The Benefits of New Game Plus

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Mass Effect set the gold standard for new game plus mode, and solidified its inclusion in every game with RPG mechanics.

In 2015, Theory of Gaming published an article on the benefits of revisiting video games. The idea is that most games can change drastically when the player has mastered the game mechanics, knows the story and characters and can approach the title with proper expectations. However, this is a tall ask – many gamers, myself included, have too many games to play, and it can be hard to justify spending more time on an already completed game when so many remain unplayed.

One way developers can alleviate this problem is to introduce a new game plus mode. To put it simply, new game plus is a mode in which players can take all of the items and experience their character has amassed and start the game over from the beginning, with all of these resources. As I wrote, it has the potential to lure gamers back, because the hard work is already taken care of:

“This mode allows gamers to focus more on the story and characters instead of focusing on obtaining resources, and it also allows the developers to provide an increased challenge to players in an organic way, instead of artificially increasing the difficulty via a menu option. Additionally, players are more likely to pick a game back up if they know that they do not have to put in the same amount of effort to unlock every item or level – this helped tremendously with games like Okami, a Zelda-esque game that included a new game plus mode. Why should gamers spend another thirty hours unlocking all of the items and weapons for a second playthrough, when they already did it once? And the best part of this option is that it is not mandatory – those who want to acquire those resources a second time can do so, and those who don’t want to invest another thirty hours into a game but want to revisit it can as well.”

Because the mode is optional, and it allows players to easily revisit old titles, there is seemingly no downside to including a new game plus mode in any game that features even the lightest RPG elements. As developer CD Projekt RED illustrated, adding new game plus is so simple that they added the feature to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as a piece of free DLC. It’s almost too obvious of an observation, yet the vast majority of titles that could benefit from it do not include the mode at all. Even those that feature some form of new game plus, such as the recent DOOM and Resident Evil 4, limit it in a way that defeats the purpose, a decision that no doubt leaves gamers scratching their heads. There are plenty of successful examples of new game plus to make the argument that this mode should be mandatory for nearly every game, and few or no reasons to not include it as an option for players looking to revisit titles.

All Pros, No Cons

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The Witcher 3 is just the latest game to benefit greatly from new game plus.

There was a time in which adding more gameplay modes or options to a game could be considered a negative, as the technology hadn’t caught up to developer’s ambitions. The widely-adopted ability to save a game multiple times across multiple files is relatively new, let alone carrying progress over from one playthrough to the next. That said, those days are behind us, and the time it takes to implement a feature such as new game plus appears more than worth the costs.

New game plus brings with it three distinct advantages: it increases replayability, it can justify the inclusion of post-launch DLC, and it can add new challenges and even content to a game that are only accessible on a second playthrough, providing yet another tool for developers to create something truly unique.

Publishers are always looking for ways to extend the length of time players engage with a game, in order to increase brand loyalty or create an ongoing revenue stream from one property. The most obvious form of this is multiplayer – developers can create new maps, game modes and even new weapons, and publishers can charge players for the content. This works well for games in which multiplayer is a logical extension of the single player campaign, but in many instances, multiplayer only takes time away from developers, and dilutes the final product.

New game plus can serve the same function as multiplayer, while allowing the developer to focus on just one aspect of a title, the single player, as opposed to numerous aspects that many players will simply not engage in. With new game plus, gamers can focus on just the story, without the worry of having to acquire skills or resources all over again. It also enables players to try out different play styles – even games like DOOM offer just enough customization that players can experiment with different play styles on a second playthrough. Additionally, players who feel like they have mastered a title can then challenge themselves at a higher difficulty level, and new game plus provides them an opportunity to test themselves against tougher enemies. This adds longevity to a title, and accomplishes the same things that multiplayer sets out to do – it increases the likelihood of brand loyalty among gamers, as they spend more time than they typically would with a title, and it incentivizes them to purchase additional DLC.

One of the biggest problems I have with the Fallout games, starting with Fallout 3, is that I want to experience the game and all of its post-launch DLC in one go, with all of the benefits those DLCs offer, from the very beginning. With Fallout 4, I have decided to set the game aside until the final piece of DLC comes out, at which point I will start a new character that will be able to take advantage of the numerous settlement building DLCs, as well as the additions from the story-based DLCs, right from the beginning. However, I will have to do so with a brand new character, meaning the progress earned from the character I spent over 150 hours with previously will be wasted. Although the game is entertaining enough to warrant sinking another 100-plus hours into a new character, I am much more reluctant to start a new playthrough than I otherwise would be, because I have to start over from the beginning, again. New game plus solves this issue of having to re-invest more time into a game just to properly experience its DLC. With games like The Witcher 3, I completed the base game, then waited for all of the DLC to release, and then utilized my character to start new game plus from the beginning, enjoying all of the quality of life upgrades to the game, as well as new stories.

Even if a developer doesn’t release any post-launch DLC, there are still plenty of good reasons to include new game plus. A clever developer will include challenges in a game that are simply not possible to achieve on one playthrough, therefore requiring multiple playthroughs. Mass Effect was one of the first major releases to experiment with this, and is still one of the best – certain speech checks are far above the player’s level on the first playthrough, and can only be completed on the second (or third) playthrough. Additionally, the level cap of 60 is impossible to achieve on one playthrough, and when importing a character at maximum level into Mass Effect 2, the player earns some significant rewards, meaning they will almost certainly play the first game more than once, with the same character, to ensure they receive every possible upgrade.

With new game plus, the positives so heavily outweigh any negatives that it seems like a no-brainer to include the mode. But each game has its own unique design elements, which can change the way the mode is successfully implemented.

The Three Successful Types of New Game Plus

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Borderlands 2 features a very traditional new game plus mode, which adds hours of additional value to an already lengthy title.

While many games do not feature a new game plus mode, there are countless examples of games that do, and for the most part they deliver successful implementations. These games can be broken down into three categories: traditional new game plus, story and playstyle focused new game plus, and a new game plus that provides additional challenges.

Traditional new game plus is one in which the game plays exactly the same, except the enemies are much more difficult, and the rewards are higher as a result. The most obvious examples of this are Borderlands and Dark Souls – in each franchise, new game plus is the exact same game, except far more difficult, which is balanced out by the player retaining all of their gear and experience from the first playthrough. This gives players a new challenge without worrying too much about level progression (as is the case with Borderlands) or acquiring items (Dark Souls), and it also ensures that players will never become too overpowered, which could potentially cause the game to become too simple and repetitive, removing any motivation for the player to complete the game again. A persistent challenge will remain from start to finish, but it’s a challenge that is only doable because of the roll-over of items and resources from the first playthrough.

The second category is best used with a game that encourages a variety of playstyles or provides players with meaningful choices that impact the story. Games like Mass Effect provide a new game plus mode so the player can revisit the story and make different decisions, to see how they have an impact on the story, characters and world. The enemies don’t become increasingly difficult, as the game isn’t focused so much on challenge as it is on narrative. The same can be said for Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3, which allow players to replay the story on any difficulty multiple times, in order to focus on the story and experiment with new playstyles.

Finally, games like The Witcher 3 and Okami make a small adjustment to the formula, but one that provides a reason to replay a game beyond story or a greater challenge. In each title, certain weapons and gear are only accessible on a second playthrough, and some items do not carry over into new game plus. This provides a unique challenge – the player is far more powerful at the start of new game plus, but they are motivated to upgrade their gear even further, and to seek out items that didn’t carry over, but are still very useful, such as crafting diagrams in Witcher 3 or items to increase health in Okami. This means that the player’s hard-earned work is not lost, but they still have goals to aim for, creating an experience that is just as engaging the second time as it was the first.

Whether it’s recreating the same game but with a higher difficulty, focusing on story and playstyle choices, or adding in new gameplay elements and goals, new game plus can have a positive impact on a player’s time with a game. Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that many developers still haven’t fully grasped what makes new game plus work, and although these games come close, they ultimately fail to incorporate the mode in any meaningful way.

Almost There

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Rise of the Tomb Raider misses the mark with its half-implemented new game plus mode.

Gaming has been good to me so far in 2016 – the amount of great titles I’ve experienced has far outweighed the bad, and some of those games are ones that will stick with me for a long time to come. Although it was released in 2015, I finally took some time a couple months back to dive into Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I just recently reviewed DOOM, a game that stunned me in its brilliant execution. Both games are must-own, must-play experiences, and a sign that the eighth generation of video games may be just as good, if not better, than the seventh generation.

However, both games have one thing in common – both feature a scaled-back new game plus mode. Players can replay levels with the gear they’ve acquired, but it’s limited to segregated levels. There is no option to start the story over from the beginning, and once a level is completed, the game kicks the player back out to the main menu, forcing them to manually select the next level. This may seem like a minor point of contention, but it does two things that severely hamper any enjoyment that can be had with a new game plus mode – it chops up the story, ruining the flow that took developers hundreds of hours to achieve, and it also locks the player out of story-specific moments. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, a section that takes place on a train cannot be replayed unless the player starts a new game with a new character, and in DOOM, the opening moments of the game, which may be one of the highlights of gaming in 2016, are omitted when players return to play the first level. This form of new game plus is great for going back and collecting every secret item or leveling up every skill, but it doesn’t allow for a cohesive story experience.

These aren’t the only examples of developers implementing new game plus incorrectly, and other titles prove that developers have struggled with this concept for quite some time. Both Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space feature the mode, however, the player is locked into the difficulty that was originally selected when the playthrough was first created. Although this does allow gamers who care about story above challenge the chance to focus on narrative, it means that, around the midpoint of the second playthrough, the game ceases to be engaging in any way, since the player is practically a walking, talking, guns-a-blazing God. This is less of a problem in Dead Space, which uses atmosphere as its main attraction, but in games like Resident Evil 4, which feature a story that’s far from compelling or rich, the choice to lock players into one difficulty setting seems like a major oversight, negating the many benefits of new game plus.

Once More, With Feeling

Publishers are always looking for ways to increase the length of time players spend with a game, and gamers are always looking for entertaining ways to stretch out each title they purchase. New game plus achieves all of this, and with next to no drawbacks. The biggest decision to make is to determine which type of new game plus works for a game, and to make sure not to make the mistake of recent titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider and DOOM, which only implemented the mode half-way.

It’s not too much of a coincidence that my favorite title from the seventh generation, Mass Effect, heavily featured new game plus, as does my leading candidate for the best game of the eighth generation, The Witcher 3. I love getting lost in these worlds, trying out all of the different ways to play them, following different paths and witnessing the varying ways the story can play out, all without having to start the game over from scratch each time. New game plus needs to be a standard feature in every game that has even the slightest RPG mechanics, and games like Mass Effect, Dark Souls, Borderlands and The Witcher 3 demonstrate how this mode can elevate great games into amazing ones.