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Is there a way to preserve the replay value of a discovery game? (Case study: Subnautica)

Gamingtodaynews1g - Is there a way to preserve the replay value of a discovery game? (Case study: Subnautica)
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This is a question I've grappled with for a while and haven't come to any good answer. An essential function of most games is how replayable they are. Especially with the advent of open-world and branched-choice games, a player can sink hundreds and possibly thousands of hours into them and still get a fresh experience because of different permutations taken when going through the game mechanics. Some games that are about "discovery" but still manage to maintain replay value are Mass Effect and Skyrim. And it's because you can take many paths to explore the same thing so that it feels new each time.

Other games are replayable because their main draw is something that doesn't diminish if you do it over and over again, even in the exact same way. Assassin's Creed, Halo, Call of Duty, are all example of this. Their hook is the fun of going around doing action items (ie in AC games, the fun is from sneaking around and in first-person shooters, the fun is in blowing up bad guys). These elements don't require discovery and exploration as an essential part of what makes them enjoyable.

Then you have exploration games. And this is where replayability becomes an issue. I'll take the example of Subnautica because it's my favorite and the most familiar exploration game to me. Half the fun of the game is finding yourself in a completely alien world you know nothing about. You have no idea where minerals are. You have no idea what kind of creatures lurk below the depths of the ocean. You have no idea what areas are safe and what aren't. You have no idea where are all the objective items for the quests that the game gives you. And that's what makes it such a great game – exploring into uncharted territory where literally every minute of gameplay is opening up a piece of this universe you didn't even know about.

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But once you finish the game? What then? The exploration value is gone. My first playthrough took me weeks during which I was playing many hours a day (don't judge… it was during COVID). My second playthrough took two days. Because I knew exactly where to find the minerals to get the different vehicles that open up new zones, and where to go in order to collect more radio transmissions to advance the game. The minute my character hit the water, I was off doing all the "right" things to progress forward. I didn't have to meander around blindly. And that's a problem because it got boring really quick after that.

To the credit of the developers, they do try to address this issue. You can start the game in different levels of difficulty, where the hardest involves no oxygen timer so you really have to be careful about staying in the water too long. But it doesn't make the game more fun, it makes it more of a grind, not the same thing.

Is there any way these types of exploration games can maintain their freshness and replayability? Or are they doomed by their very fundamental nature?

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