Defining Replay Value — What Does It Really Mean?
A critical factor when deciding whether or not to buy a game is its replay value, which can multiply the number of hours of entertainment you receive for your investment. It’s a term that gets thrown around quite a bit — sometimes, incorrectly. People tend get caught up on the “replay” part of the term, while neglecting the “value.” What, then, does “replay value” really mean?
With Diablo 3‘s recent release and its replay value being compared to Diablo 2′s, we’ll be framing this discussion in the context of these two titles.
First, a definition: replay value, also known as “replayability,” is anything that adds entertainment value to playing a game — or a portion of a game — over again. While a number of factors can contribute to a game’s replay value, they can be clumped into three categories: factors that increase challenge, offer a different play experience, or reveal extra content.
Multiplayer is a beast of its own — many claim that it adds to a game’s replay value, and whether or not that’s true is beyond the scope of this discussion.
As you progress through a game, you naturally become better at it — through what amounts to practice, you develop the skills necessary to overcome the increasingly difficult challenges presented to you. Once you’ve beaten a game, you’ll find the first challenges far less difficult than on your initial playthrough.
Increased difficulty settings allow you to continue honing your skills by replaying through the same content while overcoming greater challenges. Diablo 2 and 3 offer multiple difficulty settings that not only require more powerful weapons to overcome, but also more advanced tactics.
Overcoming challenges is what traditional games boil down to — by offering players greater challenges to overcome, value is added by letting players feel a rewarding sense of satisfaction for their accomplishments.
Differing Play Experiences
How you mechanically progress through content from a gameplay perspective can differ from playthrough to playthrough, and in the case of Diablo, this revolves around the different classes. A melee warrior will play differently than a ranged spellcaster — value is added by providing a new experience.
This is where many hardcore Diablo 2 fans say that Diablo 3 lacks the replay value of its predecessor. In Diablo 2, as players leveled up, they could allocate points in skill trees to unlock new skills or improve the skills they possessed. In Diablo 3, new skills unlock naturally as players level up, and skills can be swapped at any time.
The key distinction is that in D2, the decisions made are set in stone — there is no easy way to change your mind and spend your skill points differently. In D3, you can experiment at-will.
In D2, every class had a variety of builds that could result in different play styles. While the same holds true for D3, it doesn’t require you to create a new character and follow the process of leveling him up — which is the crux of the argument leveled against D3′s replay value. It’s fair to assume that by summer’s end, all the hardcore gamers will have a character of each class at max level in D3, and no incentive to create any new characters.
Unfortunately, this is the kind of argument that neglects the “value” part of “replay value.” Yes, D2 made you replay the game in order to spend your skill points differently — but this wasn’t added value. In D2, you were punished for experimenting or for simply being new to the game and not knowing how to wisely spend your skill points. As you reached the higher difficulty settings, you would realize that your current character was a dead-end and would be forced to create a new one that, frankly, didn’t suck.
While it can be argued that value is added for veterans who know exactly what they are doing, these are the same veterans that could get a character to high-level in a matter of days, if not hours — what value, then, is added if the process of replaying is sped through in order to reach the same point at which a Diablo 3 character would be who simply swapped his skills?
Branching storylines and alternate endings are the most traditional forms of extra content, and while the Diablo series doesn’t offer these, it does offer a bounty of content that can’t be encountered on a single playthrough. Extra content adds value by providing more for the player to experience.
Random generation plays a huge factor here for Diablo — maps are randomly generated, encounters are random, loot is random, and gaining access to some hidden content depends on random factors as well. A player can progress through the same content a dozen times and experience different enemies, different battlefields, and different rewards.
Something Diablo 3 offers that D2 doesn’t is character-building interactions between the player character and the NPC companions, of which only one can be active at any given time. While this extra content isn’t integral to the gameplay experience or story, it’s there to be appreciated by those who care and adds value for them.
Anyone wishing to make an argument about replay value must first ask himself, “Am I replaying this content because it is entertaining to do so, or because I have to in order to keep playing the game?” If your answer is the latter, that’s not value — that’s tedium.
Diablo 2 was a game with incredible replay value — as evidenced by its longevity — and Diablo 3 retains most, if not all, of the aspects that contributed to that value, while adding a few of its own.
Consider the thoughts of Blizzard Community Manager Bashiok:
Well, if we’re killing replay value by not making people have to level completely new characters just to try out a new build, we are ok with that.
Leveling characters is cool, and some people legitimately enjoy that process (me!), and we agree it can be fun and would still like to find ways to reward people who enjoy leveling additional characters, but being required to do it just to try out some different skills is no longer acceptable to us. That’s a level of masochism we just don’t care to revisit. We thank the 90′s for their contributions to game design, and the ‘crush the player’s soul’ dungeon master mentality, but we’re moving on. We have this crazy notion that games shouldn’t punish you for trying to enjoy them.
Fact of the matter is though that the longevity in Diablo II was not made by leveling characters. You can get a character to 80 in a matter of hours. The longevity was from experimentation, customization, and the randomized item drops needed to perfect them. And that’s amazingly even considering that a huge portion of the item hunt was completely ruined due to the mass proliferation of what should be insanely rare items. Longevity in Diablo is from exploration, character customization, and more specifically, killing monsters to see what they drop – not leveling.
You can also add to this that in Diablo III killing monsters to see what they drop will not be made lucrative by explicitly predictable means, such as boss runs. Exploring entire areas, even playing from start to finish of each act, uncovering all the nooks and crannies is intended to be the way you’ll be playing Inferno. You can pretend you’re leveling a new character each time, if you’d like.
When assessing replay value, Diablo 2 makes a great barometer, as the game’s longevity speaks for itself. However, it’s important to think critically about which ingredients in a game add to its replay value and distinguish those ingredients from the ones that simply force you to play through content again. Having to replay an entire game in order to see an alternate ending cinematic based on a decision made in the final sequence isn’t replay value — but experiencing different storylines and side-quests based on decisions you make along the way is.