Most every game gets repetitive at some point, whether it’s because you’re stuck at an obstacle or boss fight or because the gameplay itself is short and standard (for example, there isn’t a lot you can do in a football game except, you know, play football). The key is what the game does in response to this issue, as handling repetition well can be the difference between a good game and a bad one.
Consider the latest two games I’ve highlighted, Miitopia and Sonic Mania. Despite being completely different genres, both games lean on linear gameplay through worlds with a number of branching paths, with any number of bonuses waiting for ambitious explorers. This means that completionists and OCD players like myself are going to have to go back through each level a number of times to fully ‘defeat’ it. So why did I enjoy going back through Miitopia levels but come to detest doing the same in Sonic Mania? Essentially, it was because Miitopia always did the right thing when it came to repetitive gameplay, whereas Sonic Mania never did.
So how do you handle repetition in games? Here are a few takeaways from my experience:
- Save the player’s progress early and often. Break your levels down into small segments (conceptually if not literally), and record the player’s progress after each one. That way, if the player runs into a challenge that takes them a few tries to overcome, they can a) focus squarely on that challenge instead of slogging through a bunch of stuff they’ve already done, and b) not have to re-do said challenge if they fail further down the line.
Upon falling in battle, both Miitopia and Sonic Mania send the player back to the beginning of the stage they were playing. The difference is that Miitopia‘s stages are much smaller than Sonic Mania‘s, and boss fights are separated into their own stages, so returning to the point of the player’s prior failure is quick and easy. Sonic Mania, on the other hand, ships players all the way back to the beginning of the zone they were playing when they receive a Game Over, forcing them to play through up to two (pretty long) acts to get back to where they perished.
- Give the player plenty of chances to succeed. Sonic Mania actually has a nice checkpoint system built in, which works great when you have a life to give. The game is surprisingly stingy with its lives, however, and it doesn’t take long to burn through them all on a tough boss fight and suffer the indignity of a Game Over. Say what you want about lives being so plentiful as to be meaningless in the Mario series, but the games give players more than enough chances to overcome the challenges they face. (In fact, Super Mario Maker‘s infinite-retry system is the only thing that makes beating kaizo and other super-hard levels possible.) Miitopia copies the Mario Maker technique and lets you try your hand at a level as many times as you want.
- Make the rewards for exploring both worthwhile and permanent. In Miitopia (and most RPGs, for that matter), every individual battle you play through gets you money and experience, and thus exploring ultimately makes your party stronger. In Sonic Mania, exploring a different path might net you… More rings? Maybe a shield or an extra life? Not only are these rewards not terribly enticing, but some are also ephemeral and will disappear at the end of the stage. It just feels like exploration in Sonic Mania is just for the sake of exploration, and doesn’t actually net you much in the end.
- When all else fails, make sure no two gameplay sessions are the same. In truth, some of the most fundamentally repetitive games out there (Madden, Mario Kart, Overwatch) are also some of the most popular and enjoyable. The reason is that games like this introduce just enough randomness (different players, different maps, etc.) to ensure that every match is its own unique entity. Miitopia accomplishes this mostly through its potentially-infinite cast of characters, as well as the different roles they can take on. Sonic Mania has nothing like this, although in all fairness single-player platformers are at a huge disadvantage in this category.
In the end, it’s all about finding ways for the player to enjoy your game, even in the face of repetition. When a game can pull it off, it allows for near-endless replayability. When a game doesn’t, it had better hope that a one-and-done playthrough is worth the cost.