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A few thoughts about Replayability

Should we need the replayability in large scale games as a feature?

Some time ago Mister Ken Levine described the Narrative Legos concept, by his words “which is, how do you take narrative and break it down. What are the smallest part of narrative that you can then remix and build something out of? Mix and match.”

One of the points of this concept was increased replayability of the game due to increased number of story variations.

He said, “I spend five years [working on a game] and 12 hours later the player is done with it, and that is heartbreaking. There are some fans who will replay it but you can't expect that from the average gamer because it won't be meaningfully different the second time, and that is an important challenge.”

Mister Ken Levine is a very interesting person and a developer of famous Bioshock series (and don’t tell me you finished Infinite and weren’t impressed by excellent mind-blowing ending). I’m glad the industry has the man like him who can experiment with narrative in such way. And this last concept is really a food for thought. But for now it made me to think about Replayability feature.

What is Replayability? It’s the feature of the game because of which user wants to play the game again after ending. It’s when after end titles user screams “It was excellent! I want it again!” and slams New Game button. Or it is when someone gathers friends to play good ol’ tabletop game again in a good ol’ company. The main concept is that user wants to play the same game again not because there were no new games on his shelf but because of the quality of this one particular game.

I met with the Replayability a long time ago in a childhood when my parents bought a new thing in my childish universe – a console! The Console! It was NES. Yeah, I’m not that old to share the story about Atari gaming and truth to be told it wasn’t even NES, it was a cheaper clone named Lifa. But it worked, it played Mario Bros and I was as happy as I could. And especially I loved Mario game. Parents didn’t allow me to play more than hour without turning the thing off for rest. So every time I started Mario and didn’t complete it in an hour I have to turn off the console and play from scratch after the rest time. In the end I didn’t finished the game even once. The same story was with Contra that I played with friends. It was marvelous, it was splendid and it was ridiculous hard for me. We gathered together every evening to finish this game but every time we failed long before end. It was fun – the discussions about strategy at first, and later when we already understood that we cannot beat it – just who will be quicker to end first level and so on. That was the time full of joy. And that was my first date with the Replayability.

Later I became fan of RPG games. Large worlds and variations – that was especially cool. Fallout 1, 2, KOTOR 1, 2, Vampires the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Every game is a master piece. I did KOTOR1 three times in a row because it was so excellent. And only on forth time I decided to go outside and play with friends. There is something unique in these games that is rare even for RPG – different styles of playing through. So if you became a slaver in Fallout most cities is closed to you and when you became a noble ranger slaver shoot you on sight. Or what is with this guy in a closed locker? Is killing him with lightsaber a right thing? Should I talk out from bad situation and loose loot or should I kill poor guys and sacrifice reputation or even side quest? There were a few large choices in the game but there were much more small choices that make up story and the world. And in many small choices if you pick one solution you remove other possibilities completely. Have a good Intelligence? You’ll never experience cultured dialogue with Tor in Klamath. Sided with bad guys in a quest? You’ll need to kill all good ones for territory. You can even skip all this guys and do main quest only – why bother, you should save the world, shouldn’t you? And the gameplay there was full of small choices everywhere (sometimes interrupted by battles). Of course if you are a skilled player you’ll experience the most part of the game. But still there remain black holes, not large enough to bother you with content unavailability but noticeable enough to remind you of your previous choices.

Remember Deus Ex Human Revolution game? Glorious reboot of the franchise which made me believe again in the remixes. And yet every room there has vent for stealth, can be brutforced with a gun or has some level mechanic for inventive killing. And if you bothered with stealth after half of the game you can easily switch to a gun and raw force. And vice versa. So player choice of play style didn’t matter much except for player. You are no longer found your character unprepared for gun fighting because every skill you trained is a kind of stealth skill. It is good from some point of view. But also it makes things looks like your choice isn’t really important. Good friendly level designers already were here before you and set things to be comfortable. It’s not a reality, it’s a game, remember?

Look to the Shadowrun. The Dragonfall is much more RPG than a first campaign and it is due ‘missing opportunities’. If you want to break the wall you should have Strength. Or give up and go to the other route and forget about exploring the room behind the wall. After this you’re eager to get more Strength. And fifteen steps further you are cursing yourself for spending points in Strength instead of Decking. You didn’t lose something important but it makes you think that you want to try something else with your character next time you play.

There was other game that has unique Replayability. Or so it seemed. Dragon Age Origins. It has six Origins for different types of character and old-school soul of tactical battles and dialogs. The problem is the game is linear as a line can be. Yes, you have six different prologues (30 min for each) and unique dialogues in main game based on your origins (and that dialogs didn’t affect gameplay much). Main quest has different outcomes and there were some of the deepest and nicest dialogues I’ve ever read but exploration of the world was almost absent. Every side cave and every dragon is no more than ten steps from main road. So every time you want to replay the game you will experience the same moments in every location. Yes, you can choose another option in dialogues but you still have to experience most of these dialogues again.

And for another example there were ‘excellent’ random bounties in Skyrim. The point was to be endless fun after you make main quest. The reality was every player abandoned them after noticing their randomness and simplicity.

That’s why every time when somebody talks about replayability now I’m scared of 30 min prologues and random quests. Interesting question – if Dragon Age Origins wasn’t the Origins, but give you one character like Shepard from ME – would it be better for story and gameplay or not? Don’t know but in the second DO they took that direction.

And there were really cool games where replayability rockets to the sky and is a main part of fun. Civilization, FTL, StarCraft (take online part for this example), Warlords, Space Rangers, tactic games, tabletops, tag, 2048. In the part with replayability they have little story if ever. But they have variations or simple mechanics that is fun to play. Somebody told me once that casual game is the game where the process is the interesting part, not the result. In my opinion such game should be a king of replayability.

So, everything said, do we need the replayability in story games as a feature? Why we are not pleased with 12 hours of gameplay? Film lasts one hour and a half (three hours for Peter Jackson), book is worth a full day of reading. They all are more linear than every linear game. And why do we want replayability if the user already paid for game? Of course there are games that are designed to be short and replayable (or just without ending). But in a large scale Game with complex and emotional story should there be replayability as a feature?

Dishonored is an excellent stealth game in steampunk world. It has many story crotches but in fact it is mission stealth action game. You can alarm people or you can not, you can kill foes or you can stub them or pass by them unseen. You can enter this room first and you can leave some rooms unopened. But you start here, you have target and you have mission. In an original Splinter Cell’s time they did such things very linear. And, God, if you ever tried to complete Dishonored mission different ways you should notice how many cut-scenes and voiced dialogs you leave off screen. They even have weather changing in last mission due to your actions in previous game! I’m afraid to imagine how much these things cost in development. But in the end they are a small part of user experience. Roof, sneak, roof, balcony, some magic, rats and another roof – that’s why I don’t want to replay the mission. I’ve made my choices. It was enjoyable long adventure, thank you for this, but it has an end. I’m really glad that in modern industry somebody sponsored such game. It was tons of work there.

Mister Levine also said that “Would you kindly” phrase from Bioshock 1 only works once. I guess it was a sad remark. Do you remember the film “The Sixth Sense”? Many people watched it again right after the first time. It was like “So I know the secret, let see if now I can find proof from beginning”. Every secret works once but then it changes the way people looks on life and takes a place in their hearts if the secret was worthy. Remember whose face was under Revan’s mask? Excellent moment.

Why people watch film again and why they don’t playing the game again after knowing secret? I believe the answer is time and controls. To watch the film you should only start watching. To play the game again you should remember mechanics, and have about 12 hours of free time. Have you ever stopped playing game in the middle and then try to continue it after a month? I still replay Half-Life 2 and Portal sometime. They are linear and scripted but they are beautiful games. And they have simple controls enough to start playing again anytime.

I believe people replay not the game which has the replayability feature on the box but the cool short game they like. Twice as good if they can play it with friends and it didn’t require knowing of manual book to start playing.

And also I believe that games have the ability to impress player much more than books and films. The moment when Bastila Shan falls in love with you is much more powerful than the moment when Cameron Diaz falls in love with Tom Cruise on the cinema screen. The moment when player broke the vase in Bastion and the narrator mentioned it was genius (and full game Stanley Parable is working on this one).

But please let’s think about what we want with story in game first. Games are fun and for fun. Good games should impress player more than he\she expects. And for this purpose the ending of Bioshock Infinite makes a lot more than all previous gameplay choices in this game together.

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