Throughout the years, there’s been a debate when it comes to “content”. That’s all-quotes content because you know exactly what I’m referring to. With each new game that comes out, we’re constantly debating how much “content” it has. When you search for an action RPG, especially a loot-based one like Diablo, The Division or Torchlight, the one serious question you have is about the end-game. Maybe the campaign and quests will be fun but what will keep you coming back? Can you use all that powerful equipment to take on new foes? For that matter, can you get even more powerful equipment and embark on an entirely separate endeavour to slay all? The “end-game” is such a significant part of some titles that it’s often considered a completely separate game.
“With each new game that comes out, we’re constantly debating how much “content” it has.”
But even leaving aside looter games, content is a major point of contention. Look at open world games like Fallout 4, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Dragon Age: Inquisition or Mass Effect: Andromeda. They have a strong mix of narrative content to go with their side quests, fetch quests, scavenger hunts, secret weapons, hidden bosses and so on. In Fallout 4, it’s possible to roam the open world and come across events like Super Mutants battling the Brotherhood of Steel. That involves Vertibirds, nuke-carrying Mutants, mutating enemies and whatnot. Perhaps somewhere along the way you’ll find an interesting collectible or unexplored building with lore. Granted, that’s a more finite form of content but the overall experience of journeying forth, not sure what you’ll find, is one of the key appeals of Bethesda’s open world games.
However, look at a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition. Most of the content involved traipsing around large land masses, investigating forts, collecting shards, fighting dragons (and ideally not being stomped by enemies at higher levels than you), organizing your Keep, fetching various items, the list goes on. Many considered these to be MMO-esque and lacking any real narrative depth especially compared to The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt seems to be the standard when it comes to open world games. However, it featured many of the same fetch quests, scavenger hunts and side missions that occupied many other games. Yes, there were several quests with strong narrative impact like exploring the tower and discovering the ghost of a girl or the main quest involving the Bloody Baron. However, The Witcher 3 had its share of filler as well. Much of the content especially the main quest would involve revisiting locations you had been before.
However, these locations were used in whole new ways. Oftentimes we’d see things that weren’t present the first time around and view these locations through new scenarios. Take the scavenger quest for Wolven Witcher Gear which sees you exploring locations throughout Kaer Morhen. For as much as The Witcher 3 presented these interesting new locations with different things to do, it also recycled quite a few areas with interesting twists and turns. Keep in mind that it didn’t offer a dynamic open world like Bethesda titles further facilitate playing beyond New Game Plus. That will feed into a later point.
“But that’s essentially what we’re trying to look at here – namely, unique content versus a game’s inherent replay value.”
Then we look at a game like Destiny, often derided for its reuse of locations and for good reason. When Destiny was first “revealed”, we were promised a grand quest with numerous planets to explore. By now you know that we got a few limited planets where the same routes were revisited with the same objectives to complete. This improved significantly in House of Wolves and The Taken King which actually took some of the older areas like the Vault of Glass and Crota’s End to deliver brand new experiences. Who would have thought that the Crota’s End raid could become one big stealth mission to steal Crota’s ashes? Then again, we’ve seen the negative aspects of this as well – like that Rise of Iron mission where players would start from the end of the Dust Palace strike and progress backwards to some room.
But that’s essentially what we’re trying to look at here – namely, unique content versus a game’s inherent replay value. How important is it to have replayable content? Should it be done at the expense of more crafted missions and a fixed narrative? What is a fine line to draw when it comes to any game, not just open world titles, with regards to content?
Obviously different strokes will favour different folks. The grind in The Division involved progressing from level 1 to 30, completing story missions and side quests before chasing after higher gear score items and the ideal “build”. Additional DLC would add new modes and experiences like Survival, the Underground and Last Stand, accommodating players with quality loot (if they were lucky and given how much loot was dispersed, it wasn’t hard to be lucky). The problem was there was nothing to use all this quality loot on, no scaling challenges. You could probably solo Legendary missions if you felt exceptionally willing. In this case, the content wasn’t something that had to be brand new (though players still crave for more story missions). It’s an end-game that had to continue challenging players, further feeding into their power fantasies with tougher mobs that could be easily disposed of.
Diablo 3 has other concerns though. While Reaper of Souls helped to redeem Diablo 3’s loot structure, RNG, loot quality, progression and overall end-game – not to mention the advantages that Seasons can present for hardcore players seeking the best builds – some fans have tired of running Greater Rifts. Some of them simply don’t like the Set Dungeons and some just want new places to go, new challenges to take up and interesting new gameplay hooks (besides Wizards constantly dominating the leaderboards with each new season but that’s a different concern). Then there are people like me who are just happy to log in and level up some gems, discover new Ancients, amass more Paragon Points and simply kill stuff. And I wouldn’t mind investing in the Necromancer DLC for a chance to play the new class because I like the content that I’ve received so far.
“Still, one keeps coming back to the core debate – is replay value, even if it comes at the expense of repetitive content, more important than unique content?”
As stated before, different strokes for different folks. Some games like Inside and What Remains of Edith Finch deliver a compact, well-told story over a few hours. The “replay value” in games like those is essentially like rewatching your favourite film – you know what to expect but you still enjoy the journey. That’s what often makes people go back to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. As an open world experience, it may not have the dynamism of a Bethesda game but with a decently comparable scale, strong narrative experiences in many missions and a pretty good campaign, each playthrough feels meaningful while still offering plenty to do.
And again, this isn’t to say that other games are doing it wrong. One of the appeals of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is to just go anywhere you want. Replay the game, for instance, and travel in the exact opposite direction. It’s guaranteed that you’ll have a completely different experience from your first playthrough. You may even find things you missed the first time around. Does the game as an experience become dull if a few things are repeated?
Perhaps the best example of this narrative focus versus an open world design is Mass Effect 3 vs. Mass Effect: Andromeda. Andromeda has a vast open world with side missions to complete but Mass Effect 3’s campaign is more focused on set-pieces and cinematic story missions. Side missions are still a thing but they’re nowhere near as vast in number as Andromeda. There are plenty of other factors at play though, like one’s experience with the series, connection with the characters, writing, mission design and whatnot. However, it’s interesting to see how these two diverse approaches – similar in many respects but still so very different – can garner so much love from their respective audiences.
Still, one keeps coming back to the core debate – is replay value, even if it comes at the expense of repetitive content, more important than unique content? Is a completely curated experience made of hand-crafted missions and story developments better than simply replaying the same thing over and over again, even if it’s fun?
Perhaps “fun” is the key word here. Personally, I can look at a game like Life is Strange and play it again without diverging much from my previous decisions. It’s because I like the story, the characters and how it all pans out. That defines the “fun” factor for me. Dota 2 and League of Legends of players will pour thousands of hours into the game even if they’re just using the same heroes and on the same map.
“Honestly, at the end of the day, if you like a game, you can play it for as long as you want. A game doesn’t always have to justify its existence with “content”.”
Whether it’s the gameplay loop or the nuances that unlock from various combinations of heroes or just how everything together can make for a unique experience each time, replaying the same thing and performing the same actions is “fun” for these people. Which explains how Destiny, The Division and other MMO players can do the same dailies and weeklies, even if they’re frustrated by the bugs or lackluster rewards. There is something in the gun play, builds and overall gameplay loop that keeps players invested for long periods of time.
On the other hand, some players are fine with simply playing a game, finishing the story and moving on to the next game. Let’s be honest – you don’t need to unlock all of Nier: Automata’s 26 endings to fully enjoy the game. Ditto for completing all the side quests in games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Mass Effect: Andromeda. For that matter, you don’t even have unlock all the routes in games like the Zero Escape series – though the game makes it incredibly easy to do so. Replay value and unique content aren’t mutually exclusive concepts – if the latter delivers something satisfying to players while offering a little something to keep them coming back should they so wish, then it’s the ideal game. Yes, even when keeping bugs, server issues, graphics, voice acting, writing, annoying cast members, tediousness and so on in mind.
How else are games like For Honor and Ghost Recon: Wildlands still so popular? We could debate about the many things those games could improve and the glitches they could fix. But the inherent design is something that fans love. It’s something they don’t want to be changed at the very core even with all the baffling balance changes and lackluster DLC (looking at you, Narco Road). This doesn’t mean that design is above reprieve – just because a developer designed something a certain way, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be criticized. For example, even if the Strike bosses in Destiny were designed to be simple and not mechanically heavy since Bungie didn’t want players to be overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean they’re completely problem-free.
Honestly, at the end of the day, if you like a game, you can play it for as long as you want. A game doesn’t always have to justify its existence with “content”. There may never be a right or wrong when it comes to design if a large number of people have fun with it (which in my opinion doesn’t excuse poor design but again, it could all just be subjective for me). As long as a game delivers a good experience and most importantly, as long as you have fun with it, then content be damned. You alone, and no one else, can decide the “value” of something and whether it’s worth your time, however long that may be.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to GamingBolt as an organization.