Jun 28 2012 3:00pm

Gaming Roundup: Are Modern Video Games Too Easy?

This past week, Epic Games developer Cliff Bleszinski (known more commonly in the gaming community as CliffyB) ruffled some feathers during an interview discussing the upcoming Gears of War: Judgment by claiming that “in this current console generation . . . we’ve taken a lot of steps to grow the audience and . . . [modern] games have become more linear and easier, so it feels like a lot of quick-time-events.” While recent throwback games such as Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls may beg to differ, the point he raises is an interesting one, and worth consideration.

Bleszinski, here, is essentially stating the (obvious, but touchy) fact that mainstream game developers have been watering down the difficulty of the product, much to the chagrin of grassroots gamers, in order to cater to wider, more mainstream audiences. The comments of linearity and quick-time-events are not-so-subtle shots at franchises like God of War and Uncharted, which are fine games in their own right, but won’t be mistaken for Dark Souls anytime soon. Gone are the days of Mega Man, Contra, or Abe’s Oddysee. The mainstreaming of gaming has, generally speaking, seen an end to the nigh-impossible platformers of the 80s and 90s. The engagement of extreme tests of skill has been replaced with a wariness of consumer frustration and engagement by story, graphics, or gore. This isn’t a surprise, nor is it necessarily a negative. It is, however, an interesting gradual commentary on the focus of the mainstream vs the niche.

Bleszinski continued: “The more I play games like that the more I turned off to them and just want to get back to systems interacting with systems, and get back to a game that, you know, when was the last time a game really challenged you and asked something of you, right? There’s a reason why Demon Souls and Dark Souls have taken off lately. It’s because they really require you actually try.”

As he notes, a few games have recently attempted to revisit the days of the old school, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls chief among them. The success of these games does generate a bit of potential for a renaissance of grudgingly appreciative aggravation and frustration in gaming, but certainly not enough so as to perpetuate a steady trend.

And so, Dear Reader, we ask you: are modern games too easy? Are game developers pandering to the lowest common denominator and hand-holding gamers to an unreasonable extent? Or is the tradeoff worthwhile to have peace of mind of your character’s survival and progress, and to be able to focus instead on stories and environments? Let us know.

In other gaming news this week, a Journey collector’s edition is in the works, Final Fantasy VII and VIII return to PC,  The Last of Us goes multiplayer, Mass Effect 3 is getting a single player DLC, Skyrim: Dawnguard launched, and more.

  • thatgamecompany will package Flow, Flower, and Journey together into a bundle of gaming goodness come August. Make time for these games — you won’t regret it.
  • Big news for Final Fantasy fans: a Square Enix information slip-up leads us to believe that FF VII and VIII are coming to PC soon, via Steam.
  • PC gamers have unearthed plans for an upcoming Mass Effect 3 Single Player DLC, buried within the files of the newly released Extended Cut.
  • Skyrim: Dawnguard was released this past Tuesday. It’s as good a week as any to return to Tamriel.
  • Far Cry 3 has been delayed into November. Shack News had a hands-on preview from the floors of E3, detailing the series’ darker, disorienting turn. (Bonus: see if you can find the surprise cameo from Dexter’s Sgt. Doakes in their second preview video.)
  • Curt Schilling recently spoke out about the collapse of his gaming venture, 38 Studios (developers of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning), his personal investment in the company, and the shock and cost of failure. An interesting perspective, but a curious one in many ways, given the difficult nature of producing a successful MMORPG (as BioWare is learning), and especially given that he was attempting to jump right into the genre without testing the waters first on a smaller, less ambitious project.
  • Did Naughty Dog overthink Uncharted 3? IGN examines the question from the perspective of graphics, controls, and story.
  • According to an interview with Naughty Dog developers, The Last of Us will feature multiplayer, but the focus will not be on co-op play.
  • Finally, courtesy of Conan, we bring you SkyMall, Super Diabetic Mario Brothers, and (wait for it) UFC: Sexual Tension.

If there are games you’d like us to cover or blogs you think we should be following for more news, please let us know @tdelucci or @pritpaulbains.

Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
When's the last time a game really challenged me? Hm. Oh, I know! That'd be when I was playing Dragon Age 2 on the super-easy setting for casual players, and still hit two TPKs on a certain boss fight before getting through.

I'm a big fan of difficulty settings on games, because some people who want to play games are not, in fact, super-skilled twitch gamers who have been putting in lots of time for many many years. Have a super-hard difficulty setting to appeal to people who did? I'm all for it! But I am deeply suspicious of people who don't want an easier difficulty setting available, because it somehow transgresses the purity of their gaming experience to know that someone else out there might be having fun without having "earned" the skills.

Games are fun--or should be. If games are designed so that a lot of people are having fun playing them, instead of a small number of people, that seems like a feature to me, not a bug.
Improbable Joe
2. Improbable Joe
Can we be realistic here? A non-trivial of the "higher difficulty" of older game design was because the games were designed poorly. Having to repeat a jump 30 times because that one step was programmed differently from the previous 500 steps and the following 500 steps isn't a sign of challenging gameplay.

And linear gaming is fine and makes sense and feels like someone actually designed a game from start to finish, rather than throwing a bunch of semi-random garbage together that can be done in semi-random order and calling it "sandbox gaming." No, that's designing a 3-hour game and then padding it to infinity with minor tweaks of a couple of different gaming mechanics.
Improbable Joe
3. Jeff R.
Blame Achievements and Trophies: modern game designers know exactly when most people stopped playing their last game, and how staggeringly few actually made it to the ending.

I have mixed opinions as to the results. I mean, I guess having every game turn into Dragons Lair ever thirty minutes for a while is better than having long, unskippable cutscenes broken up by tiny snippets of gameplay...
Liz Bourke
4. hawkwing-lb
I'm a story woman, personally. Mostly I play RPGs (I used to like single-player shooters, but nowadays I can't stand the casual misogyny, and I haven't played any of the Prince of Persia or Assassin videogames, though they look fun, because where are games like those with a female main character already, huh? (yes, I'm a rabid feminist. I'm okay with that)) on "easy," because a) playing for story and character, and b) life is too short to spend twelve hours repeating a single boss fight.
Improbable Joe
5. Tesh
For what it's worth, Prince of Persia 2008 has a strong female lead (not the main player character, but she's absolutely crucial to the gameplay and key to the great story... the prince is mostly an accessory), and it's a really good game with forgiving design. Maybe we don't have a desexualised Lara Croft of Persia yet, but PoP2008 is a solid game in the meantime.

...that really underlines the main question here. Yes, it's an easy game, but it's "easy" to gaming veterans. It's not necessarily easy to new players, but it's forgiving enough to let them learn how to play without being brutal about it. It's also "easy" so that the story can be seen, rather than wished for. This is Good Design, and I am happy that games are leaning that way.

Let the hardcore players have their achievements and trophies for being highly skilled. Let *everyone* see the game story and have fun.
Improbable Joe
6. politeruin
Not that i put much credibility into anything cliffyb says but mainstream games have gotten easier, i put that down to the rise of the console and the consolification of games as a whole. Time was you had purely pc game franchises but now that's the exception (thank you valve) rather than the rule and we get watered down console crap and to me it's an issue of making them easier to fit a control pad, you don't get anywhere near the nuance of a keyboard and mouse. As much as i love valve and portal 2 the sequel was easier than the first when it became mult-format, the second was a case of 'hunt the portalble surface' because you simply can't navigate a 3d world with a pad with the same speed and precision you get with a mouse.
Genevieve Williams
7. welltemperedwriter
It seems to me that the market ought to be big enough by now to accommodate both those who play games as their primary leisure activity (such as my husband) and those who play relatively rarely and as time allows (such as myself). Yes, all right, I'm a casual gamer. There are a lot of people like me, who enjoy playing sometimes but don't have the time (or don't wish to devote the time) to get really, really good at a game that is really, really difficult to play. Not every game needs to be the gaming equivalent of Remembrance of Things Past.
James Kehr
8. Jammrock
There's this really old NES title named Section Z that was the hardest game I ever played. It is also the only game I could never beat. I think is was section 22 that I could never beat.

Modern games focus more on multipler, and socialization, to keep gamers happy. In most cases the single player game is an afterthought. I know a lot of people who don't even play the single player campaign anymore because they just aren't worth the time.

Though sometimes I don't need a game to be hard. A good storyline mixed with challenging gameplay can be just as fun to play than a "hard game".
Improbable Joe
9. Teka Lynn
Are games, in general, "easier" than they used to be? I'd say so.

Is that a bad thing? Not to me, it isn't.

I don't want a game that'll make me spike my mouse or controller. I want to have fun. I want to be able to ooh and ah. I want to enjoy a really good story. I don't want to be made to feel guilty because I prefer to play on the easiest level. I play how I play and play what I like, and you should play how you play and play what you like.

Outrageous brag moment: I was one of the fans who got to beta Dawnguard. It was awesome.
Improbable Joe
10. JasonD
One of the better examples of good video game difficulty lately is Diablo 3... until Inferno, the hardest difficulty. It is entirely possible to hit level cap before reaching the end of the second-hardest difficult, Hell. At that point, the only way to improve your chances is to grind for equipment. Act 2 of Inferno is still a massive brickwall, even after a patch.
11. Mouette

That's another whole can of worms when it comes to the games being too easy. It's a delicate balance; Blizzard has to keep things difficult enough for the oldschool players to still be interested and challenged, yet easy enough for new players to be able to pick up the game, since most players are not hardcore raiders.

And yet, I'd say most players feel like the game is too easy now. In early Cata, it was more difficult; you had to try, had to use CC in dungeons, had to have the whole group doing its job, because you would wipe if you didn't. Now, with everyone in heirlooms or upper tier gear, dungeons are laughable, and no one has to be paying attention unless the whole group is under-or-moderately geared.

Is the game being too easy the reason why Blizz lost those famous 2 million subscribers in less than a year? Is it the oncoming of the pandas? Or something else? I don't know. I still play and love the game, but that's as much because most of my friends are there.
Pritpaul Bains
12. Kickpuncher
@11 I've certainly heard that criticism applied to WoW of late. Pay-per-month MMOs in general seem to be having a rough go of it lately... BioWare's amazing The Old Republic pretty much tanked as well. Not sure exactly what's behind it.

@12 I'm actually *just* trying to edge my way into Act II Inferno in D3 right now. My witch doctor (which is not a viable class in Inferno to begin with, sadly) pretty much is a 1-hit kill. Sigh.
Jack Flynn
13. JackofMidworld
I think it depends on what you're looking for and what games you're playing. I invested HOURS into the Mass Effect series, and haven't even touched the 3rd one yet, but I also had fun with Gears of War, mainly because there was enough storyline to keep it interesting (and occasionally heartwrenching) but it wasn't something that I had to block out entire periods of my life to play. After I lost six months of my life to Morrowwind, I learned that casual gaming is okay, too.

Come to think of it, though, I think maybe Limbo is a great show of the compromise. It had puzzles that made me think of Seventh Guest but it was short enough to burn through it in a weekend without feeling like a horrible parent.
Pritpaul Bains
14. Kickpuncher
@13 Limbo does seem to be a happy medium in that regard. And you just reminded me that I downloaded Seventh Guest for my iPhone a few weeks ago! Must get to it.
Improbable Joe
15. driceman
Call me what you like: a snob, a Nintendo fanboy, "a guy who doesn't understand," whatever. But here's the honest truth: what's the point of a game? To be a fun diversion. That's it. Not just video games, any games. It's not the blood. It's not the graphics. It's not even the story (with a few exceptions, like Metal Gear Solid). It's about having fun.

The games I tended to love before I basically lost interest in gaming were Nintendo's top-of-the-line games: Mario and Zelda games. This is because the games were designed well and were fun, whether they were the hardest games (the original Zelda) or the easiest (Super Mario Galaxy 1). The point is, they were fun.

Frankly, what killed games for me, besides getting older and having more things to do with my time, was when Nintendo's quality games became almost nonexistent and I got a PS3 to find more good games and couldn't find many others. Metal Gear Solid is an example of an exception of course, but I dislike the vast majority of modern games, easy or hard. They're just focused on the wrong things. No matter how good the graphics are or how much blood they pour in, if the controls suck or the game design isn't fun it doesn't matter. I hate Call of Duty, and not because "I'm just a noob." The game just isn't fun. Final Fantasy is basically dead. Almost the entire spectrum of games has fallen off a cliff.
Improbable Joe
16. tigeraid
Here's a take on it, I don't know if anyone's brought it up but... Isn't it interesting that when we were kids (by we I mean my generation, late 80s/early 90s, the real golden age of video games), the games were super difficult... I can recall smashing many things in my room, destroying controllers, even kicked the TV once (and I'm NOT a guy who has a temper normally) at dying for the seven hundredth time in Super Mario 3, or getting riiiiiight near the end of Double Dragon only to die... Or even later on, with Final Fantasy 8, trying desperately to figure out a way to beat the final boss over and over and over.

And that's as a kid! Talk about teaching perserverance, dedication... And maybe a little unhealthy obsessiveness too.

And now, at least from what I can see, the majority of gamers are 20+ year old adults! All of the teens and kids I know from family and friends don't really get hard into videogames. So now, we have all of these mature adults playing, and you'd think they, of all people, would enjoy or want a more challenging experience. And yet the games are now easier...

I think maybe we've gotten so brainwashed into wanting that absolute emmmersive gaming experience, to feel like "you're really there," that we've ignored how incredibly easy the games are. Oblivion is unbelievably entertaining and beautiful, but after playing for maybe two weeks on and off, I had finished every single mission, and for the life of me could not remember any of it being remotely challenging!

I still load up my SNES emulator now and then to relive some of those knuckle-mashing moments.
Improbable Joe
17. Sanagi
Today's games tend to be easy, but that's not a problem if the games are fun. I've been playing Kirby: Epic Yarn with non-gamer friends and it's such a creative and delightful game that I don't care that it's impossible to die.

A good game interacts with the player. In the old days, challenge and progress were the tools of that interaction, because that was the simplest approach. For those of us who learned that it was worth rising to the challenge, it was a highly rewarding experience. People who didn't get past "This is hard" found games to be nothing but frustration. The latter group is now being catered to, and that's fine.

The problem is when games lose the challenge without understanding that something else needs to fill that space. A game can be low-stakes but it still has to stimulate, provoke, and tease. It can do that through any number of means, but all of them are more subtle and artistic than challenge. Subtlety and art, of course, are problematic things for corporations to build. So instead they reiterate what worked before, with a gimmick added on to convince players to buy it.
Improbable Joe
18. jbo
I do not have a lot of time to play video games. So I far prefer an easy game so I can get through it and enjoy the ending. If it takes too long to get past a boss, I just move on. I can only play about 3 games a year at most, probably really only 1. That may be why I love all of those Lego games so much.
Pritpaul Bains
19. Kickpuncher
@16 I totally get where you're coming from. I found that Skyrim suffered from the same issues as Oblivion, too. After a certain point, the game just became dirt-easy.

@18 I used to totally be a snob about the Lego games, but some (a handful, in fact) are legitimately good. I was impressed.
Improbable Joe
20. Lsana

I think you need to turn your point around. When video games were primarily a kid activity, they could afford to be more of a challenge. A kid can afford to spend the hours required to lose to the final boss 700 times only to triumph on the 701st. An adult can't. Adults have to go to work and fix dinner and do laundry, not to mention take care of their own kids. Adults have a very limited amount of time that they can afford to devote to entertainment, and 700 battles with a single video game boss is not where that time is going to be budgeted.
Improbable Joe
21. Rybal
I think that a lot of the difficulty of older games derived more from the developers attempts to lengthen the play time than anything else. There is a difference between a challenge and outright insane. Having to jump within a space of a couple pixels or a fraction of a second is more on the level of outright insane. Yes, there are people who know exactly which frames to time moves for in MvC3, for example, but those people are certainly in the minority. The rest can still play it and have fun.

Though I haven't had a chance to play them yet, the Dark Souls games are also more towards the outright insane level, moreso than challenging, though with a reasonable strategy, you can beat anything in those games.

Most games these days don't have a static difficulty level the way that they used to. There are frequently RPG-like elements that allow you to make your characters stronger. You don't HAVE to make yourself stronger throughout the game, though it will be to your benefit to do so. If a game is too easy, then don't take that upgrade that will make you into an unstoppable force (you know you don't HAVE to use TG Cid in FFT, right?).

Sometimes, it is FUN to be able to blast everything into oblivion. Most of us have little real power in real life, so being able to be so much more through games can be fun. What can I do next? How can I interact more?

Also, though games may be easier when played in the way that the developers lead you, they are also better in a lot of ways. They tell stories more effectively more because of storage space (though my favorite game is STILL FFVI). Not all games/franchises, but many. If you have any doubt, see how many of the old games you go back to. Most of us do from time to time, but most of your gaming is going to be something relatively recent.

Additionally, even though I play single players almost exclusively, many games provide difficulty through multiplayer. There is a certain challenge that you cannot get from AI that can only come from humans.

Finally, Quick-time events came about because people wanted to interact with cutscenes more. Cutscenes became very popular, but also kept getting longer, so games started adding in a little more to it.
Improbable Joe
22. piekid
Someone please identify for me a non-modern video game...

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