Reward, Challenge, and the Truth about Replay Value

Replay value is a sorely misunderstood concept in game design. Designers and players tend to feel that replay value is a function of new content or challenge. Often a game with a linear story with no branching options, only one ending, and no advanced difficulty settings will be criticized for having low replay value, almost based solely on those facts. The perceived benefit of a higher replay value is that of economy: games are expensive, and the more entertainment you get out of them the better. Replay value is rather highly prized, to the extent that many games that would not generally be perceived as having high replay value (for instance, Batman: Arkham &c) come with dumb unlockable short missions to keep you appeased when you’ve finished the narrative. While there is nothing wrong with having such extra content, I’d like to talk about how they, along with much thinking to do with replay value, are quite misguided for this cause.

As a jumping off point, I refer the reader to Yahtzee Croshaw’s recent Extra Punctuation column about replay value. I remember reading it the first time with considerable surprise, as only two days before I had been discussing replay value with a friend and also brought up The Secret of Monkey Island. I disagree with a lot of his detailed analysis, but I agree with this basic statement:

What I’m saying is, don’t worry too much about chocolate sauce because a truly good game makes its own chocolate sauce

A novel idea! Perhaps a videogame has replay value simply because it is good, and you want to do the good thing that you did again. This perspective has its drawbacks, however: it’s consistent with how we experience other artforms (people are well-known to rewatch films they’ve already seen, read books they’ve already read, and even own and display paintings so that they can look at them whenever they want); it explains why games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Portal are so replayable even though they don’t change meaningfully between playthroughs; and it explains why nobody ever replays a game they dislike just because it has replay value, even if they strove to complete it the first time. Actually, those things are all good reasons to believe that.

Now, this could be a perfect time for me to proselytize my artsy-fartsy videogames perspective, but I will not. I could refer to how I don’t think challenge is important to videogames at all (inherently) or how the best parts of games we like are not the hardest parts. But now is not the time; this article will apply also to conventional games. At time of writing, I haven’t added enough of that notgames content to this blog to make a convincing argument of these things. So we will focus on how replay value affects  all games.

First, let’s talk about why replay value is such a big concern:

  • Games are too expensive: This is the big one. If you’ve paid $60 for a game, you want as much value for the money as possible. If choosing between a game with high replay value and a game with low, the economist tells us to go with the former (at least, given what terrible ideas of economics people tend to have). Games are expensive because a) the demands of 3D technology are currently very high and b)
  • Games are too long: That is to say, many games are too long for their own good. Many games, driven by the same concerns as drive their attempts at replay value, will pad their gameplay out unnecessarily in the name of good value. Now, months after completing the game, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, a gamer seriously considers whether they want to sink another 40 hours into the Witcher; the answer is probably ‘no’. Now of course in these days of pricey AAA development, many games actually surprise us by being too short, but this is generally because games focusing on gameplay fail to fully satisfy before ending; that is,
  • People don’t want fun experiences to end: If a person is enjoying a game, they probably don’t want that game to end before they are ready. People are known for not wanting anything the enjoy to end; but sex and good stories long ago figured out the solution: the climax. The climax is a moment so good in the process that it satisfies the seemingly unquenchable desire for more. Here enters the boss fight: usually a fitting narrative climax, few boss fights are well-designed enough to be good gameplay climaxes. Many, like in Batman: Arkham Asylum, were not well-suited to the difficulty curve. Some, like Painkiller, succeed in quenching the player’s desire to play by being so difficult as to inpsire a final, unrecoverable ragequit. But a sacred few, like the end of Half-Life 2, are so well-orchestrated, so tuned in to the essence of the gameplay and narrative, that they actually satisfy well. Sure, when I finished Half-Life 2, I wanted more; but I didn’t feel gypped. I went over to the Combine Overwiki and nerded out for a while. I was cuddling with Half-Life 2.

We often talk of reward and challenge in videogames. I’m certain this will not be my only post on the subject. We are going here to specifically discuss reward and challenge in regards to replay value, as the astute reader may have inferred from the title. Now, a challenge is, in itself, ofttimes rewarding. This simple sentence has actually been driving play, games, and videogames since the dawn of mammals. Raph Koster explores this at length in A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Of course, the learning process suggests that once mastered, the challenge becomes rote; it loses its fun. This seems to justify our state of affairs as regards chocolate sauce replay value — add more challenge, get more satisfaction!

This would be true, no doubt, if challenge were the only thing rewarding about a videogame! But that cannot be so! Consider multiplayer games: for many players, the reward is not in the challenge at all. Ah!, you cry, but of course it is! People play against each other online because human opponents are so much more cunning than artificial intelligence. But surely if that were so, then why would the first thing a person thinks about when considering online multiplayer be pwning newbs? Newbs aren’t even as cunning as AI; that’s their whole appeal. The reward in pwning them is nothing to do with challenge. It is something else entirely.

We can look at reward in one of two senses: in the strict sense, a reward is specifically recognition of an acheivement. This is the high score, the XBL Trophy, the fear and admiration of newbs. In the broader sense, reward is feeling positive about having done something — we feel rewarded by reading good books, eating ice cream, writing blog posts, and teaching newbs who’s boss. Thus we experience artwork for the perceived rewards — for the emotional experience, for the new perspectives, for the laffs, for the thrills and chills.

In this reading of reward, one hopes there is much rewarding about videogames apart from the challenge. Multiplayer games have their social rewards: for the more sociapathic of us, there is the much-mentioned newb-pwning; for the rest of us, there’s spending quality time with our friend(s). And all games of course have some element of narrative, music, graphical quality, and other aesthetic considerations that may reward us if we play them.

Now this reading justifies our state-of-affairs even more! Here we have games that, having finished them, offer us not only more difficulty settings, but more narratives, musics, graphical qualities, and other aesthetic considerationses! When you have finished the content, they give you more! Surely they’ve solved the riddle of replay value!

But we must not forget that people still choose to re-experience art that they have already experienced. They consider some things to be rewarding, even when they are exactly the same every time. There are two instances of this, often both at play for a single artwork: a) a person may feel, as for instance with The Big Lebowski, that the artwork is so complex and sophisticated that it offers something to be noticed for the first time with each re-experience, seemingly indefinitely so; and, b) a person may feel, as I do with Seinfeld, that even being intimately familiar with a moment’s details doesn’t take anything away from — and perhaps even adds something to — the experience in question.

The games that I have replayed the most ­— the Half-Life 2 series and the Max Payne series (all two of them, there is no third game, you were having a bad dream), are utterly linear shooters. Neither is particularly challenging (although Max Payne involves a lot of dying, I’m not convinced this is the same thing); but both offer such phenomenal storytelling and visual style that I’ve been drawn back into them again and again.

Here we enter the tricky swamp. Certainly the challenge of a challenge-centric videogame is a part of the appeal. And certainly, once beaten, a game is not forever a walk in the park; the game will always present some challenge. If you can say for yourself that you replay games because and only because you feel they can challenge you again or still, I will not deny you this right. But I argue that many gamers replay a game for something else entirely; for its qualities as a work of art and a narrative.

There is no need for alternate endings; there is no need for increased difficulty modes. They may be good things in their own right, don’t get me wrong. But they do not meaningfully contribute replay value. Worst case scenario, someone replays your game to re-experience a certain moment that they failed even to access the second-time through. In most cases, though, a person will want to replay your game because it’s good, and if it is actually good, it’s very unlikely they’ll be dissuaded from doing so just because the story is the same. If you do have branching stories, they may resent you for withholding content, or they may just view it is as the icing on the…chocolate sauce.

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