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.

66 thoughts on “SIMPLIFICATION”

  • To an extent I'd agree. I think as games have gotten more "cinematic," they've also adopted some of the shortcomings of cinema–crap plots as an excuse for explosions, bad acting, a focus on looking pretty instead of being intellectually engaging (not that games like Contra were particularly intellectual, but they had the excuse of being a) early examples of the medium and b) playable on a system with 2KB of RAM), easy resolution, etc.

    That said, there are still plenty of games that have better qualities–whether it's an almost limitless amount of things to do, like in Fallout 3/New Vegas, a cliched but fun and relatively well-done story like the Max Payne series, or a large scope and long-term gameplay like the Total War series–and I don't think it's necessarily time to declare video games a victim of the national attention span just yet.

  • I go back to Asteroids, Donkey Kong, Galaga, and Pac Man. And it did take a long time to get good.

    I still long for the the pinball games. Magnotron. Circa 1975.

  • Some of what you say is true. However, Ninja Gaiden is still around and still really hard. In addition, I'd look into a game called Dark Souls. It's amazingly hard and came out this year. Those sorts of games still exist.

    In addition, quite the selection of games come with a range of difficulty setting now and many of the "insanity" type settings tend to be extremely difficult, even if the standard difficulty is, as you say, really very simple.

  • I think the best way to look at the industry is to look at hollywood. I would also note that indie games are going to be huge soon. With a range of difficulties and complexities.

  • Ahh. Contra. I learned to swear playing you.

    Games may be simpler, but I don't know if that's necessarily worse. I mean, dying at level 3 and you have to start all the way back at the beginning of the game? That's really, really not enjoyable to me and seems like it defeats the purpose of "playing."

    Difficult does not equal challenging.

  • Ghosts 'n Goblins for the NES. That's the hard one. That's the one that sent you allllllll the way back to the beginning when you died. Which you did. Immediately. And often. My parents claim that I learned to swear as a result of that game, and that game alone. (Which is a lie, as I learned to swear by sitting beside/behind them in L.A. traffic.)

    Point is: I think it's important to remember that "back in the day," we (that is, the gaming production/consumption culture) didn't really know dick about games. In particular, we didn't know about sweet spot along the axis of difficulty where "too easy" and "too hard" delineated the limits of "want to play." We erred, and often, on both ends. But when we erred on the "too hard" end, we kept playing because (and here I finally arrive at my point) *there wasn't anything else to do.* Gamewise, I mean. Our choices were *so* goddamned limited. Nobody knew *anybody* who had *two* game consoles. You played and played and played games that *sucked* because what the fuck else were you going to do? Read? Puh-leeze.

    Also, many games today are easier because they have awesome graphics to keep them interesting. Ours did not. They had to be hard, because the payoff of looking at something pretty/exciting does not exist in an 8-bit world. Skyrim can afford to be easy, because holy crap just *look at it*!!! Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, Battlezone (loved that one) were largely monochromatic doodads that had all the specific rendering of a Rorschach rest–they had to be hard, because if you're going to be staring at something for 15 hours on end ("Come on, kid, the arcade is closing!"), it had better have your ego by the balls.

    Frankly, this is one instance where "kids today" have it *way* better than we do–the games are easy because they're meant to be fun, and working yourself into a miserable lather of practice at a useless series of hand-eye coordinations to have fun is…well, kind of stupid, frankly.

  • Modern games aren't all easy, really. Much of the single player games contain some form of highly challenging modes/mutators.

    I'd say that on the whole, the general thrust of the single player experience outlined in the post, at least for a rough majority of games, is true. What it doesn't capture is that much of the difficulty that used to be in single player games moved towards competitive multiplayer games. As brutal as it is to get through Ghosts n' Goblins, I can tell you that it isn't nearly as hard as highly ranked online play in RTS, FPS MMO (RPG or FPS) or other games.

  • I don't play new console games (I stick to the PC) but I think video game designers these days usually aim for a difficulty level that is just high enough to keep the danger of losing in the gamer's mind but low enough that the player rarely has to repeat segments more than once.

    I mostly see this as a positive development. As I've grown older I've lost a lot of my tolerance for frustratingly high difficulty in games for a variety of reasons, but mainly that I just don't have time to do something that's difficult just for the sake of difficulty or extending the gameplay time over and over again. If it's still fun even after playing through a segment a million times then that's a different story, of course. I can see how this new paradigm would suck for kids who sort of need to make the most of every game they get, though.

  • College Freshmen says:

    I certainly think games for kids have gotten easier, but the other thing that games have started including is the ability to play against other people, and that is where a lot of the difficulty in video games now-a-days comes in.

  • I agree with J. Dryden. In our day, games were either way too easy or way too hard. Sometimes even the same game. For example, Contra was essentially impossible to beat without entering the cheat code to get 30 lives, at which point it became quite easy to beat. Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a, b, a, start, biatch!

  • The thing that comes to mind immediately about the original Zelda was that it kept track of the amount of times you died. And also, that you couldn't just "quit" the game at any given point of time; if you didn't want to lose your save you had to quit at the death screen. My father, in his late 40's or early 50's at that point in time, would go on a Zelda bender and try to beat the game without dying. I swear he came very close, something like three deaths.

    Also, this isn't a "kids these days!!!" thing because, you know, Game Genie.

  • I have a friend who I think is lying. He claims to have beaten the original Contra without losing one fucking life or using the Konami code(also used for Castlevania and Gradius). Super Ghouls and Ghosts for SNES was nearly impossible. You could only jump or double-jump the EXACT amount you needed to clear a baddie or a cliff. The new generation won't play those games.

  • Spiffy McBang says:

    No, games are not as hard as they used to be in a simple start-to-finish sense. The difficulty in a lot of games now stems from optional achievements. Beat the level? Not a problem. Do it in under 90 seconds without getting hit? That's a legit challenge. In that respect, it's not so much the message that hard things aren't worth doing, as it is testing how much difficulty/tedium you're willing to work through to say you 100% completed a game.

    The point about the sweet spot of difficulty is a good one, but to be precise I think the change there is about technology rather than knowledge of game design. In older games your character could only do a limited number of things- jump, shoot, and frequently nothing else; that often led to enemies with one basic but very annoying ability (I'm looking at you, you motherfucking Ninja Gaiden birds) being the death of you. With a wide variety of tricks or resources available in the vast majority of games now, difficulty can be ramped up in a much more granular way. Not only that, but enterprising players will frequently use the abilities at their disposal in such a way as to make the game far easier than intended.

    The one definite design change from older games to newer is the end or near-end of games requiring you to play from scratch or at the start of a very long level if you die. As much as I might take pride in old school accomplishments, that's a very beneficial change for games overall. Plus, nowadays, you can go on Steam and buy a roguelike (one life, die and you're done) for five bucks if that's the kind of challenge you still want, so those games are still there for the hardcore.

  • Spiffy McBang says:

    @Daniel: If you think your friend is lying because he's not good enough to pull that off, obviously I can say little about that. But if it's because you're not sure how anyone could manage that, all I can tell you is that if there are people in the world who beat Battletoads, someone could beat Contra without dying.

  • @ Daniel: *Thank you.* Super Ghouls and Ghosts is the actual title of the game. On a related note: I really shouldn't post after, um, "being festive" to the point of alcohol poisoning.

  • Sometimes a cane needs to be shaken. If the customer wants an interactive movie instead of a challenge, so be it, and those who want a real challenge can always play against other humans.

    I always preferred strategy games anyway.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I never got into video games. Not then. Not now.

    When I was finishing up HS and in College, back in the 70's, video game had started replacing the old pinball and bowling machines in bars.

    My friends went nuts playing them. They loved them – couldn't get enough of them!
    We'd go into our favorite bar(s), order a pitcher of beer, and sit down at a table. They'd pour their beers, and then they'd go off to play the video games, like "Asteroids," and others.
    I'd take my beer, and go around trying to pick-up girls.
    Now THAT was a challenging game!
    And if I didn't score, I had to start that game all over again, on a different model.
    Oh well – half the fun was seeing what level you could get to, even if you didn't "win."

  • Keep in mind that the largest bunch of gamers right now is in their 20s. No joke. The games have become less frustrating (restarting the level because you got pushed off a cliff by a goomba? Fuck that) but more challenging in other ways and somewhat more rewarding. And there's a whole genre of indie games that's all about making things unnecessarily hard – go try Super Meat Boy one of these times. Cry in horror as you have to try to dodge a series of moving sawblades (one tap and you're dead). Cheer when you complete the level and watch all of your deaths unfold in a hilarious collage.

  • "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."

    Ayo, here's the disjuncture: Nobody's going around saying how "great" they are at video games. With the exception of those that reward idiotic level-grinding like WoW, the good game designer acknowledges the range of skill-levels approaching their game and aims to ensure an entertaining experience for all. Letting your kid sister play Ninja Gaiden II was simply an exercise in sibling abuse, whereas letting your kid sister play GTA involves her driver a tanker off of a bridge and frantically swimming away from the Coast Guard until she posts up on Ellis Island with a rocket launcher, and it's a fucking blast for everyone involved.

    Cranking up the difficulty is a simple yet empty goal – I'm sure we remember how fucking dumb Contra was without the Konami code? There are other ideals to aim at now, and while they certainly aren't always achieved (Halo cough cough) we are at a point where a genuinely good game must rely on the aesthetics of the game mechanics… which is to say, making a game that is an enjoyable experience in and of itself.

    We're not shooting for high scores anymore.

  • Also, real talk? Super Ghouls & Ghosts was an awful goddamn game. The difficulty was so high that it was impossible unless one cheated or determined the precise timing of every instant of gameplay; in either case, an exercise in idiocy. We're not playing pinball anymore.

  • "NES hard" is actually a term some gamers use for difficulty level in games, and it comes from games like Ninja Gaiden, Contra and Mega Man. I can remember as a kid playing Contra and dying again and again and again, then saying "fuck it" and putting in the code. I'm not sure if I ever beat the game without the code. Also, I didn't have a subscription to Nintendo Power, but a lot of my friends did, and they relied on it heavily to beat games like Zelda. The games really were harder back then, but there was also an abundance of cheat codes and walkthroughs to assist people through them.

    I still play the old games a lot, not so much the new. However, that's not because I don't like the new games. I'm just broke and can't afford them. So it's old Nintendo and Sega games for me.

    One thing I do like about modern gaming is the rise of the independent game company and developing games as art. I am genuinely tempted to buy a Playstation 3 just to play Journey, which looks absolutely beautiful. I have also felt a strong urge to buy an Xbox 360 just to play Fez, which I find fascinating. Games like Journey or Fez could not have come out on the third or fourth generation consoles. The technology wasn't powerful enough to give us the breath taking imagery that you see in Journey, or pull off the weird 2D to 3D rotation in Fez. Also, the market wasn't nearly as open to independent game companies.

  • How could it not be the case with video games as with the rest of American kulchur? The literary world has been dumbed down in the last 40 years, so why not the video game world in the last 15? I keep imagining a 20-volume compendium called "The Dumbing Down of the American Mind," with supplementary updates sent directly to your house, as with the encyclopedias of old.

    As it is, come to think of it, there are books called

    The Culture We Deserve
    Race to the Bottom: Why Capitalism Thrives on the Lowest Common Denominator
    Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy
    Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

    Ok, I made up the third title. But there must be something comparable out there someplace.

    Talk about shaking your cane. I'm old enough to own one.

  • Everyone else has made very good points about game developers figuring out over time that not every game SHOULD be as impossibly hard as Contra. Brutally difficult does not necessarily equal good design. In fact, I would suggest that the frustrating experience of playing terribly hard NES games, and failing at them, may well have turned many potential gamers away from the hobby.

    And, more to the point, turned them away from the market. Game developers are trying to sell games, remember. At some point they figured out that they can sell a lot more games if the games are accessible. And they can sell even MORE games if the games are SHORT. Everybody who grew up on the NES is a grown-up now; many of us have grown-up jobs and grown-up income; game developers want that money. It makes more sense to sell us a game that we can beat in a week, or a month, and then sell us ANOTHER game next month, than it does to sell us one game a year.

  • First, let me comment, and then I'll go back to find out that all my points were already made, or were negated by sound logic.

    1) "Back in my day"? Dude, if you want to talk about something where the objective is to complete it, you have to go back before console games (or to the 2600 VCS). Think "Infocomm text adventure".

    2) Like gambling, video gaming is about the balance of reward and challenge. Don't be deceived (or don't buy your nephew dopey games)…things are designed to be easy enough to keep people from walking away thinking it was insurmountable, yet providing enough challenges to give them a sense of accomplishment. Either the big challenges come at later levels, or this really is a dumb game.

    3) The best games for the hypercompetitive among us are those where you compete against others, or to get a score. Completing all the levels? Feh. Maybe nobody will even be impressed by that, if you don't amass more than 20 sparkling fartnuggets or 1000 Lucifer points.

    4) I have 2 friends. Well, two people who will admit it. Anyway, two of my friends have moved away, which prevents us from playing our 1 annual outing of "chase the golf ball for 4 hours". We all have Wiis. We all bought Tiger Woods Golf. Forget about levels…we are definitely networking those things together, and trying to outdo one another while trash-talking on Skype.

    5) Even on the Apple ][ plus that my grade-school pal had, there were level-based games we loved, which were easy to complete, hard to master. [Hard Hat Mack springs to mind. Katakana was another one…]

    Not sure your about all of your issues, but I actually find the Wii quite fun. If I find the "killer app" for the Kinect, we'll look to getting one of those, next year.

  • Seeing/analyzing says:

    @Misterben: speaking of short games: at my house we went from Pong to the Atari 2600. Pong was a great game for its time, and you could get in a few rounds between dinner and homework. The Atari 2600 had a few short games (the tank one and the clowns jumping off teeter-totters and breaking balloons), then some longer ones (Pac-Man and Centipede and Asteroids). I have no interest in using up a free day sitting around for 5 or 6 hours grinding away at a game; I prefer something you can play for a half-hour, then go off and do something else.

  • Remember: games were "hard" back in the day because they were ports of arcade games that were designed to constantly kill you so that you would keep shoving quarters into them. Yeah, they're hard to beat when you only have 3 lives, but remember that punching in cheat codes into your NES really did nothing more than the equivalent of pumping $5 into the game in the arcade in order to beat it.

  • Thing is… Contra isn't really all that hard. You just have to know that the Spread Gun with the Rapid Fire power up (that's what those R powerups that nobody seems to know what they're for do) is far and away the best weapon in the game for every situation, and understand how to use it to hit tough enemies from safe places. It helps, of course, to know where those safe places are.

    It is very much the same with Ninja Gaiden. Those Damn Birds that everyone hates are actually really, really simple: you stand still and let them fly over you, then turn around and crouch so you can hit them with your sword when they come back around for a low second pass. There is only one bird in the entire game that poses any real threat, because it's in a spot that just keeps respawning (so you have to kill it and then very quickly move on to finish that screen before it comes back).

    Really, most NES games are "hard" insofar as they punish players for just trying to rush through them without taking the time to stop and carefully proceed — or, alternately, that they *require* the player to maintain a certain momentum and rhythm through a section that is designed to punish them (usually by knocking them into a death pit) if they stop for any length of time. Once you know which sections are which, the game cracks wide open.

    If you haven't already, I highly recommend checking out Egoraptor's "Sequelitis" series on Youtube, covering two generations of Castlevania (1 to 2, and NES-era to Super) and the transition from Megaman to Megaman X. More than just commenting on the particular games in question, he also goes into a lot of depth on the way that game design has changed over the years, and how smart games used to be compared to now, where they all assume that the player is a comatose, paraplegic walrus.

  • I remember the first time I played Metal Gear Solid, and beat it in 15 hours of gameplay. I felt ripped off! I'm an old school gamer for sure, even at 34 years old. I just spent three days raising a sea chocobo so I could get to round island and acquire the Knights Of The Round materia on Final Fantasy VII.

  • Kid Icarus was the bomb. I bought it for my NES this summer and it's kicking my ass! I realize how reliant I've become on saving and how little patience I have for replaying sections I've already defeated. I'm a 36 year old female and I still game, quite a bit. At least several hours a week, more if it's a quarter break or the summer. I own an Atari 2600, an NES, a SNES, a Sega Genesis, a PS2, a Wii, and a PS Vita. Plus, I'm a Steam addict so I game on my computer when I should be grading.

  • 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.

    Cranky-old-man'ing aside, it really is easier to get a rush of achievement from games where your character gets better at something, rather than you getting better at something. what the karp?!?'s achievement of chocobo-raising, for example, relies on investing time, but nobody's actually acquired some kind of skill, even a terribly useless one.

    There's a really darned good article about how what's required to beat an RPG is very different from what's required to beat a game that requires some form of skill, even if it's a made-up, objectively-useless skill; it sort of ties in with the difference between how kids react to being told "you're so smart!" as opposed to "you worked super-hard!".

  • Well, considering that I honestly play games to win, I don't particularly mind when a game doesn't send me back to the beginning of a level for missing a jump anymore. Video games are for me to de-stress, not crank it up. I want to be the hero (or villian) and have the world cower at my power sometimes, not be the slob that can't make a jump. That's way to real world for my escapism.

    And I'll take the emersiveness of Skyrim over sidescrolling Contra anyday…

  • Put the game setting on ultra hard and then tell me its easy.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Thanks for the consistent comfort of your blog.

  • Oh, and as for me, the first time I really got an actual achievement out of a game–the first time I really got good at one, as opposed to racking up points or learning how to game the AI like in Warcraft III (build up defenses and then just make a bigger and bigger army until you can crush the other guy)–was "Eversion". Worth playing, and will always have a place in my heart for that.

  • Oh well – half the fun was seeing what level you could get to, even if you didn't "win."

    Har. c u n d wins another post.

  • I think it's entirely dependent on the game author's intent:

    – as noted up-thread, the first wave of games were designed for the arcade. This meant they were (to varying degrees) designed to gobble quarters. As a great example of this, try playing the arcade version of Mortal Kombat sometime – the AI flat-out cheats in places to make the game more difficult.

    – next came games for home systems, which were either arcade ports or new creations, but the limitations were *severe* (4kB of ROM on an Atari 2600 cartridge) so games which required "operator skill" were still the order of the day.

    – once that ball got rolling, there's a natural market effect: few people want to front the development expense for a game that's totally unlike everything on the market, so not many get made. See also the music business.

    – parallel to the above was the development of RPG-style content, first on mainframes and timesharing systems and then on early personal computers. These had a totally different spirit and target audience – there was still a heavy "operator skill" component, but it was focused on solving puzzles and customizing characters.

    – nowadays it seems like there's an additional type of game that I don't recall being feasible before: quasi-cinematic games. Many still have strong traditional gaming components, but there's also some weight given to the idea that the story can't advance if the game gets too difficult.

    I'd put modern games like Half-life 2 and the Portal games in this last category. The director's commentary for Portal 2 even makes this explicit – there are a couple places in the game where the player is deliberately "helped" to keep the story moving and avoid having the same lines of dialogue repeated over and over again.

    And then there are total outliers like Braid, which subverts the traditional "miss a jump you die" mechanic by allowing the player to rewind time – but that then use that new freedom to make unique *new* challenges.

  • You're not looking at a very good sample size. I've been playing Fable III off and on for over a year now and this shit is hard (although admittedly, it was several months before I realized there was a second part to the game after the credits rolled for the first half). My brother-in-law introduced me to it; he has dozens of games on his XBox and he says that he specifically looks for challenging games.

  • Yeah, I saw a cartoon a while back illustrating something like this. Looks like there's a copy here:

    And the point is good in general, but damn, I'm goofing off with Skyrim now, and it's just tons of lovely timesink and fun. I keep finding new things, and I've played it for months. I don't even much play 2/3rds of the character classes (to the extent that Skyrim has classes at all).

  • mel in oregon says:

    here's a new game. it's called how do we get such piss-poor presidents & candidates for president? start with bo. how in the fuck did a guy that graduated magna cum laude & was a law professor at an ivy league college not manage to straighten out the fucking mess left to him by the moron gw bush in 4 years? or romney. how in the fuck can a stupid bastard that lied about everything he did in business, & is so goddamn unpatriotic he hides his money in foreign countries to escape his rightful share of taxation be considered fit to run, especially when he is so bellicose toward any country not kissing america's ass, but he & his 5 offspring refuse to serve in the military?

  • Nethack! (Yes, I have a gray beard.) Nowadays, Minecraft is lots of fun + I can play it collaboratively with my 10-yr-old.

  • Never a big gamer per se. Best games are either rock climbing or as CU observed working on your "game".

    I once trained in a martial art, and one of the guys I trained with disappeared for a few weeks. I asked him if he'd been on hols. Nope, playing Tekken-2. Never understood that.

    Then there were the crap mind numbing, but highly addictive games like Tetris.

    But there was a big difference between Quake 2 and 4. The Q2 route really kept you going, with sub-levels and secrets. Q4 lost that. Just go straight and shoot everything.

  • As a 48 year old dude who has never owned a home gaming system, I can add very little to this conversation…and I'm kind of glad I can't actually.

  • There's plenty of "NES tough" games to be had out there, check out "Super Meat Boy", Gish, Binding of Isaac, Ninja Gaiden II, Dark Souls, X-Com: Enemy Unknown, I Want To Be The Guy.. lots of punishing stuff. I just think that videogames are entering into being more widely accepted and played and in general, most people don't find enjoyment in spending hours doing things that are really hard or frustrating unless they are paid really well to do it.

  • Dark souls/demon souls: As hard as the old school.

    There are just a lot more games these days, many more different challenge levels.

    Trying to grandmaster at Starcraft 2 is probably harder than beating every NES game ever made.

  • The last videop game I ever played was Quake II. After going to bed at 4:00AM for the third night in a row, I decided that video games were a very, very bad thing. I broke them demon disc into pieces and have never gone back. Seriously, is there a bigger waste of time other than crack?

  • I'd argue older games weren't teaching anything like "things that are hard are worth doing" they were teaching obsessive compulsive assembly line behavior with ever increasing productivity goals. Also, how to fool yourself into thinking that sitting around doing a programmed series of options was akin to mastering an actual physical activity. If people get some art with their stimulus devices and spend less time on it, that's a good thing. I mean, do you really think wasting weeks in frustration over Contra II bugs was anything but a more acceptable time killer than wanking?

    Also you ignore (or forget) much of video game history culture because the actual goal is to impose a reductive narrative designed to attack young people for "their fruit fly attention spans" and "the idea that if things are hard they're not worth doing".

    Since Pong, beating levels has never been the only type of play and not necessarily the longest or most difficult form.

    Games have evolved from a focus on quarter eating difficulty and limited mechanics to products with differing formats, goals and difficulty levels. This is not getting easier, it's variety.

    This is exactly like when Tea Party types selectively remember history in order to construct yet another bogus story about how Obama Is An Evil Socialist Ruining Everything Since Reconstruction. And it's equally bogus.

    Plus hardcore gaming is little more than button mashing and finding patterns. Once one masters these skills, beating a game is mostly about how long it takes to master the pattern. Kids who start early can end up blowing through "difficult" games by 12. Earlier games were often harder because they all they did was escalate to the point of forcing the player to give up. The issue may be the speed at which gamers peak as much as the ease of games and how one's perceptions change as one gets older.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 –

  • 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.

  • 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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