I find myself preferring new game plus models where you carry over a bonus to a new character rather than taking the same character through a new, higher-level version of the game.
Torchlight is the clearest example, if you are not familiar with the different systems.
- In Torchlight 1, after you beat the game, you could retire your character. Your next character inherited one rank of fame (free skill point, next skill point more expensive to earn) and one “heirloom” item (keep an item, it gets better stats and can be equipped at a lower level). These were cumulative, so your eleventh character would start with 10 bonus skill points and one really nice, easy-to-use item (or two rather nice mid-game items).
- In Torchlight 2, after you beat the game, you can start the game over at a higher level. You go back to the first town, every monster in the game levels up about thirty times, and you start your quest over. In most of these new game plus variations, the enemies become more difficult rather than just having higher numbers. Your first playthrough featured simple enemies at the start while you learned the game, but now your first enemies can be as sophisticated as you are.
- In both versions, you can share storage across characters, and an infinite dungeon allows you to continue with that same character and world with level-appropriate content.
Kingdom of Loathing is another game using the first model, while Borderlands 1 and 2 both use the second. Many games without RPG elements unlock higher difficulty settings when you complete the original game, such as Super Mario Brothers, but Mario is not “your character” in the sense that your Torchlight, Borderlands, or World of Warcraft character is. That differs from “new game plus.”
On one hand, resetting the world lets you build a fully satisfying world the way you might were you not bound by the needs of easing a new player into the game. Instead of starting the characters and the monsters with two abilities, you can give everyone the full range for the full length of the game. The difficulty curve can correspond to the story rather than the learning needs. You can surpass the tyranny of levels.
So why do I groan at the prospect of repeating the game, rather than exulting in the chance to engage the developers’ true vision?
First, resetting the world feels like throwing away progress in a way that resetting the character does not. Progress is one of those big things in an RPG, and I usually think of it on a per-character basis. A character is “complete” once you have checked off all these boxes. Resetting the character is like starting an alt: new character, new boxes, here we go. If you reset the world but keep the character, you have erased all those boxes. You could conceive of it as a new column of boxes, but it feels more like moving backward than getting a fresh start. If you reset both the character and the world, you really do have a fresh start.
And then you cheat by getting a bonus to your “fresh” start. Wow, a permanent unit of progress! Every time I defeat the Naughty Sorceress, my Kingdom of Loathing character/account accumulates a permanent skill. Now there is a box checked off! In the other reset, I felt like I became weaker because the world got harder while I stayed the same. Here, the world is the same one I just saw, but I get to start off a little stronger. I get rewarded for winning, not punished!
(That thought conflicts with the players looking for increased difficulty and how that increased difficulty is given as a reward. Yes, well, I’m from a species of social primates with meat brains that fumble to understand electronic manipulations of our evolved intuitions. This is not a problem-solving essay.)
Finally, the original game came with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That difficulty curve tied to learning needs is part of your play experience. When the game complexity is always at the “end” level, you lose part of the experience. That first map is just not the same when you enter with a tactical nuke, even if the enemies are balanced around the assumption that you have one. That might even ruin the feeling of the early game because the first enemies often shouldn’t be ready for nukes. The tone and setting would need to adjust to accommodate that, and once you have done that, either the last enemy is ridiculously off the charts or you are moving along a flat line. If the first mini-boss is about as tough as the Dark Lord, you have to wonder why he works for the Dark Lord and how anyone survives when the bandits around town are as powerful as the world-consuming demons (just less motivated?). The are certain dramatic turning points in the game where [stuff] gets real, but if it starts that way and stays that way, you have lost the parts of the narrative structure that were being carried by the game format rather than the explicit storytelling.