The lights are on
Replayability is a big deal to gamers. Not everyone is ready to be done with a game once the credits (and the inevitable sequel-tease afterwards) are finished. Replayability can come in the form of a massive world with tons of quests to complete, while other times it means starting from the beginning with a buffed up character via new game+. While I always appreciate those traits, the surest way to keep me going on a game is providing a string of post-game content that presents new challenges and continues to change how I play.
First of all, let me talk about tabletop role-playing. In 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, level 20 is effectively the level cap. The core sourcebooks only provide information about character progression and abilities up to level 20, but you can buy an additional tome called The Epic Level Handbook that deals with levels 21 and up. This is one of my favorite D&D sourcebooks ever, because it shows how the rules that restrict your character can deteriorate as you approach god-like power. It features spells and creatures of catastrophic power that have no place in a regular campaign – but if you have a level 20 character, you’ve graduated beyond the point where you need to be bound by convention. You’ve “beaten” D&D in some sense, but getting more powerful doesn’t stop being fun.
The same theory applies to video games. At the end of a game, you have presumably hit the ceiling of your proficiency with a game’s regular mechanics, and its standard enemies no longer pose a serious threat. That’s the value of post-game content; it lets you prolong the life of your game by dangling new challenges in front of you – challenges that let you exercise all of themight and expertise that you spent an entire game cultivating.
I’m not just talking about completing quests that were left unfinished in the main campaign. By “post-game content,” I mean enemies, abilities, quests, and rewards that are only available after you finish the main story arc. For example, Bayonetta has an entire category of absurdly expensive accessories – most players can only afford one or two after their initial playthrough. However, these items also add new mechanics and abilities, giving players an incentive to replay levels and improve their technique. For instance, one item allows you to parry )(rather than dodge) attacks. Another turns every one of Bayonetta's attacks into super-powered versions normally reserved for huge boss encounters. Abilities like these drastically tip the scales in your favor, and the more you play, the more of these items you can afford, and the more combat continues to open up.
These kinds of rewards are the critical ingredient to great post-game content. If the only payoff is more money and experience, then what’s the point? By the end of a game, you’re probably got more than enough of both of those resources. Players need rewards worth striving for – things that take the rules we are familiar with and let us bend, break, and destroy them.
Different titles accomplish this in different ways. Bayonetta has crazy, combat-enhancing items. The Lego games from Traveller’s Tales let you earn a variety of cheats that you can activate without penalty. Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a sequence of difficult superbosses for which the game assumes that you are using maxed-out characters and various exploits. The list goes on and on, ranging from new difficulty levels to unique game-breaking items. These goals can easily add 20 hours of playtime, and give people more of a game they love.
I always appreciate when developers include well-designed post-game features, but I know better to expect them all the time. In this case, I can’t stand on my soap box and say “All games should include this feature all the time!” (as I have before). The process involves extra design and development time: New mechanics need to be play-tested, new bosses need to be balanced, and new quests need to mapped out. Furthermore, the payoff for all of this effort is uncertain. I don’t have any figures, but I’m guessing that only a minority of players enjoy playing their games into the ground the way I do. But to the developers who go the extra mile: Thank you for keeping me hooked long after the credits roll.
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