Monday, May 12, 2014

Games Aren't Getting Easier; They're Getting Better

Who hasn't fondly reminisced about the old days of gaming when games were challenging and didn't hold your hand all the way through? Games nowadays are just too easy, right? Well... they may seem that way, and there certainly are plenty of games that go too far with the hand-holding and dumbed down difficulty, but I'd argue that most of the apparent decrease in difficulty is due more to improved game design and personal experience.

Wandering around for hours to find the next plot point or solve an unintuitive puzzle wasn't difficult, it was just bad game design.

Or in the case of Simon's Quest,
horribly translated hints. (via CastlevaniaCrypt)
Look, I agree that hand-holding and unnecessarily long and distracting tutorials in games are a problem, but offering no direction whatsoever can also be a problem. Many difficult classic games are remembered as such because of stupid game design, like obscure rocks that need to be hit or fake walls with vague or nonexistent clues to their whereabouts. This sort of wandering around looking for magic invisible buttons isn't difficult, nor is it fun; it is simply time consuming. Even modern games that are famous for letting you run free and without direction like Dark Souls still offer subtle clues and don't have as impossible-to-find secrets as many classic games. In the same vein, RPG bosses that require you to level grind to beat them aren't hard; they're just a waste of time.

Limited lives and an inability to save only made games more of a hassle, not more difficult.

Battletoads was hard, but having limited
 lives and continues was just stupid.
Another part of the reason classic games were hard is that you often had to beat them in one sitting and often with limited lives and continues. If you messed up too much in one spot, it was Game Over and you'd have to start all the way from the beginning of the game. Nowadays, that is mostly unheard of and lives (if there are any at all) and checkpoints abound. And of course the technical limitations that prevented saving are long gone. But this doesn't mean that the games are easier. If you've proven that you're able to beat a certain level or part of a level, it only makes sense for the game to save your progress and let you continue from that point rather than playing earlier levels and areas that you've already beaten over and over again. Forcing the player to replay parts they've already beaten only artificially increases the difficulty and playtime, but does so at the expense of enjoyment. Want an example? I have beaten the infamously difficult Ninja Gaiden on NES. It took me about six hours, which isn't all that long of a game really, but if dying to the last boss didn't make you replay the last set of levels, I probably could've finished in half the time. It was on the right track by offering unlimited continues, but it ruined it all by making you replay the hardest part of the game each time you wanted another try at the final boss.

More control means more ways to save yourself.

(via MarioWiki)
Most classic games didn't have very complicated controls, probably because they didn't have many buttons to work with or very powerful consoles. However, as time progressed, developers gained the ability to give the player more control over their character. When you compare Super Mario World to New Super Mario Bros., you'll find that much of the apparent ease in the latter is due to the ability to wall jump and spin in midair. I'm a firm believer that one of the most important aspects of game design is a feeling of control; being unable beat an enemy because you can't aim your gun anywhere but straight is just annoying. However, I'll admit that this point isn't completely watertight, because lacking abilities can be used well if the game is designed around it (Mega Manand because increasing control can make games easier if the level design isn't changed to match the player's new abilities.

You got better too.

My cousin and I.
(Video of me growing up with gaming here.)
This should be obvious, but if you've been playing video games for long enough to remember the "hard" games that I'm talking about, much of the reason modern games seem easier can probably be attributed to your experience. The more you play games, the better you get, and even if it isn't the same game, some of that skill is transferable. It's likely that you have a much better understanding of what to look for and how to play games now than you did as a kid. From watching my young cousin play everything from Kirby's Adventure to Super Mario 3D World, I've seen that she has about as much trouble playing new games as she does old games and that's because she lacks the twenty or so years of experience that I have. I don't think that kids these days suck at video games as much as people say; it's just that they've only just started playing.

Among both modern and classic games there are games that are harder than the norm or mind-numbingly easy. I have my doubts about whether it can accurately be stated that old games were more difficult when taking into account that much of their difficulty was artificially created through time-consuming lack of direction and repetition. Once again, I know that there are exceptions among both groups of games, but I still think that modern games are easier in appearance only thanks to better game design, technical capabilities, and more experienced players.

Disagree or have more examples to back me up? Sound off in the comments!
Also, check out this classic game that was actually pretty easy or this one that was hard in most of the right ways.
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