Game Difficulty and its Decline

Have you played Donkey Kong recently? Pac-Man? Missile Command? There are two main focuses that bind these three games together: all of them originiate from the days of video game arcades, and all of them are mind-blowingly, soul-crushingly hard. The reason for this is simple, in that the arcades wanted to squeeze every quarter from players that they could, and harder games meant less players reaching the end and so more return visits. They were probably tough then, but it is extremely difficult to get very far at all in these games today. Not only that, but they were fun and addictive as well, perhaps because of their punishing aspect, and gamers would keep going back for more. Most modern games, in comparison, could be called easy, with lower penalties for mistakes, fairly forgiving gameplay and an explanation on how to excel at the game usually in reach. So what does this mean? Are we as gamers just getting bad at playing games? Are we being treated as delinquents who might eat the controller if we weren't given explicit instructions on its use? Should we start demanding more difficulty to restore our pride and our ability?

Well, not really. The economy of selling games and how they are received has changed enough that difficulty is required less. Games aren't sold on a coin-per-play model in another building any more, but rather a structure that lets you own the game in your own home. If you own a game, you don't want it to make you want to kick in a wall or spend hours on end trying to get to the end, only to die and start at the beginning again. Gamers these days want to get the complete experience of the game they spent a relatively significant amount of money on, seeing all that a game has to offer rather than mostly a kill screen. What is on offer has changed drastically as well. Games look better, sound better, run more smoothly, and can do vastly more complicated actions than games of the past could. What is more, most games have a story that is there to engage a player. Story is more prevalent in games than it has ever been, and locking a good story behind a difficulty barrier is a surefire way to make sure your game is bought by no one. Would you play Mass Effect if the Insanity difficulty was its norm? If it had, it would have died in a flaming heap the minute it hit shelves. Story is there because contemporary players expect it, and story is becoming better as the years go by. Difficulty is decreasing to allow players to see more of it.

This is not to say that modern games are completely incapable of being difficult as well as applicable to a modern audience. A recent example of this is Super Meat Boy, an "masocore" arcade game on XBLA and Steam. Like almost every modern game, there is a story, but it is wafer thin, replaced by a huge emphasis on extremely challenging platforming. More often than not, players will die a staggering amount of times on an individual level, because it is a game that thrives on being tough. The difference, though, is that there is never a game over screen, any lives, or any real consequence for death. When you die, you simply return to the start and try again. Because there is no break between the gameplay, players are put in a sort of "One more go" mindset, and this makes the gameplay incredibly addictive, and this is how it works, catering to the somewhat more impatient crowd that exists today. Similarly, Hardcore Mode in Dead Space 2, where you have only three save opportunities, works because it is an optional challenge, and doesn't throw any nasty tricks at you from outside the main game. It is a part of the game which may never been seen by some players, and is undoubtably a struggle, but the payoff for those who complete it is huge and satisfying. This is how modern difficulty must work: as a way to make players want to be challenged, rather than a way to make them cough up quarters for every continue.

Of course, there is a fine line on what is fun and difficult and what is frustrating and difficult. If a game is hard because it is cheap, its never going to be fun to play. For example, Call of Duty: World at War on Veteran difficulty is hard because dying from factors completely out of the player's control is frequent, and it is absolutely no fun when it happens. A more recent example (in terms of release date at least) is Duke Nukem Forever, which has bosses which take way too long to defeat, controls that are middling at best and often lacklustre, and health that is about as effective as having a wet towel on your face to protect against bullets. You can die because you are suddenly surrounded by shotguns from nowhere, you can die because the obvious path is in fact a pit you shouldn't jump in, you can die because you plain can't shoot guys. It's not challenging, it's just dumb and annoying. Games these days need to steer clear of using cheap deaths to mean a difficulty spike.

Ultimately, games are so different these days that if someone had tried to release Pac-Man now instead of in 1980, it may well be called a disaster of a game and would be swept to the side. As well as that, people have different opinions on games every day. Do people want to have difficult games like in the arcade era? Do players appreciate that story is a bigger focus? In the end, games are games, and people will play what they want. Challenging well-done games can be amazingly popular, but ultimately the gaming world is moving on from the difficulty of the by-gone world.

pfro's picture

I like Call of Duty on Veteran, but normally I enjoy simple easy games. Have you played Demon's Souls? That game is so old school hard.

MrDudeMan's picture

I still think games should have a certain level of difficulty, especially when they name the mode "Legendary" or "Insane" difficulty. Even if something is cheaply hard (for example mile high club in CoD4), it feels actually rewarding to beat the level. The hardest difficulty in most new games is a joke. However with the addition of multiplayer being a large part of games, I can see why difficulty is something that most developers do not seem to care. I think something that multiplayer games need to address is the lack of competition that the new multiplayer formats have (Mostly talking about FPS games here). A strong example of this is something like Halo: Reach where they dropped the necessity to win games to rank up, instead now its about gathering exp points (credits) to unlock things. I don't understand this approach because it does not reward either hardcore gamers or casual gamers. You need like 20 million credits to reach the highest rank, most casual players are not going to get anywhere near there. But competition in the game is all but dead seeing as how they don't display true rank thus winning games and using teamwork means almost nothing because the game only rewards those with the best k/d ratio.

Razzler's picture

Well, my rebuttal to this entire argument comes from games with a persistent online element like WoW or any of the hundreds of FPS games out there which require a team effort.

A common complaint that I found when I played WoW (currently on an extended break from the game until it gets enjoyable again) is that you need to be a team player in PvE when running dungeons and raids. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion, which was set before the most recent expansion, Cataclysm, had ridiculously easy dungeons for the most part (raids were a different story, particularly Ulduar) that resulted in making the player base much worse.

Players could basically pull an entire room of bad guys, spam AoE spells until everything was dead and rinse repeat until the dungeon was complete. Bosses were also complete jokes for the most part, having predictable and easy to dodge, low damage abilities. This was the case even on the harder heroic modes of dungeons and thus players got really lazy by the time Cataclysm was released.

As a result I've run into plenty of horrific players when running dungeons for gear and currency, frequently standing in the middle of fire and acid, not killing the mobs that the boss spawns and doing generally horrible things.

In short, I don't see why you wouldn't want a more skilled player base, since it benefits everyone. I'm not saying that everyone needs to be at the top tier of play, but we wouldn't have to waste our time losing games due to incompetent players. 

RPGeesus's picture

@pfro No I haven't played it, but I've heard what it's like. I was considering mentioning it, but my lack of experience suggested I shouldn't. It does interest me in a sort of masochistic way.

@Razzler So would you like to have an MMO that benefits the players who can be really skilled with what they get, while punishing the player base that's more cheesy? That's not inherently a bad idea, and it would certainly make for a nice reward for players who bother to actually play said MMO. One problem I can find is that it will turn away gamers who don't like that sort of skill-based gameplay, to which I say "There are other games for you".

I do get what you mean, though, having a very skilled player base would definitely make games much better. SC2 is a good example of this, where the top-tier players have basically made national events out of the game. In the end, though, some people will just play Bejeweled for hours on end, because they don't want to be challenged like others do.

Razzler's picture

"In the end, though, some people will just play Bejeweled for hours on end, because they don't want to be challenged like others do."

Which is fine by me, people can play whatever they like how they like, just as long as they are aware that if they are playing a team based game in a competitive environment like LoL, TF2 or WoW, then they have to be a team player. Doing stupid stuff like feeding the enemy team easy kills and standing out in the open without attempting to strafe is not going to win you any friends, but I'm not saying that they can't fuck up, since shit happens and all that.

RPGeesus's picture

That's absolutely not a question to me, if you're committing to a team game you shouldn't be a douche about it. Other players who are dicks are the worst thing about playing with other people. I wrote this article just to put a thought of mine down on paper of sorts. Plus, I think the difficulty of multiplayer games is harder to pin down, since it depends so much on varying skill levels, although that still sometimes falls prey to discrimination for its difficulty levels. I much prefer StarJeweled to actual Starcraft because I am good at one and terrible at the other, and they have very different difficulties.

Josh Kowbel's picture

There are certain factors to consider when talking about the difficulties of games nowadays and games of the NES or SNES era. I feel programmers have only gotten more skilled over the years, and today, you can find colleges and universities solely dedicated to game development. With the inclusion of testers, developers can patch out bugs that would break the game or make it unfairly challenging. As a dumb kid, I could suffer through the most punishing of games, but I can't say I'm unhappy that games of the current gen don't provide as difficult a challenge that they did 20 years ago.

MarioDragon's picture

I think it's because games last longer than 20 minutes today. I mean back with the old Super Mario, once you know how to get past every level you beat the game extremely quickly. Now since there's all this fancy technology and physics and graphics, everything lasts longer to show it off and to even be a playable movie (and who wants a 20 minute movie?)

Because of that, who would want to replay a 24 hour game (like Mass Effect) from the beginning EVERY SINGLE TIME you died? No one would. Demon's Souls is kind of a good example, sure it's a really fun and good game but it takes an hour to get to the boss, only to die at the boss and have to do the entire level ALL OVER AGAIN, then you get cocky and run through cause you think you know what you're doing and end up dying again. And since the pause screen isn't even a pause screen, there's no way to take a break. If you have to suddenly go to the store or your power goes off or something else happens, SORRY for you.

At this point in today's technology, it'd be infuriating and annoying, not hard.

@Razzler: That's what bothers me about MMO's, they seem to RELY on other people. I wish all of them were like Guild Wars, but with competent AI's so you wouldn't HAVE to rely on other people, most of which end up being idiots.

Razzler's picture

I don't Mass Effect is a good example of why games shouldn't be hard, since it allows you to save and has multiple difficulty settings that you can change at any time. Plus it being a narrative game rather than an arcade title, it sort of defeats the point of the game existing in the first place if it was ungodly hard as standard.

Demon's Souls is hard in the sense that it is more trial and error and punishes you for being stupid or impatient, you can't complain if you have 2000 souls sitting in your inventory, don't spend them then lose them after dying in the next level. There are also plenty of clues lying on the ground left by other players to guide you through the level and warn you of dangers ahead.

As for retards in MMO's, I have three words that will solve all of your problems: Join a guild. Makes PvE play so much more enjoyable and is the only reliable way you'll ever get into a raid.

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