"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.
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.