Throughout our years of gaming, we’ve been privy to hundreds if not thousands of amazing titles and spent hours upon hours enjoying games that have shaped our personalities and our love for this medium. Technology has evolved significantly over the years, from 8 and 16-bit experiences to ultra HD masterpieces and these continue to evolve from one generation to the next. When we played games in the 90s there was a huge focus on replayability with games that were finite experiences but could be enjoyed over and over again.
These games wouldn’t take up hundreds of hours of our lives but we still played them time and time again to revel in the joy that came from improving our skills through replaying levels, playing alongside friends, sharing controllers or playing split-screen. Games like Mario Kart 64 gave us endless hours of joy to race and battle against our friends, Goldeneye pitted friends against friends in hours of battle which would evolve into the ever-popular multiplayer shooters of our current generations, and many story-based titles kept us coming back for more to experience these great games over and over and find interesting and fun ways to tackle missions.
Even going back only a few years to the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation, games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age Origins, Skyrim and Fallout gave players huge worlds and even galaxies to explore with decisions to make, and with each subsequent playthrough, different outcomes to affect the ending of the games themselves. We’ve seen this still in the current generation, with The Witcher 3, or indie games like Oxenfree, where our decisions along the way can drastically change an ending, which leads to a reason to play games over again and experience different narrative paths, but all too often games are touting constant replayability over longer periods of time, courtesy of ongoing updates and live service models. And this is where I take issue with many current titles and the problem that developers and publishers have mistaken replayability for their insistence on persistent worlds.
Live Service Games
MMOs are not a new genre, we all know that. But in recent years, the explosion of MMO lites, looter shooters, online live services and an insistence on constant updates and in some situations half baked games released to the public with the promise of ongoing support have become the norm. Games like Destiny, the Division, Anthem and Fallout 76 are all too commonly released with major issues, and require years of tweaking and updating to make them into a fully polished and worthwhile experience.
The big publishers insist on continually releasing live service titles with a focus on high levels of replayability due to their ongoing support, patches, timed events, updates and expanded content, and gone are the days – mostly – where games are replayable simply because they are so enjoyable that players will return to them time and time again to enjoy the gameplay, story, narrative choices or beautiful worlds.
A recent game to unfortunately take this approach is the remake of the incredibly popular game Crash Team Racing. CTR Nitro-Fueled got huge praise when it released for being a highly polished and a beautiful reimagining of the now 20-year-old game, with gorgeous graphical changes, but a focus on keeping the kart racing just as smooth, polished and enjoyable as the original game. The developers also added modern touches, like a slew of customization options, giving players more of a reason to continue playing to unlock more and more items, which in and of itself is a great addition to modernizing the game.
As players, we love unlocking stuff! We’ll grind for hours in our favorite games to get the next achievement, to level up to get that next ability or customization or skin, it gives more meaning to the hours we put into a game that we love, and it’s fun. Again, in and of itself, this is a great addition to an older title. However, because Activision is Activision, ensuring players return to the game day after day, a Grand Prix is added to Crash Team Racing to give you a reason to jump back in, the game is being constantly updated, new items are in the Pit Stop, and new characters are being added to the game as well. Again – great features, but is this all because they have now added microtransactions? And in order to continue supplying customers will ongoing content, they must monetize a remake of a 20-year-old game?
I can’t help but feel that players would’ve been happy with all the content at launch as long as the gameplay loop was strong and the joy of playing with our friends, or even in time trials, or online would be reason enough to continue to return to the game.
Look at, in comparison, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. The highest selling game on the Nintendo Switch, with zero microtransactions, probably fewer customisation options, and to be honest what could be seen as a threadbare suite of game modes and tracks – but this game continues to bring audiences to it, and its one of the games I continue to go back to on the Switch when I just want something fun to get stuck into, or if I want to play an incredibly fun game with friends
Replayability and Persistence
This is where that distinction sits for me between replayability and persistence. Nintendo doesn’t need to constantly update Mario Kart with new features, and grind-heavy gameplay devices that lure you back into the game to ensure you’re not hit with a heavy dose of FOMO. It’s part of Activision’s business model however with most of their dwindling library of IP. But apart from this very specific situation – let’s look at RPGs instead.
My favorite series of all time, Mass Effect, is a series of games I’ve played over and over again, and Mass Effect 2 is the first game I ever reached 100% achievement score. These games are finite. There is a lot to do, don’t get me wrong, but the story is a finite experience, and actually doesn’t take that long to complete.
I recently have played Mass Effect 1 & 2 and both games took around 30 hours each to complete, with me completing quite a few side quests along the way. But the reason these games are so replayable, in the traditional sense, is the depth at which the game can be experienced due to your decisions, the way you play and interact with characters, and the endings themselves.
The game may only take 30 hours to complete, which in modern terms is a short experience, especially for an RPG, but you can play them over and over again to see all the different outcomes, see the different ways you can tackle combat, and to experience different relationships with your crew members and those around you.
When Obsidian Entertainment stated recently that their new sci-fi RPG The Outer Worlds is not a 100+ hour giant open world, but more like 25-30 hours of pure RPG brilliance, this actually increased my excitement for a game that I was already incredibly excited for and is my most anticipated game set to release this year.
The fact that they are respecting not only the players’ time but also ensuring that there are enough differing paths and ways to play the game so as to draw players back for another play-through with deep RPG mechanics, which seem to be void in most titles now, reminds me of masterpieces like Mass Effect. They don’t need to tout persistence and constant updates to a live service that will, eventually, become null and void anyway when a sequel inevitably drops, riddled with microtransactions in order to supplant the costs of ongoing development and try and coax players to return every single day to complete daily or weekly missions.
Put out a great game with true replayability and there will be a healthy community of players choosing to return to the game day after day, month after month, and possibly for years to come simply because they love what the developers have created. Developers and publishers need to remember what replayability really means, in our current gaming climate, it seems like it’s a long-forgotten feature.
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