Video Games Are Easier Than Ever, Yet Harder To Manage

If you've played games for more than a decade, you've undoubtedly witnessed the ongoing evolution of the medium. Some see technology as the primary driver, and there's no question games look and sound better than ever. The rising tide of tech has lifted all boats, making it possible for even a small team of developers to produce polished, sophisticated games indistinguishable from work produced by the big studios.

As a player, I appreciate HD, pixel shaders and dynamic AI, but none has produced a major shift in my actual experience of playing games. While the impact of tech is undeniable, I see a far more consequential, and paradoxical, shift in my play experience: games are easier than ever to beat, but harder than ever to control.

Across consoles, genres and mechanics, games have gone soft. With few exceptions, games offer less resistance to serious players and are more welcoming to casual newcomers. I'm not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing. Nintendo has recently incorporated "bail me out" features into nearly all its games, making it possible for less-skilled players to move past difficult levels. The evolution of this player-assist system illustrates the trajectory I'm describing.

Nintendo introduced the "P-Wing" in Super Mario Bros 3, which allows Mario to fly for an unlimited amount of time, overcoming tough levels. If, however, Mario is hit while flying, he loses the power of the P-Wing. The player must still complete the level. In New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo offered an even easier path with the "Super Guide" — if a player dies eight times in a row, a green "!" block appears, and a system-controlled Luigi arrives to escort the player through the level. The Super Guide reappears in Donkey Kong Country Returns and also in Super Mario Galaxy 2 (where it's called the "Cosmic Guide").

Finally, in Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo takes it one step easier with "Assist Blocks" containing either an Invincibility Leaf or a P-wing. The Invincibility Leaf appears after Mario loses five lives in a single stage, rendering Mario invincible for the entire stage. If he loses 10 lives in a level, a P-Wing block appears, teleporting the player to the end of the level. Importantly, these items go into Mario's inventory to be used when and where the player chooses.

Of course, these are optional, and players are free to ignore them. But it's fair to say that recent Mario games, especially 3D Land, offer fewer stiff challenges to players than earlier SMB games, while still remaining fun to play. Other games in other genres illustrate a similar trajectory.

Are we making traditional games easier in hopes of attracting players that will never come?

Among RPGs, two recent games employ different approaches to making things easier. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which I'm playing now) can be seen as a noob-friendly introduction to console RPGs. It's got all the formulaic pieces in place, but offers them up with glowing "look here!" and "do this" hints, friendly AI, auto-targeting, and an accessible level-up system. Amalur is an action-RPG purposefully designed to welcome newcomers, but still deliver an expansive world, storyline, and dozens of sub-quests. Even its colour palette seems to suggest, "Come on in, you'll have fun!"

Skyrim, on the other hand, eases the player's experience through refinement of existing systems. Gameplay and progression may not be easier than in Oblivon (though I think they are), but everything, including combat, feels more fluid and easier to manage.

The attribute system, for example, has been overhauled. In Oblivion, points could be allocated to boost stats, but the benefits of this process were difficult to discern. Skyrim translates points into perks, which can be allocated to any attribute, and the outcomes of your choices are far more clear. Better maps, improved quest management, individualised skills — all refine Skyrim and make for a better and, yes, easier (defined here as less frustrating) experience.

Even the hardest of hard have gotten easier. Some may disagree, but I say Dark Souls is easier than its predecessor Demon's Souls. More items, more spells, more gear don't just mean "more stuff", they also make it easier to progress. Black Phantoms drop better items, decreasing the need for grind to acquire rare gear. Elemental effects for weapons and upgradeable armour help too, and the game's many shortcuts ease navigation. Dark Souls is still a tough game, but even this game isn't exempt from the broad trajectory to easy. Or at least easier.

Even as games have gotten easier to beat or manage on a challenge level, they've also become more difficult to control. Experienced players tend not to see this because we're accustomed to dealing with what games ask us to do. Complexity arrives incrementally, and veteran players accommodate additional elements of intricacy, barely noticing the changes.

Robert Boyd's recent "The Complification of Zelda" illustrates how complexity creep has made its way into a series once lauded for its elegant controls. He states the problem clearly:

Some time ago, I played an indie…shooter with an obtuse control scheme. To mitigate the complexity of their controls, they displayed a picture of the controller on the screen...with information on what each button did. "How ridiculous is this!" I thought to myself...Zelda: Skyward Sword does the exact same thing in the default UI… If your game's controls are so complicated that you feel the need to display the controller on screen at all times for fear of players forgetting how to play your game, YOU'RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!

Boyd goes on to demonstrate Skyward Sword's use of nine individual buttons to control:

  • Confirm/Run/Pick Up
  • Use Item (Select Item when the button is held)
  • Items Menu
  • Pouch Use (Select Pouch Item when the button is held)
  • Map
  • Lock camera
  • First person mode/Divining
  • Help Button
  • Call Sword Spirit/Resynch controller/Call bird

And these are in addition to the motion controls requiring individual moves for:

  • Slice sword (angle varies depending on how you wave the controller)
  • Thrust sword
  • Charge Sword with sky power
  • Sword Spin attack
  • Sword finishing move
  • Draw shield/Shield Bash
  • Roll

As a developer who introduced a new system (Wii) with the expressed purpose of easing player interaction with games and enabling more natural, intuitive control, it would seem they have lost their way.

Other games using standard controllers rely on similarly labyrinthine control schemes, insisting on prior experience. I offered to give my casual-gamer wife a shot at Amalur, thinking it may offer a more welcoming path to RPG goodness. When she noticed an item on the menu screen devoted to "Moves", full of options and sub-options for controlling combat maneuvers, she handed me the controller and left the room.

Last year the Entertainment Software Association published a document called "Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry." It presented sales, demographic, and usage data to suggest the game industry is vital to the overall economy. While it's certainly true that more people are playing games than ever, including women and seniors, unit sales of traditional console and computer games has stagnated, with only a modest increase since 2002 (224 million in ‘02, 232 million in ‘10).

What role do accessibility and complexity play in these numbers? Are we making traditional games easier in hopes of attracting players that will never come? When we make these games more welcoming to newcomers by decreasing difficulty, adding help systems, etc., are we focusing on the wrong things? Can a game like Amalur be too easy and too difficult at the same time? Does it make sense to design "easier games" if we aren't really making them easier to play?

Michael Abbott writes and hosts the Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. He chairs the theatre department at Wabash College, where he teaches drama and film studies, as well as courses devoted to the art and history of electronic games.

Republished with permission


    I completely understand where this guy is coming from, although I think complicated controls are neccesary for a complicated game.
    When you move beyond moving, jumping and attacking, you need more than six buttons.
    One game which attempted to make controls immediately understandable was AC 2, where you maipulated the baby's limbs to illustrate the context of the buttons.

      +1 on
      "I think complicated controls are neccesary for a complicated game"

      “I think complicated controls are neccesary for a complicated game”

      No that is wrong, your goal would be to make the controls as least complicated as possible, no matter the complexity of the game, you can still have easy to use controls for complex experiences. It can be a difficult task depending on the complexity but in no way making complex controls for the sake of being complex is a good thing.

        "your goal would be to make the controls as least complicated as possible"

        But 'as least complicated as possible' may still be complicated.

          I think HAL laboratories did a great job with simple controls for an arguably complicated game. You have a total of 8 Attacks, and you only need 6 buttons to do this. up, down, left, right, A and B. Throw in another button for blocking/grabbing and that's a total of 7 buttons. Easy to understand, but a rather complex game at it's core. Then once you learn the basics on one character, you pretty much know every character. Up + B is usally a recovery move, down + b is normally a defence move, etc etc.

    Some of the best games were simple. That is why we all say the SNES/PS1/PS2 games are the best, since those games were just trying to tell their story with the limited tools they had. These days developers are trying to tell their story AND wow us with their highly complicated 'stuffs' (graphics, sound, gameplay). Thinking that adding in these complexities will attract the 'core' gamers, when really 'core' gamers grew up on the older, simpler stuff.

    Look at all the 'hit' indie games. They are all very simple in their design. Developers should adopt the KISS idea (Keep It Simple Stupid).

      Technology is time contextual. Snes, ps1, ps2 had amazing tech and amazing graphics, sound etc for their time that were valued highly even then. All the same criticisms about an over reliance on graphics and not gameplay were leveled at all those systems by contemporary fanatics as well.

      The rock music of 50s artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis was revolutionary and considered extremely fast and complex at that time. It is now considered slow and simple (but still brilliant and extremely influential). Complexity is dynamic and limits need to be pushed so they can be built on even more tomorrow. I understand you are saying you want the "game" to matter and I agree, I just disagree with the direction offered by your solution.

    This is one of the reasons I think that iOS etc games have taken off. Simple, intuitive touch controls.

      yeh thats why... and the 99 cent factor had *nothing* to do with it...

    Wait... Was somebody trying to suggest that skyward swords controls were too complicated and there were too many buttons and different directions to move the controller in? It took about a minute to pick up and remember all the moves! Nintendo didn't "lose their way", in fact those controls further solidifies their direction!

    Also @NegativeZero, I look at it the other way, as in the reason I think any iOS game beyond angry birds and fruit ninja doesn't work, because the touch controls make it so overly complicated to control with a bunch of hard to press buttons everywhere.

    Theres this idea in design to make things simple. This is wrong. They need to be as simple as suitable for the complexity of the function. Whilst we need a range of games that are easily accessible, most games are complex interactive tasks and should be treated as complex tasks. This is why the wiimote is a complete failure - its too simple for the functionality its supposed to provide, and you end up with strange, almost impossible to learn control schemes.

      Please name a Wii game with an impossible to learn control scheme. I've played a lot of Wii games and they've all been quite simple to control. I think the Wiimote works really well for what it's meant to do. It doesn't allow for the complexity of a 360/ps3 controller, but disregarding shovelware, it works pretty well.

        Dragon Ball Z. Almost all of the shooters, which work fine till you want to turn around. Skyward Sword, which is referred to in the article.

        Also, someone mentioned DKCR. A lot of people have mentioned that even tat the end if the game they were rolling off cliffs because they forgot what the waggle did. I'd say tgat wss yhe source of at least 25% of my deaths.

    As a long time gamer I think games have become easier and developers less skilled at using difficulty levels to offer challenge to gamers at different skill levels.

    I think one of the causes of the perception that games are easier than they used to be is that as veteran gamers we have played these types of games many times.

    So when a new CoD or Elders Scrolls game comes out you are very familiar with the game mechanics and know what to expect. Anyone who has played a few CoD games knows how to manipulate the check point system to advance in the campaign on Veteran. We know how to build a tough character in Elder Scrolls.

    Another change is the proliferation of guides on the web. 20 years ago if you got stuck on a game you could only turn to your friends for help or perhaps a gaming magazine. Now the solution to your problem is one google search away. Stuck on a boss fight? Just watch a few fight guides on Youtube.

    Even "hard" games like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are not that hard when you can access that kind of help.

    The other problem with games I find these days is that in-game death has no consequences. I think this is one of the reasons that Demon's Souls and Dark Souls stand above other games. If you died it had meaning.

    In most games when your character die you just go back to the last checkpoint or save game and on you go.

    How much more exciting would it be if you died in Skyrim and you lost a level or a chunk of your gold or worse. Crash in Forza and pay a realistic repair and medical bill. Wouldn't be so cavalier in what you did then would you.

    As with in-game death the same can be said of in-game decisions which are often without consequence. Kill or steal in Skyrim? Just pay a bribe and be on your way. Not much challenge in that.

    The issue of game difficulty is about far more than just how easy or hard games are now it is also very much about how developers see their audiences tolerance of in-game loss and set backs. Based on current games it appears that they think we have no stomach for it whatsoever.

    Measuring how good or bad the controls are based on how complicated they are when you look at the buttons and write them out can be a dangerous thing. The true test is in the tutorial. If you can make a tutorial where players learn the moves and walk out confident then you've won. You can have just three buttons and it doesn't mean a thing if you can't explain them in a way that feels natural and logical.

    At the end of the day newer gamers want cool stuff like we get not some watered down slow class version. Instead of dumbing games down for new players we should be upping the tutorial quality, teaching them how to play and continuing to guide them throughout the game with more than just pop-up 'hints' [Note: I'm talking about core gameplay mechanics and controls here, I've got nothing against easy and hard mode difficulty adjustments].

    I think the author is confusing complexity with challenge.

    Even the hardest of hard have gotten easier. Some may disagree, but I say Dark Souls is easier than its predecessor Demon’s Souls. More items, more spells, more gear don’t just mean “more stuff”, they also make it easier to progress. Black Phantoms drop better items, decreasing the need for grind to acquire rare gear. Elemental effects for weapons and upgradeable armour help too, and the game’s many shortcuts ease navigation. Dark Souls is still a tough game, but even this game isn’t exempt from the broad trajectory to easy. Or at least easier.

    Grind is never fun, and doesn't make the game harder - just longer. Same can be said for navigation.

    Simple controls don't always mean good controls. DKCR is the perfect example of this. Nintendo refused to let you use a classic controller or nunchuk, instead forcing a single wiimote on you. You get the "simple" controls of D-pad for movement, 1 to run, 2 to jump (or maybe that was the other way around), shaking the wiimote while moving to roll, shaking the wiimote while standing still to pound the ground, and something else for that blowing mechanic.

    Simple? Yeah. Effective? No. For a fairly difficult game requiring precise movements towards the end, having the loose detection for your rolling lead to many a frustrating death.
    The game would have been far better served with a nunchuk or CC. Same applies to Metroid: Other M.

    The desire for simplicity in controls often comes at the cost of precision or functionality. I don't think simple controls are bad by default; there are some games that do it very well, like Assassin's Creed with its heavily context-based controls, but the controls really need to be matched to the requirements of the game itself.

    Space sim like X3? You bet I'll want to be able to use every key on my keyboard (twice) for a hotkey.
    Dwarf Fortress? It really could have used some context-based controls, rather than mapping every action to a different key (I may not be entirely correct about this as I didn't try much of it, but yeah).

    Complexity of controls needs to be balanced with the demands of the game and the ease of use for the player, without restricting the functionality. That's really all there is to it.

      Also, I don't know about the other games, but that goddamn pig in DKCR was pretty damn hard to ignore. Seriously, Nintendo. I know he's there. You don't need to make him cause such a bloody ruckus.

      I have to disagree with you on the DKCR control scheme, while I do agree with you about them not giving you the option to use other controllers a bad thing. I thought the controls implemented with the wii-mote were fantastic, it was simple and intuitive for me. shaking the controller made your character ground pound, both somewhat similar movements, same goes for rolling, etc.
      I also never had a problem with rolling when I didn't want to, I don't tend to flail my arms around when playing games, and the only time I see it being a problem is if you had a Disability, parkinsons or similar.

    I'm usually fed up with games that all adopt the same control scheme...I for one want to experience something new and having the same control scheme for every action/adventure game holds that back.

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