Most people don’t finish the games they start. In 2011, an Activision production contractor, Keith Fuller, said he expects about a 10% completion rate. Since 90% of players never see a game’s ending, its “replay value” matters to a small group. The games encouraging multiple playthroughs then appeals to an even smaller fraction of that group.
With few people finishing single player games, developers will waste planned content to increase replay value. Games needs to invite curiosity by offering different solutions to solve a problem. If the solutions offer subtle differences, then the curiosity can carry the second playthrough.
As long as you continue asking questions, the form of these subtle differences doesn’t matter. No single approach works best as it depends on the core design. The replay value in Borderlands differs from the replay value in Nier: Automata. Games invite curiosity in dozens of different ways, so I’ll pick a few to discuss.
Borderlands – Loot Treadmills
The loot treadmill game design – repeating content for new and better gear – works in many games. Players love grinding for items because it solves the problem of: “Can I find something better?” Borderlands, Destiny and Diablo built entire franchises on the idea of finding new and better gear. Randomized weapon drops and different character classes can encourage multiple playthroughs.
In Borderlands, if I played the Siren class during my first run, the Gunzerker’s dual-wielding gun capability changes my movement. So instead of phasing around enemies, I lunge headfirst, spraying my weapons at everything. The randomization presents brand new guns, which satisfies your curiosity. The repetition won’t please every type of player, but it extends the game’s value.
Nier: Automata – Different Perspectives on the Same Story
Platinum Games and Yoko Taro built Nier: Automata on the idea of multiple playthroughs. The main narrative repeats, with subtle differences between both stories. To unlock the new content with the deeper, overarching ending, Nier expects you to complete the game twice. And since players struggle to finish any game once, it’s asking a lot.
On the first playthrough, you play as 2B – an attack android carrying two melee weapons. She uses both weapons for high damage combos. She works alongside 9S – a scanner type android. Both work together throughout the story, but split up on occasion for mission objectives or story events. For players who finish a single run, they can expect around 30 hours of complete content.
After the first playthrough, the perspective shifts to 9S. The story repeats with subtle changes differentiating the experience. 9S carries one weapon, but can also hack enemies. Every successful “hack” sends you into a dual-stick shooter mini-level, dealing extra damage upon completion. The story events won’t change, except you see something else when 2B and 9S split up. Quest progress carries over from the first playthrough. 9S also unlocks exclusive activities.
Nier’s changes in character style and story events satisfies a different curiosity than in Borderlands. Loot treadmills reward your patience and effort with improvement. Nier’s repeated narrative rewards your story curiosity. If you ignore the story, the subtle gameplay changes might not propel everyone to the end – twice.
Even though Nier: Automata includes the subtle differences to invite curiosity, the replay value is almost forced, not optional. The story kept me engaged, but the multi-layered structure invites risk. A huge segment of Nier owners will never see the first ending, let alone the multiple that follow.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Blocking off Content
If you follow the story, you will see all of the content in Nier: Automata. It gates the other endings to better contextualize the story and mechanics. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings gates content for story reasons, but it means skipping entire sections. Depending on your story decisions, you won’t see huge chunks of the game.
Hiding content behind story decisions increases replay value, but blocks content from majority of the player base. At one point, you must pick sides – the Roche vs. Iorveth decision. The decision brings along different characters, changesthe story and alters level design. Again, 90% of players won’t ever see a game’s ending, let alone the content in an alternate path. Developers work hard to create levels and write dialogue, so it benefits everyone to make the entire game accessible.
The Witcher 2 doesn’t require replaying the story like Nier: Automata, it keeps it as an option. If you choose, you can finish a single playthrough and stop. In Nier, stopping at the first playthrough means missing out on 30 hours of the game.
Both games encourage additional playthroughs by blocking off content in different ways. They both invite curiosity, but rely too much on the player’s dedication and commitment.
Call of Duty – Linear Design and the Encore Playthrough
Even without deliberate design decisions to encourage multiple playthroughs, players revisit games all the time. People love to see the cinematic, crazy moments in Call of Duty, Uncharted and Tomb Raider. On a simpler note, they might just enjoy how it feels. Although these linear games don’t invite much curiosity, the gameplay can still feel exciting or fresh.
Linear games often offer a compact experience, which might leave the player craving more. Unlike the long games mentioned above, linear games can create replay value with a shorter length. Refined controls and deep systems help feed the desire to master the game. But relying on gameplay instead of curiosity can upset players. You might not love the platforming sections in Uncharted, and so the game offers no replay value at all.
With Borderlands, you can point to the guns and say, “If I want, I can search for more of these guns.” The loot treadmill, although still subjective in its true value, at least represents a deliberate design decision to inject curiosity.