Objection! Are Games Too Easy Nowadays?

Welcome to Objection!

Objection is a new section where we debate hot topics in gaming, and leave it you guys to talk it out in the comments section.

This week we're talking about game difficulty and the tough job developers have of balancing difficulty for a mass audience. Joining us is Darren Wells, current Editor of the Official Xbox Magazine Australia. Darren is the nicest man in the world and sometimes he has a beard.

MARK: Alright Mr Darren, I’ll ask the simple question first: are games too easy nowadays?

DARREN: Yes. And no. And somewhere in the middle. See, it’s not really a simple question when you consider aspects such as what game you’re playing, what genre it belongs to, the age of that genre, and — to some extent — the relative experience of the player.

At its most basic level, game difficulty is a very subjective thing. It’s not an exact science. What’s easy like Sunday morning to you might be tougher than baked leather to me, and vice versa. But then when you start to examine today’s games and development trends on gaming’s timeline, the question becomes particularly curly.

Look at the trends of modern game design: in-depth tutorials, pop-up help systems, autosave systems, dynamic difficulty, a desire to offer “accessible gameplay”. Considering those aspects — and considering the games of yesteryear that offered none of those things — how can today’s games be seen as nothing but a cakewalk?

But then there’s the flipside, when games belonging to a long-timey genre need to consciously up the ante in order to evolve and remain relevant. More enemies, tougher AI, more detailed levels, and button combinations that practically require the growth of several extra limbs. Where one rises to the challenge, another will flounder. Are games too easy? Short answer: it depends.

MARK: On some level games need to be more accessible to evolve. I understand that. And your point about genre is a valid one. Take games like Tetris - the difficulty and learning curve is easy to tailor. As you learn and improve the game becomes more difficult by increasing the speed. Simple. But that concept of pacing becomes more challenging in a game that juggles numerous mechanics, like Castlevania: LOS for example, and that makes such games more prone to unfair difficulty spikes.

I’ve been playing Super Meat Boy, which is almost ludicrously difficult at times, but never at the expense of fun, and I think that dynamic comes from the game’s inherent simplicity. ‘Here are the rules, here is what you must do,’ you are told. ‘And here is how you will be punished if you do not follow those rules.’ When the endgame is defined and the rules are fair, I think a game can be as difficult as it wants to be, as long as the learning curve is well implemented.

DARREN: But sometimes we’re completely at the peril of the developer wanting to make things more difficult for other reasons. Guitar Hero III sticks in my mind for artificially inflating the difficulty of some songs, adding notes to the gameplay where there are none in the master track in order to provide adequate challenge not just so things fit into the “easy/medium/hard” mould, but almost as a dare to the GH community who slaughtered the first two games. We had countless YouTube videos of people conquering them on the hardest sitting while blindfolded, upside down, and dividing by zero with their toes, and the difficulty of GH III’s songs seemed to be in response to that external influence, rather than deciding what would best benefit the game on its own merits.

Of course, if we go back to my earlier point about game difficulty being subjective and talk about “Through the Fire and Flames” with Mr RawkGOD666666 of YouTube County, we’d be having a different discussion, but to me, Guitar Hero III is an example where established rules are smudged for the few at the expense of the many.

MARK: Yeah, I think game rules need to feel fair and consistent to be rewarding - artificially inflated difficulty does not feel fair.

But on the flipside, I was listening to a podcast the other day (Out of the Game) and Shawn Elliot from Irrational Games was talking about the balance involved in pitching complicated, AAA games to a broad audience. Essentially it’s a commercial thing, but developers have to pitch their game to as broad an audience as possible, particularly if the game has a hefty investment behind it, in order to make money on a product. That affects difficulty, and involves a certain dumbing down – how do you feel about that?

DARREN: I don’t particularly like the term “dumbing down”, as it implies there’s a set standard or method of game design and that those who dare subvert it with accessibility are providing the lesser experience.

Having said that, look at Fable 3 - there’s a game that was designed to be played and understood by every single type of gamer, and pared back everything to its most basic user-friendly form. One-button attacks. No HUD to speak of. And no penalties for dying beyond resetting your progress to the next seal. Granted, this approach is due more to the “Molyneux ethos”, for lack of a better term, but undoubtedly it also comes from a desire to have Fable 3 experienced by as many people as possible. However, the net result of this is a game that, I’m fairly certain, is seen by those same people as just too simplistic.

It’s a problem that stems from more than just the lack of an easy/medium/hard difficulty selection: it also comes down to the control design and how it restricts the depth of combat, as well as the removal of RPG tropes such as stats and modifiers that a player can pick and choose according to their own play style and the requirements of the enemy. I can totally understand wanting a multi-million dollar investment to be supported by the wallets of a wide consumer base, so creating a game that’s playable by everybody makes sense – on paper, at least – but in such instances one also needs to keep in mind the impact that those decisions will have on the effectiveness of the game.

MARK: But what’s the solution - balance? Or something a little more elegantly designed?

DARREN: Perhaps there isn’t one. Every game is likely to be perceived as too easy or too hard by different groups, and sometimes that comes with time as well as design. I was able to slaughter every Sonic the Hedgehog game with no fuss back in the day, but give those same games to me now and I’ll drop those rings more than, um, an automated ring-dropper. I’m simply not able to navigate Sonic’s perils as well as I used to, but a younger me was more than capable and didn’t have any need for silly contrivances such as HDD save files, time rewinds, or similar mechanics that modern game design has allowed.

Are such mechanics changing the way we perceive difficulty today? I think so, to some extent. Leaving a console on overnight to continue on the next day was par for the course back then, but any game nowadays that doesn’t let you save mid-level is the digital antichrist. What was accepted then is harder to accept now, a realisation that comes as we search for, develop, and adopt as standard, all manner of conveniences. I’m no retro codger who thinks all games were better back when I was walking twenty miles to school in bare feet, but I do wonder if modern design is the reason my skills are a little doughy the middle when I revisit my favourite old-school titles.

But look, here’s me rambling while your dinner’s getting cold. If I can distill this whole discussion down to a simple take-home point, it would be this: Don’t make a game for everyone – just make a game. If you’ve made it well, everyone will find it.

What do you guys think? Are games too easy now? Would you like to go back to the good old days of zero accessibility and soul crushing difficulty? Let us know in the comments below.


Comments

    Most games I play on easy, that being RPGs, Shooters, and such. The reason being because I play for the story, and I don't want difficulty getting in the way of that.

    I say this, but as we speak I'm playing Super Meat Boy and loving it.

      Some are too easy, example Fable, Enslaved, uncharted's puzzles. But i found dragon age to be insanely hard even on normal. i think difficulty settings are the best way to go because your appeal reaches everyone from casual to hardcore.

    Some games are far too easy and others can be a bit tough at the start and then become easy as your character is too beefed up to die.

    The easiest game I played this gen will go to Prince of Persia (2008) as it is impossible to die. Other easy ones were Darksiders towards the end - at the start it was a bit brutal as I started it on the hardest difficulty as I am a trophy and achievement whore. Another easy blockbuster type game would have to be Assassin's Creed 2.

    The harder type games usually come when you can adjust the difficulty - ala Modern Warfare. A lot of people are still cursing out No Fighting in the War room on veteran difficulty and trying to get their Mile High Club achievement/trophy. Or another brutal test was Shock and Awe extreme on Batman Arkham Asylum.

    I think games nowadays can still be tough but it more likely that certain aspects or challenge rooms are tough and not the whole game itself.

      I always find comments about Prince of Persia's difficulty quite funny. General consensus is that the game is terrible easy. But I have to wonder about the reason.

      Everyone says that you can't die. Yet, the result of falling into the abyss is to be reset to the last checkpoint, just as you would in any other game. So, does the animation that plays before the reset really have that much of an affect?

      I will agree, it did seem like an easy game. From the brief time that I spent with the title, it was easy enough to avoid falling to your "reset". And I guess the penalty isn't really that harsh, as it generally seems to drop you on the last platform that you were on. But, it was a problem with the penalty system in general, and not really a result of your inability to die.

        The really interesting thing about the difficulty complaints with PoP's platforming were that Batman: Arkham Asylum had the exact same thing, except you had to press a button. And people didn't complain at all.

        The root of the problem was that you were automatically saved by the game, there wasn't an active element to it. It feels like the game is constantly holding your hand, rather than helping you when requested.

    for me personally i play games for the experience not really the challenge so if i die 5 times in a row it kind of frustrates me, its like reading a book but then having the read the same page or sentence 5 times over and over it just breaks the experience.

    Simply enough - have multiple difficulty settings and effective ones. Let the gamer choose the level of challenge.
    But make hard mode actually hard for the kinds of people who play games on hard; Bioshock I'm looking at you. (As in it was way too easy.)

    A huge part of the fun of games, I find, is the sense of achievement from getting past some obstacle which requires a bit of intelligence.

    If you want to play for just storyline, you can play on easy, but that's not for everyone. I found so many parts of WoW that could be really fun pretty boring because it was dumbed down for players who either aren't in the target market, or just aren't up to the challenge. It takes away from the feeling accomplishment you get from getting past a very difficult obstacle. Surely gameplay is important enough - don't get me wrong, story is important too - that it would still be worth making the game a challenge.

    Another gripe of mine is the difference between difficulty levels: the Warhammer 40K game is a cakewalk on hard, but I can't see how it's mathematically possible to win on harder, and there's a difficulty level after that... it seems a little silly to me.

    The only ones that are too easy are the ones that are SUPPOSED to be too easy. Everything else has adjustable settings, that in my experience, usually offers 1 that fits.

    Is difficulty a problem with games these days? I would argue not. If I desparately wanted a level of challenge other than Normal, most games have a plethora of options on either side of the scale.

    There was an article I read on Kotaku (pretty sure) about a month back where the author detailed his distaste for the term, replayability; and I completely understand why. Most people won't hold onto a game unless there is a persistant multiplayer offering, as playing human opposition always presents dynamic situations. In the past few years I can't think of a single instance where I've replayed a game's single player component on a higher difficulty: I've either jumped online, or traded it in.

    There are only a few games that I would argue are too hard: Mortal Kombat 3 and Resistance 2.

    I seem to have a pile of games which I've just never gotten to the end of, and I think its mostly because they became too easy. On the other side, I started chasing achievements on Steam Trials 2nd Edition but in the end I gave in (after completing all tracks though). But the skills I learnt along the way means I keep comming back to better my times.
    Time limits are a great difficulty adjustment tool. Offer ppl an incentive to finish a level within a time frame and even the lamest of easy games can become challenging to all.

    I don't play many games these days, but of the ones I do play, there is generally a harder difficulty setting or achievements that are really hard to get. In that respect games are harder, but there are some that are easy too. On the other hand, if a game is so hard that you have to lose your social and working life to achieve it, the game developers have taken it too far =P.

    Difficulty is a subjective quality and it's impossible to gauge whether games are harder or easier these days. For every Battletoads, there's a Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Difficulty is something that is always adjustable by the consumer.

    If you mean difficulty in referring to technical limitations, that's something else entirely. A good example is the Brood War vs Starcraft II argument. BW was a primitive game with horrible AI that required constant multi-tasking to make sure your units were doing their jobs, going where you wanted them to, etc. In that sense, the game is 'harder' than SCII. People appreciate BW because it separates the men from the boys and is very difficult to master.

    On the other hand... SCII's just as strategically intensive as BW and while it's easier to multitask, it's easier for everyone. And there is still no skill cap so it's no more easier to 'win' than it was in BW. But then again, this we Player vs Player, single or campaign is something else.

    I think the major thing is that the core demographic of gamers are time-poor in general. I don't have time to fart away for hours on a ridiculously hard game - I want to actually beat games without giving up too much free time.

    So yes, games are easier in general perhaps, but I just think they're really just more accessible.

    Donkey Kong Country Returns with 2 hearts each, MADNESS! Games are getting easy, pandering to the children and casuals.

    Interesting article. There's certainly a lot of rage when games are annoyingly difficult, but the same can be said for cotton-wool-padded games that are either ludicrously easy or make it literally impossible to lose. Balance is certainly important, if difficult to achieve, but it's not really appropriate for a lot of game types and is very subjective.

    I think part of the solution (as Jo mentioned above) should be more fine-tuning of difficulty settings to suit different playstyles, age groups and so on. There's no sense creating a ridiculously easy game (a la Fable III) and then marketing it to a mature audience.

    I'll never understand why people play every game on the easy setting if it's there. You mas as well watch a youtube video. I understand some people don't like anything to get in the way of the story, but that makes it a damn expensive story.

    Sweating Bullets mentioned darksiders. I personally found that quite easy on the apocalyptic difficulty, but I know people who struggled with it on the lowest setting. All that basically forces devs to lower the difficulty of games these days, so everyone can get into it and not get frustrated, which saddens lil ol' ben. I like a challenge.

    Like Darren points out, difficulty options aren't always the solution. If a game has been specifically made to be more accessible, then increasing the difficulty is only going to make the experience tougher, it's not going to add any depth to the mechanics. I have no problem with the difficulty of games today, but it's starting to feel like things are getting a little too automated in an effort to capture cinematic experiences, and that not enough exploration and figuring-things-out is given to the player.

    Ideally, difficulty levels should directly affect the complexity of the game's features, but unfortunately that would probably require more time and resources, when the current standard of toggling a few numbers seems to suffice.

    The short answer is yes, games are generally easier these days.

    It's mainly due to all the reasons you guys talked about, but I think the biggest one is the introduction of difficulty sliders.

    You think about it logically as a developer. You make a game with a hard, medium and easy setting. The vast majority of players will play it on medium, with a sizeable chunk playing it on easy and the smallest amount by far playing it on hard. Of course you are going to spend the majority of balance time working on the medium and easy settings.

    The other problem now is that there are too few games that are EXCLUSIVELY hard. Demon souls springs to mind, as do the recent Megaman reboots (although, they have added an easy mode). This is where the dumbing down argument comes into play. Take Bioshock for example. Playing the game on easy (with vita-chambers enabled) is so ludicrously easy that my six year old cousin could breeze through it. There's simply no challenge.

    The problem with this is that new gamers build up the expectation that games SHOULDN'T challenge them, and they are simply vehicles to drive a narrative plot. As a result, they keep pining to developers for easier gamers, and thus the cycle continues.

    Games should be challenging. Playing a game is NOT like watching a movie. There's no reward if there is no risk.

    TL;DR - Games are getting too easy because audiences are becoming too passive - which is blurring the lines between games and movies.

    The question of difficulty is a particularly hard issue to address. Looking at the comments left so far, it is evident that there are so many tastes to cater for. Some people just want to experience the game's content, whilst others want a real challenge. The developer is left aiming for something in the middle, trying to appease everyone with their default option.

    At the heart of a large number of discussions that I've read over the last couple of years is a nostalgia for the days of old, when games were tough, and only the worthy saw the endgame. What is often overlooked is that modern games are fundamentally different beasts than those games of yesteryear.

    The games of olde were very much "arcade" titles. Story was an afterthought, and did little to really enhance the game experiences. As a result, old games were primarily about engaging with the gameplay mechanics, and player progression was rarely sustained. You would replay the same levels over and over, whilst trying to get that little bit further and post a high score. And difficulty enhances this kind of experience, as it challenges the player, giving them a reason to keep playing. The player has to build up their skills, play a bit longer, get a bit further, and get a better score.

    In contrast, today's games are essentially movies. They are story experiences, in which you play an unstoppable central character on his quest to achieve a goal. The new story focus is likely the result of all those fancy new assets that we can now display, and the game industry's need for games to be considered art.

    In any case, as a result of these grand stories, you start to wonder where difficulty fits in. Once you start telling a story, are you a bad storyteller if you never tell the end of your tale? Probably. And as such, a developer needs to allow players to reach an end to their experience. Considering that many people don't have the time or patience to train up their skills, difficulty gets slaughtered so that everyone gets to see the end.

    Even player death is a bit of a concern. Every time a player dies, their story is negatively affected. It is a moment of weakness for the central character; a moment they failed; a moment when they died. All those memories of death start to make the awesome story of your character a little less cool. Furthermore, unless the game can tie the death of the character into the story (a la Demon's Souls), then you have a weird story branch; a vision of an alternate life in which you died. It becomes another reminder that you are a playing a game, and the suspension of disbelief is broken. Death can also mar cool scenes. In Uncharted, there are a tonne of cool moments that are enhanced if you can overcome them "on the fly". So in the end, the game's content is probably enhanced if the player never fails.

    Anyway, all of that was supposed to explain how difficulty doesn't always have a place in modern games. But I guess there are always places where difficulty can be included. Games can always have the ability to replay sections to improve time and score, which allow hardcore players to push themselves. And in open world games there can easily be difficult areas/towns/neighbourhoods, in which the player experiences more of a challenge for non-essential rewards.

    And, as the article states, some games are designed with difficulty in mind. RTSs need to have sufficient depth to be picked up. Games like Super Meat Boy keep the "arcade" dream alive. And Demon's Souls was particularly well constructed to house its tough gameplay.

      "They are story experiences, in which you play an unstoppable central character on his quest to achieve a goal."

      This sentence was supposed to apply to all the unstoppable heroines as well. (Unfortunately, we don't get enough of those.)

    I have no interest in games being accessible, because accessibility does not cater to my interest. I believe in a scalable difficulty level, more than anything. They've always worked well for me.

    I think about difficulty in three ways: interface, discovery, strategy.

    1. Interface: games should not be hard to control. I don't like fighting games where the main object of the game is to learn stupid, meaningless button combinations. But that's just me. I like a game that responds to what my mind tells it to do immediately.

    2. Discovery: I rather like games that don't tell you exactly what they want you to do straight away. This can be 'difficult' to figure out. How do I beat this boss? How do I find the amulet of power? What does this do? There is a lot of fun to be had in making discoveries, so the best way to get to that feeling is to not make everything obvious. That's also in a larger sense, things like Mass Effect or Heavy Rain where you're not sure what the consequences of your decisions will be. I wish a game like Fable had more of this unknown in its wider world.

    3. Strategy: setting a goal and figuring out how to get there. Often the goal is 'beat this boss' actually that's probably 95% of all strategies. But there are others in more free form games. Assassin's Creed makes it fun to take out guards simply because there are so many ways to do it. Hitman is almost fun for the same reason (though the strategies there are largely mechanical, pre-planned and pretty obvious once you 'get it'). Minecraft is an excellent example: just because its easy to build doesn't actually make it easy to build a huge Fortress of Doom with a lava moat and powered minecart track. That's the kind of game I most like, the ones where there are fairly obvious goals, but the path to getting to them are many and varied; varied in terms of actions/methods and in difficulty. This kind of game, where you're executing a long strategy, won't be adversely affected by an 'easy' interface or an 'easy' save system. You're still responsible for all the planning, contingencies execution of the plan.

    The stuff about save points sorta grates on me. I totally get the feeling that they make it easier, but they actually don't. You can have the hardest boss in the world with a save point right in front of it, that doesn't make the boss easier to defeat. It makes it less time-consuming. That's a huge difference. Gaming has to be relatively convenient for adults with families and jobs and things to stand a chance at making sales etc, so the game has to allow the player to walk away when dinner is ready, when the kids need help, or when its time to go to work. I don't see the correlation between forcing a player to play for long periods of time and a game being difficult.

    Anyway that's plenty for now. I like this column :)

      I like your breakdown, and definitely wish that game designers would focus more on opening up strategies for the player.

      And your points about discovery echo a lot of my own thoughts. I don't like my next course of action to be constantly illuminated. Even if the game is linear, I think it's important that the player be allowed to come to some conclusions by themselves.

      As for save points, I think that they can have a big affect on the difficulty of a game. Metering your resources so that you are capable of taking on the boss at the end of a level can be a challenge. As you said, this kind of design can be time consuming for the player, as they have to constantly replay the level in order to learn the bosses patterns and techniques, but I think that it can be valid in the right sort of game.

      And Quick Save can definitely affect difficulty. With these sorts of save systems you are free to replay any portion of the game until you get the best run, and then instantly secure that run in your timeline. Ultimately, your "perfect" playthrough is just a mishmash of successful moments, and not really an indicator of sustained skill.

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