Replayability is a hot topic right now in the gaming industry. Games are becoming shorter, yet some of the shortest and most celebrated remain incomplete by most that buy them. Added value in the form of harder modes, item unlocks and side quests are often flaunted as features to pull players through and hopefully send them around again. Is there pressure on developers to create this sort of replayability in games today? Perhaps more importantly, is it necessary and are there better ways?
“We design a game to be played through once.” Thomas Grip is the creative director of Frictional Games, working on games like Amnesia, Penumbra and the upcoming Soma. “There is some pressure on having a certain play time, but we’ve never felt the need to make games replayable.”
Grip is one of the people at the forefront of the pursuit of better storytelling in games. He gave a talk about working toward a better merge of narrative and gameplay at this year’s Game Developers Conference.
Of course, replayability is necessary for a lot of games. But is it needed in narrative driven games like the ones that Grip and others are striving towards? “Some games obviously thrive on replay, like Tetris,” he says. “When you add story it becomes a bit more complicated, and I think it partly depends on how willing the player is to hear it again.
For example, some people might have a favourite book they read every year.” So the challenge lies in creating a story that people will want to hear again, rather than artificially creating reasons why the player should play the game through a second time. Equally, the gameplay itself has to be good enough to lure people back in.
We’ve all got a favourite movie that we’ve watched at least twice, and probably many more times. We keep going back to it because of the great story, or the brilliant acting. Not because we’re promised a new experience the next time round. Most games that everyone’s played a bunch of times, like Tetris, have replayability built into the mechanics, and that’s the best way to do it. There’s no story, and no new incentives to keep playing. It’s the gameplay that keeps us coming back.
“Where it gets interesting is where replay means some things no longer work,” Grip continues. “When performing magic, you almost never show a trick twice. This is because people spot patterns, or are harder to distract a second time, meaning they might uncover the secret of the trick, ruining it. There are tons of tricks we can use in games that are worthless a second time. For instance in Amnesia we rely a lot on the player not knowing when there is actual danger, and on them not understanding what happens if they are killed. These things are not replayable, and we could not have them if replay were a feature we needed. Some games would be impossible to make if replay were a necessity.”
For many games, replay is most certainly a necessity in the form of multiplayer. Ed Stern is a game writer at Splash Damage and has worked on games such as Enemy Territory, Brink, and the multiplayer section of Batman: Arkham Origins. “I work in the triple-A genre, generally involving multiplayer shooters, trying to write my way out of technical corners… If done right, multiplayer can be a sandbox, toolbox and ruleset to let players forge their own narratives. The ‘story’ of Counter-Strike map Dust2 is always the same, but no match on it plays out exactly the same way. Except when I keep getting sniped through the gates.”
So from Stern’s perspective, if he feels like he’s written something good, does he want the player to experience it multiple times? “It depends on the project. I think there’s an art to writing stuff that tells the player: ‘Look, this isn’t the important bit, move along over there, that’s what you need to be looking at.’ Just purely in terms of dialogue, very very few lines are still fun or cool the eleventybillionth time of hearing. If I write a line I like, and then the voice actor’s delivery makes it even better, and then I see someone’s used it in their forum signature, well, that’s a good day.”
Obviously different studios have different priorities. Unlike Frictional, Splash Damage designs games that are supposed to be replayed. Stern believes that “publishers are usually pretty keen for their single-player games to have multiplayer too, so that people keep playing it, which keeps their friends buying it. Sometimes the multiplayer bits are an afterthought, and feel that way. Sometimes they’re very carefully considered extensions of the main game. Sometimes the single-player is just a fancy tutorial for the multiplayer, which is the real meat of the thing. Multiplayer can certainly be an effective way to keep people playing a game, more so than trying to make the single-player meaningfully replayable again and again.”
However, that is precisely what Ken Levine, former creative director at Irrational Games, is trying to do. In his talk “Narrative Legos” at GDC, he outlined his basic idea for ‘endlessly replayable narrative’. He wants to move away from the intricately detailed plots of his past games like BioShock, and move onto something more open ended. He spoke about creating characters that react with the player and each other to create stories that haven’t actually been written, they are simply acting on their desires.
What’s more is that he wants characters to have randomisable traits that change on each playthrough. It all sounds incredibly ambitious from a technical perspective. From a storytelling perspective however, it sounds fairly odd. Do you want your favourite character to be totally different from how you remember them the second time through? It opens the door for a lot of variety, but can computer generated storylines ever be as emotionally driven as one written by a human?
Drew Karpyshyn is a giant in the game writing world. Baldur’s Gate II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect are just some of the stories he’s helped create. “Narrative replayability is something we worked very hard to include. I think one of the great things in Bioware-style games like Mass Effect is that players can play through multiple times and get very different experiences. Choosing Renegade or Paragon options in Mass Effect gives a very different feel to the action, and there are several major decisions that impact the story in significant ways, such as who lives or dies. Customisation is a key element to both story design and gameplay at Bioware. Fortunately, we have enough options that virtually no two players will ever have exactly the same experience even if they play through the game multiple times.”
Variety is the spice of life, so do people want to play a game a second and third time to see what would change? To do that, they have to finish it first.
Apparently, finishing games is rarer than you might think. Tom Abernathy, Narrative Lead at Riot Games, and Richard Rouse III, Design Lead at Microsoft Game Studios, gave a joint talk about game narrative at GDC entitled “Death to the Three-Act Structure”. They talked about game completion using statistics based on Steam achievements, and most importantly the ones that signify the end of the story.
Only 32% of players completed the story in Skyrim. That may not be all that surprising, it’s a large game, with a lot of side narrative. However, Portal only has a 47% completion rate. A game that has sublime gameplay and a remarkably strong narrative which can be finished in just a few hours has been completed by less than half of the people who own it. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is arguably the most story driven series of games there has ever been.
Only 66% of people finished the first episode, and only 39% of people stayed on to the very end of season one to see what happened to Lee and Clementine. These numbers don’t account for people playing games offline, but the actual percentages won’t differ too much.
Games which aren’t narratively driven seem to be the best way forward in terms of replayability. The stats would suggest that there is a large group of people who don’t care about story the first time through, let alone after multiple playthroughs. Perhaps it would be more prudent to focus on creating a singular, fantastic experience, rather than diluting narrative further with ‘replayability’.
In a story-driven game, variety can come in the form of customisation, not from playing through the campaign again with the rocket launcher unlocked at the start.