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  • Replayability: Game Mechanics As Periodic Dilemma Generators

    [01.28.21]
    - Narek Aghekyan
  •  Abstract

    This article discusses the properties of high replay value games. In the article a new abstract concept of Periodic Dilemma Generator (PDG) is defined and presented as a tool for analyzing and creating high replay value games.

    The article suggests that in order for a game to have a high replay value, it should incorporate a PDG system. More precisely, this article introduces a new hypothesis: having a PDG is a necessary and sufficient condition for a game's replayability. Significant amount of the discussions and examples in this article are connected with hyper-casual (HC) games, but the conclusions are directly extendable to any other genre of games.

    Introduction 

    Let's start our discussion with a frequently overlooked concept called replayability or replay value. Replayable games usually generate more downloads, have higher LTVs and, eventually, higher ROIs [1]. 

    It is more than obvious that in order for a game to be replayable the game should be interesting every subsequent time you play it. This brings us to a very famous quote from Sid Meier. In the 1989 GDC conference, more than 30 years ago, the legendary game designer Sid Meier said: "A game is a series of interesting decisions". This phrase has become a huge topic for discussions.

    Some people have strongly agreed and cited in many books and articles, whereas others have argued if it is true at all. Therefore, in 2012, after 23 years of saying this phrase, Sid Meier returned to GDC with another talk to explain what are interesting decisions and to give more clarifications. And in his presentation he literally said: "And what makes a decision interesting? Ahhh... Kind of almost easier to look at it of what is NOT an interesting decision. For example, ....". [2] And he presents lots of very important thoughts, helpful examples but in his talk he does not give a clear and simple definition of what an interesting decision is.

    Many other game designers and authors have discussed the topic of replayability, interesting decisions, and other related concepts based on different perspectives. For example, in her book Tracy Fullerton discusses the types of decisions. [3] She thoroughly discusses each type, explains advantages and drawbacks, but all this is not conclusive as, again, there is no clear formula of an interesting decision. 

    Wikipedia says: "Replay value or replayability is a term used to assess a video game's potential for continued play value after its first completion." [4]. 

    E. Adams, J. Dormans are discussing replay value as a result of a large probability space, i.e. many different possible states in a game (e.g. in chess, SimCity, Civilization, etc). They mention "Large probability space makes games more replayable; as a player, you can be confident no two games will be exactly alike. This adds to a game's appeal, especially if the outcome of each play-through is as unpredictable as the first." [5]

    On the other hand, Steve Swink in his book considers replayability a result of expressivity of controls. If the game enables the player to express himself in many different ways then the game has depth and, hence, it is replayable. He also mentions that goals and challenges are also important in terms of replayability. For example, leaderboards or competition with other players may give a player a reason to come back and replay. He writes "Adding additional sensitivity to the controls enables more subtlety and nuance to the interactions. Supporting these new, more expressive interactions with rules [goals and challenges] and context [spatial layout] enables the designer to craft the feel of the game at various levels, making it deeper." [1]

    Yes, designers also use vague terms such as depth to explain the replayability. Why is this term vague? There is no strict definition or common understanding of depth. In my previous article dedicated to the concept of Most Memorable Moment (MMM) I have defined the depth as "The number of reasons you have to do the same thing" [6]. But this is not a universally agreed definition (probably not very helpful either) and usually depth is understood only intuitively.

    As you might notice, different authors explain the replayability reasons differently. We all understand what a replayable game is, but we have no good tools to make one. Although, since 1989 until now, more than 30 years, none of the authors mentioned above have introduced a concrete definition or formula to identify what an interesting decision is, anyways, all of them have discussed the topic from different angles, have developed the knowledge and eventually created a brilliant foundation on which, I believe, it is possible to build a solid theory.

    In this article I will introduce and examine such a tool for analyzing and designing games. Throughout this article we will discuss HC games frequently. Why? For two main reasons:

    1. Games have four major constituent elements: Mechanics, Story, Aesthetics, and Technology [7]. In this article we are concentrating on game mechanics and its replayability, so in this context hyper-casual games are the most distilled game genre. Indeed, HC games might have a small narrative but they don't have a story, the aesthetic part of HC games is only for providing a player with some context and helping to understand the Metaphor [1] and technology is not important in this context at all.
    2. The second reason is that our experience at Noor Games is mainly concentrated on the HC genre. At Noor Games we have been creating HC games since 2018, and due to the accumulated expertise in this area it is the best way for me to communicate our experience and findings to the readers.

    However, the discussions and findings are not anyhow limited to HC genre. They are extendable and transferable to literally any type of games.

    The Periodic Dilemma Generator

    In a very boring game players may still have available choices and can make decisions. We, as game designers, need to understand what kind of choices or decisions make a game interesting and, hence, replayable. For this reason I want to define and analyze a new concept called Periodic Dilemma Generator.

    Imagine a system, where you have a clear goal to achieve. The system is periodically presenting you with choices, and you need to decide which one to choose. Choosing between system-provided choices is the only mechanism to achieve or fail the goal. Imagine that in the suggested system the presented choices have the following properties:

    1. Choices are meaningful [3], i.e. they satisfy the following two sub-criteria:
      • Informed choices - the system should provide you with both the cost and the benefit of every choice.
      • Choices with consequences - the choices make a difference, i.e. they affect the system's state by bringing you closer to the goal, or taking away from reaching it.
    2. Choices are dilemmatic [3], i.e. choices are conflicting and in every situation there is no optimal answer.
    3. The outcome of a choice is unpredictable in terms of achieving the goal [3, 5], i.e. there is no choice, that choosing it will certainly achieve the goal. And also there is no situation, that in spite of available choices reaching the goal is impossible.

    This system is an abstraction, and we will call it Periodic Dilemma Generator (PDG). The concept may sound a bit complicated to understand but the following examples will fully clarify the idea. But before we jump into examples, there is a very important statement. High replay value games have one or more PDG systems built into the core loop of the game. The main hypothesis of this article is: having a PDG is a necessary and sufficient condition for a game's replayability. In other words, PDGs are providing players with interesting choices.

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