There and Back: Revisiting Video Games

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Dark Souls is a game I am glad I went back to, even if in the end it took me ninety hours to complete.

There are too many video games.

It’s a great problem to have – it means that the industry is healthy and successful, and that there are plenty of options out there. But video games are also unique in that they take, relative to other mediums, a tremendous amount of time to complete. Case in point – a recent playthrough of Dark Souls took me a staggering sixty-three hours to finish. I could have used that time to make some serious progress on my Netflix queue, but instead I finished just one game on my list, a list that has grown to sixty games at this point.

Dark Souls taught me plenty of hard lessons (never, ever be confident about anything – you’ll just fail), but one those lessons wasn’t that I wasted too much time playing it, even accounting for the fact that I had previously sunk thirty hours into a failed character well over a year ago. That’s a combined time of ninety hours, the majority of which helped me look at video games in a new light, making it a worthwhile experience. But it almost never happened – the aforementioned failed character left me with a bitter taste, and caused me to abandon Dark Souls and discredit it as an overrated and shallow game.

Because there are so many video games, we often play them only once, and apparently it is rare if we even finish them. Which means that we form snap-judgments on games, making our minds up roughly a third of the way into the narrative. This is what I did with Dark Souls – after getting stuck in Blighttown, I decided that this wasn’t worth the effort to complete, and I moved on. The only reason I came back to it was to placate the obsessive, completionist side of my brain – I hate leaving games unfinished (my current biggest gaming regret is that I have never beaten Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and for that I am ashamed). But revisiting Dark Souls showed me the value in going back to video games, ones we may have already played, to see how our opinions of them have changed over time. Going back means looking at something with a fresh set of eyes, and possibly learning something new, whether that something is about us as players (opinions and tastes can change over time, or depending on the player’s current state of mind), or something about how games are designed (popular genre conventions of the time, or how far game design has evolved). Revisiting video games is a worth-while endeavor, and can help us all appreciate the medium just a bit more.

But that’s not the issue – gamers are seemingly content to go back and replay games, but due to time constraints, they often go back to just a couple games they know they love. For a while this practice might work, but after four or five playthroughs, the returns are severely diminished. I am guilty of this – I have beaten Mass Effect eleven times as of this writing, the entire trilogy (including all DLC) twice now. I gain little as a gamer from going back to that franchise, other than the comforting, warm feeling of familiarity. So now that I know how beneficial it can be to experience all games again, why am I instead gearing up for my next run through Mass Effect? Because revisiting games takes a lot of time and energy to do something the player has already accomplished. But what if that were to change – what if developers were to add incentives into their games, to help convince gamers to come back and give them another shot? What would those incentives look like, or do they already exist?

New Experiences With Old Friends

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The reasons for revisiting single-player, narrative-based games isn’t always clear, but it can be very beneficial.

Revisiting games is beneficial not just for gamers, but for developers, too. From a financial perspective it makes sense – gamers who keep their games are not trading them in, meaning that future sales of said games have a higher chance of being new copies, money that goes directly to the publisher. So developers have a vested interest in gamers holding onto their games, and one way to do that is to give the game value beyond the first playthrough. Single player games stand to benefit from this the most, as gamers instinctively come back to games like World of Warcraft or Destiny, due to the gameplay experience they aim to offer; but the reasons to keep coming back to single player games like Spec Ops: The Line are less clear.

There are a few ways developers currently try to keep gamers coming back, and the results are mixed. The most likely to fail is trying to force multiplayer into a single-player, narrative-focused game. World of Warcraft may have a narrative that fans passionately follow, but the core of the game is designed to experience it with other players. The same cannot be said for BioShock 2, which included a multiplayer mode in an attempt to extend the life of the game beyond finishing the story. Of course, this misses the point on two levels – BioShock 2 is not a multiplayer experience; and it does not encourage gamers to come back and experience the core game again. Instead, it offers a completely different mode that provides an entirely different set of expectations.

A more sure-fire method is downloadable content (DLC), often packaged as new levels (or even a new story) that can help generate interest in old games. Dishonored released two story-driven pieces of DLC, which told a story from the point of view of one of the villains. Fallout: New Vegas used DLC not only to fix a host of bugs and glitches, but also to expand the canon and world, which ensured gamers would keep coming back for more. But there are some challenges with relying so heavily on DLC to keep players engaged – of course DLC costs money, and it can be difficult to sell content to gamers when they already paid for the original game. I have had to convince many friends to purchase the DLC for Fallout: New Vegas, because many of them thought the original game was good enough and didn’t see the need to support what they perceived as a money-grab. It wasn’t until they got their hands on Dead Money and Honest Hearts that they realized that this content was substantial enough to justify a purchase. Of course, the reason many gamers feel this way about DLC is due to misunderstandings about day one DLC, and the unfortunate fact that, yes, some DLC really is a money grab, especially DLC that encourages “pay to win.” One of my favorite additions to Dead Space 3 was the ability to make your own weapons, but many gamers were first introduced to the micro-transactions that would allow players to buy resources to make those weapons without putting in any effort, and saw the whole addition as a cheap way to earn a few extra dollars.

But another problem with DLC is that it often provides a new experience that is separate from the original game. That may seem strange at first to think of new experiences as problematic, but it can be, if the goal is to get the player to experience the original game again, hoping to glean something from a second playthrough. I love the DLC for Mass Effect 2, but most of it has little impact on the main story, meaning that players could have played Mass Effect 2 just one time, wait for the DLC to come out, download it and play just those pieces of content. Yes, it helps prevent gamers from trading their games in, but it doesn’t encourage gamers to play the core game again – just boot up the DLC, check it out and call it a day. The incentives developers should be adding to their games should encourage gamers to come back not just to check out new DLC, but to reevaluate the original game.

Both Familiar and Unknown

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New game plus mode should be a requirement for every game, and Borderlands 2 makes a strong argument for that.

The fine-line developers have to balance is to create experiences that can both be recreated, but also include enough elements of randomization so that they feel fresh and exciting. A much more common trend is to include procedurally generated content, and although I have written before of the potential of this mechanic, relying on it too much can have a negative effect on gamers. I am a big fan of Minecraft, but because procedurally generated content is such a crucial element to the game design, there is little that can be gained from revisiting it after any meaningful length of time. To be fair, Minecraft does not put much focus on a narrative, but games such as The Binding of Isaac do, and the result is the same – it feels more like a traditional arcade game, and as a result of its heavy focus on procedurally generated content, going back to the game after a break doesn’t provide a meaningful reevaluation of the story or gameplay – if anything, procedural content can make certain games feel familiar instead of new and fresh.

But those ideas all have one thing in common – none of them focus solely on the original game, and as a result each method fails to a certain degree to accomplish the task of bringing players back. So it would stand that any method that works would focus on the game itself, and it just so happens that there is one way developers can help lure gamers back – new game plus.

New game plus is a mode in which players can replay a game they have completed, but they get to retain certain items and stats from their previous playthrough. For example, in Borderlands 2, once the main story has been finished, players can select a new game plus option from the main menu. When they start the game over from the beginning, they have all of their gear, money and skills intact. 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.

But new game plus is not the answer, at least not in its current form. Video game design is always evolving, and there are some ways developers have experimented with the concept of revisiting games. Sticking with new game plus for a moment, it might be interesting to see a developer create a game that opens up the more times the player completes it – certain levels or resources may be locked on the first playthrough, but available on the second. Rare tried to implement this in their N64 classic, Banjo-Kazooie. Certain items were visible to the player, but were locked behind impossible to open doors. Latter, Rare admitted that this content was intended to unlock if the player completed the sequel, Banjo-Tooie, but that hardware limitations prevented this from happening. It’s a neat idea, and one I would like to see implemented into a AAA-title. Remedy Entertainment used this mechanic in their stand-alone DLC, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, and the result was a pleasant surprise. There is a precedent for this mechanic, but it does need to be explored further.

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Rocksteady tried something unique with the Calendar Man achievement in Batman: Arkham City, and it’s something other developer should look to expand upon.

Another approach is to give the player a reward to returning to the game after so much time has passed, or, as Rocksteady did with Batman: Arkham City, reward the player for coming back on certain days. In Arkham City players could find the Calendar Man locked up in a cell, and depending on when they visited him he would have new dialogue or insights for the player. Rocksteady tied an achievement to the Calendar Man – by visiting him on specific holidays, the player would eventually unlock an achievement. Of course, many gamers simply disconnected their console from the internet, manually set the internal clock to the desired date and earned the achievement the easy way, but it was an interesting idea for those who earned it the way Rocksteady intended. Gamers kept coming back, and each time they did it increased their chances of replaying the game again. Of course this is just the start of an idea, and it would be fascinating to see what developers could do with this mechanic if they put more emphasis into it.

Completing the Journey… Again

We all should take more time to revisit the games we love, and even those we don’t love, to see if there are any new observations that can lead to new ideas in game design, or new ways we approach games. That’s all fine in an ideal world, but the reality is that there is so much competition and demand for our time that we need a reason to come back.

Some of the methods developers use now do work – DLC is a great reason to pick a game back up, but at the same time there should be more focus put on replaying the original game. New game plus certainly helps – I wouldn’t be looking ahead to my twelfth playthrough of Mass Effect if it didn’t have new game plus as an option. What matters is that gamers understand the value in revisiting the old, and if incentives would help with that task, then so be it. Whether that’s in-game rewards, procedural content or new areas to explore, I’m not sure. But it’s something I’ll try to do more often, and it’s something I hope more gamers get the chance to do.