What Does ‘Replayability’ Mean Today, Anyway?

It’s one of those critical yardsticks of a game’s quality that doesn’t seem to factor so much anymore—at least, not in the old-school sense.

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Jul 21 2017, 1:00pm

'Super Mario World' screenshot courtesy of Nintendo.

For whatever reason, the word, or I suppose the term, "replayability" popped into my head the other day. When I think back to the games mags I read as a kid, all the reviews of the time—from Mean Machines Sega to Amiga Power through to pals' copies of Super Play (I was never so cool)—would reference this all-important aspect of a game's appeal. Just how many times could you play this thing, over and over, before it lost its shine?

Back then, with platform games abundant, replay value could break down to multiple routes through levels, or ways to shift their design entirely—nice one, Sonic CD—or the option of tackling the same stages with alternative characters. A game like Super Mario World came loaded with secret areas, encouraging you to keep poking at its edges. Adventure games, as then like now, could have multiple endings, and those spending their money, plenty of it, would squeeze every penny of value from it by exploring these possibilities.

But replayability is something else, now, so far as I can tell—and that something was returned to me on Twitter, several times, in several shades, when I posed this question over there a few days back. The response was enough for me to bring it here, for today's open thread. What do you think replayability really means today?

We have games with different endings, many of them—but how many amongst us will sit down for a full second playthrough of something like Mass Effect or The Witcher 3 with the express intent of seeing another outcome, especially if our first time through was the one that best reflected our ideal choices for the character we'd been controlling for tens of hours? Randomly or procedurally generated platformers like Spelunky and Rogue Legacy shift their dimensions with each session—but then, are you replaying these games, or seeing them anew every time? When did "replayability" become "stickiness"?

'Spelunky' screenshot courtesy of Mossmouth.

In my experience—which isn't that of Most People Who Play Games, of course, as this is my job so my turnover of titles is fairly high, and properly digging into anything takes serious commitment—it's rare to finish a very linear game, be that a Gone Home or an Uncharted 2, and want to play it again. Well, I might want to, because it was fun; but I feel like I've seen it, done it, and popped it into the archive to only return to when an anniversary piece is a reasonable proposition. (As was the case with Max Payne 3, which I did play all the way through again, for work.)

But even if I'd spent launch-price money on an Uncharted, would I see the story through twice? I don't think I would. I've dipped in and out of BioShock, for example, several times in the decade it's been out for, to check out some wrinkle or other of its legacy; but I've only sat and played it to the very end, that piss-poor Atlas fight, once, not so long after its release. Hell, perhaps it's that boss battle that puts me off doing it again. I thoroughly enjoyed a bonus ten hours of Red Dead Redemption after it received Xbox One backwards compatibility, but I never felt that yearn to witness, for a second time, its infamous ending.

So what is replayability today, exactly? Is it now less about hidden extras, and more about getting that 100% score in the achievements? How many of us, when presented with new options or missions on a game's completion (I'm looking at you, Resident Evil 4 on PS2), actually make the most of them? (I never have gone those separate ways.) There's something about seeing a game's credits roll, for me, that always feels like the full stop, however much "more" there is. I pushed Arkham Knight's side attractions almost to bursting before zeroing in on the end; but once that game was "beaten," I've not once been back to fill them to the very brim.

It's rare that I play on after the big bad's been beaten—The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, because of their DLC, are two recent exceptions. Maybe that's a key aspect of contemporary replayability, actually—the downloadable stuff that extends a game's life, without making you do quite the same things. I'm curious as to what keeps you playing the same game, over and over. There are examples that I know I can put on anytime, any when, and love much like I did the first time— OutRun 2 is the first that leaps to mind. But that's an every-few-months thing, an arcade blast rather than a daily fix. It's not like the disc is permanently lodged inside my old 360. (Although… that wouldn't be so bad.)

What does "replayability" mean to you today, then? Are we at a point where there are simply too many games and too little time? Does age, and responsibilities that can come with it, play a part in your chances of returning to a favorite? Chat about the concept, what keeps you coming back to That One Game, time and again, on our forums.