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Once Again? Replayability in Games

Updated on June 18, 2015

People play games to have fun (and to learn something, but that is rarely a conscious factor). Well-designed games accomplish this; but great games accommodate the desire to replay the game. This is the essence of Replayability: actively encouraging player to replay the game and yet retain the same quality of entertainment as the first experience; players can even get a better experience on repeat outings in the game as they won’t have to dedicate as much time and energy into learning the basics of the game on the second and subsequent times through. Besides from making the game enjoyable time and time again, Replayability makes games a more reasonable investment for players (what with games running sixty dollars or more, they had better be good for more than a single play-through). There are numerous facets that going into making a game replayable: initial and repeat difficulty, variation within the rules and play difficulty, the basic structure of the game (and its rules) and completion of the game through repeated gameplay; among other factors. Let us take a moment and explore some of these aspects that make games appealing to play more than once.

A Brief on Replayability

Something to clarify about Replayability: it actually does not apply to every game out there in equal measure. Many games have an inherent replayable quality, based on their format and/or design. Formats like miniature games, role-playing games, and card games have so many variables built into them that even replaying the game with similar and/or same variables accounted for, the experience will be different from previous game sessions.

For example, role-playing games will always be replayable because individual sessions are very rarely the exact same experience as previous ones; likewise, while similar (or same) stories can be played, it is unlikely that you will be playing them with the same players and/or characters from before. Even then, your own personal knowledge/experience with the story will affect your choices during the game and will ultimately change the story as it progresses.

Another example is that of card games and miniature games. Even as you end up playing against the same opponents, it is unlikely that you will always be playing the same forces/decks. And even if you are playing the exact same situation from prior games, again, your experience will give you insight to affect the outcome of your match. And if those factors weren’t contributing enough, random elements such as dice rolls or the shuffle of cards will impose their own uniqueness to the play experience and make the particular match stand out.

Since the above formats have considerable replayability because of their design, the gaming formats that need to be purposefully designed with replayability in mind are video games and board games. Both formats are highly structured and self-contained; expansions and house-rules do exist for adding to the overall experience of the game, but are not always inherently part of the base game. Many of the variables that make role-playing games, miniature games, and card games highly replayable are not inherent to the designs of board games or video games. As such, game designers need to consider how they intend to make their games enjoyable on repeat sessions if they want their games to be marketable as replayable.

Reasons for Repeat Play

When it comes to understanding and designing Replayability in games, one should look to why people would even want to replay a game. After all, if you know why people are going to play your game over and over again, then you can tailor your game to appeal to one or more of those reasons. For example, including multiple variations of an end game scenario allows players to play the game multiple times without necessarily knowing beforehand the precise win-loss conditions; thus presenting a new challenge for them every time they play.

Running with above example, one of the drives players have is to achieve a sense of completion when playing a game. Not only is winning (or losing) an entertaining experience, but there is the opportunity to see and experience a variety of outcomes. Along with this comes the goal to finish each possible variation in order to “complete” the game. Games often include multiple end-game conditions for victory or alternative stories (each with their own ending) to allow players a chance to replay the game and get a different outcome each time they play. Some of these differing storylines can even be set at varying difficulties so that achieving a certain ending is more challenging and thus more of an accomplishment when completed. Another prevalent trend in video games fueling the completionist urge is the use of accomplishments, badges or other honorifics bestowed on the player when they complete certain tasks in-game. The actual difficulty in earning these achievements varies considerably from game to game and from game designer to game designer. Frankly, in many instances, there is simply no rhyme or reason for some of the achievements; other than to, presumably, see who will actually torture themselves to get some of the most ludicrous of medals in gaming.

Speaking of challenging, a common feature in video games is the use of a difficulty setting. This allows players to tailor their experience and gameplay to their own skill level and/or comfort zone. This also presents players with the opportunity to play a game once through at one setting and then try again on a more difficult one. Recently, there have been board games that have tried to do the same thing: presenting players with the opportunity to try the game on various difficulty levels. Video games have also incorporated completionist elements mentioned above in the form of alternate endings; with each difficulty setting getting its own ending. This makes it a challenge for gamers: play through the game on each of the differing settings to see all of the possible endings. Some games even contain hidden difficulty settings only unlocked when the game is completed under the other difficulty settings.

One of the largest drives in Replayability for older games is the nostalgia factor. Some games resonate with players on some deeper level; often enough for no explicable reason. Games of all walks and formats achieve cult status all the time; some for wonderfully designed game mechanics, others for beautiful aesthetics, and still some for truly bizarre or just plain comical reasons. Nevertheless, the result is a game that players will flock to play over and over again. The dedication to these games can cause interesting behavioral responses in their fan-bases. Just look to see how players respond when a classic game of theirs gets approved for a relaunch/remake; some players revel in the attention and acknowledgement that their beloved game will “finally be receiving” while other fans lash out in a hyperbolic manner stating “my childhood is ruined.” Come to think of it, you can see the same (if not similar) reaction whenever a cherished movie or television show gets remade.

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The running theme of Replayability is the inspiring/encouraging of players to replay the same game over for one reason or another. For each reason, there is a method that helps push Replayability. The methods also vary from format to format. Video games require a great deal more of scripting in their design (ala programming) in order for them while board games include far more instances of chance and randomness that allow for them to be replayable. Both formats do actually allow for scripting and chance, but the acceptance for those elements differ from the two formats. If a video game comes across as “too random” than it is treated as being unplayable and not fun (or that the “computer is cheating”); the same goes for overly structured/scripted board games as they are thought of as too boring and not engaging (“the game plays itself, so why should I bother playing?”)

Ultimately, designers strive to allow variability for their games so that players can fine-tune the experience to their liking. Sometimes, the player community comes up with variants that the designers never saw. Whether the variability comes from within the game design or from the player community does not always make a difference. There will be markets for both sides of the replayability aisle and players will embark for their chance at trying something new with something tried and true.


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