Enhancing Replay Value In Console Games (And How To Kill It)

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In this post I’m focusing on console gaming. PC games have provided extras, add-ons, mods, etc for nearly as long as they’ve been around (at the least it was often possible to hack game RAM). Typically, it’s been much easier to modify a game on a PC regardless of whether it was what the developer intended (or expected).

I’ve played countless games over the years. There were times when I may have averaged 20+ hours/week playing. For the past couple of years I’ve probably averaged only about 15 minutes/week. Most of my reasons for playing less just have to do more with an increase in “adult” responsibilities, though a lack of interest in available titles and the replay value of many games are also factors.

A simple definition of replay value is the amount of interest and time a gamer will dedicate to a game after it’s been completed. That’s overly simplified – the characteristics of a game that determine replay value can vary from game to game and genre to genre.

I remember playing Super Mario Kart on the original Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). My younger brother and I spent countless hours playing it, especially the Battle Mode. Sure, we beat all modes of the game, but what kept us playing where the odd tricks and attempts to essentially “break” the game.

For example, sometimes we’d race against the computer with one goal in mind – to knock them off the track on levels without barriers, such as the ghost houses or the Rainbow Road. It was probably our little way of getting back at the programmers for having “rubber-band” AI (the computer players would almost always catch up no matter how well the player drove the kart).

I’ve carried this method of playing forward into many different games. In fact, the most fun I’ve had playing games with friends was when we goofed around and didn’t follow the rules of the game. Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2 are both great examples. We’d find ways to survive insanely high jumps, get outside the normal playing area, or push various objects off ledges and all just for fun.

It wasn’t as much fun in Halo 2 as it was in Halo: Combat Evolved. In Halo 3 the developers outright killed that aspect of replay value. Specifically, they created invisible barriers that push the player back into the game zone or they created zones that automatically killed the player when entered. I think this is an excellent idea for multiplayer deathmatch levels. It wouldn’t be fun to have someone sniping players from an area that nobody else can reach. But for regular, campaign modes it just doesn’t really make sense.

My assumption is that the developers probably wanted the player to only see the levels as intended, but it put a damper on playing the game over and over again. After all, if you already know everything about the level and there’s nothing new to discover then what’s the point of playing again?

The Burnout games were another good example, especially Burnout and Burnout 2. Perhaps we found these games more of a challenge to break because they were very restrictive environments. In the most current iteration, Burnout Paradise, a driver can take the car almost anywhere, but back in the first and second games the tracks were very straightforward and shortcuts were non-existent. That doesn’t mean we didn’t make any…

In the original Halo I quickly discovered that I could take a Warthog in the second level and drive it up to the top of a large hill and then from there just bide my time snipping enemies until the area was relatively clear. It wasn’t necessary, but it made that particular area more interesting.

The same can be said for “Warthog jumping”, which was the act of laying down multiple grenades around a Warthog (a vehicle in the game), detonating them, and then watching it fly way up into the air and sometimes across the level. That trick became harder in later games. Going into Halo 2 there was only one Warthog in the game that was invincible so while the trick could work it would usually only work once with a specific vehicle.

Finding non-traditional shortcuts in the various Mario Kart games was an interesting challenge and could be very useful. For example, if I’m doing very well and getting a fair lead on the other AI drivers it was still possible to get nailed by a Blue Shell and have my chances of taking first place ruined. However, if there was a shortcut that I could execute with just a mushroom then I might have a chance of winning against the rubber-band AI.

Yet, if the developers had insisted on creating barriers between all sections of the tracks then such last-minute saves wouldn’t be possible. In addition, many of us wouldn’t have take the time to discover these shortcuts in the first place, thus reducing the replay value. Those shortcuts came with a price, too. It was easy to not do it correctly and end up in a worse position (the same can be said of the SNES game F-Zero).

I owned one of the Grand Theft Auto games but never really played the actual missions. Instead, I went online with some friends and we goofed around, stole aircraft, and caused mayhem just to see how the game would respond. Personally, I think Just Cause 2 would have been one of the greatest multiplayer games to play in if only they had actually added a multiplayer mode.

Keeping a multiplayer/deathmatch game fair is certainly important and I don’t think developers should stop working to even the playing field. However, when it comes to the single player and co-op modes I think a little more leeway for allowing level exploration should be permitted, if only to make a $60 game enjoyable after it’s been completed the normal way.

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