Difficult games: A thing of the past?

Are difficult games an endangered species? Aaron ponders their thinning numbers…

With Dark Souls director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, recently stating that he’s considering adding an easy mode to the notoriously difficult action RPG, in many people’s eyes, one of the last few remaining truly challenging games, does this herald the end of games with bite?

When you play a game, what difficulty do you play on? Are you the type of gamer who plays it straight down the line, and leaves the game on ‘normal’, do you prefer the experience and story over the potential trials and go for ‘easy’, or do you play games to be challenged, pitted against the kind of odds that could, potentially, leave your controller in a smashed up wreck on the floor?

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It’s an interesting question, and one that has the potential to change the way games are made, something that has, arguably, already happened.

You see, if you take a trip a couple of decades (or three) into the past you’ll come across a very different gaming landscape, one that was dominated by games that didn’t shy away from challenge. This was a long time before the term ‘casual’ made its way into gaming, and the titles released in this era of digital entertainment were far from the cushy numbers that adorn the shelves of gaming stores the world over.

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Games like Jet Set Willy, the original Ninja Gaiden, Contra, Battletoads, Wizball, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts to name but a few (and you’ll no doubt list many more in the comments) were difficult, vein-popping releases that pushed many players to their limits. Fast forward to today, and how many games released can boast a similar level of challenge? There may be one or two, but most would agree that, on the whole, gaming has gotten much, much easier.

But why is this? Why has one of the most important things about any game, the challenge, been taken away? Why has gaming lost its teeth?

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The truth is, there are many possible reasons, and gamers all over the globe have their own opinions, but there are some logical explanations that can shed some light on the matter.

Longer and stronger

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The first possibility is the content of games themselves. Although many may look back at retro games with fond memories and rose tinted lenses (myself included) one thing is true, the majority of games released then were far, far shorter and less complex than the games released today. In fact, many games released on earlier consoles and home computers could be completed within an hour or two. There are few games released these days that you can hammer through in a single sitting, unless you’ve got too much spare time on your hands, that is. And, there are certainly very few that can be devoured in an hour. So, to ensure people got their money’s worth, developers often made games insanely challenging, stretching out the playing time of even the shortest game. Add to this the relative scarcity of game saves and even passwords (pre-Legend of Zelda) and you had an era where even budget titles could last weeks.

Of course, this isn’t to say that more complex games of today, with their superior development and cutting edge tech can also claim that. With games like Halo or Call of Duty regularly being completed in around 4-6 hours on the first play through, it’s clear that, although games may be easier, this doesn’t always mean they’re longer too. However, games like Skyrim can last months, and with online content being ever-present, the need for challenging, and substantial single-player content has waned greatly, which, again, is something that games such as CoD and Halo can attest to.

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Moolah

Big budgets are a very real consideration when looking at the difficulty level of games. Large scale publishers, such as EA have made no bones about ensuring that their games fit into the mainstream, and whether so-called, ‘hardcore’, gamers like it or not, companies, even evil empires such as EA and Activision, are understandably in the business to make money. Releasing games that can only be completed, or even attempted, by a small fraction of players is simply commercial suicide.

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In the good old days of development teams consisting of a handful of guys in a small room, this target audience was often enough to turn a profit (well, most of the time), but with many games now costing more to develop than most Hollywood blockbusters, this is no longer a viable option. Games need to sell, and they need to sell big. Say hello to the casual game, something that Nintendo, with the Wii, realised all too well. If a game is approachable to everyone, then the odds are, everyone will buy it. Hey, it worked like a dream for the motion-controlled white brick, and even though the casual gamer market is a fickle beast, with a huge number of Wii owners treating the pastime as a fad, only to discard it once bored leaving an unsatisfied hardcore gaming fan base behind, Nintendo’s bank account wasn’t complaining.

It’s this approach that has now permeated the gaming market, and even the once gamer-focused Xbox has now, thanks to the aberration that is Kinect, partly become a casual gaming platform (amongst the many other entertainment and social networking functions it now offers), seeing an influx of dance games, interactive pets and on rails affairs. Most of these pose little to no challenge, such is their target audience, and even the PlayStation isn’t immune from this, thanks to the introduction of Move, which has, thankfully, not been all that successful and for most games is an optional addition. Even games that aren’t considered casual and are, in fact, proper gaming releases rarely boast any form of substantial challenge.

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I made this!

Another reason games have become less challenging may also lie with vanity. Developers now have access to such powerful technology and plentiful resources that their games not only cost as much as a big screen movies to make, but in many cases, even play and resemble one too. Games now boast full voice casts with A-list stars lending their talents, and the visuals and cut scenes can be truly jaw-dropping, rivalling the effects of the silver screen, and in some cases, even surpassing them.

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Story and character development is also far, far more accomplished than in past years, with examples like Uncharted, Heavy Rain, Enslaved and Mass Effect proving that you really can care about these digital personalities. The intense situations and epic set pieces that often populate big releases are also crowd-pleasing highlights, intended to wow all comers.

So, it’s understandable that developers don’t want all of this goodness hidden away, only accessible to the elite few who can rise up to a hefty challenge. An easier game means that more people will experience the hard work of the developers, and, in turn, if this impresses them, they’ll come back for the next instalment.

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Of course, it could also be argued that most games do have the option for a greater challenge, and if you play a game such as Gears of War on easy, you’ll be able to experience the whole things at your own pace, whilst there is an option of ‘Insane’ mode for those with masochistic tendencies.

Learn it, or lump it

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However, once this wasn’t an option. Difficulty was a set thing, and a game was designed to be challenging, pure and simple. You were to play this as the developers intended, and that was that. There was no real room for the negotiation that is the difficulty level, and, in this writer’s opinion, this is one of the reasons why games such as Dark Souls are so attractive. They hark back to a time when games dared players to rise to the challenge and gave them a sword, shield and said “bring it on, bitch!”

Ever since Half-Life introduced the Black Mesa obstacle course, there are few games that do this. Instead of leaving it to the player to learn the ropes, figure things out and, perish the thought, use their own brains to adapt and survive, most games now drip-feed the game mechanics to players. It’s now a cliché of the game world for a title to come up with ever-increasingly stealthy ways of implementing instructions, which usually fails. There’s nothing quite so third-wall breaking and immersion-shattering as an in-game character telling you to “push the A button to jump”, as if you run around the world with a controller sewn into your person, and this also negates the need to think and work things out for yourself.

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True, games are now more complicated, and the days of the NES simple two-button ‘jump and shoot’ setup are well and truly gone, but that’s what instruction manuals are for. Leave the controls and directions on how to play for the booklet (or spend more time developing a better, more intuitive control scheme), and let us immerse ourselves into the game world and work it out for ourselves. Oh, sorry, that’s if a game comes with an instruction book, which is a whole different story…

Hardcorps

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As a veteran gamer of some 30 years, I’ve always appreciated the challenge offered by games, and almost always play games on their hardest setting. If a game is developed well enough, it can be brutally challenging, but also fair and enjoyable, and Dark Souls is a perfect example of this. It, and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, may be considered too hard and even unfair to many, but this isn’t really the case. Instead, they’re games that don’t shy away from forcing you to get better, to think and to do more than button-mash your way to victory. To water this down with an easy mode would certainly open the game up to those with less skill or experience, and in many ways, this is a good thing, but at the same time the, ahem… soul of the game is lost, along with the sense of achievement that comes with it.

The evolution of gaming has changed more than the technology behind them, but also their very nature. Games began as just that, games. And, the idea of a game is to provide a challenge for someone to overcome and, eventually, emerge the winner. Games are not bereft of this now, but many are more like interactive stories and more about the journey than the goal or the sense of achievement, and maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it’s helped the industry flourish, and has, in turn, given us some of the finest games ever created. Plus, it’s opened the medium up to those who may not have experienced it otherwise.

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So, where do you stand on the subject of difficulty in games? Do you believe games are, indeed, less challenging than their ancestors? Do you think that difficulty is an important element of gaming, or is the journey and the experience far more important? Feel free to agree or disagree and share your own views in the comments. Meanwhile, I’m off to play Dark Souls’ New Game+ and throw my controller around.

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