Maybe replay value isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

For the longest time we, as an industry, have considered replay value as one of the major selling points of games. How long can you play this game? How much content can you get out of it? How much time will it spend on your monitor as opposed to on your metaphorical shelf collecting dust (or literal if you still like physical media)?

But in this time of social isolation when we desperately need the entertainment to keep us sane, some developers are bucking the trend.

(Shatterhand, a beloved “old school hard” game that you really should play)

Our concept of replay value came about when gaming was such a high luxury that games had to be played over and over again just so you can get your money’s worth out of them. Early games did this by being incredibly difficult, but most would agree that this didn’t necessarily make them better. Even games with “old school” difficulty these days now have modes that make them more accessible. Imagine what Celeste would be like if you had to deal with a lives/continues system that sent you back to the beginning of the game every few deaths.

Believe it or not, this trend may have started in the board gaming world. Look at publisher Kosmos and their EXIT game series. Over the past few months, they have been nice enough to let us test drive these games and to be honest, our mind was blown.

On the top of a table

Exit was built to simulate the escape room experience. I’m a big fan of escape rooms and, of course, during a pandemic going into a locked room for a prolonged period of time with a bunch of people is just a horrible idea. So I turned to EXIT to get my fix. This is a series of games where you have to do extreme things to solve puzzles, from getting a glass of water IRL to ripping and tearing up the box, to searching for clues online. It’s a fantastic experience, and by the time you are done with it, your copy is torn up and in tatters. The only thing you can do next is throw it in the garbage.

Yes, you can only play each of these games once and they are $15 each, but after playing a couple of review copies I went out and purchased the ENTIRE series because they are some of the best values in board gaming despite their entire lack of replay value. I had to shift my thinking to see the value here, and it is immense.

If I were going to a real-life escape room I would be spending $20 to get in for a half-hour to an hour of entertainment value. A whole group of ten would be spending $200 or more just to get in. EXIT, on the other hand, allows a group of friends to pitch in for just a $15 entry fee, for anywhere from one to four hours of enjoyment depending on the difficulty level. It’s obviously an amazing value despite having zero replay value.

This is the basic time to enjoyment equation that our concept of replay value was originally based on. You are going to be paying $60 for a game. How many hours of enjoyment will that $60 get you? If a game has replay value, each new playthrough ups the value of the cash you spent.

Going digital

But this ignores really amazing game projects that can only be played once, similar to the Exit series, but in digital form. We’ve seen a couple come out of the indiesphere in recent times. Remember walking simulators? Those are games that you can only play once, for the most part, since experiencing the narrative is the whole of the gameplay.

However, we have had games that toyed with this concept as far back as the days of DOS. Remember Sierra point and click adventures? Heck, remember text adventures? After you solved these games there was no reason to come back unless enough time had passed that you forgot the solution. These too were games with low replay values, and they were the stars of the show back in early computer gaming.

In recent days we are seeing more games follow these molds. Games like There Is No Game – Wrong Dimension and Frog Fractions – Game of the Decade Edition take short game jam games and expand them into full gameplay experiences. Both of these games are all about seeing what surprise comes next. Both love breaking the fourth wall and toying with the narrative. Both love changing the genre of game you play at every twist and turn. I can’t tell you about either in detail without spoiling them, but they are both fantastic experiences, fantastic experiences that you can pretty much only play through in their entirety once.

It appears as if these indie titles picked up on the same thing Kosmos did with their EXIT series, price. If you really want to be looked at as a value with one run-through, you need to keep your price point low. Sure enough, the new single-run games in the indiesphere keep themselves to $20 or lower. Some are even free with added DLC to create a profit. In a way, we perform these hours to dollars calculation in our brain even without wanting to whenever we buy a new product.

However, there’s something to be said for quality over quantity. Remember 10 years ago when AAA games felt it was suicide to launch a title without a fully-fledged multiplayer mode? Did The Last of Us really get any replay value because of its added multiplayer? Was it any surprise that The Last of Us 2 ditched it entirely, opting instead for a New Game + mode to enhance its replay value instead?

The value in replay

This points to a new trend. Developers and consumers are realizing that replay value isn't actually value if people aren’t enjoying their replays. So simply including features that make the game longer or poke you to play it again without tangible reward doesn’t actually go very far toward making a game more appealing.

In which case, it could be argued that some of our best games on the market aren’t really banking on having you replay them over and over again, but are instead banking on stunning you with a quality single-player experience. Think of the big blockbusters like God of War and The Last of Us 2. These award-winning games did, technically have “replay value” but do we remember them for that? No! We remember them for our first playthroughs. We remember what the narrative gave us. A powerful narrative experience can make up all the difference when it comes to a lack of replay value.

In fact, remember Man of Medan? That’s a new AAA title whose entire premise is, you can play it once. It’s one of those “narrative-driven cinematic games” that has a bunch of bells and whistles on it, like multiple endings that CAN increase its replay value. But if you consider all of the endings to be part of the “core gameplay” you certainly wouldn’t experience them again until enough time has passed that you forgot them.

The very concept of “replay value” has gotten murky in our current market. What about games like Zero Time Dilemma or Nier Automata who are designed to be played again and again before the main story concludes. Do these have high replay value? Or are they just shielding their main campaign behind the premise of a replay? How much have we played them again after we saw the “true” ending? Heck Nier and Nier Automata go as far as to delete your save after the true ending. That almost guarantees that you won’t be coming back for a while.

I’d say that developers need to rethink the way they create games. Instead of tacking on last-minute multiplayer in an attempt to squeeze replay value out of their game, simply focus on the core experience. If that is good enough, then we will be willing to pay a ton of money just to play it once and throw it in the garbage. It doesn’t matter where the game ends up if you had a good time playing when you did. Resources certainly shouldn’t be diverted from the core experience for the sake of replay value. That would only make the game worse.

In short, I think replay value itself is kind of an archaic concept in our current market. It doesn’t translate directly to value. But what do you think? Would you rather have a game you can play over and over again or a game that wows you once to a much greater degree before spending the rest of its life on your shelf or in the trash?