Lastability: A Dissertation.

by Jonathan Metts - November 2, 2001, 9:05 am PST

Just how important is lasting/replay value to the gaming experience? What is it about some games that keeps us playing them for years to come? Jonny tackles these questions in his latest editorial.

Ya know, when I think back to the days of playing NES and SNES every single day, I can’t ever remember complaining that a game was too short, or that it didn’t have any replay value. Sure, I was younger then and more easily amused, and of course I didn’t have the years of experience and immense (ha) gaming skill that I do now, but something was still different in the games.

For one thing, most of them didn’t really try to tell a story. Developers seemed to assume that kids wanted fun, not depth, and so practically every game was what we today would consider arcade-style. That didn’t necessarily mean a Pac-Man game design, with almost infinite levels and beating the high score for a primary motivation; gosh, just look at Super Mario Bros. There are a very finite number of levels, and high scores aren’t even saved when you turn the game off, but certainly no one ever complained that SMB was too short or didn’t have enough replay value. It was so much fun that you wanted to play it again and again, even after beating it for the twentieth time. (Note that opinions didn’t really change when the game was re-released as SMB Deluxe for Game Boy Color over a dozen years later...)

Keeping with the Miyamoto theme, look at the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I’ve played through and beaten it at least five times, and realizing that I’ve somehow lost the cartridge since going to college almost brings tears to my eyes. Has anyone ever said that LttP held too few hours of gameplay? Certainly not that I’ve heard. In addition to being a damn long game in general, LttP is so much fun and so well done that even fairly casual gamers are often inclined to play through the entire quest multiple times.

Alas, this editorial’s purpose is not simply to heap praise on games such as these. I’m writing because there is a growing trend in the gaming industry that bothers me a great deal. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever read one of Planet GameCube’s reviews, but we have an important scoring category called "Lastability”. This fabricated word is meant to combine the more traditional concepts of value, satisfaction, and replay into one distinctive criterion.

We wouldn’t include Lastability into our review system if we didn’t think it was important to a game’s overall quality. The high price of Game Boy Advance software alone makes me glad that we pay attention to Lastability, and in fact, it was high prices that gave me the inspiration to write this article. As a writer for PGC, I’m lucky enough to get most of my GBA games for free. Sure, there are some I want that get sent to other staffers, but for the most part my handheld gaming fix is taken care of...as long as I fulfill my end of the bargain and do my best to review the games. One thing has often happened to me while writing said reviews though: I’ll have spent three or four highly enjoyable hours with a game, finished it, and am all ready to recommend it to the legions of PGC readers, when I suddenly realize that this game costs everyone else a whopping forty dollars. Forty dollars! That’s almost twice the cost of a ton of old Game Boy and GBC games, and who’s to say that the GBA’s better graphics and sound are worth an extra fifteen bucks per game...not to mention the higher price of the hardware itself?

Maybe some of you have the big bucks and don’t mind being a little flagrant with your software library, but if I’m shelling out two score clams, I’d better be getting a blockbuster, a masterpiece. If a game is over in less than five or six hours, no matter how awesome, I find it hard to justify a purchase, especially when it’s fairly easy to rent handheld games these days. And plain old game length isn’t the only culprit either; a good many titles are plenty long enough, just so un-entertaining that you’d never finish all the levels/challenges/etc. anyway.

Whatever happened to games that fun to play on a primitive, carnal basis? If you can have a blast just running around and using the basic play mechanics, you’re not going to care nearly so much about how many hours of gameplay you squeeze out or whether the ending provides any closure. Hell, I don’t expect every game to be friggin’ Tetris (which IMO has Lastability off the charts), but for almost half a Benjamin I better be entertained for many, many days to come. And here’s a wake-up call to GBA developers and publishers: tossing in a poorly conceived multiplayer mode doesn’t automatically make the game more viable in the long term. Sure, link cable support adds a crapload to a game like Mario Kart: Super Circuit and even the more recent Boxing Fever, but why would I even want to trade items with someone else who happens to own Pinobee: Wings of Adventure? When I can beat that game in five hours and the core gameplay isn’t interesting enough for me to ever feel like playing it again, the option to trade with a friend and maybe acquire enough power-up cards to get infinite lives is just pointless. That’s not to point fingers at Pinobee either; there are a LOT of GBA games with weak-ass gameplay and poor lasting value that try to cover up those flaws by exploiting the hardware’s multiplayer abilities. A boring game is still boring with four people playing.

Recent console games are also having problems in the Lastability department. I personally was disappointed with the relatively long Final Fantasy IX, not because I beat it quickly (took me about sixty hours), but because the game lacks the classic feel of its predecessors. The fourth Final Fantasy on SNES can be beaten in around twenty hours, but it’s done so well that I can (and have) played through the quest several times and enjoy it more each time. Thus, FFIV has become an integral part of my gaming experience, a title that actually defines part of me and my identity as a gamer. Compare this to Treasure’s Sin & Punishment on N64; it can be beaten in about three hours if you know what you’re doing, but the core gameplay is so compelling and satisfying that I know I’ll be playing it for years to come.

So for me, Lastability isn’t limited to one certain type of game, and the same goes for un-Lastability. I sympathize with game developers, who have the difficult and rather abstractly defined task of creating a game experience that holds up to the test of time, both over a few weeks and over many years. Then again, at $40-50 a pop, we as gamers need start demanding more value out of our games.

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