The end of the year continues to approach rapidly and my game library continues to swell thanks to Christmas and Steam sales. As I look at these new games I have acquired, something steps out at me that seems at once the industry’s biggest problem and its greatest source of change. I mentioned it in another article a few weeks ago, and in it I called this phenomenon “easy creep”. I wrote about how it, the steady decrease of difficulty in games, is a near universal event throughout the game medium and how difficulty turned from being a point of pride to a “nuisance”. At the time I felt I had not given the topic its due and I hope this article remedies that. Why is gaming becoming easier? Why was it difficult to begin with? Where should it go from here? These are the questions that concern me most regarding the increasing ease of games.
To begin at the beginning, why was gaming ever challenging? Videogames got their first big break with arcade cabinets, which worked on a pay-per-play system. After losing enough lives or enough time expired the player then had to pay some amount of coinage to continue playing or to try again. In order that a game might often require coins and offer longevity, games were designed with a brutal difficulty in mind. Aside from the very idea of a “game” implying that there is a challenge involved, games were made particularly difficult as a means of being financially successful. The most popular games of the time could only be played in arcade halls, which would be filled with dedicated customers who knew to expect a challenge as well as desired one. It was an environment that at once required and fostered the existence of a certain level of difficulty. Once console games hit the scene and American arcade halls started to make a downturn, game difficulty hardly scaled back at all. The notion of “NES difficulty” regarding games like Capcom’s Mega Man is an example of how gaming became associated with a certain level of challenge. Few games existed that were particularly easy since the market, based off of the success of games designed for arcade cabinets, demanded a high level of difficulty. Certainly this difficulty was also a means with which to lengthen playtime as “long” games with a great deal of content were also quite rare. But this difficulty, even in its application to pad out completion time, seemed like it was more accepted at the time than it would be today.
So, why is gaming getting easier? It likely has many factors, and it follows the trends of most entertainment mediums. As home consoles became more popular, so too did videogames and their industry in general. Consoles and PC gaming were not just replacing arcades, they were overtaking them rapidly. Year over year, generation after console generation, the general playerbase of videogames grew tremendously. And as with any major increase in a premium product’s popularity, the barrier for entry was lowered. In the case of videogames this means the difficulty and learning curve were both taken down as games became less about a challenge and more about a power fantasy. The problem with a challenging activity, whatever it may be, is that it takes a good deal of dedication before the activity pays off and the experience feels rewarding. Knowing that reward is coming, and is attainable, can make the challenge itself entertaining. But this is not always guaranteed with games. If a player never reaches that rewarding point, then their experience with the game might not encourage purchases of further installments. More currently, this means a player will be less apt to buy DLC that gets released post-launch. However, games continue to make the majority of their money from day-one and week-one sales which means a game must be desired before most people have played it. This explains the popularity of game reviewers who get early access as well as game sequels that promise a defined familiarity using only the title. So it is that the widening playerbase is largely the reason for the decreasing difficulty in games as a greater number of participants generally results in a marginalization of dedicated or “core” gamers.
Now, what should happen in terms of game difficulty going forward? I think one of the best examples, and lessons, that this industry should take note of is the performance of the Nintendo Wii. The flash success of the Wii was thanks to its easy TV appeal (daytime talk shows could easily demo the console), easy understandability (the controller looks like a TV remote), an exciting gimmick (motion controls), an unmistakable name, and a good old fashioned aggressive ad campaign. The Wii also came with the well known Nintendo name and it was highly sought after by many dedicated gamers as well (myself included). What followed was a roaring financial success as the system moved record breaking amounts of units worldwide for several years. But, as the seventh and longest generation dragged into its sixth and seventh year, the Wii’s momentum proved to be quite finite. The Wii was wildly successful as a system mover, but not nearly as good at moving software. Its appeal to non-gamers of all ages meant that the potential playerbase was widened to include pretty much anyone who spent time at a relative’s house during a holiday. This meant they would buy the console, but it proved to be a poor demographic to expect much more involvement in this industry than that. The ease of games on the Wii, their apparent challenge despite what unintentionally bad motion controls may have done, catered to players that had little motivation to actually support the games industry. For as many new “gamers” or players a system like the Wii brought into the fold, their dedication to games and making new purchases was so much less than actual an gamer’s that the time spent attracting these non-gamers was likely a zero sum game. For Nintendo, apart from the industry, it was more like a rare financial blow as the company reported quarterly losses in the latter years of the Wii’s lifespan that it managed to mostly avoid having to report during the dismal days of the GameCube and Nintendo 64. This all showcases that games are necessarily tied to a certain level of dedication on the part of the player and that, though “freemium” games in the mobile and browser space are still pulling in money, this dedication is what keeps game makers from just booming and busting like the much loathed Zynga.
So there is my piece on game difficulty. This week I want to pose a specific topic for the comments to discuss. What about games that do not offer a challenge in the traditional sense? Games like Journey, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and many others that have released in the last few years and have challenged the notion of what games ought to be. So, readers? What ought they to be? I was going to put my thoughts in as part of this article, but instead of writing a novel I thought you might want to participate. Are those games I just listed or are they “interactive stories”? Do they demonstrate a better way to broaden the appeal of the industry rather than gimmicks or easy games? If you have not played a game like those, then why? Pontificate in the comments and do not forget that you can get email notifications of follow up comments if you so desire!