February 15, 2012 by boudadi
Article Analysis #1 by Ali Boudadi
In his article “Easy Does it Harder,” Michael Abbott argues that modern game design has become easier and easier while becoming more complex. The issue being that designers, in the constant attempt to make gaming accessible to a wider audience, remove much of the challenge to their games and make them as easy to beat as possible. On the flip side, they are adding layers upon layers of complexity to the control schemes. The end result, as Abbott puts it, is that “games are easier than ever to beat, but harder than ever to control.”
First let’s look at the first half of his argument, games being easier. Abbott’s primary example is a recent trend in Nintendo games to include an item, be it New Super Mario Bros Wii (2009) and Donkey Kong Country Returns‘ (2010) Super Guide or Super Mario 3D Land‘s (2011) Assist Blocks, that basically beats the level for you if you die too much.
There is definite credence to this argument. Compare the grueling difficulty of the original Donkey Kong (1981) or Megaman (1987) to today’s Uncharted 3 (2011) or Halo: Reach (2010). In the former, death is practically part of the game. What does kill you, makes you stronger. In the latter, an average gamer will generally be able to mow down enemies no problem. But is that really a fair argument? What matters here is not whether the games have gotten easier or not, but why they have.
Sure older games posed larger challenges, some would say unfairly so, but the difficulty is not necessarily there to challenge the player. One of the main roots of gaming is the arcade scene. Dumping quarter after quarter for every in-game death. You die. You pay. Look at Gauntlet (1985), where the players’ health is constantly draining, or any number of Beat-em Ups, where no amount of skill would keep you from inevitably getting swarmed by enemies. These are lose-lose situations designed specifically to kill the player. If they player did not keep dieing, then the arcade cabinet would not be profitable. Moving into the console era, we get the other reason: game length. Many early NES games, RPGs withstanding, are not actually very long. Super Mario Bros can actually be beaten in 5 minutes.
When looking at games to buy, the consumer is much more likely to buy the 20+ hour game to the 1+ hour one. Luckily, huge difficulty spikes makes for easy game padding. A 5 minute level becomes exponentially longer if the player has to die a hundred times to beat it. Ironically, the reason that many of these older games were so difficult is the same reason why so many new ones are easy. Money. With all the advances in technology, AAA games have become more and more expensive to make. Doom (1993) cost ~$200,000 and was considered one of the most expensive ever games at the time. The budget of Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)? ~$100 million. With such huge budgets, designers of AAA games want gamers to see as much of the game as possible. Spending millions of dollars on a car chase sequence that most people would not see because the game is too challenging is not an economically viable risk.
The other mistake Abbott makes in his argument about game difficulty is in the games he looks at. Sure Nintendo’s kid-friendly offerings and the big budget Skyrims of the world will be easy, but that does not hold true across all of gaming. He claims “cross consoles, genres, and mechanics, games have gone soft” and yet their has developed an entire genre of games specifically designed to be soul-crushingly difficult in the aptly named Masocore genre. With games like Super Meatboy (2010) and Dark Souls (2011) on the market and spanning multiple consoles and styles (platforming to action RPG), to say all games have gone soft would be ignoring a decent amount of very popular and challenging games.
Not to mention the world of online multiplayer games pit gamers at significantly larger challenges than any computer-programmed AI: actual players.
Next comes the other half of Abbott’s argument regarding the complexity of controls. He uses the newest Legend of Zelda game, “a series once lauded for its elegant controls,” Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011) as his example. The game has nine different button commands along with seven different motion commands. All this on a console meant to be easy-to-use and accessible to players of all ages and skill levels. Again, Abbott is right. Comparing the endless move sets and number of buttons of today (not to mention touch and motion controls) to the one button Atari, two-to-four button arcade cabinets, or six button NES controller. Tom Bissell recounts similar struggles with this rapid increase in complexity in his book Extra Lives when playing Resident Evil (1996) for the first time. The game’s tank controls, aiming mechanics, and other number of complex controls left Bissell awkwardly fumbling around with the controls for much of the game’s beginning. What happened between the jump from the SNES-era of games to the Playstation-era that would cause games to become so much more complex was the move from 2D to 3D. That extra dimension meant that left, right, jump, and attack just would not cut it anymore. In addition, consumers wanted more and more variety in games to avoid just replaying the same games over and over. To evolve the genres, continually more layers needed to be added on.
On the other hand, Abbott makes the same mistake regarding complexity of controls that he did with the challenge in games. He focuses on the big budget, console titles. In the indie and downloadable games side, we have games such as VVVVVV (2010) and Flower (2009) which are barely one button games. The former is a side-scrolling platformer where the only button commands are enter to initiate conversation, left/right for movement, and up/down for flipping orientation (the game’s core mechanic), and the latter is an “artsy” game where the player controls the wind through the PS3 controller’s SIXAXIS motion sensors and can press any button to initiate motion. In addition, the hugely popular surge of mobile games use controls that are debatably easier than any control schemes that have come before it through pure touch-screen use. Abbott uses an anecdote of giving his wife Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (2012) to play because of its “noob-friendly introduction to console RPGs” trappings, which results in her immediately being turned off of the game after seeing the large move list in the menu. However, had he given her Angry Birds (2009) or Fruit Ninja (2010) to play, I’d venture to guess that she would understand the controls instantly, even more so than many games from the “simple controls, difficult challenge” age of gaming he alludes to. Finally, there’s the fact that not all old games were that simple to control, particularly in the PC space. Rogue (1980), for example, was far from an easy game to control. The Rogue-like genre it created continues to this day using very similar control schemes, and their controls are hard to remember even for a fan of the genre. Ironically, the less faithful modern games of the genre tend to have much simpler and more accessible control schemes. (For a deeper look into the rogue-like genre, see Jeremy Wildberger’s analysis Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup https://film373.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/videogame-analysis-dungeon-crawl-stone-soup-by-jeremy-wildberger/)
While Abbott makes valid points, the view is too constrained. Are games getting easier? Yes. Are games getting more complex? Yes. However that is not the case across the board. A better analysis would be that games are becoming far more varied, in style, difficulty, and accessibility. We have more complex games than ever before; easier games than ever before. Yet, we also have some of the simplest and most user-friendly control schemes since the earliest days of gaming as well as games so difficult that they have branched off into their own genre devoted to masochistic gamers. Most exciting of all is that games on all sides of the spectrum, hard/easy, simple/complex, accessible/Dwarf Fortress, are successful. I believe that really speaks to how far gaming and gamers have come.