Many of these methods revolve around ways to get players to replay content or leveling systems in a new way, often incorporating some algorithmic changes (power levels, handicaps, content difficulty) or content changes (unlocks). Many of these also use some form of increasing the difficulty to keep things interesting.
1. Setting yourself back
One of the techniques I’ve found as a sort of antithesis to constant need for progress is game mechanics to purposely reset or diminish your progress. The most high profile examples of this would be Prestige in the Call of Duty series. Prestige works by resetting your unlocks and other forms of progress in exchange for a meta-progress level, Prestige Level. This sort of thing doesn’t appeal to all types of players, as it means working your way back up from scratch in a sort of arbitrary way. The upside is that prestige levels act as a social marker for your dedication to the game. Depending on the game, it can also be thrilling to lose everything and work your way up again from nothing, the way you can still enjoy the emotional roller-coaster of a movie you’ve already seen. As shown in the screenshot below, a favorite mobile game of mine, Pocket Mine, also uses a prestige reset, but in exchange provides a permanent increase to your pick cap, meaning you must start from scratch but you can go longer before hitting the cap each time. This method can work well with multiplayer and procedural content related leveling, where there is some level of skill involved to make the next repeat of the grind different.
Another interesting way of setting yourself back seen in the recent mobile take on an old school sandbox game, SimCity Build-It (screenshot below). The game is still somewhat sandbox play, but with some social game style quests and unlocks a long the way to guide play and provide a sense of progress. The interesting part is that one of the last things you unlock with your progress is the ability to sabotage your own progress by having a mad scientist purposely hit your city with disasters, forcing you to rebuild. The game actually has you work hard to unlock the ability to sabotage yourself, in exchange for special golden keys that can also be gained (easier IMO) by an earlier unlock, a trade boat. There’s a certain child-like joy in knocking down the things you’ve built and rebuilding them that this taps into to smartly extend the difficulty of an otherwise mostly linear game.
3. Do it different
The three star rating system has become a staple of puzzle games ever since the popularity of Angry Birds (although I’m sure they didn’t invent it). This system lets players make progress past difficult levels when they get at least 1 star, but provides an incentive to replay the level now or later on for a higher rating. Some games provide a bonus for this, or use the total number of stars as a gating mechanism. One game though, has a take on it that I found extremely compelling, Pudding Monsters (from the developers of the hit puzzle game Cut the Rope). While the game may not have been the hit Cut The Rope was, I found their take on the 3 star system managed to get me to replay every level a minimum of two times, something Angry Birds or other “3 star” games couldn’t get me to do. The way Pudding Monsters used the 3 stars was having the stars integrated into the puzzle solutions themselves. You could beat the level with 1-3 stars as normal, but instead of pushing you always get 3 stars, they instead marked you as a master of that level when you got all 4 possible ratings, 0,1,2,3 (some levels had less than 4 possible solutions however). Encouraging me to “do worse” when I beat levels with 2 or 3 stars the first time worked wonders on my motivation and creativity, as sometimes it was hard to find the other possible solutions. I hope to see this method used more!
4. Achieve more
Achievements are already a popular social marker, but they provide another useful functionality, extra goals. While some achievement systems are poorly designed and generally award you mostly for things you would already do in the process of playing/beating the game, some provide them for doing things differently as in the Pudding Monsters example. Achievements can be used as a way to encourage a player to replay content differently to explore new behaviors or just purposely handicap themselves. Some examples include “Find all of X”, “Beat the level without firing a shot”, “Perform X, Y times in a row”. These become extra challenges to lead the player off the beaten path, develop new skills and do more difficult variations on play. Speed-runs are also a classic example of this sort of meta-play. Older games such as Metal Gear Solid would often hide these sorts of challenges, often in the form of “beat the game by doing X” as a way to unlock all sorts of fun Easter eggs.
5. Just harder
One of the most obvious and classic methods is to use explicit difficulty levels and only unlock the more hardcore ones upon completing the game. Diablo’s Nightmare mode is an example of this method. Another good example is the “Second Quest” unlocked by beating the original Legend of Zelda. This method can be approached algorithmically as in the case of making more difficult enemies, or with authored content as is the case of Zelda’s “Second Quest”.
6. Loot farming
Replaying content in order to either increase stats or collect a random drop is known as farming. Farming is sometimes associated with its boring cousin, Grinding in negative ways as it can often be boring as well, but this is more often when its tied to stat increasing. Getting players to replay content for chances at items of varying rarity can definitely extend the play time of content in a very slot machine/random scheduling kind of way. This can be done to go after powerful items like in World of Warcraft and Diablo, or after sets of collectibles like in Pocket Mine. Pocket Mine 2 takes an interesting approach of first having 5 semi-authored levels of each island/world, varying only in difficulty. Once those 5 are complete, the next island/world unlocks and the one you beat is now available for “endless” play which varies based on your skill and stats. While you can collect artifacts during your normal 5 level play, this endless unlock is specifically geared to having you farm for collectible artifact sets, giving you a reason to replay a level many many times. Endless play was the way the game worked in Pocket Mine 1, with the levels and artifacts being randomly selected each time. Pocket Mine 2 shows how you can take procedural content and evolve it into a Candy Crush Saga style puzzle adventure, without losing its procedural advantages. I’ve literally had Pocket Mine on my phone for well over a year, play it frequently, and it is the only game to never get deleted, so that should tell you something.
7. Special Events/Levels
A common practice now in many social/mobile games (sometimes referred to as Live Ops) is running time-limited special events and levels. Some times these take the form of new or exclusive content, other times just special challenges and rewards. These have been shown to greatly boost revenue and interest in games, especially in lapsing players, and to help build community around a game. By time limiting the content you also extend its lifespan in the way McDonald’s extends the lifespan of the McRib by making it only available occasionally. Here’s a great set of slides related on dealing with the difficulties of doing this: http://www.slideshare.net/gwertzman/effective-liveops-strategies
8. Procedural loot/powerups
One of my favorite examples of a mostly linear game with a huge amount of replay value is Borderlands. Borderlands took what Diablo did with procedurally modified loot drops to the next level by building the entire weapon system algorithmically. They don’t author any specific guns, just different attributes and ways of combining those attributes into loot of varying rarities. A big part of the trick to pulling this off without ever escalating power creep is knowing how to smartly limit it. The procedural gun generation algorithm is designed well to make guns you like, but that are never quite perfect. Having them always have some drawback makes you compelled to ever seek the next gun of perfection. Pocket Mine 2 generates gear for your avatars of varying rarities and types, including the most common rarity, purely cosmetic. Having the type of item divorced from the abilities, and having an avatar limited to only 1 item of each of the 3 types equipped at one time, with no ability to share between avatars, makes it so there’s more than enough gear to collect for a long time to come from both an ability and cosmetic standpoint. Both games also offer a way to recycle your undesirable items for money or crafting materials. Bejeweled Blitz focused on earning virtual currency to buy consumable powerups, but what’s stopping a puzzle game from procedurally generating consumables?
9. Player Created Content
Obviously this applies more to sandbox games than other genre’s, but puzzle games can benefit too! It can be difficult to manage player created content in a game as a service without messing with the economy so it’s good to look at different ways existing games use it. It can help to reward pieces to use as part of your reward system, or charge virtual currency for them. The important part is not to come across greedy, but rather make it feel earned and special. Having player created levels can often reveal creative uses of your mechanics you didn’t think of and give you ideas for future content. You can even feature player content for special events to really boost your community. Valve has done a tremendous job keep Team Fortress 2 alive and well with big updates from themselves occasionally, but more often, featuring content (maps, costumes, weapons) created by players themselves. They even found ways to integrate the player creations into their marketplace to give the players a cut of the proceeds.
10. Social features
Often the “end game” of MMO’s and other good multi-player games is social focused for a reason. Players (and their inherent drama) are a source of content all their own. Even if your game is primarily a single player focused puzzle game, you can incorporate ways for players to interact with each other. The most obvious form is via leader boards and other forms of competition, but don’t overlook cooperative and team elements. Cooperative game play can sometimes be as big a boost as competitive, especially in the form of guilds or clans. Often times “whale” players in a clan will spend to help other clan members who don’t have the resources they do. Even when it doesn’t increase spending directly, social game play is much more sticky and will increase engagement. Run lots of special events for competitive and cooperative play. A good example of competitive is having seasonal clan leader boards so that clan members work together to try and beat other clans. A good example of pure cooperative is special “raids” and “bosses”, big fights or epic levels that challenge teams to bring their A game and perhaps even get whale players to spend for support. A great example of cooperative gaming well integrated without even using clans is Monster Strike, which is doing quite well.