What Makes a Game Replayable?

Despite the problem some people seem to have with the term “replayability,” it’s an important concept to explore with regard to video games.  Video games are, per hour of entertainment, probably a better investment than going to the movie theater, but at around $60 a pop, you’d probably want the game to be enjoyable enough to play through several times once you’ve already “beaten” it.  There are some games that, no matter how many times we’ve played them, we can always go back and play again – but there are also games that, once completed, never see the light of day again.  So what is it that makes a game worthy of being played over and over?  Are there certain features that bring us back for more, or is it a simple case of game design?

Back in the days of 8- and 16-bit consoles, there were no online play, no achievements, and virtually no unlockables, so if a game was to be played again after completion, it had to rely on simply being a fun game to play in order to bring gamers back for more.  Likewise, I can’t recall many 8- or 16-bit games that presented the player with a series of decisions that would ultimately affect the outcome of the game.  No, it was raw gameplay and fun that brought us back for more.  So which old school games were strong in the replayability department?  Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! comes to mind, for one.  No matter how many times I obliterated Glass Joe, no matter how many times I owned Piston Honda, and no matter how many times I beat Tyson himself (yeah, I’m kind of bragging here), it was always fun to try and do it all again.  If you have an NES emulator (does anyone have an actual working NES?), give Punch Out! a try – you’ll see it’s just as fun as the first time you played it.

Double Dragon also comes to mind as a replayable game, but I don’t think beating on people is the common factor amongst games that are fun to play over and over.  After all, the Sonic the Hedgehog games have terrific replay value, too.  Other replayable old school games that come to mind – for me, at least – are Trojan, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, the Super Mario games, and the original Final Fantasy.  With the exception of Trojan, the aforementioned games are considered classics, due either to their originality, superior gameplay and graphics (for that time), balanced and appropriate progression, or a combination of all those factors.  I suppose when it comes to older games, a game is replayable if it’s “good,” but that doesn’t really tells us much about the features that make a game replayable in the first place.  It’s quite difficult to determine this for older games, as it’s likely a unique aspect of an older game that lends the game to repeated playthroughs.

With more modern and current games, however, the features are easier to identify.  Achievements, unlockables, alternate outcomes, and increasing difficulty levels, in addition to (or really, in combination with) solid, fun gameplay can help make a game worth playing over and over again.  Of course, these are all somewhat broad categories, as any gamer can attest that not all achievements, for example, are worth pursuing.  For instance, is it worth it to play a Grand Theft Auto game over and over in order to complete side quests in order to get an achievement?  Is it worth it to create 10 “Endless Battle” lobbies in Street Fighter IV to unlock an achievement?  Probably not.  But is it worth it, in Bayonetta, to find and complete all Alfheim Portals?  Absolutely.  The latter adds additional layers of challenging gameplay, whereas the side quests in Grand Theft Auto are mostly examples of tedious bitchwork.  The same can be said for unlockables – it’s only worth unlocking something if it will later affect gameplay.  A new weapon or level?  Sure.  But a new costume?  I’ll pass.

Alternate outcomes, or direct consequences for the decisions you make within a game, are relatively new to video games, but they’re also perhaps the best way to increase a game’s replayability value.  It doesn’t exactly add layers and layers to the game itself but, like one of those old choose-your-own-adventure books, it can bring you back to see what else could have happened as a result of the choice you didn‘t make.  Still, this doesn’t really alter the gameplay, so the game has got to be worth playing in the first place in order for these multiple effects worth pursuing.

Personally, what brings me back to a game that I enjoyed playing is an increasing difficulty level.  I like being challenged, so if I had a good time playing through initially, making the game harder and more unforgiving is going to bring me back simply to test my skill.  Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden 2 are great examples of games that do this.  Bayonetta does this as well, but it also features many unlockable weapons and stages – I bought Bayonetta the day it came out in January and I still love playing it.  Granted, many of the game you enjoy playing over and over may not have any of these features, but I suspect it’s highly unlikely that this is the case.  Online play is a different beast altogether, since new opponents – none of whom will perform exactly alike – make the gaming experience unique every time you fire up your console.

In the end, simply being “fun” is a requirement for a game to be replayable (duh), but with modern games, it seems as though there’s got to be some incentive to keep gamers coming back for repeat playings.

What are the games you can play repeatedly?  And perhaps more importantly, what is it about those games that keeps you coming back for more?  Let me know.


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