Replay it again, Sam Feature - The Next Level

Replay it again, Sam

Perhaps I am fooling myself, and the straight-story game is not for my kind.

Article by Aaron Matthew (Email)
April 5th 2006, 05:25PM

I am the interstitial gamer. My hours are sacred.

The term interstitial gamer refers to gamers who are not "casual gamers" (I don't really like Poker or Bejeweled) but are instead potentially "hardcore", (if only we had the time.) I'm not so concerned about the completing games, 'uberness' of my characters, or any other time-based factor. I'm more concerned about the quality of my experience while playing a game.

Contrary to my desire to have the best experience-for-the-hour, games seem to often demand more and more of my time each. To top this off, in selecting a game to enjoy, I'm often presented with the concept of "replay value". As it so happens, the interstitial gamer and "replay value" do not necessarily get along. What is "replay value" anyway?

I'm not quite sure how the trend got started, but it seems to have hatched out of the easter egg concept. Rewarding a player for completing the game requires only flexing a little bit of developer muscle. Secret movies, endings, and unlockable content take only minimal amounts of actual asset creation time. Eventually, someone even got the smart idea of having multiple endings.

On one side, this is great for rewarding the player for differing play styles and games that are very open ended. But somehow, the marketing v-tec kicked in and began to advertise with the subtext that you can play the game many times over to experience all the endings (gotta catch'em all!).

The other more meaningful twist is unlockable content that changes the game the second times through. (Things like a harder setting, playing through the game in a pink tutu, etc). While this twist is certainly more substantial than vying for the scooby-doo ending, the Action Reply type devices quickly found ways of unlocking these earlier on.

Somewhere along the path to making game reviews into an Excel file of numbers, statistics, and ratings, the idea of printing the number of "Gameplay hours" to completion cropped up in reviews. I'm guessing this number is generated by taking the number of hours the reviewer took to complete the game and rounding it to the nearest number divisible by ten. While useful as a ballpark understanding of the length of the story, it should in no way be used as a 'story per dollar' measuring contest. This would be akin to going to the bookstore and flipping to the last page, and then buying the book with the highest page count. And it may be true that more hours will be consumed for the dollar spent, there is no real indication if these hours are enjoyable or justified.

Now if you buy the average 70-hour-rated mammoth RPG, you expect to put at least 50 hours into it maybe more (needlessly raising cute animal characters or growing flowers in minigames), but after that point it's fairly expected that it will either become a trophy on your shelf to be lent to friends (possibly never to return) or it goes back to the store to trade up for the next one. Non length-based-games, like action games and platformers have more of a discernable need for "replay value". When you can beat the game in under an hour (are they below 5 minutes for Mario yet?), you certainly want to get a little more play time before it winds up on the shelf. But does it have to be by playing the identical game again?

Is that really what we want, "Replay Value"? While I admit, playing through Mario the second time with the pink tutu on Harder mode would be enjoyable, I don't feel it's the optimal way to get more play out of my game. And if there is story involved as opposed to games of pure mechanical skill, the story is 'lost fun' the second time around if it's not changing. Playing through recent RPGs, I realized there was something terribly wrong when a game that takes hours and hours to complete wants you to complete it all AGAIN, with some minor changes to the game. Do developers really think that enough people will do this to warrant even putting it in? Does anyone (outside of those who write strategy guides) actually do this?

I propose a modest change to the gaming glossary. Let us strike "Replay Value" from the lexicon in concept and in word, and fill the hole left by its removal in discussions of games past and future with "Play Value". How much FUN am I getting out of this game, in terms of hours until I am bored and never want to see the thing again? I don’t even finish many games I enjoy due to some other game coming along and stealing my attention or simply out of accidental boredom. I have long since removed the acute guilt I feel over not completing a game, and replaced it with a mantra:

I am the interstitial gamer. My hours are sacred.

The rise of episodic games is also upon us, and this frightens me to a degree. If I do not have the allocation to consistently bring a 40+ hour game to completion in a timely manner, how am I going to continue on to the sequel, picking up where the first one left off? This raises the level of "commitment" required to purchase a game. While I love the idea of a continuing story that has more chance for depth now that story “initialization" has been taken care of, I would love it if upon purchasing Episode 2 I could get a quick rundown of what happened at the end of Episode 1, and maybe get the joy of optionally playing the last battle or important story fragments with pre-leveled characters. It would remove the paralysis towards purchasing continued episodes if the first was not back on the shelf.

Or perhaps I am fooling myself, and the straight-story game is not for my kind. Perhaps it is time to push developers to make more open-ended gaming experiences. Remove the "ending" from games entirely, or make them very optional. A number of games have begun to blossom in this form over the past couple years, and they seem to be picking up momentum. Who knows, maybe some day we will look back and laugh at the concept of replaying a game.

Maybe... but I'll probably still have time for another quick game of Mario in the tutu.

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