My 10 year-old nephew has been Nintendo Wii-crazy for the past few years. Accordingly, he received the usual passel of game cartridges from relatives (and Santa). I have never played a Wii. Video games are no longer my thing, with the exception of maybe five PC games purchased in the last ten years (mostly CoD games, rarely played). As a kid, however, I played them copiously. I spent hundreds of hours on the NES, Super NES, and N64, which was the last console I owned. The bottom line is that while I have blown a lot of hours on video gaming, it was mostly between the ages of 10-20 and thus my knowledge of the current state of the hobby is very limited.

I sat back and watched him tear into his new game – can't even recall the name, to be honest – and after about 45 minutes I noticed that he was more than halfway through the number of levels in the game. He did not appear to be particularly good at it, as his character advanced through the game largely by walking into the enemies, sustaining a huge amount of damage, and never dying. When his character did die, it re-spawned immediately in the same spot. And this is when I grasped what 25-40 people who play games probably figured out a long time ago: games appear to be a hell of a lot easier now.

Not to engage in pointless cane-shaking, but at my nephew's age I was playing games like Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus, Contra II, the Mega Man series, and Castlevania, all of which required weeks and sometimes months to complete. When your character died, you started over at the beginning of the level (or in some cases, of the game itself). If I recall accurately, I think I spent a good part of three years trying to defeat Ninja Gaiden and Bionic Commando…and never did. That shit was hard.

Even I know enough about modern games to understand that some do require huge investments of time (World of Warcraft, for example). On the whole, however, I'd be stunned if the 20 most popular console games today could hold a candle to those from 1990 in terms of complexity, difficulty, and time to completion. What does that imply? Maybe game developers have realized that their target audience – which is expanding to include both the very young and older people – doesn't really want to be challenged. They appear to believe that today's 12 year-old just wants a game he can play without a learning curve and complete immediately so he can tell everyone how great he is at video games. I wonder how well my nephew and his 5th-grade friends would do if I handed them the original Legend of Zelda. I'm certain that they could figure out how to play it pretty quickly. I'm not so certain that they would not walk away in frustration once they realized that the game was not simple enough to master immediately.

Yes, yes, I know this is some old man shit. It also appears to be an open secret in the gaming industry that the games are not as demanding as they once were. People who waste lots of time playing video games often try and have tried to justify it by pointing to potential benefits – improved hand-eye coordination, problem solving skills, and ability to focus on something to completion. With this current generation of tweens/teens and their fruit fly attention spans, I'm not sure what they're getting out of the activity anymore except sensory overload and the idea that if things are hard they're not worth doing.

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66 Responses to “SIMPLIFICATION”

  1. HolyMaboly Says:

    Also, how many games have you tried playing recently, rather than watch someone else play? They aren't that easy and letting people decide where to start over in a game is not actually an erosion of morality, but a feature which improved with the tech.

    Also, also, remember your perception of how much time you spent on stuff changes with memory. Were they that much harder or were you also more inclined to play over and over because good options were fewer?

    These days one could argue Angry Birds is old school – seconds to learn, longer to master and more time if you want to clear every puzzle with a three star score – and that's considered mainstream pablum by many.

  2. Sean Says:

    I blame consoles for the simplification of games, generally. PC gaming demands better hand-eye coordination (keyboard/mouse combo takes longer to master than a controller for most), allows for mods and player-created add-ons, maps, etc, and there is a steeper learning curve for most PC-based games. Not that console players are dumb, far from it, but they are generally not as geeky as their PC-based brethren. My years as an Unreal Tournament (1999 version) player and server admin dovetailed nicely with my early career after tech school. My IT skills came in handy, especially modding various guns, skins, and voicepacks. UnrealScript makes being a script-kiddie pretty user-friendly. – [BDC]ZeD – Black Days of Chaos – Google it, Baby!

  3. Daniel Says:

    I don't think I've seen anyone mention Super Metroid yet. It was a tough game, but a fair one. Plus, it's probably the greatest game of all time. That should be the standard bearer for video game difficulty. Keep you slowly advancing, but not being turned off if you are not some wizard with the controller or a Mensa member.

  4. Major Kong Says:

    I've certainly spent many an hour playing video games over the years.

    I don't see how it's any worse of a time waster than sitting in front of a TV for 2-3 hours watching a sporting event.

  5. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood Says:

    Speaking as an industry pro whose job description includes game balancing (I was Lead Level Designer on Far Cry 3, if you want to check my bona fides), I have a few views on this.

    It must be admitted that games are no longer about trying to pry coins out of kids in arcades, they are about delivering a long-form entertainment in the home. However, the shift in difficulty is really not because consoles tilt towards simpler skill sets or other nonsense. Its about the size of the audience and what that audience wants.

    Those who put on rose-tinted specs for ye olde times might forget how much those games catered for a hardcore niche. Today, far larger, broader audiences play games and we under pressure to make the content accessible to them. Most users do not finish games, and though they may abort a game for many reasons (possibly because it is crap) quite frequently users stop at the first difficulty spike they hit. That's a shame because we, as creators, are keen for users to enjoy all the content. We don't want to lock them out from all the goodies. Furthermore, customers feel bilked if we don't allow them access to the whole game. It reflects negatively on the product, so there's an economic imperative for us to give them the keys to the whole thing.

    So right from the start there's a tension between the desire to make a game a compelling challenge (to give the user a sense of achievement and to make them invest time in the product) and making it easy enough that the user will not be deflected from getting to the end.

    Now, according to our market research, users come in a lot of different types. We break them down into categories, not just 'casual' or 'hardcore', but by the way they play. They can include Explorers, people who just want to experience all the content. They include Collectors, who must acquire the most stuff. There's the Achievers, who want challenge and to improve their skill. The Competitors are there to own the other players in a contest. The Storytellers are in it for the narrative. The Jokers might be in it for social reasons and fun, particularly in MMOs.

    [Categories are derived from Klug, G.C. & Schell, J. (2006). Why People Play Games: An Industry Perspective.]

    Many players overlap multiple categories. In short, the audience is diverse and has a lot of different needs. Those who are in it purely for the hardcore challenge are not the entirely of the audience, nor are they even the majority. (They can be a vocal niche who can help sell a product, but that's another discussion for another thread.)

    So what we content creators aim for is a Goldilocks 'just right' solution that pleases all those categories we are aiming for. Obviously some genres favour particular audiences and we want to craft the difficulty for them, but at the same time we are hitting a very broad target, that will encompass everyone from n00bs to l337. The ideal is the easy-to-learn-hard-to-master mechanics, but that ideal is incredibly difficult to get right and will rarely please everyone. We add in multiple layers of balancing mechanics to try to give everyone a good experience.

    I wish I could admit there was a science to this. There isn't. It is in part a black art. A successful game has usually got the alchemy right to some extent. What we do, of course, is a lot of laboratory testing, external and blind tests to get metrics and feedback. The objective is to sand down the difficulty spikes and raise the overall difficulty curve to match expectations. We get what metrics we can (such as the number of wipes and where) and we do lots of surveys. There are new tools coming in that will allow us to measure physiological responses of players, but no one really yet knows what to do with all that data. The first one to do so successfully will probably make a fortune.

    But we are really not about making the game easy. We are about making it just right. We're about letting folks who spend fifty dollars on a new game actually get their money's worth in every department of satisfaction. We want everyone to like our games. I can't say it simpler than that.

  6. mel in oregon Says:

    yes i play the games like y'all do, i just don't think it's too important if you pay the latest or the old ones. led zepplin won a kennedy award along with buddy guy & other good folks. good to see the president & the first lady there. zepplin is by far the best r&r band of all time. beatles & rolling stones? oh please, both have & had mediocre at best guitars & drummers. plant is a far better singer than mccartney or jagger. page is one of the best guitarists to ever play. bonham was an extremely good drummer. jones could play anything. good to see heart on "stairway to heaven" the best female singer ever in rock. finally the r&r hall of fame lets in the wilsons, about fucking time. the big choir was great too. also lenny k & others. was a lot of fun. watched lz on letterman, we dug it.

  7. Major Kong Says:

    Sorry mel (and sorry to everyone else for letting the thread get hijacked).

    I've had to hear Whole Lotta Love waaaaaaay too many damn times since the mid 70s to be able to listen to Led Zeppelin any more.

  8. JohnR Says:

    As an aside, and mainly because the console games never did much for me (everything after Pong was just too demanding in terms of reflexes, other than Centipede and that Karate game where you could win most of the matches just by walking up to your opponent and kicking him in the nuts), it's instructive to compare the modern computer games with the games of my youth. I love some of the more recent games, but what with GOG and other such outlets, I occasionally get a chance to go back and relive my early pleasures with Ultima or Wizardry or M&M. Those bastards are a real pain in the tuchus and boring as hell! I still don't know how I had the stamina and patience to map my way through the early RPGs (I remember each one had a binder full of hand-drawn maps when I was done), and the endless waves of similar monsters?! Oy! Actually, the one that stands out in that regard was Superhero League of Hoboken, but only because it was entertaining as heck and obviously designed by people who suffered then as I suffer now. Even Fallout 2 seems too long and tedious to complete yet again, no matter how much fun it is, and as for KoTOR – I wouldn't live long enough. Nowadays, I like shorter, easier games; New Vegas was (even apart from the better design, gameplay and setting) massively better to me than F3, if only because it was a more linear and delimited game (although still so huge I may never actually finish it). I spend my more limited gaming time on things like Civ5 and Mount and Blade and Rome:TW, where either winning is possible in a reasonable time, or you can set it aside for a while and come back to it with little loss of skill. For time-sucking fun, there's always Star Wars:TOR, but I have piles and piles of games I will likely never play again, simply because they're too hard and/or time-consuming. I guess kids today are just growing up too fast…

  9. Major Kong Says:

    I still like Half-Life 2. I wish those bastards at Valve would actually release Half-Life 3. At this point I doubt it even exists.

  10. Nick Says:

    Kong, I actually prefer the way Valve markets their games ("It'll be done when it's done") to the way most game companies do it–that is, using the first few thousand/few hundred thousand people who buy the game as late-stage beta testers. I want the game to actually work when it's released, and as much as I love, say, Fallout: New Vegas, there have been evenings where I've spent approximately an hour alternating between searching the internet for how to fix a problem with the game and yelling phrases like "oh you cocksucking piece of shit" at my computer until I finally figure out how to get my goddamned save game to load properly. By contrast, I've never had a single crash-to-desktop in any of the Half-Life games that wasn't caused by a hardware failure.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't blame the developers for this–I blame their marketing people. I worked at EA briefly as a product tester, and for a couple weeks our office did pre-release testing on the final few builds of Medal of Honor (the 2010 version). We were instructed to only make a note of progress stoppers (e.g. events failing to trigger and thereby keeping you from advancing in the level) and crashes, ignoring things like graphical glitching that was still in the game. Despite having a not insignificant number of crashes and prog stoppers noted during this time, almost none of them were fixed for the release. Why? Because EA's hype machine made it impossible to delay the game at that point, so they released a broken product while the coders frantically worked to fix the problems they knew about so that they could release a patch without too much delay.

    Marketing departments are the reason that shitty, broken versions of what should be good games are released before they're ready. I'll take Valve-style deferment over EA-style "fuck it, the posters are already in store, just ship the bastard and fix it later" development.

  11. Eschatos Says:

    Others have said this, but I think you'd like Dark Souls. The most popular mainstream games are generally going to be shit and there's nothing hardcore gamers can do about it. The real money is in the casual crowd.

  12. Paige Says:

    Completely agree. I started playing games when I got a Super Nintendo for Christmas when I was about 7ish? (best Christmas morning ever. Ever ever ever.) I've been playing ever since. The games I find the most challenging right now are some that I play on my 3DS. But now I guess I kind of look for a good storyline and games that have some challenging parts. Portal and it's sequel are great. But overall games are much easier to play now. I still have all of my old Nintendo consoles so luckily I can play those games any time I feel nostalgic.

  13. Kaleberg Says:

    I haven't been much of a gamer since the mid-70s when the big things were the original Spacewar, Maze Wars, Dazzle Darts and Will Crowther's original Adventure. I still read the game reviews at Ars Technica, and get the impression that game designers have done a lot of good work, particularly in balancing game accessibility and challenge. The idea is to let the user get out of the game be based on what they put into the game. We aren't all going to be chess grandmasters. Amusingly, the big controversy over at Ars these days is about games that put caps on a player's ability to power up. Obviously, not everyone is playing in white male Christian mode, as John Scalzi put it.

    My impression is that I gave up gaming because I found other things I would rather do, and just didn't have the patience to develop my skills and work the puzzles. I'm not the only one. I love the take at The Oatmeal –

  14. jon Says:

    I'm annoyed by super simplicity, but I'm also annoyed with another thing: cheat codes and special things that require a book ($$$) to find and finish. I like the Lego games, both because I sometimes get completely frustrated trying to figure out what goes where and why, but also because I recognize the scenarios: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and now Lord of the Rings. (And Indy 2 is an abomination: get the original ones only.) Sure I die and come right back to life, but I get a story along the way.

    Games are too easy and too hard. What's just right? As a casual gamer, I like the Lego games.

  15. Kevin NYC Says:

    I still play.. Normandy 44, and Bulge 44 NPS battalion/company level, turn based WWII games with hundreds of units and 70 turns. only problem is the AI sucks.

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