For the purposes of this particular discussion I will compare and contrast the original Mass Effect with its sequel, Mass Effect 2. I will look at the four elements I find necessary for a game to offer replayability, namely:
Relatively deep character development customization
Robust inventory management
A great story that gives the player choice
I will examine how these elements were implemented in the first Mass Effect and how they changed in the sequel. I will try to then try to argue why the first game is replayable but the sequel is not.
When a character development system consists of a number of stats and skills that can be tweaked in various ways to optimize the class, it can often be difficult to figure out how best to do that. If, on the other hand, it is made up of only a few skills and stats, and each class is somewhat generic, it can be easily mastered and does not, in my opinion, lend itself to replay.
For example, in the first Mass Effect you could pick between several different classes, some distinct and others an amalgam of those classes. Depending on which class you chose, certain skills were unlocked. Pumping points into these skills could greatly affect combat, dialogue, and other aspects of game play. There was no easy way to know which class to choose or how putting points into specific skills would affect it.
By the time you completed the game, though, you definitely had a good idea of what you did right or wrong during that particular play through. Between actually experiencing the class you chose as well as how you configured it, and what you learned through external resources, such as FAQs on the Internet, discussions with friends and other gamers, etc., you at least partially mastered the character development system.
Subsequent play throughs only added to that mastery, and by experiencing different classes and different choices for each class, you learned how it all worked. You also engaged your brain in something that was challenging and interesting. Most importantly, depending on the class you chose and the skills you put points into skills, the game played quite differently.
Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, greatly simplified character development. It offers the same sorts of classes, of course, but each has only a single class specific skill. And instead of having something like ten skills to manage, you start off managing only a few. And although you can conceivably replay the game, choosing a different class each time or allocating skill points differently, doing so doesn't seem to dramatically change game play.
To use Bioware as my example again, the developer is well know for offering pausable real-time combat. The first example of this was in their first RPG, Baldur's Gate (PC), and before Mass Effect 2, the only game that didn't offer it was Jade Empire (Xbox, PC). All other Bioware RPGs have used this combat system.
What pausable real-time combat offers is an interesting, strategic experience. It allows you to pause game play and then change weapons, drink healing potions, give specific combat orders to other party members, and more. It lets you think about the situation, look over the various options, and then change your strategy on the fly. And you can do it without worrying about someone or something killing you while you're doing it.
Furthermore, combat in such games is not twitch driven. Roll dies take place in the game engine that decide how effective an attack is, for example, which means it's not about how well you as the player happen to center an aiming reticle over an enemy. The game looks at your character, his or her stats, the enemy, and other factors, and decides, somewhat randomly, how well you did.
So while you certainly have to have skill, it's not just in the amount of dexterity you can muster. It's also about how well you understand character development, the enemy, your inventory, and the sorts of strategic decisions you make while engaged in combat. And since this sort of knowledge takes time to learn, your mastery of it won't be instantaneous, which means that subsequent play throughs can add to that mastery and can offer interesting experiences.
For Mass Effect 2, Bioware didn't take away the ability to pause combat, but they changed the shooting mechanic from heavily relying on stats to relying more on how well players can shoot. It became important to aim successfully and the game changed from offering strategic combat to literally being a shooter. That was a major design goal and reviewers and gamers generally agree that Bioware succeeded.
The problem from a replayability standpoint with such a decision is that shooters are not unique. Some first person shooters, like Modern Warfare, are extremely successful, with online multiplayer being a large focus of the game, and many people play such games for months or even years. But most shooters don't succeed. Most shooters are throwaway affairs that may last for ten or more hours and then fall by the wayside.
More importantly, though, is that almost everyone knows how a shooter works, which means there isn't much of a learning curve with this type of combat. This is probably why Bioware chose to make Mass Effect 2 a shooter. They wanted anyone to be able to pick up and play the game, which then opens up the market for the series.
But the downside is significant to those of us who enjoy replaying RPGs. If combat is no longer strategic, and the decisions I make in developing my character have little bearing on combat, then one play through versus another will seem basically the same. Instead of being able to learn how best to fight, which takes into account everything from how I developed my character to which items I equipped on my party to what orders I give them while in combat, all I have to know is how to use a controller to shoot.
RPGs are known for their loot and RPG players are known for their lust for new weapons, armor, and other items. As loved as these items are, though, developers are constantly looking for ways to streamline inventory management. An RPG can succeed or fail based on how well it is done, and in my opinion inventory management is actually an integral part of the role playing experience. But it's also one of the most controversial.
Typically during the course of playing an RPG, characters encounter loot in a few different ways. First of all, they can buy and sell items at stores. Secondly, when enemies die they often drop loot. And last but not least, items can often be found in the environment, either closed in a container, or out in the open.
As players direct their characters and find loot, they are forced to ask themselves many questions: Which items do I equip? Which do I sell? Which do I drop (dispose of)? Which do I buy? Is this item better than that item? Which class is this item for? Do I hang onto the item in case I later have a party member that might need it? Will this item that can't be equipped have a future use?
And as mentioned, developers try to greatly simplify loot management, but regardless of how simple it is, players are still usually forced to think about these issues, especially if the character or party can only hold so many items at once. And while some players find inventory management to be a chore and nothing else, it can add a layer of strategy to the game. It essentially becomes a very important aspect of game play.
Which brings us back to the Mass Effect series. In the original game inventory management was clunky at its best and a nightmare at its worst. The player had three party members at a time that they could equip items for and a global inventory where all items were stored.
This global inventory had a hard limit on how many items it could hold, which meant whether you wanted to or not, you had to at least occasionally manage it. To make matters worse, enemies almost never dropped any loot-worthy items, and those found in the environment weren't much better.
The best items were bought from vendors and were generally quite expensive. But regardless of how good or bad the loot was, it was still very important to manage your inventory so party members had the best items for their respective classes. If you neglected this aspect of the game, you could find your party ill-equipped in battle.
Reviewers complained endlessly about this, as did players, and Bioware took notice. For Mass Effect 2 they not only revised inventory management but they basically did away with it. Instead of forcing players to use a single screen to manage items, they freed them entirely from managing it at all. Mass Effect 2 still allows you to change weapon load outs and upgrade items, but you also never have to do it while in the middle of game play.
When you start a mission you are giving the option of changing weapons, for example, but the best weapons are always automatically equipped, so you don't have to change anything if you don't want to. And as far as the rest of the items are concerned, once you research them, they are automatically equipped on your party members or your space ship.
On the one hand this changes inventory management from being a necessity to just being user preference. Weapon load out in Mass Effect 2 is more like it might be in Battlefield Bad Company 2, for example, and the streamlined system just makes sure that you can only use weapons appropriate for your class, with the best equipped automatically.
And researching items, which is based on finding blueprints for them while questing and then mining planets for minerals that are used to build them, adds a nice, light strategic layer to the game. In other words, Bioware has replaced the tedium of the original game's inventory management with a streamlined system while adding in additional game play.
On paper this sounds fantastic, and again, reviewers and players loved the change. But for those of us who don't find inventory management tedious, and who learned over time how to use Mass Effect's inventory management without getting bogged down by its deficiencies, these changes make little sense. Why remove a staple of RPG gaming and replace it with something that would be better at home in an action game?
The reason of course is because the Mass Effect series is rapidly moving away from its RPG roots and is less an RPG now than an action game. By the third or fourth game in the series it may do away entirely with character development and inventory management, and instead of being considered an RPG it may instead be a story driven shooter. It's likely that future installments will even include multiplayer or coop modes, and the transition will be complete.
The term "role playing" means different things to different people. To those who grew up with table top, pen and paper gaming, it might mean a user created experience that's less about stats and inventory management and more about actually playing a role, where your every decision makes a huge difference in how things unfold.
For those who grew up playing the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy video games, role playing might be more about a directed experience. Combat and character development are often quite different in Japanese RPGs than they are in Western RPGs, with far fewer options but much more style. The games usually offer jaw dropping graphics, anime character design, and fantastical stories that easily differentiate them from their Western counterparts.
Western gamers, those of us who grew up with The Bard's Tale, Dungeon Master, the Ultima series, and more recently, games like Baldur's Gate, are usually looking for RPGs that don't just include great stories. We want all of the elements I've already discussed, but then also ask for complex dialogue trees, multiple characters, branching story lines, and game play that changes with every decision the player makes.
In other words, a Western RPG isn't like a pen and paper or Japanese RPG. It is generally a more complex game that gives players a great deal of freedom while also giving them a great story. And while those early games attempted to mimic pen and paper, and early JRPGs attempted to mimic games like Ultima, today's Western RPG is pretty representative of what gamers like myself are looking for.
To give an example, let's again look at the original Mass Effect. It offered an epic story, complex dialogue trees that allowed players an unparalleled ability to shape the story as well as how others interacted with them, and it voiced every line of dialogue for both the protagonist as well as the rest of the characters in the game.
This didn't change in Mass Effect 2, and it in fact one of the few game play elements untouched by the developers. And while I can't say I liked the direction the story went in, it was entertaining anyway. But story alone, in my opinion, doesn't necessarily give a game replay value. So while we can applaud Bioware for including a strong story in the game, I don't think it's enough.
Should developers worry about how replayable an RPG is? Should it be a concern at all when what really matters is whether their fan base buys the next sequel in the series or not? More importantly, how many people replay games and what elements do most players find lend themselves to replayability anyway?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I do know an RPG with replay value when I see it. And while I played the original Mass Effect, as well as Fallout 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and Alpha Protocol, all multiple times, I didn't play Mass Effect 2 more than once. One play through and the game's mysteries, mechanics as well as story, were laid bare, and I couldn't even force myself to play it again.
But beyond my own personal need to replay Western RPGs, there's also the issue of downloadable content (DLC). Bioware has pushed DLC hard for both Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, with frequent releases that add new characters, quests, and items. And while I have purchased and played all available DLC for Dragon Age: Origins, I have yet to play any of it for Mass Effect 2.
Why is this? If the story was worth experiencing once shouldn't the DLC also be worth checking out? I think it comes down to the same reason I don't ever play action games more than once and almost never buy single player DLC for them. After I've experienced the game world, learned the controls and game mechanics, I don't want to go back.
A relatively complex Western RPG has enough depth to make experiencing it more than once compelling, and furthermore, it lends itself well to DLC, which might deepen or change the experience even more. An action game like Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, has already played all of its cards, so unless you typically enjoy playing the same experience over and over again, it holds little intrigue.
But I have a hard time believing a developer like Bioware is concerned with a small segment of its fan base and their need for complex role playing experiences. They see the action genre as the place where the money is, and they are streamlining their games to tap into it. If that means Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age 2 are single shot experiences, so be it.
The only bright spot in all of this are those developers who have yet to abandon such RPGs. Bethesda Softworks, for example, the developer of Oblivion and Fallout 3, both highly replayable action RPGs, seem firmly committed to continuing to give players complexity and depth in their games. I for one will continue to give my money to the developer who does likewise, while I'll likely only rent games from developers whose games offer little replay value.