What Encourages Replayability?
For a lot of video games, players will likely play through the game once and not revisit the title unless it has garnered some favoritism. I myself have finished a great deal of video games (some I absolutely adore) that have not tempted me to return and play again. Now, when I refer to a game’s replay value, I am not referring to multiplayer games like Mario Kart as those titles are built around players repeatedly competing against each other. After all, multiplayer games are designed to keep players coming back by making sure matches stay fresh and are balanced. Instead I will be discussing interesting ways games with a single player focus have encouraged going back to replay either specific levels or the entire game.
One way that stands out immediately is scoring systems. Scoring systems work in that they keep track of how the player is doing and, based on a number of factors, displays a score that reflects how the player performed at the end of the level. Because of this, the motivation to keep returning comes from noticing some not-so great scores and deciding that doing a better job is a possibility.
If you were to look at a game like Tetris, it is evident that if a scoring system did not exist, there would be no reason to stay hooked. Tetris is all about stacking blocks into rows until complete ones disappear. You need to make decisions based on which piece you are given, factor in increasing speeds, and understand that losing is an eventuality. If the game did not keep track of your performance, there would be no reason to keep playing and strive to do better each time. This is a part of why Tetris is known for keeping players playing for hours, as constantly being given the opportunity to do better based on your knowledge of the game is hard to pass up.
Scoring systems are also common in action games like Bayonetta. In Bayonetta, you are technically able to beat the game without grasping the full extent of the combat system, but doing so means your grades will be underwhelming since you spent the playthrough focused on beating the enemies, not keeping your attacks persistent. However, once the campaign is complete for the first time, you have the option to play on a harder difficulty with the same character. Even if you do not opt to play on hard mode when it’s unlocked, the fact that you just spent an entire game learning how this combat system works, can keep playing with your upgraded character, and have a bunch of bad rankings asking you to do better makes going back and improving your scores quite tantalizing.
In some respects, how Bayonetta encourages replayability is similar to New Game Plus, only with New Game Plus you have to start all over again instead of being able to select any level. That said, being able to replay a game you just beat with a stronger character at the start (and tougher enemies to compensate) is enough justification to return for a second time. Now you can make the argument that playing on New Game Plus is similar to playing on higher difficulty modes (i.e. another replay technique used by Bayonetta), but since New Game Plus keeps the upgrades from the previous playthrough, it both provides the opportunity to keep playing as the character you’ve already spent hours playing as and the opportunity to play on a higher difficulty.
An example of how New Game Plus can work is present in Dark Souls. The open, interconnected nature of the game’s setting, Lordran, leads to scenarios like gathering items in The Catacombs and New Londo Ruins early on, fighting the Four Kings (and Sif by extension) before reaching Anor Londo, and (most famously) using an alternative pathway to skip the majority of Blighttown. You could just try differentiating how you explore Lordran on another save file as a different character (a point I will get to later) or use the one you’ve already spent hours leveling up. In this case, having the player return to his/her previous character after growing accustomed to a set play style works by preventing a playthrough where the player gathers the same armor, uses the same weapon, and pumps the same amount of experience points into the same stats.
Playing New Game Plus can also lead to changes in the moment-to-moment gameplay. In Dishonored 2, New Game Plus stores all of the previously obtained Runes (i.e. what you use to unlock abilities) and (assuming you accepted the offer to have magic powers) hands them out all at once while also providing access to the abilities of both protagonists, Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Attano. This means you can experiment with all of the powers each character has and from there have an expanded arsenal to either sneak past guards non-lethally or go bezerk and slaughter everyone standing between you and your unfortunate target.
Variation in game play is not exclusive to New Game Plus when it comes to replayability. In a similar fashion to Dishonored, Hitman encourages replaying the same levels over and over again through offering diverse ways to off targets. Protagonist Agent 47 could go in, isolate his target, subdue him/her, snap his/her neck, and leave like nothing has happened; or he can poison his target’s meal before drowning him/her in the nearest toilet, sabotage some machinery and make the homicide look like an tragic accident, or even (in one of the most famous Hitman levels) swap out a prop gun for the real deal and watch the target die just as his character does in the play. Throughout the various levels, players are given hints on the many ways targets can be taken out, which incentivizes going back and trying to see if you can pull off that foreshadowed kill.
Of course, being able to try new things is not exclusive to thinking up mad new ways to deal with enemies. In a similar fashion to Dark Souls, the Star Fox games will often allow for multiple paths to be taken within a campaign. This is done through interacting with the level. Looking at Star Fox 64, events like whether you win or lose against Star Wolf, activate all of the switches to switch tracks and cause an enemy train to crash, or witness Slippy Toad (idiotically) think he can take on a boss only to crashland on a nearby planet can lead to new levels based on the outcome and one of two final boss fights.
Having players repeat playthroughs with different playstyles can also be encouraged if the ending is different. Done superbly in Undertale, your first playthrough will most likely end up with a split between the amount of enemies killed and the amount of enemies spared. Since Undertale can be beaten without killing any of the enemies (or friends), this leads to playthroughs where you can spare everyone you come across and have everyone obtain a happy ending or (if you are feeling evil) the complete genocide of every character save your own. Each ending is not only distinct based on who lives and who dies (the normal ending will have unique dialog based on who is spared), but also which boss you end up fighting last.
Now don’t get me wrong, all of these methods do work for encouraging replayability (I would not have mentioned them if they did not work), but how they are executed matters as much as their existence. Scoring systems, for example, need to be readable so players understand how to obtain a good score, because if the scoring system is hard to decipher, there’s no reason to go back and play if what needs to be done better is not clear. Ikaruga suffers from this problem because while the game is a pretty great spin on the side-scroller-shooter genre (thanks to its polarity mechanic), the scoring system is hard to understand and therefore makes wanting to replay not as enticing as other games.
New Game Plus, meanwhile, suffers from not always being the best course of action when it comes to alternate difficulty modes. The feature makes no sense in titles like Metroid, where the point of the game is to collect power-ups (so starting off the game with everything available would be redundant), and Super Mario, a game with zero character progression besides the temporary power-up. In titles where that is the case, hard modes that remix how the game is played, if higher difficulties are meant for replayability, make more sense. For instance, Resident Evil 7’s madhouse difficulty, which is from a game where character progression is similar to Metroid, changes up item placements and even the jump scares present in the easier difficulties.
Things can also fall apart if a game has multiple routes and game-play styles that do little to encourage exploring them. Bioshock may be fun to play for the first time (because it’s a great game), but the fact there’s little difference between the good and bad paths (thanks to the game’s meh morality system) means returning to Rapture to explore other paths can feel inessential (especially if you did a neutral path the first time and decide to be evil your second playthrough since the end cutscene for the neutral and evil paths is the same save the tone). Replay techniques only work if the reason why you are able to replay is encouraged through the game’s design, like with the aforementioned Hitman.
With that in mind, no matter the execution, these techniques have helped developers fuel their titles with replay value. Giving players the opportunity to improve, try new playstyles, and play again, but with all the upgrades retained, has been the foundation for some of the most replayable games in the industry. Now, of course, I am not going to rule out that these techniques don’t work for some people. Not everybody is going to see scoring systems as an encouragement to go back and do better, explore the mechanics to forge new playstyles, or feel compelled to try out new game plus. As I said before, maybe you opt to replay a game because you just like playing that one game, which we all know is fine. Nevertheless, if a game is so good that it encourages playing through multiple times, then it must have done something right.