I’m a picky shopper. I like to get the most out of my money. I wait for sales. I buy used. I use coupons.
When it comes to games, I want more than a four hour experience for $50+.
So, I look for titles that have a nice, long playthrough, like a Star Ocean or a Final Fantasy; replayability like a Master of Orion, MOO2 or Master of Magic; or keeplayability like Animal Crossing, The Sims or most MMOs. As I age and my playing time is more and more constrained, though, I find that after a while, keeplayable games just feel like another job, while a nicely designed replayable game still manages to be fun.
Long playthrough games are fairly easy to diagnose. They typically have a strong story that runs on a slow burn, with story elements revealed between grinding game play sessions. These are almost always RPGs, or a variation like a Tactics game. (Final Fantasy Tactics, Front Mission, Disgaea, etc.) Once I’m done with the canned story, there’s little reason to replay the game.
To be fair, I replayed Star Ocean 2 back in high school, using a sneaky Disc One Nuke to get a superweapon early on to make combat faster the second time through. The “replay” draw of SO2 is the choice of characters for the party, and the interaction between them, including different “endings” for the game. For example, bringing along Precis means Bowman won’t join you, or choosing Claude or Rena as your main character means different supporting cast choices. In actual gameplay, it’s not really a big difference. There are no Duel Techs as in Chrono Trigger (one of the few replayable RPGs; New Game + is brilliant) that would make a different cast synergize in new and interesting ways. Each character plays a little differently, but they are equivalent enough in power to mean that the choice is going to be mostly rooted in the side stories you want to see, the character interrelationships you hope for, and the “endings” you want. Thing is, the side stories are short, the relationship vignettes are even shorter, and the “endings” are just little postscripts that show which characters paired off (or not) and what that meant to their personal narrative. Replaying a 70 hour game to see maybe fifteen minutes worth of new story and some marginally different combat isn’t really the best use of my time. Yes, I did play through the game twice way back when, but that was a mark of how much I enjoy the combat and crafting systems, and a fair dose of insomnia. These days, if I’m interested in the characters, I find a GameFAQ that covers the plot and its alternates.
Replayable games are a mixed bunch. This can be anything from the aforementioned MOO to Bejeweled. (Speaking of Bejeweled, Puzzle Quest is a strange hybrid of Bejeweled and a stock RPG, taking up a funny design space between “replayable” and “long playthrough”.) These games are designed to be replayed, and each replay can offer anything from minor variations to radically different experiences. The key to making this work for me, the time-strapped player, is to make the game session short, and the experience different enough each time to warrant playing.
Fighting games fall in this range. Playing as a different character can radically change my experience, and bouts are fairly short. Some arcade games might qualify, like the arcade 6-player X-Men, since the choice of character does alter the game somewhat, despite the canned story. What is really great is when the gameplay itself alters depending on the player choices. That’s why I like the MOO/Civilization lineage; the world is largely molded by your aggregate actions. Yes, these are largely “sandbox” games, but they aren’t the sprawling mess that is GTA, they are smaller, more malleable beasts. The sense of power, that my decisions matter, is key to making the experience fun, and the ability to make different choices with different outcomes is what makes replayability enjoyable.
This is also why a strong narrative, as that of the prototypical RPG, is not really well suited to replayability in this sense. I’ve worked for years on designs for a “finite state” RPG where the story itself is based on a “living world” that changes, sometimes dramatically, based on player actions. Fable attempts something similar, and notably is relatively short compared to a SquareEnix opus or D&D derivative.
Then there’s what I’m calling “keeplayability“. Yes, it’s a word I made up; yes, someone else probably also independently made it up; yes, it’s unwieldy and vaguely punny; yes, the smooshing together of words is almost German. I have German roots, blame my ancestors.
These are the games that are designed for players to just keep playing. There’s no reset, no sense of an end, and sometimes, not much of a point. These are often the ultimate sandboxes, requiring the player to bring their own fun. These games can be lots of fun, most certainly. They tend to offer a great deal of value for their cost, so long as players don’t mind a somewhat aimless experience. I have Animal Crossing for the DS, and I’ve certainly been able to get a great deal of playtime out of a modest box price. Even my company’s Kingdom for Keflings is designed along these lines, albeit on a somewhat more modest scale.
These games may or may not have in-game goals. In the XBox “Achievement” era, there are often little metagame goals to earn achievements with, but the gameplay itself is more or less a set of toys for players to tinker with. There may or may not be a sense of progression, but if there is, there is no well-defined “end” to the game, since that would undermine the goal to keep people playing. These are the ultimate treadmills.
MMOs typically fall into this category. Guild Wars is a notable exception, since the level cap is reached fairly quickly, and there are definite storylines with endings in each expansion. There is even limited replayability with different character classes (though most MMOs offer this, GW is more accessible thanks to the sense of an end). Importantly, GW charges for content, rather than access. These keeplayable games are tailor made for the subscription model, since they are designed to never end. They aren’t just designed without an ending, they are designed to keep going.
Once upon a time, I would have loved to fill my time with keeplayable games, but more and more, despite the great return per gaming dollar, I’ve seen them to be huge time sinks. (This is especially true with sub MMOs, where they are time and money sinks thanks to recurring costs.) My time is becoming more important than my gaming investment calculation, in other words. I suspect that to be true for many gamers as they grow up and get lives. Games will always be an important part of our recreation, but they won’t take up as much time as they once did.
Devs need to pack as much goodness per hour per dollar as they can to earn their keep. It’s a demanding equation, but not an impossible one.
*Games like Shift or Auditorium don’t quite fit in any of these. They are short, yes, but they don’t change significantly on replay. They are fun for a while, then the joy comes in giving them to other people. Most of these are free, though, so I’m usually happy to have spent the time I did playing them.