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.

 

GAMES WITH GREAT REPLAYABILITY:

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.

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Anatomy of a Video Game Part 3: Aesthetics

(Art Direction, Graphics, and Sound)

Most “AAA” titles of the past two decades have focused so intently on this factor that it has actually caused a schism in the industry: Big-budget studios (such as EA and Activision, and their many subsidiaries) see a direct correlation between dollars spent on making a game push the graphics envelope and dollars earned at retail.  This results in games such as the Gears of War, Fallout and Call of Duty franchises, who focus on rendering bleak war-torn environments in spectacular clarity, covered with a fine layer of dirt and (to paraphrase video game reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw) consisting of two colors: gunmetal gray and dirt brown. This becomes somewhat of a strange exercise, as the “how” of making graphics as crisp and clear as possible eclipses the “what” of what graphics are being depicted to the player.  Lower-budget independent studios (such as those who publish “smaller” games for digital download instead of retail purchase) and some lesser-known studios (such as Tri-Crescendo, creators of Eternal Sonata) focus more on the art direction of their games, creating visual displays that are spectacular uses of modest technology rather than modest uses of spectacular technology.  Jonathan Blow developed Braid almost entirely by himself, at a fraction of the cost of most “AAA” titles, yet the artwork on display in Braid uses artistic techniques far more effectively, and earned high praise from reviewers and players alike. In one soundbyte sentence: Great art is not always made by those with the best art supplies, and is often made by those with the worst.

While great attention is paid to graphics in the video game world, music has frequently been considered as only an afterthought. Games that concentrate on developing a strong sense of atmosphere through music are rare.  The only two composers of video games in the last ten years that I know by name are Nobuo Uematsu (composer for the Final Fantasy series and various additional games published by SquareEnix) and Bear McCreary (famed composer for the Battlestar Galactica television series whose fantastic score to Dark Void elevated that game’s quality from mediocre to very good.)  An honorable mention goes to chiptune band Anamanaguchi, whose music (a type of electronic rock that uses old video game consoles for instruments) has come full circle and formed the excellent score to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game.  Rather than invest time, money and effort in composing a score, many game studios take advantage of modern games’ increased storage capacity and audio capability and focus instead on securing popular music to fill their soundtrack.  As a result, sports games are often filled with the latest tracks from popular rap, rock and rap-rock artists.  This approach can work well if the music fits the genre, such as the alternative music picked for the early Tony Hawk Pro Skater games or the classic jazz-age records in Fallout 3, but tends to fall flat and fail to impress players more often than not. Then again, in a marketplace where two of the three major consoles support the option for players to upload their own soundtrack from their music library, in-game music may be on its way out.

 

GAMES WITH GREAT AESTHETICS:

Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Eternal Sonata (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Flower (Playstation 3)

World of Goo (PC, Wii)

Braid (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

A Boy and His Blob (Wii)

Okami (Wii)

Anatomy of a Video Game Part 2: Design and Controls

Penny-Arcade.com's satirical control design for "Starfire Saga V: Laserion"

Penny-Arcade.com's satirical control design for "Starfire Saga V: Laserion"

Designing a video game is rather like designing a movie and a car at the same time.  It has to entertain the player as an audience member and act as an extension of his/her body for purposes of interaction.  Designing is hardly an easy job, but that’s the nature of video games as a medium. The designer’s goal is to give the player a feeling of immersion, both emotionally (through the game’s narrative or premise) and physically (through interface and control design.) One of the reasons Angry Birds is so successful is its very well-designed user interface and control scheme.  Pulling back the slingshot and firing a cartoon bird is completely intuitive, and feels exactly the way we as players expect it to feel.  The reason I have never been able to enjoy a Grand Theft Auto game is because, at its core, GTA games are about driving around (using clunky driving controls that would disgust any racing game designer) and shooting people (using clunky shooting controls that would disgust any third-person shooter game designer.) Obviously controls are not universally adopted by every player the same way, but as a general rule (GTA notwithstanding) higher-quality games succeed in making players feel like their thoughts are being directly translated into the actions of their on-screen avatar.  Every time a player yells out “Stupid game, do what I’m telling you to do!” that player becomes more likely to turn off the game in frustration and never play it again.

 

GAMES WITH GREAT DESIGN/CONTROLS:

 

Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Halo: Reach (Xbox 360)

Devil May Cry 4 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Super Meat Boy (Xbox 360, PC)

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

Minecraft (PC)

Anatomy of a Video Game Part 1: Premise and Story

PAX East 2011 has come and gone, and fun times were had by most.  Since it was a convention about videogaming (though it included most other types of gaming as well) it seems appropriate to preface my write-up with an explanation of what separates the wheat from the chaff of the video game crop.

 

Disclaimer: The following analysis of video games is INCONTROVERTIBLE OBJECTIVE FACT, and anyone who believes otherwise is WRONG.  It is in no way influenced by my personal opinions, and you should feel ashamed for even suggesting that it could be. Continue reading

VIDEO GAMES: Toast Reviews “LIMBO” by Playdead Studios on XBox Live Arcade

Guest review time!  Faithful readers, please give a warm welcome to the latest WITWAR guest writer, Toast!  She very graciously decided to take time away from working  on her own site, A Girl and Her Blog, to review an XBox Live Arcade game for all of you.  So please, enjoy this glimpse into the mind of an enthusiastic and dedicated gamer, and be sure to check out her other posts at A Girl and Her Blog!   [click the jump-link to read on]

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VIDEO GAMES: John Reviews “Hydro Thunder Hurricane” by Microsoft Studios on Xbox Live Arcade

If you’ve stopped at a highway rest stop anytime within the last eleven years, you’ve probably seen an arcade cabinet version of Hydro Thunder, Midway’s insanely popular and outlandish speedboat racing game.  Seriously, this game is everywhere when it comes to rest stops, even today!  But now, thanks to Microsoft Game Studios and Xbox Live Arcade, you can bring the fun of crazy speedboat racing home with Hydro Thunder Hurricane.  The original was a truly great arcade experience, and HT:H lives up to its pedigree. Continue reading

VIDEO GAMES: John Reviews “Castlevania: Harmony of Despair” by Konami for XBox Live Arcade

Ahh, Castlevania.  One of the only two areas of popular culture where it’s cool for a guy to wield a whip (the other, of course,  being Indiana Jones.) When I downloaded Castlevania: Harmony of Despair as part of Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade promotion, I was expecting a game experience something like the genre’s most popular entry, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.  While the graphics and core play controls are roughly the same as that 1997 classic, and Alucard is still one of the main characters, C:HD is an extremely different game from SotN. Gone is the story-driven, nonlinear, exploration-based single-player structure of the old days.  Instead, C:HD is an interesting mash-up of the last five big 2-D Castlevania games, and combines gameplay elements from all of them plus Gauntlet, Diablo, and (I shudder to even say its name) World of Warcraft. Do all of those elements work together? 18 hours of gameplay later, I can say that it’s certainly interesting enough to dig its hooks into me and keep me from playing several other of my recent downloads.  How do they do it? Read on! Continue reading