Replayability: A Game?

Steve Egan in the comments yesterday brought up such a good, common point that it deserved it’s own post:

I don’t see how replayability could even be considered part of the definition of a game. I say this as somebody who has to wait years before rereading a book, or games that rely on the static elements for a significant part of the experience, as I remember what’s about to happen as I’m experiencing the media.

Recently I took a look at what a game is and from my definition at least, Train is most definitely a game. That’s because my definition is, “A game is an activity with an agreed upon set of rules, that participating individuals act in accordance to, while in a state of play.”

This definition is pretty broad – activities in a “state of play” is hard to defined, and some would say cyclical.  Going for a walk, listening to a teacher in a classroom, perusing a forum, or attending a slumber party could all fit this definition.  Reading this post probably fits the definition!  If the number of participating individuals were 1, all that’s require here is the individual act within rules (they could have created) while in this nebulous state of “play”.

Defining a game is hard, and ultimately, it’s just language.  It only matters in how it helps us design.

The best definition I’ve seen is Chris Crawford’s: an interactive, goal-oriented activity, active agents to play against, in which active agents can interfere with each other. Or, in a series of dichotomies:

1. Creative expression is art if made for its own beauty, and entertainment if made for money. (This is the least rigid of his definitions. Crawford acknowledges that he often chooses a creative path over conventional business wisdom, which is why only one of his 13 games is a sequel.)

2. A piece of entertainment is a plaything if it is interactive. Movies and books are cited as examples of non-interactive entertainment.

3. If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy. (Crawford notes that by his definition, (a) a toy can become a game element if the player makes up rules, and (b) The Sims and SimCity are toys, not games.) If it has goals, a plaything is a challenge.

4. If a challenge has no “active agent against whom you compete,” it is a puzzle; if there is one, it is a conflict. (Crawford admits that this is a subjective test. Video games with noticeably algorithmic artificial intelligence can be played as puzzles; these include the patterns used to evade ghosts in Pac-Man.)

5. Finally, if the player can only outperform the opponent, but not attack them to interfere with their performance, the conflict is a competition. (Competitions include racing and figure skating.) However, if attacks are allowed, then the conflict qualifies as a game.

But this doesn’t mention replayability!

I was actually surprised. Why do Sirlin and I consider replayability a core part of a game? I can think of 2 reasons off the top of my head. First, all the prominent games of history are replayable. Sports, chess, board games, children’s games, are all at their core replayable concepts. Second, rulesets that create interesting choices (another frequent game definition) seems to require replayability.

This is an interesting point.  Replayability is the fallout of interesting choices.  If the choices aren’t replayable, then they, by definition, weren’t interesting enough to explore.  If you can predict the outcome of all possible rule permutations, then you aren’t playing a game. The rules are trivial.

Without replayability, your game is boring.

Consider Tic-tac-toe.   Most would say it’s a boring game, but it’s still a game because it barely crosses the threshold of interesting choices.  You aren’t 100% sure the opponent isn’t going to make a mistake.  Most people can’t immediately see all permutations.  It’s the minimal threshold of competitive activity.

And yet it’s still replayable.

Steve, in his comment here, puts forward he doesn’t replay because he “has to wait years before rereading a book, or games that rely on the static elements for a significant part of the experience, as I remember what’s about to happen as I’m experiencing the media.”  He’s focusing on the experience – but as the quote itself suggests, the experience is medium-agnostic.  The experience could be a book, a movie, or a game.  In fact, the parts of the games he is interested in are the “static elements”, the things that by definition wouldn’t fall under the interactive ruleset activity at the heart of a game.  You wouldn’t say this sort of thing about Chess or Poker, for example.

If you aren’t interested in replaying the game, it’s likely you’ve completely mastered the key elements through repeated, skilled play.  Or, in the case of something like Train, the (still undescribed) game is serving to give you the experience the designer wanted, and is not as something to be mastered.

Put another way, Train, as a game, is replayable.  It’s just designed so no one would want to.

So, if the experience is the common criteria, why does this matter?  Because, unlike Train, the vast majority of games derive their experience from reinforcement of their choices.  From a design point of view, finding ways to make your game more interesting to replay means the player’s interactions with these choices are deeper, and thus more interesting.  If so, Sirlin and so many systems designers find replayability so important because it is a basic reflection of the quality of their designs.


9 thoughts on “Replayability: A Game?

  1. Any category of games which doesn’t include Rock Band seems suspect. For that matter, there should be a category for “interactive experiences” like Prince of Persia ’08, which are not designed with replay value in mind.

  2. Replayability only became an issue in recent times due to the advent of single-player games. Originally, games merely provided a set of rules within which players involved could compete. Games like chess, checkers, go, bridge, and many more were made for repeated competition between players. Even Tic-tac-toe had a considerable amount of replayability before it exhausts its possibilities.

    The single-player game, the “campaign” mode or the story-game suffers from the lack of replayability because it relies heavily on an engaging narrative to motivate players. When one play-through is completed, and the ending is revealed, the motivation for the player to replay it is substantially reduced. This is very similar to a book, or a movie, and it is not a flaw, but simply a consequence of the design.

    Developers often try to “fix” this by making branching storylines and dynamically generated narrative, but this often fails because the element that keeps people coming back is never the story, but the gameplay. Valve Software succeeded in this with the development of the AI director, which keeps each single-player playthrough fresh not by changing the narrative presented, but the gameplay involved.

    There is also a curious link between single-player games that don’t tell stories and replayability. Abstract games like Tetris, Drop 7, Sudoku, Crossword Puzzles, etc, continue to attract players back to them again and again, but to be fair, these games also require constant regeneration of content, which makes them a chore to upkeep unless automated.

  3. Hmm, interesting idea, but really vague and personal. Replayability needs more definition to be able to be a part of games’ definition I think. Where do you draw the line? Do I need to be able to enjoy a game twice? Is that replayability? Or do I need to enjoy a game endlessly? And what about games that I play only halfway through and stop because I’m bored while the majority plays it over and over? Replayability may be a measurement for quality of a game but I can’t accept is as a defining part of a game. Even as quality measurement it is debatable as your own example of Train will than conclude that it is a bad game… BTW I’m glad I found your blog, it covers some really interesting ideas.

    • Everybody will play games different in the broad sense. Every aspect of the definition could be seen as malleable, with different players. Some of it has to come down to design intention, and some of it should be by the average (enjoyed) player’s playtime. There can also be “bad” games (boring) that are still replayable – aka they still would offer interesting choices, you just don’t care to investigate them. But it’s still a game. Consider, you could definitely play Train multiple times. It’s clearly designed that way. But it’s also designed so that the fiction of Train makes it appalling to do so. That might make it a “bad” game, but it also makes it compelling for these other reasons. And it makes it magnificent art because it twists the form and creates something with new meaning out of it. Just like you can have different games for different players, you can have whole other dominant reasons (like stories) to play something with a game in it.

  4. Pingback: The Replayability Problem | Ludicwrath - Exploring Ludology

  5. Pingback: The Replayability Problem | Ludicwrath – Exploring Ludology

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  7. Hey Dan, thanks for warm welcome and sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I think I’m not completely sure what you are meaning with replayable in that case. Replayability is a vague term at best, and saying a game is boring without it doesn’t really help us defining games, as even boring games are games, right? Or you might say that fun is part of the definition of games, something that I defended for a long time.. Maybe I still do, but I need to reinvestigate my opinion on this 🙂

    To add a little spice to the whole debate here’s my definition of games: “Games are operable systems that allow self contained progression”.

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