Exploding the Economics of Replay Value

Replayability is a concept that precedes videogame culture, or at least the videogame magazine. While the term was used scarcely in the field of audio recording, it gained its foothold in the pages of Simulation/Gaming magazine in the mid-1970’s, where it was used as a metric on a five-point scale in the review of board and card games. From there we can see the birth of “replay value” in computer magazines of the 1980’s. Though often used interchangeably, I make the distinction that replay value specifically defines an economic disposition towards videogames. While there have been a few longform analyses of replayability as well as studies of replay value more pointedly, my interest lies less in how one captures replay value and more in how it is a historical construction of videogame culture. What follows is my investigation into replay value’s moment of creation, what it fails to consider and its potential undoing at the hands of speedrunners.

The Formulation of Replay Value

In the January 1985 issue of Hot Coco, Richard Ramella writes that in the edutainment game Happy Birthday, Mr. Gift (1984) “[the lack of questions] strictly limits the replay value: how much would you pay for a book that taught your child 10 words?” Here we can see a sort of valuative calculus being performed, where media objects are reduced to discrete quantifiable units which are meant to be extracted by the consumer. This logic extends into the present where websites like howlongtobeat.com break games down by average expected playtime. Just as Carly Kocurek argues that “[t]he arcade[…]persists as a mode not only of play, but of economic decision making and a set of cultural values”, so too does replay value persist as a home computer reinstantiation of the arcade’s time-for-money model.

It has also been argued that replay value is the determinant of game-ness. In an interview in the September 1983 issue of SoftSide Magazine Infocom developer Michael Berlyn states that “A game has replay value and interaction[…]So something like Zork I, which has little, if any, interaction or replay value, is a puzzle by our definition. Even though people call it a game, to us it’s not really a ‘game.’” While this ignores that e.g. jigsaw puzzles can be redone multiple times, as well as the existence of puzzle games, the sentiment can still be seen echoed in the December 1983 issue of GAMES Magazine as well as later academic research informed by Chris Crawford’s 1984 book The Art of Game Design. A near-identical claim about videogames is also made by fellow Infocom developer Brian Moriarty during the first Game Developers Conference as chronicled in the February 1989 issue of Computer Gaming World, where it is written that “[Moriarty] suggested the advantage [of interactive stories] rested in replay value and involvement.” Thus replay value is not merely a property of videogames in the eyes of 1980’s games culture, but an ontological fundament.

Reading Replays

Ness considers a house purchase in EarthBound

My first anecdote comes from a replay of Nintendo’s EarthBound (1994), a role-playing game for the SNES. A short while after beating the final boss for the first time I decided to start a new file, and after playing through the game’s introduction I came across a non-player character near the starting point of the game that I hadn’t interacted with before. The character’s name is Lier X. Agerate and if the player talks to him he shows you a “treasure” he uncovered in his basement, the evil Mani-Mani Statue which plays a role later in the game and is accompanied by a one-off creepy sound effect. In a Reddit thread entitled “What are some things you missed on your first playthrough?”, other players also express having initially bypassed Lier and the statue. Finding this extra bit of detail retroactively enriched my initial playthrough, even though I did not end up completing the replay in question.

My second example is heavier in content than EarthBound. Nina Freeman’s Freshman Year (2015) is a short autobiographical game presented as interactive fiction, not unlike a Twine game although it was made in Flash. As the game’s female protagonist, a college student in her titular freshman year, players make choices through a simple interface consisting of speech bubbles and cell phone icons. The plot sees the protagonist make her way to a bar downtown where she waits for her friend Jenna to arrive. She also encounters a bouncer who proceeds to hit on her and eventually forcibly makes out with her. Though this climax is rather predictable, the game effectively uses the ambiance of its music and visuals to foreshadow the incident, and it still manages to come off as a bit of a surprise due to the juxtaposition of stillness and motion. During that brief moment both player and protagonist become hyper-aware of every detail where before there was only a vague nervousness.

What really made the game powerful for me however came upon replay. In interactive fiction a common technique is what I’ve seen referred to as the “foldback structure”, whereby branching story paths are brought back together into one bottlenecked inevitability. While some games have been criticized for using this structure (e.g. Mass Effect 3 [2012]), Freshman Year uses the foldback as a poignant commentary. It doesn’t matter what you wear, how much you drink or what you text your friend, another person’s decision to invade your personal space is beyond your control. Moreover, I came to understand this not by didactically being told so but through the psychology of replay. My motivation wasn’t to explore the concept of self-blame — I merely wanted to see if there was a different ending — but the fact that there wasn’t was actually more profound. Just as replay revealed missed content in EarthBound, so too did it reveal meaning through a lack of additional content in Freshman Year, and it is these sorts of experiences that don’t traditionally get factored into replay value.

Running, Exploding, Remolding

Plugging speedrunning’s repetitiousness into the time-for-money equation at the heart of replay value reveals both speedrunning’s “utopian possibility” (to paraphrase Fraser McKissack and Lawrence May) as well as the ludicrousness of replay value as a tenet of “good game design”. To draw in personal experience, for my purchase of Celeste (2018) for $25.74 CAD as a speedrunner I have eked out thousands of hours worth of playtime over the course of several years, resulting in the payment of fractions of a cent per hour played. This is not to say that I have pulled one over on the game’s developers, rather I have more meaningfully temporarily circumvented the cycle of consumption and abandonment implicit in videogame fandom–the cultural and market forces that compel players to move on to the “latest and greatest” releases. To quote Seb Franklin: “[speedrunning] allow[s] for a creativity that is against both algorithmic limitations and programmed obsolescence.” Moreover the true obliteration of replay value’s selectiveness lies in the fact that nearly any videogame can be subsumed by the metagame of the speedrun, and therefore all videogames have inherent replay value. As Timothy Welsh phrases it, replay value can then be reformulated as “the significance of individual enactments of a game”.

This is not to say that speedrunners necessarily escape participation in a capitalist system. Speedrunning often requires additional investments in things such as capture cards, controllers when they inevitably break through repeated use or sometimes specific versions of a given software or hardware that are faster for a plethora of reasons from regional text differences to reduced loading times. The practice of live-streaming speedruns also complicates the explosion of replay value, as it is distributive yet re-consumptive. Additionally, the newer non-static model of games as a service jeopardizes speedrunning’s disruptiveness, as Goetz says it is only “When there are no more updates, no more changes, [that] the game can finally begin its afterlife as an enclosed universe, an object that grows stranger the more a player gets to know it.” For while I believe that we can fundamentally remold our relationship to replay value to highlight its abundant absurdity, so too can replay value be remolded into new schemes of extraction; nowhere is this more evident than the recent push for “play to earn”.

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