It’s happened to all of us. We finally find a moment to ourselves, that rare time during the week where adult responsibilities are set aside briefly in favor of grabbing the controller and playing some games, but then it hits you. You have no idea what you should play. You boot up your PS4 only to stare at your list of recently played games irresolutely. Then you scroll over to your library, thinking there must be something that you haven’t played in a while and want to go back to. You sift through stacks of game cases. The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of anything good to play, it’s that there’s just too much calling out to you.
The video game landscape is littered with games, and the choice of what to play can often be a tough one. Do you go back and try to finish up that crushing playthrough on Uncharted 2? Do you go for the speed-run trophy on Broken Age? Maybe you should play a few multiplayer matches in Black Ops III or finally start that unopened copy of Alien Isolation. Yet you expect you’ll probably find yourself leveling up characters in Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 again. No matter which one you pick, you’ll always feel a twinge of regret at not making a different choice, not because the choice you make is bad, but because there are so many great decisions.
It’s like a monkey on your back. Or a lemur… Too bad it’s not an ottsel.
Developers are well aware of this daily dilemma that we face and are fighting for our time and attention as gamers. What tactics do they employ to keep us coming back to their game day after day? Here are just a few ways that games capture our interest and bring us back, and many of these go hand in hand with each other.
Limited Time Live Events
Many persistent online games do this very thing to keep players interested. Whether it’s special weekend competitions like in Destiny, or special season and holiday themes in games like Grand Theft Auto Online, live events are a great way to encourage players to come back and experience limited time content before it goes away. Destiny’s holiday events redecorated the tower for a limited time and added in temporary quests and modifiers, like the Halloween inspired Festival of the Lost using candy collection as a mechanic, and the Valentines themed Crimson Days opting to make two on two battles the primary focus of the event.
These types of events aren’t just limited to holidays though. Many online shooters will do double XP weekends, perhaps most infamously used by Call of Duty. It’s often just the little nudge that some players need if they’ve spent a little too much time away.
Free Content Updates
Online connectivity has afforded games a boon in free new content. Traditionally, games will introduce optional microtransactions for things like cosmetic items to support the cost of the team developing and adding in free content to a game months — and sometimes years — after its release. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 has been applying this idea. Instead of requiring players to pay, Popcap is adding new character variants, maps, modes, and customizations to support and give life to a game that would be nowhere without the playerbase.
Free content updates are a great way to keep a thriving community of players invested and coming back to the content. The Division is currently using this tactic as it trickles out additional incursions for players to take part in and new gear to earn in game. Uncharted 4’s multiplayer is one that currently looks content thin, but will gain additional features in free updates, making it worthwhile to keep an eye on and come back to.
On the other side of the coin from free content updates, there’s paid DLC add-ons. While free content updates are usually utilized in online games in order to prevent fracturing the playerbase, paid DLC is often a way to add content to single player and offline games, extending the life of something that could otherwise be finished and put on the literal or figurative shelf.
The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 are just two of many games to release expansions that give players new areas to explore, enemies to fight, and gameplay mechanics to try out. The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine expansion adds more than 30 hours of new content and increases the level cap, which is a great way to bring players back in to a game that has likely already claimed over 100 hours of their time.
Competition & Rankings
Sometimes it’s all about keeping up with the Joneses, or at least repeatedly proving that Mr. Jones ain’t got nothing on you when it comes to kill/death ratio and objective captures. Any game with a solid level of competition will see a steady flow of dedicated players seeking the tops of the leaderboards. Call of Duty is an obvious competitor here, but far from the only one. Many games keep players coming back by inciting a little friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) rivalry both in direct match-ups and asynchronous leaderboards.
In fact, games tapping into our primal competitive nature was one of the very first features that I ever wrote for PlayStation LifeStyle, and ties into a number of these other reasons that games bring us back.
This is a big one for online focused multiplayer games. Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2’s players were devastated to learn that the Rose character was highly overpowered upon release of the game. As a player myself, I can say it ruined a lot of the fun, and I hardly wanted to play anymore. But then Popcap updated various stats to bring her more in line with the type of character they thought she should be, and a new meta evolved.
Currently that meta has another character being overpowered (Electro Brainz), but even that will be patched shortly and the character usage will shift dramatically again. It’s nearly impossible to find the perfect balance within games, but developers making updates to the balance of weapons, characters, and more evolves the very fundamentals we’re used to. These cycles, whether intentional or not, breathe new life and interest into how matches play out, and keeps a steady stream of people playing the likes of Garden Warfare 2, Destiny, and more.
Level Up & Unlockables
One of my personal favorites along with the next one, leveling up and unlocking items is a great way to keep players coming back. The trend can be traced back to the early days of gaming as players sank hundreds of hours into titles like Final Fantasy VII just to get all characters to level 100 and unlock each of their ultimate weapons, but it persists in today’s games both online and offline with leveling up and earning of customization items or new gear.
It’s an innate completion instinct that urges us to play enough of any game to level up even higher, and developers know it. That’s why there’s flashy effects and loud sounds when it happens, because it feels really damn good and reignites a desire to continue playing.
Challenges & Trophies
My personal shameless indulgence. My bane. My joy. I’ve spent far too many hours in some less than reputable games just to earn that last trophy for Platinum. I’ve beaten my head against a wall for hours attempting, reattempting, and attempting once more near impossible tasks when I could be playing anything else. But these are what keep me coming back and developers are keenly aware of this subset of gamers that let their obsession get the best of them.
Often times trophies will demand long grinds to a max level, or playing through a second time, and I’ll take the bait almost every time. Speedrun trophies, collectible trophies, and difficulty trophies are just a few that developers include to make sure that your first time through the game isn’t your only time through, though they regularly make sure that trophies guide you to experience everything the game has to offer, which is welcome in an era of our one-track minded inattentiveness.
Community & Friends
This is a big one for many in a day of online-centric games. One of the primary reasons that I played Destiny for 1000 hours — in addition to many of the above — was that my friends were playing it. I had met some awesome people through Destiny. I played Destiny with my wife. When you were hanging out with your friends in person on a Friday night, I was getting together with mine from across the country to travel to the stars and take on the hordes of darkness. It may seem a bit weird to say that some of my best friends are ones I’ve never met in person, but the experiences we’ve had are unforgettable.
Even the greatest games are reduced to nothing without a thriving community, and some of the most terrible games can be made more fun by playing them with friends.
Nostalgia & Compelling Content
Many of the elements we’ve talked about have been focused around online play and updates, but sometimes there’s just something about an old game that drags you back in. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for games and mechanics long lost. Maybe it’s a great set of characters or an awesome story. You’ll find this particularly true for the JRPG die hards, as many of them play their favorites over and over again, but it’s certainly not limited to this crowd. It’s this very idea that has led to the surge in HD collections and remastered games. I personally have loved the excuse of playing through many old games again thanks to re-releases of nostalgic brands.
Hard to believe, I know, but some people actually just find games fun to play, and they’ll come back to an older game just because.
What brings you back to your favorite games? Is there anything that we missed here that keeps you playing something over and over again, or are you just the type to move on to the next great thing, leaving all old games in the dust? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.