have to be careful, though: introducing a level select too soon can cheapen and spoil the player’s enjoyment of the game!
I’d like to end this week with a request! Over the next few days, think about the games you play over and over, and compare them to the games that were a two-week fad. This issue of replay value is an area that I’m really becoming interested in, so if anyone wants to voice their opinion, feel free to get in touch! Try digging out some of those games you haven’t played for a while and let’s see if we can’t come up with some good, solid theories about re-playability!
- Nick Ferguson is a regular loonygames correspondant (what other kind of person would still play Super Mario Kart on a regular basis)?
Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.