Are games too hard?

A story appeared on Slashdot today about the complexity of games, asking “Do Gamers Want Simpler Games?“. Despite a vocal minority, and the arguments from industry critics, the findings suggest that simpler games may be better. I’ve been a moderately hardcore gamer for most of my life, and I’ve got to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the findings.

I find I have to play most strategies and shooters on Easy mode because I get too frustrated otherwise. As much as a challenge can be good, I spend my time and money on games to have fun, and my idea of fun isn’t being killed over-and-over or having to develop split-second pixel-perfect reflexes. And as the casual/hardcore gaming mentalities blur a little, I think more and more consumers have similar opinions.

Easy or Fun?

Many games in the past have had very poor Easy modes. For example, I loved “Command & Conquer Generals“, and I could play Easy mode without any difficulty. It was easy and still moderately fun (unlike some games!), but the leap up to “medium” difficulty (or “normal” or whatever it was called) was massive. The entire gameplay dynamic changed, meaning all the tactics I learned on Easy mode became suicidal on Medium. Despite still being fun, that was a poor Easy mode because it wasn’t faithful to the rest of the game. It seems like the Easy mode was a hacked-together after-thought.

No time for AI

Conversely, in some games the harder difficulty modes are pathetic! I recently picked up a preowned copy of “Smackdown vs Raw 2009” (Wii). It was the first wrestling game I’ve played in many years and I really enjoyed it. Easy mode was no problem, so I ramped up the difficulty. One of the only noticeable differences in the computer opponents was that they started blocking and countering my attacks, and that was about it. There seemed to be no other improvement in the AI whatever, which was disappointing.

Design for variable difficulty

The design of a game needs to incorporate the simple ability to make essentially the same gameplay accessible to players from a variety of skill levels. One of my favourite games is the indie-developed sandbox RPG “Mount & Blade“. The options menu includes some very simple difficulty modifications you can make, such as how much damage you and your allies take, and how responsive the enemy AI is. It’s very flexible for players of different standards, and yet it doesn’t flood you with an unwieldy array of settings.

A varied audience

I appreciate that different gamers want different experiences though, and many people really like the fast-paced in-depth challenge of a tough FPS. I’m not averse to games requiring an element of skill by any means — I used to be an avid fan of the Tony Hawks games, playing many of them to completion on the harder difficulty modes.

Perhaps the key lesson is that there is a very wide variety of gameplay tastes out there. That is not surprising given that the demographic spanning average gamers is expanding so much. For a game to be really successful in a broad marketplace, it needs to be designed from day one to be versatile. That is easier said than done perhaps, but these days I believe it could make-or-break AAA titles.

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