Replayability:Threat or Menace?

This past week The Farrier’s Bellows dropped an episode about my game Out of Dodge, and they spent a lot of time wondering if the game had any replay value. They concluded that it did, but it got me thinking about replayability as a benchmark, a point of evaluation, a mark of quality.

The first tabletop roleplaying game I can recall that explicitly tossed replay out the window was Sandman: Map of Halaal, published by Pacesetter in 1985. They planned an ambitious series of supplements that collectively built out a gigantic mystery that was intended to be episodic and unique - you’d play through it once, because the secrets you’d learn would prevent replay (I question this assumption now, but at the time it made sense). Kevin Allen Jr’s Sweet Agatha is certainly replayable, but you’d need to buy the game again - because you destroy the actual book as you play it. I love this game as much for its bold stance on ephemera and replay as I do for its great design. Tim Hutchings’ wonderful and creepy game A Guide To American Soap Carving also asks you to destroy it as you play it.

So - are these inferior games because they cannot be replayed? A rhetorical question, because of course they aren’t. A film you see in the theater isn’t inferior because it doesn’t come with a DVD or a free pass to see it over and over. And these games I’m name-checking are really on the fringe - almost all games can be replayed, and enjoyed over and over, even if that enjoyment is different once you have experienced it the first time.

I think looking to replayability as a value proposition is misguided and a little toxic, akin to assessing a game’s value based on page count. As a designer I want to be able to make all kinds of experiences possible, including experiences that only happen once. Including games that are also magnificent and hard-to-arrange spectacles, like Juhana Pettersson’s Muovikuppi, or harrowing games you are unlikely to replay even if you can (like The Beast).

I actually want to see more games that are very explicit about being a very focused and unique experience you probably won’t repeat. I want that to be as valued as a game that is open-ended and infinitely replayable.

How important is the ability to replay a game to you? Does it influence your decision-making about what to purchase or what to play? Do you approach games with an eye toward replaying them in the future? Let’s talk about it.

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Perhaps it’s just the kinds of story games I’ve happened upon, but I’ve only found one so far that I thought had very little replayability and that was because of what I thought were some pretty big weaknesses in how it was set up.

I do like being able to return to an experience, even if it’s only once in a great while. Montsegur 1244 is a good example. A game that can only be really played a single time would be a harder sell if it was expensive but a pretty easy sell if it were relatively inexpensive pdf, where I buy sometimes without wanting to play, just to check it out.

So—kind of?

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I don’t think the comparison to movies necessarily works well, because people do like to rewatch movies and even purchase copies of them. You don’t necessarily get to keep a copy just from watching in the theater, but neither do you get to keep a copy of a game you played with someone else.

Whether or not a game is “inferior” artistically is not for me to say, but as a product people tend to like something they can get multiple uses out of. That’s less a question of artistic value and more about business value.

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Those are good points, thank you. Maybe a sporting event is a better example. One of my points is that I’d like to change the conversation around value, because you are certainly right that people see greater value in things they can return to over and over. But there are loads of examples of things we pay for because they have entertainment value to us that is completely ephemeral.

This leads back to how we value games in general, which is a larger topic and a depressing one.

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@Jmstar, I wonder why you feel that “how we value games in general” is a depressing topic! Do you mean that we tend to denigrate the value of things when we label them “games” (or, even moreso, “toys”)? Or something else?

I think that this whole topic is really changing, as an artifact of the time we are in. Media is more accessible than ever, and there are thousands of games out there for almost no matter what your interests might be.

“Back in the day”, a person might have kept two of their favourite movies on VHS, and watched them over and over on rainy days. Now, streaming subscriptions mean very few people are going to do that. It’s more exciting to watch something new! I used to read and reread my favourite books, too.

Before internet self-publishing, there were relatively few games, and you’d have to find a copy at your local gaming store; in that context, replayability is a pretty big concern. (e.g. “I play with my friends every Friday night, and I only have $30 to spare; which gamebook should I buy?”)

Nowadays, I think, the replayability of a game isn’t as much of a factor, because of how easy it is to find alternatives, and how many new (and free!) games appear daily. Realistically (speaking for myself), I’m unlikely to play any given game more than two or three times, anyway. So should I worry about replayability?

So, the cultural zeitgeist and our quickly-becoming-the-norm constant access to media of all sorts may be playing a pretty large role in this.

I have a feeling you have a larger concern in mind, though, Jason, so I hope you’ll share your thoughts!

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I absolutely agree we have a problem with how we value games, or at least how the market prices tabletop roleplaying games. Considering the well-documented problems with the rates paid to game creators and writers, it’s not sustainable for most folks and it ends up being a side project at best for many folks (quite a few of whom are here in this community!)

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I’m a big fan of Legacy boardgames, so I definitely think we need to do this more in RPG design!

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Spectaculars has that, actually. As you go through the setting pads, you get new adventures, unlock character and villain archetypes to use.

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I can’t find an official source, but multiple times I’ve heard that, on average, a person will play a board game they buy 12 times. I have games I’ve played way more than that, and games I’ve only played once. I would say that replayability is something people expect from the product even though it doesn’t have any actual bearing on its quality. Personally, I’m always looking for new gaming experiences, so I don’t really care how much replayability is baked into the product. I’d even consider products that advertise themselves as lifestyle games a detriment. Life’s too short for one game.

I think the most appropriate comparison would be think of your product like a concert for your favorite band. You’ll always be down to experience it again, but you expect something different every time. And at the end of the day, you get enjoyment out of the event or events, but not enjoyment out of the number of times you experienced it.

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One thing I haven’t seen brought up yet is the up-front-investment in learning to play a game (well) vs it’s replayability. Also, the set-up/prep time required vs replayability.

Like, I’m never actually going to play Torchbearer. I own it. I admire a lot of what it’s doing. I occasionally flip through it again for ideas or just to see how they’ve done something. But the barrier to entry is so much higher than my expected enjoyment. I think I might really enjoy it with the right group, if we all made an investment into mastering the rules and the style of play. But that’s not going to happen, and I know I won’t enjoy blundering through it for a one-shot. So I’m pretty sure that I’ll never end up playing it even once.

Compare to, say, Honey Heist. I haven’t actually played it, but I can easily see myself doing so. There’s no overhead, no setup (really), minimal investment. The conceit doesn’t have as much room for replay as Torchbearer, but that’s okay. I bet you absolutely could get plenty of replay value out of it, and even if you didn’t, no big deal. Your investment (in money, time, effort) was well worth it.

I guess where I’m going with this is: the initial calculus for whether a game is “worth it” involves more than just what consumers are willing to pay designers & publishers. The “cost” of a game includes setup, learning, prep, and effort required to fully enjoy it. Replayability is a way to defray those costs. If your game asks a lot of it’s players, it they’re going to want to return on their investment.

Legacy board games get away with non-replayability by slowly introducing complexity and providing a slow-burn payoff that’s not really possible with a standard board game. Long-term, traditional RPG campaigns (like Pathfinder Adventure Paths) do likewise. Of course, they come with their own additional cost/requirement: the ability to get a mostly consistent group together regularly over a longish period of time.

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