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.