Anatomy of a Video Game Part 4: Replayability

An often-used term in game reviews, “replayability” or “replay value” can refer to two different aspects of a game’s design. Some say that a game’s “replay value” can be enhanced through additional challenges beyond the game’s primary play mode, such as Time Attack or Survival challenges, or the inclusion of multiple difficulty levels.  When I refer to replayability, I am referring to how enjoyable and compelling the core gameplay is on subsequent playthroughs after the first, and how enjoyable playing the game for its own sake can be.  While Brutal Legend is a successful game in many respects (compelling story, clever dialogue, solid design and controls, excellent soundtrack and charming art direction) the place where it fails to meet expectations is in its replayability.  The game’s strong focus on narrative and scripted encounters leaves little to do once the story mode has been completed, other than collectible-hunting (which requires tens of hours of dogged persistence and a paper map to mark one’s progress.) However, once the story mode has been completed, the reason for hunting collectibles is no longer relevant and it becomes merely collecting for its own sake.  There is also a multiplayer mode in Brutal Legend, but it is one that focuses exclusively on the weakest aspect of the game’s design: a modified real-time strategy wargame with awkward control mechanics and somewhat redundant design.  Come to think of it, Brutal Legend is a great example of an otherwise enjoyable game bogged down by a lack of clarity in its premise: The designers could have stripped the RTS gameplay mechanic out of the game entirely and many players would have been happier for it.

Challenge and difficulty also play a strong role in replayability.  A game that makes good use of its challenge and difficulty curve should always make the player feel as though the next objective is just out of reach, that next time s/he will be able to do it right and defeat the enemy.  A game that does not measure and balance its challenge and difficulty will either feel like a waste of the player’s time if the game is too easy, or it will feel “broken” if the game relies on surprises that could not be anticipated and unbalanced enemies that break the game’s internal consistency regarding damage and durability.  I Wanna Be the Guy is a free independently developed side-scrolling platform game that intentionally pokes fun at the player-punishing designs of old Nintendo games, where rote memorization and trial-and-error are the only ways to avoid the constant threat of character death. Super Meat Boy is a similarly independently developed side-scrolling platform game, one that earned high praise for its balance of challenge and difficulty, which pulls no punches but strives to make the winning path in every level always be within reach with a little practice and patience.



Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii)

Tetris (all platforms)

Angry Birds (Playstation 3, PC/Mac, all handheld platforms)

Halo: Reach (Xbox 360)

Starcraft series (PC/Mac)

Minecraft (PC)


In broad terms, these are the primary elements of any video game.  Players generally weigh their enjoyment on each of these factors according to personal preference, and your mileage may certainly vary.

One Response

  1. Dead Space is a fine example. It uses a system of ‘weapon upgrading’ and progressive access to more advanced, custom suits so you can replay levels with this additional loadout.

    I mentioned Turok 2 in part 3 of your anatomy, and I will mention it once again. This gem had a system in which one had to collect ‘feathers’ in order to access certain, otherwise inaccessible, areas in previous levels, requiring the player to revisit the levels.

    This part is also correlated with what a lot of game makers tend to do these days – release DLC’s with additional content (or does that have to do more with squeezing out more cash from the consumer?… Who knows…).

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