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There are numerous ways to enjoy games. Sometimes games are almost designed to be played a single time. You have a unique experience that cannot be captured a second time around, and so every effort is put into making that experience feel powerful.
But sometimes games are designed around being played multiple times. This can be a product of the game’s own intentions, or a product of the game’s capacity for choice. Put a different way, a game can be replayable because there are completely new experiences available, or because there are new choices to make. While these may both seem like the same idea, it is important to separate them out: a different choice may ultimately lead to a similar experience, even if particular factors change.
And as games get bigger, the idea of replayability is not explored as directly and thoroughly as the idea of pure length. That is, making a game that lasts 50 hours on its single playthrough is often favored over a game that might be worth replaying 5 times for 10 hours apiece. To some extent, this is understandable: it can be easier to concoct a single narrative and a single experience that is carried through those 50 hours, rather than needing to concoct what is effectively 5 unique stories. Hence, making a replayable game is by no means easier than making a game that is equally long. In fact, it may well be more difficult.
But nevertheless, it is worth exploring the idea of replayability. What is it that makes a game “replayable”? Much as the desire to go through a game always relies on the player, there are certain factors that facilitate that desire. In other words, a game can be more or less likely to entice a player to replay, and understanding what those factors are can help us to think about what makes a game last without needing to pad it out.
I present this idea of replayability in part because replayability itself is an important factor for a game’s longevity. If you want a game to last beyond its present time, making it feel like it’s worth replaying is important. After all, a game that isn’t worth replaying – not even because it was bad or mediocre, but because once you’ve finished the game you are “done” with it – will eventually stagnate in player’s minds and be forgotten, leaving only faint impressions that are unlikely to be revisited. But a replayable game is something that draws players back to it continually. And the more often players revisit the game, the fresher the memories they will have of it, and the stronger the impressions of the game will be.
For the purposes of replayability, our discussion does not include such genres as roguelikes and competitive multiplayer games. Games that are built around shorter play sessions where there are simple victory and loss conditions in a match or a run don’t really fit into the metric we are using here. Because starting another run in a roguelike or another match in an arena shooter is continuing to play, as opposed to starting over entirely. We can replay these games by starting from scratch, just like we would with any other game, but generally these games are not designed with such replayability in mind.
What Makes a Game Replayable?
Our objective here is going to be figuring out what factors make a game “replayable.” Technically, when we think of replayability, we don’t actually mean “is it capable of being played again.” There are few games that aren’t replayable on that definition. Instead, what we mean is how much the game encourages players to replay it again.
So what we’re trying to capture is how enjoyable a game will be when you’re playing through it all over again. It’s not that the game suddenly becomes worse as you replay it. Instead, one key element for our enjoyment of all sorts of experiences is newness. Experiences that we’ve never had before can often be more exciting and therefore enjoyable than experiences we’ve already encountered. By that same token, playing through a game once will bring out all sorts of emotions and joys that will be unique to that first playthrough, and will be tough – if not impossible – to capture on subsequent playthroughs. You cannot play the same game twice.
But there are a few factors which can make for brand new experiences, even when we’re playing the same game. The result of those new experiences is that while we won’t be enjoying the same game in the same way, we can enjoy it in a brand new way. That maintains the sense of newness, without having to play an entirely new game to capture it.
Creating those new experiences can involve a few different factors. Not all of them need to be present at the same time, but the more factors that are present, the more replayable a game will be. So it’s best to think about replayability not as a dichotomy – a game is either replayable or not – but as a spectrum.
One important element relates to the game’s narrative. Since a core component of the video game experience lies in being told a story, many players decide not to replay games because once they’ve seen the story, the game has no additional value. At best, a player might decide to revisit a game because it’s been so long since they played a game that they might feel some urge to replay it, or have forgotten it sufficiently that it might feel a bit new. But often once a story is told, it is complete.
So a way of promoting replayability is through having new playthroughs to tell new stories. While having every part of the narrative change would fit this description, it is not necessary. Instead, it’s about altering a sufficient amount that the story genuinely feels different.
A common way of envisioning “new stories” is through offering players choices. You are given a bunch of choices about how to progress or end quests that have different outcomes, and those choices might even impact how the game ends. While offering choices can definitely help in this regard, they aren’t the key to creating new stories. Because often the role of choices is to make small branches off of a larger narrative. Once the larger narrative is set, the particular branches have such a similar flavor that there may be little reason to explore them beyond mere curiosity. While these choices can help, they cannot on their own capture the idea of creating a new story for the player to experience.
Related to this storytelling component is worldbuilding itself. When we think about stories, we often think about the specific narrative communicated through dialogue. But there are also all sorts of little details that can be hidden in the world. Sometimes a bit character might say something that puts a major character’s motivations into a new light. Sometimes a piece of scenery might imply some larger connection to the game’s themes. Sometimes a small detail of the main story can gain new relevance during a new playthrough. All of those little things can create this idea of discoverability, that new playthroughs add to our experience. Perhaps our goal is gathering information for interpretation. Perhaps our goal is getting a fuller sense of what’s going on in the game. Whatever it may be, the idea that if you keep playing through the game you’ll find more information to gather can add to this idea of replayability.
Another way in which we can increase replayability is through changing how players play the game. Normally, a game has a very narrow set of options for how the game’s mechanics work. In fact, most games basically give all players a single toolbox, and then ask players to basically use whatever tools they feel are best. Some games encourage genuinely different playstyles. For example, a fantasy game might offer a choice to play through with melee fighting, or using magic. And those playstyles might be so different that a player is curious about playing both ways.
Of course, to make that choice worthwhile, the gameplay again needs to really feel different. If a player is just using the same basic strategies at all times, it can become hard for them to really justify to themselves that it’s worth replaying the game. Not impossible, but harder. So major changes – different strategies, different character building, different progression – all contribute to making the game mechanics themselves richer and thus capable of their own exploration.
Finally, there is also an important factor of time. How much we’re willing to replay a game depends a lot on how much time we will have to invest in doing so. Replaying a 100 hour game is going to be tough unless we have no other options, precisely because it will take so long. That can be true even if the experience will be fairly new. Meanwhile, a shorter game will be easier to replay, even immediately. If a game only lasts a few hours, anything we want to accomplish – getting a new ending, trying out different choices, experimenting with a new playstyle – can all be done much more easily. So replayability is strongly tied to a game’s length.
Of course, we must not forget that surrounding all of this is a factor of the player themself. Different players have different levels of tolerance for replaying games. Some don’t like replaying at all, or only very rarely, some have no trouble with replaying a game over and over again. Some people are forced to replay a game because they have few or no other options: they can’t afford to buy new games, so they need to derive every bit of joy they can get from the games they have. Some people have particular affinities for specific games and will replay those specific games, but not necessarily others. All sorts of similar factors will result in individual players deciding whether or not they want to replay a game. And ultimately, no design decision can really make a given player change their mind. A game can only be designed to help encourage players to replay at best.
The idea of replayability is something that we often think about, and sometimes even use when we assess a game. But trying to think about what factors make a game replayable and how games can be designed around replayability gives us a sense of how we can talk about games. Does a particular game do a good or a bad job at encouraging repeat playthroughs? Understanding how it does or doesn’t encourage replays helps us to explain both to ourselves and to others what makes a game appealing or unappealing.
Not all games, of course, need to be replayable. So we don’t need to rank games based on whether or not they are replayable. But insofar as a game seems designed around being played through again, we should keep in mind how well it accomplishes that task.