It seems that in the battle of developers vs. retailers, a tactic employed by the game developers is the use of downloadable content to keep players from trading in their games. In this Gamasutra article, head of Avalanche studios Christofer Sundberg urges developers to think of new ways to keep players interested in their games, without having to resort producing DLC or shoehorning multiplayer into a game clearly designed for a single player experience. He also explains that the trick shouldn’t be to create a false sense of engagement by releasing DLC, but by creating a game that people just won’t put down in the first place. This is an important issue within the industry because of the negative connotation that DLC has gathered over the years, especially in the case of DLC that is released that only locks data that is already on the retail disk. Even when companies give somewhat reasonable explanations on why their DLC is on the disk, players still react negatively to it and see it as a scam to make more money, rather than provide ways to keep players interested in the for a longer period of time.
When thinking of addictive games, I often examine games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Minecraft. These games are totally different from each other but feature a common theme of exploration. Christofer Sundberg also agrees that exploration is a way to keep players playing games longer:
“We create a game allowing players to properly explore and have fun and not focusing so much on the actual end goal of the game”
This is something I have noticed about some of the most played games available in the modern age. The concern for the player is never focused on getting to the end, but rather for existing in the moment and tackling the current challenge at hand. If anything, it’s a sign that the player is not enjoying your game if they are simply trying to beat the story. I think this exposes a flaw in the mindset that games should take inspiration from films, by following a specific pacing and being concerned with a cinematic narrative as it does not let the player end the game on their own terms, but rather is ejected based on the discretion of the developers. We can look at Uncharted for example and compare it to Skyrim. Each level of an Uncharted game gives the player a specific goal to accomplish and needs to be concerned with the pacing and tempo to ensure that sequences don’t drag on for too long. This is to ensure that the player is not being over-exposed to non-stop action, which can be mentally exhausting, as well as some variety to the gamplay. Skyrim on the other hand lets players choose their own tempo and keeps them in charge of keeping track of their own goals. The result is that Uncharted’s single player can be put down after one play through of about 12 hours (estimate) while Skyrim can be put down after one playthrough of about 40 hours and be replayed for a totally different experience.
So how can developers make it so their Uncharted games get as much playtime as Skyrim, without having to resort to tacked on multiplayer or DLC (note: Uncharted does not have at tacked on multiplayer). Unfortunately the answer can only be more content when you simplifying things enough. Skyrimis packed to the brim with content by having loads of quests, a huge world to explore, and even decisions at the beginning of the game can change your experience (such as picking a race). If you make a game that forces the player to travel down a straight line, you can be sure that they are going to eventually beat the game and be done with it forever. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, afterall games like Super Mario Galaxy are masterfully crafted and have earned their accolades, but it compensates for its linearity by having a lot of content. Another example would be the skill based games that offer online leaderboards. Even old arcade games that records high scores become difficult to stop playing when you’re focus is not about beating the level, but beating the level with a high score. Still, to keep the dedication of players for a straight line game requires putting more faith into the player devoting their time and effort into the game and less into the game. Developers these days often need ways to ensure that the games they make will provide more players the incentive to keep playing on their first playthrough.
I believe that one way to do this is to make the straight line path branch off as much as possible. Now when I refer to these lines, I don’t mean in terms of having a large branching narrative like some RPGs offer. I am referring to meaningful gameplay choices, the ones that can keep similar experiences feeling fresh by offering a different way to approach the scenarios. One reason I have played Skyrim for so long with three different characters is because right from the beginning I made different decisions about how I was going to play and thus the same game felt completely different each time. One reason I love Fire Emblem so much was that there were so many characters to use but not enough opportunities to level them all up in a single playthrough, plus to gain the support conversations I often had to plan ahead of time of who I was going to use through out the game. Never was the focus of my playthroughs on the end objective and the credit rolls, but on gaining access to more content.
While it does boil down to including more content, sometimes having these decisions scattered throughout the game is enough to keep players from ever being done with the game. We can compare Kid Icarus Uprising to Ghost Recon: Future Soldier in terms of how these decisions regarding weapons keep players interested. In Ghost Recon, optimizing your weapon to fit your play style is easy for multiplayer and the single player provides you with what you need before the missions starts rendering the gun smith just a tad worthless. Even though the weapons like a rifle, shotgun, sniper, and light machine gun, all have different functions and are used uniquely, you’re decisions to how to modify your weapons and loadout are limited and become meaningless once you have found the weapon that is best suited for you.
In Kid Icarus however, not only are the weapons a bit more diverse, but you are limited to the decision points needed to modify them. Or rather, you must sacrifice weapons to get new weapons in what the game calls Weapon Fusion. Even if you are comfortable with a certain type of weapon or even a specific weapon in general (mine is the Crusader Blade), you always strive to get a better version or one with more abilities that work in your favor to give you an edge offline and online. It is one of the things that keeps Uprising from ever becoming boring while Ghost Recon is starting to have less and less of an appeal.
It’s these little things that I believe keeps players interested in playing a single game for much longer than one would expect. These meaningful game play choices not only delay the actual end of the game, almost forcing player to invest more time, but also give them a real reason to replay the game. An opportunity to say “I wonder what would have happened if I did this differently?” and then go do it, which you can’t do with a game that is solely invested in delivering only one narrative, one experience.