Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Playing and Replaying and Replaying

I wonder how many games a person actually goes back and replays. Aside from continuing multiplayer games like Starcraft or League of Legends, most games are played and then put away. Even games like Halo and Call of Duty are shelved eventually because their successor takes over and gamers move on. Game companies are constantly trying to incorporate additional content to keep the player playing. And some companies do a good job of incorporating replayability in interesting ways. Yet the idea itself is pretty old. Even Chrono Trigger has multiple endings and different missions that a player may have missed the first time through. Some companies don’t do so well and announce things like day 1 DLC, or additional “true endings” for a $10 dollar price tag. Since replay value is something that every company worries about maybe it’s time new ideas are formed and experimented with.

With Xbox Live and PSN, multiplayer has evolved past 4 dudes playing Goldeneye or Super Smash Bros. in a living room. As Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo push their consoles to be a conduit that connects a person to all of their friends and social networking needs, video games are pushing to keep up as well. Halo and Call of Duty both have their own separate services that track stats and give exclusive content. These services are great for friends who compete with each other or for Activision to get more money out of their audience by paying for a VIP Pass. However, it less than viable for most games. Recently, multiplayer has been added on to many games that really don’t need them. I’m sure that the Uncharted 3 multiplayer is fun for a while, but is it really necessary in a game that is played for the stellar story? Bioshock 2 had the same problem. Not only was the multiplayer so-so, but it was added onto a game that was advertised as a single-player experience. I think the solution lies in constantly updating the game with content. Instead of working on a DLC that is a portion of a story, the dev team could instead turn the story into an episodic series that allows for more room in terms of storytelling and development. After the initial release, a development team can go back and release more content related to the story in reasonable chunks within a reasonable time frame. Even though this method isn’t the right path for every game out there, I think if more companies considered this plan instead of just DLC like every other game, the audience would pay for a great story, and the company would turn a profit.

For games like Call of Duty, Halo, or even Assasins Creed, multiplayer has become an integral part of the game, so development teams should work on making the transition from single player to multiplayer smoother. Whether it is incorporating the multiplayer into the single player universe, or making the multiplayer element itself into its own story, blending the experience a person has by themselves and when with friends can go a long way in encouraging more people to play the game. Halo 4’s Spartan Ops is a good start. By releasing story-based content weekly, players will keep coming back for not just shooting their friends, but playing through another story that 343 has created. TellTale Games is doing a similar thing with The Walking Dead video game, releasing 5 episodes over a period of time. You can buy a season pass and have guaranteed access for each episode. If more games operated like this, then not only would game companies be able to make more money from additional purchases, but fans can enjoy well-developed content every month without feeling like they are being robbed.

Now let’s talk about DLC. Probably one of the easiest ways to extend a game, and it’s not necessarily a bad way either. Plenty of awesome DLC packs have been released for the Mass Effect series, Borderlands, and Red Dead Redemption. There have also been blunders that the fans did not take kindly to. Things like disc-locked content, day 1 DLC, or just bad DLC in general. First off, I do not have a problem with day 1 DLC. It sounds horrible, but the reality of development is that there is a lag between when a company like Bioware declares their game finished, and the actual release date. When that time lag can span 2 months or more, the dev team is sitting around, working on the next project, or just not working. DLC is a great way to explore different aspects of a video game’s story. Maybe there wasn’t enough time or money to add in this really cool side mission, so a dev team can spend an extra month or so, polish it up and expand it to make it a few hours longer, and ta-da! DLC for everyone to enjoy. The problem with DLC is in the inherent time delay between each release. Look at the time delay between Skyrim’s release and its first major DLC release. When a player has to wait months for new content on a game, they are most likely going to shelf it and move onto a new one. Since the development time for DLC can only be shortened so much, a more useful alternative would be perfect. Games like LittleBig Planet are fun because of the user generated content that is available 24/7. But there is a big difference between a few awesome user-generated levels, and an official release by the dev team with all the bells and whistles. What might work instead is a hybrid of the two options. Have dev teams constantly looking at user-created content and ideas, communicating with the community to generate content that is fan driven, as well as professionally created:”Shiny AND Satisfying.”

If day 1 DLC is the only viable option for a company to keep working on a really good game, then I can be okay with it, especially when they can announce more DLC because everyone bought the game and the DLC on day 1. However I think that there is a more elegant solution that should be looked into. Instead of just shipping added content as DLC, maybe a company like Naughty Dog or Irrational could release added story elements through different mediums. Maybe to get a more in-depth look at the Big Daddies of Bioshock, you can pay 1$.99 to download an interactive workshop on your iPad, which lets you make Big Daddies or read about how their interaction with the little girls came to be in a graphic novel. This kind of thing is already being implemented everywhere with companies trying to create more means of keeping the audience engaged in their game over everyone else’s. By creating a multifaceted world, companies can spread their income and investments over a variety of entertainment mediums, and the fans reap all the rewards by having the opportunity to absorb more content about whichever game they really like.

Two of the classic replay strategies are New Game+ and the incorporation of multiple endings. New Game+ is actually a pretty old concept. Basically the idea is that once you complete the game, you can start a new game using the same save file, keeping all of your old gear, levels, powers, etc. But when you do the game is harder based on your level and you usually have new items, harder bosses, and even possibly additional story elements. Even games as far back as the first Pokemon game and Chrono Trigger used New Game+ to keep kids playing their game. It’s not that hard to do in most genres. RPG and Action-Adventure titles all use the method to some degree to add an element of replayability to their game. Multiple endings are used the same way. By incorporating choice, and subsequently multiple paths for the story to follow, a video game can inherently create multiple endings, wherein no one playthrough can you completely finish the story. It’s a useful, but once again old, story manipulation technique. The do-it-yourself adventure is really fun, but it can only be spread out so far. In most games every possible game playthrough, the player will play 60-80% of the same story with that last 20-40% changing based on your decisions. Unless you’re playing an actual simulation game (Civilization, Sims, Simcity, etc.), there is a boundary in a choose-your-adventure game that can never really be crossed.

I think that New Game+ is an old, but good, tactic in adding replay value to a video game. But the idea and implementation need to be updated a lot. The Mass Effect Series is probably the best example. As a planned trilogy, your decisions have impact on later games and there was a dialogue choice that made each conversation any time you played through the games unique. However, not all games can be as big, or as big-budget, as the Mass Effect series. Instead, the old idea should be morphed a little to fit the needs of smaller games or different genres. Story intense games like Bioshock need to have applicable rewards other than just a different cutscene at the end. I think the answer lies in fusing this with social interaction. If you completed the story mode, and your friend did too, then that should unlock a co-op mode where you play the story together, or unlock a certain multiplayer mode. If this kind of reward system for playing through the story over and over again isn’t abused, I think it could extend the life span of a video game more than just creating different cutscenes or color palettes based on your in-game choices.

Most of the ideas that dev teams come up with to extend their games play-life are really interesting and fun. The battle comes in when there isn’t enough time to implement it the way the team originally planned, or when a producer insists on the game doing it a certain way because everyone else is to make more money. A lot of good ideas can go really bad because a company wants to abuse the idea to squeeze as much money as possible out of their targeted audience. While game companies are out to make money, it takes a certain balance. A proper synthesis of business and creative freedom to allow for the best game possible that makes a lot of money. You see the examples of that balance in current triple-A franchises like Halo or Mass Effect. They all have gameplay elements that have been tested and used, but not abused: at least not too much. Most of the ideas or solutions I’ve presented are used right now, but some haven’t exactly found that sweet spot, where it allows for great content while still making money. Either way we as gamers can have a say in what we like or dislike. It all comes down to how we respond to the games. If we like it, then let Activision or Bungie know. Not just by buying the game, but being active in forums. Send the company an email if you have to. Just make sure your voice is heard by the right people. If we do that enough, then companies will listen when we like, or don’t like, certain aspects of a game.

Replayabiltiy is an aspect in a game that is really hard to define and quantify. Now, a lot of people will walk into a store and ask “How much playtime am I getting out of this $60 game?” Depending on the genre and game you buy, you could play a game for 20 hours, go back and resell it, and buy a new game. But when it comes to trying to increase the number of hours consumed by playing any one game, video game companies need to both listen to their audience, and their development team when it comes to finding the best fit. Multiplayer may not work on a single-player story centered game, but episodic content might. It takes communication and the willingness to take a little risk. I hope that in time, we can all enjoy any game we like with the ability to share it with our friends and it is easy for them to join in on the fun. Or play a game into the wee hours of the morning, spending days or weeks on a game until every possible outlet has been exhausted, and still find more to play.
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