Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Replay! Part Two.

"How can we put replayability in our games most efficiently?"

It's an important question.

A lot of people suggest variation. Let the player go through as a warrior, or a mage, or whatever. Let him choose good or evil. It's certainly the most popular assumption, but I don't think it's correct.

Actually, I think it's accidentally accomplishing a goal which could be accomplished much cheaper.

You might not replay many games. I do. What games do you replay? What games do I replay?

Well, I replay Quest for Glory 1-4, System Shock II, Carnage Heart, DOAXBV, Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile, Brigandine, and Spades.

What do these games have in common?

Not a god-damn thing. Not one single thing. Some of them actively suck.

Some of them offer "multiple paths", but you know what? I never follow them. By the time I replay the game, I've forgotten enough that I'm just looking to have a very similar experience to what I had before. Sometimes, after my very first play through, I'll sit down and immediately play again with a different "path". However, it's rare that I'll finish that play, because I'll get "played out" before reaching the end.

I've tried to play these games using other styles, but I usually just can't do it. It's just not as interesting to me. So, obviously, their extremely high replay values don't come from being able to play different ways.

I always play a mage, a hacker, a scientific expansionist, and a volleyball player with unconvincing breasts.

But the games with the highest replay value typically allow me to play as a thief, a soldier, a berserker, and... a different volleyball player with unconvincing breasts. Even if I don't choose to.

So perhaps there is something that happens because of this design feature.

I think it's extraneous patterns.

Okay, most of you probably don't have a clue what I'm talking about.

When you play a game, you're really pounding through patterns. Sometimes, this is extremely obvious: gotta dodge the bullets, gotta level optimally, whatever. Most games focus on these kinds of central patterns.

But the games which have a high replay value seem to have patterns you don't use. Added details that are necessary for other plays, but not for this one. These details catch your attention, they give the world a depth... because they are't there for you. You remember them, like a road crash you saw while driving to work. The world feels alive and you feel like there's more to the game than just you wandering along the straight and narrow path to victory.

This isn't just extra content, or a widget hunt. This is stuff you, the player, actually cannot use. It's a person who won't talk to you because of your gender, or a lock you can't pick because you don't know how to pick locks. It's a health packet on a ledge that you can't reach without telekinetics.

It's also beautiful backgrounds, and moving music, and strong dialogue. It's the ten thousand stupid books in any Elder Scrolls game, and the way that randomly generated worlds have random crap in them that isn't really useful to anyone.

It's any pattern which isn't in your path. Any pattern which you aren't going to negotiate, but only notice. Even if you aren't actually going to consciously notice it, you'll feel the depth.

It's depth.

Now, do you have to implement fifteen ways of getting through each level to get this kind of depth?

I don't really think so. Sure, it will certainly work, but that's a hell of a lot of effort, don't you think? Isn't it better to spend that time on ten times as many extra patterns that don't require extra scripting and rebalancing?

Hrm. Oh. Don't tease the player by putting in what appear to be play options but actually aren't. I really hate that.

Comments and questions very welcome. I'd like to hear about what games you like to replay.


Darius Kazemi said...

Yes, sometimes I get satisfaction from knowing that I could beat a game in a different way if I wanted to. It's nice to know that the depth is there.

It also says to the player, in a subtle way, "You could be getting 50 hours of entertainment out of this game. If you only get 10, it's your own damn choice."

Patrick Dugan said...

Thats what I loved about Fallout or Baldur's Gate. You could try being a Mage, but you couldn't keep the fighter's uh, keep, and if you were a Monk you couldn't get the Bard's theatre house.

Its funny, I never played a chick in those games, I probably wounldn't mention that if it weren't for Bonnie's article in The Escapist.

Jeff said...

Darius says: "Yes, sometimes I get satisfaction from knowing that I could beat a game in a different way if I wanted to. It's nice to know that the depth is there."

That's where I generally think replayability comes from in more "serious" games: a real feeling that "this could have gone differently" or, more importantly, the feeling that "I made a difference." Implied or actual agency. In a sense, this doesn't even require the character creation system craig is talking about, just a feeling that you made an actual difference.

Note, this is a general assumption, I can think of games that are replayable and fun that have no agency what so ever. Specifically War, which breaks every theory of game design I know of ;)

Jason O said...

It's a fair point about depth. I loved Knights of the Old Republic, but no matter which "class" you played the game comes out about the same. I tried replaying as an evil character, but again it was essentially the same game. There wasn't a lot of depth there.

Then again, I have played certain shooters over and over again. I think my all time favorite though was Unreal Tournament. Basically it works out that you can't just memorize patterns because the bots in the game are not set opponents. There wasn't just basic pattern recognition, but a real need to learn how to work the terrain and improve your marksmanship and reaction time.

Then there was Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, which did feature very real depth. You could play the game so many different ways there was very little chance of doing everything in the game. I only beat the game once, but I've played so many different characters in the game so many different times that I have lost count. Chances are good I will load it up again before I have a PC that can run Oblivion.

Also, many racing games have good replay value if the Driver AI is any good. There is some serious pattern recognition involved in those games, but you can be thrown off by unexpected behavior. This is one of the reasons I liked Burnout 2 so much is that you never know what might happen in a race. Unfortunately, the next iteration of the series proved to be rather shallow in comparison and I didn't play it near as much. Which only feeds your point really.

Craig Perko said...

It sounds like I may have hit something worthwhile. :D

kestrel404 said...

No, I don't think so. From your description and from my own experiences, I think it has nothing to do with the fact that there's 'extra content' there that you can't get to. I replay a lot of the same games, and I also play pretty much the same way through each time, even if there are some slight variations.

The best example I have is Masters Of Orion 2. In Moo2, I always take creative. Even in the patched version that makes it the most expensive trait, I find it worthwhile. Why do I always do that? Because it's in my nature to want all the nifty gadgets on my starships. What does that have to do with replayability? It means I have starships with LOTS OF NIFTY GADGETS.

What I'm trying to get at here is that the customizability of these games is NOT appealing because there are paths you cannot take. I'd be perfectly happy with NO choices, as long as the choices that the programmer made FOR me were exactly to my taste. But my tastes are completely unlike those of most other people who play games. So the only way I get something really fun and replayable out of these games is if I can customize them, to my playing style.

Oblivion is another good example. I looked through the character classes they offered you. Some of them were vaguely close to what I wanted (Bard came closest), but not one of them had everything I thought a character really needed as a primary skill. So I made my own class. And I'm thoroughly enjoying the game. And if I ever have a spare month, I'll play it again.

Replay value, for me at least, comes from my desire to express my OWN, PERSONAL style of gameplay. It's in those games, the ones where I can show personality and individuality in the way I interact, that I'm happy to replay.

This also pertains to most MMORPGs, if you look at them.

Craig Perko said...

There's definitely something to that, but I decided it wasn't as much as people might think.

A lot of the really great classic games don't have much useful customization. Chrono Trigger only allows you to choose characters after you've already been playing it for twenty hours - and, by then, you already know that it is a fantastic game.

That's very similar to Valkyrie Profile, where your "choice" is simply which person to leave out of your party. You can customize equipment and such, but there are a lot of really shitty games which let you do that.

There are a lot of really fantastic games that everyone thinks are fantastic which have no strategic or social customizability. This makes me think that customizability really isn't the issue.

God! Word verify today is "vcijpecq".

No, wait, it wasn't, evidently. Instead, it's "lihdprzy".

kestrel404 said...

"I'd be perfectly happy with NO choices, as long as the choices that the programmer made FOR me were exactly to my taste."

That's my way of saying 'Customizability isn't everything'.

"There are a lot of really fantastic games that everyone thinks are fantastic which have no strategic or social customizability."

Your use of 'everyone' here is misleading. There's no such thing as a game 'everyone' enjoys, especially not one that everyone enjoys enough to play over and over. You like spades, but I'm not fond of it, I prefer poker. The examples of games you have mentioned as wanting to play multiple times DO have something in common (except Spades, which is replayable for other reasons): They're well written. Not just the story (which is occasionally mediocre), but the built-in gameplay mechanics, the progression, the timing, the atmosphere. I agree, there is a depth there, but it's a depth created by high-quality creation. It pulls you into the story, it gets you INTERESTED in the outcome, INVOLVED in the process. It's a lot like a static implementation of your PAC theory. That way, you don't NEED to pander to an individual person's predelictions - you can subtly adjust the PLAYER so that the game is to their taste. That's what good writing interacting with good gameplay can do for you.

Other games that people play endlessly are games where content is dependent on social interaction: MMORPGs, face-to-face games, and the internet.

The connection between the single-player games that enjoy a lot of replayability and the multiplayer games is where you should be exloring, I think.

Craig Perko said...

Well, then, we're in agreement.

My primary point was that you don't have to offer choice if you put in well-written depth.

Your comment about MP vs SP is an interesting one. I'll have to think about it.