Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The replayability factor.

This article first appeared on my weekly 'Game Invader' column for The New Indian Express.

From all the bullet-points on the box, the online reviews, the fanboy raves, the developer bluster, you'd think replayability was where it's at. Infinite replayability. A different experience on each playthrough. No two games ever the same.

But seriously, is it THAT important in single-player ?

I've been playing videogames since their infancy, and I can't rememer too many single-player games that I replayed after finishing. After spending many long hours enjoying a great role-playing adventure or action epic, I don't want to play the same game again. I want to move on to the next title, something new and different. After all, there are so many games to play, and so little time. And I'll wager that the vast majority of average gamers are with me on this one.

Sure, there will be truly hardcore genre-specialists, academics and champion gamers who would play the same single-player game multiple times to see how it pans out each time. But for every one of these, there would surely be twenty who just want to move on to something else?

For me, videogames are an intense experience. A game like Oblivion, GTA 4 or Fallout 3 is something I don't merely play. I actually live through them. I let myself be drawn into their worlds, often thinking (and sometimes even dreaming) about the in-game situations even when I'm not playing. Even a stellar single-player shooter like Bioshock is an involving and emotionally immersive experience that takes a lot out of an average gamer.

So I always find it difficult to consider returning to them shortly after the first play through. I will sometimes revisit games many years after I first played them, but by this time I don't quite remember all the details of the first time anyway. And I never play through the entire game the second time around – it's usually a few hours to check out some specific thing as opposed to an evaluation of the overall experience.

Also, there are just so many great games that come out every year, that it's hard to see how anyone can resist playing them in favour of replaying games. Just last year, I missed out on titles like Mirror's Edge, Lost Odyssey, The World Ends with You, Left 4 Dead and Fable 2 to name a few. If I had the time, I'd have picked up one of those as opposed to spending another 30 hours on Fallout 3.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating on-rails experiences that are the products of rigid game design. Games that are designed with replayability in mind always offer choice and unpredictability – two critical components of quality single-player experiences. For me, making choices in Fallout is far more interesting when I'm playing in the knowledge that my choices have an implication on the game – and that things would have panned out very differently if I had chosen other courses of action. So the limitless choice built into the game design, while doubtless adding replay value, also greatly enhances the single-player experience.

I'm not saying that replayability is useless, it certainly is crucial from a design perspective, and is important to many gamers. But I don't believe that games like Grim Fandango, Indigo Prophecy or Sam & Max are any lesser because they lack it. I just think that it gets far more importance in the hype-o-sphere than it actually deserves.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to move on to my next game. And it certainly won't be GTA 4 again.


  1. You make a good point near the end of the post - games with re-playability have to offer the player more choices, and so often lead to a better, more enjoyable game.

    But I don't think re-playability is only hype - only that the definition of it leaves something to be desired. F'rinstance, the original Gears of War. There's very little that changes from one round of play to the next, if you're playing at the same difficulty level. Most encounters will play out in the exact same way. But it was still a lot of fun to run through, two, three, four times, simply because the entire gameplay experience is so well crafted...

    Other games, which I shall not name (because it's late and I'm sleepy and look, they weren't great games or I'd remember, okay?) I've played them once, put them aside, and never played them again.

    And speaking of Sam and Max? Sometimes good games are like good books. Even if you know what's coming and how everything works, you still want to go over it again and again a few times to make the most of it :)

  2. Gsathe - Well said. Agree with you. If you read the post carefully, I never say that replayability is purely hype, and I even concede that it is important to some players.

    My opinion is that it isn't as important as it's often made out to be, and lack of replayability (going by the standard publisher-developer definition) isn't necessarily something that detracts from an otherwise great game.