Easy does it harder
February 13, 2012
If you’ve played games for more than a decade, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed the ongoing evolution of the medium. Some see technology as the primary driver, and there’s no question games look and sound better than ever. The rising tide of tech has lifted all boats, making it possible for even a small team of developers to produce polished, sophisticated games indistinguishable from work produced by the big studios.
As a player, I appreciate HD, pixel shaders, and dynamic AI, but none has produced a major shift in my actual experience of playing games. While the impact of tech is undeniable, I see a far more consequential, and paradoxical, shift in my play experience: games are easier than ever to beat, but harder than ever to control.
Across consoles, genres, and mechanics, games have gone soft. With few exceptions, games offer less resistance to serious players and are more welcoming to casual newcomers. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing. Nintendo has recently incorporated “bail me out” features into nearly all its games, making it possible for less-skilled players to move past difficult levels. The evolution of this player-assist system illustrates the trajectory I’m describing.
Nintendo introduced the “P-Wing” in Super Mario Bros 3, which allows Mario to fly for an unlimited amount of time, overcoming tough levels. If, however, Mario is hit while flying, he loses the power of the P-Wing. The player must still complete the level. In New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo offered an even easier path with the “Super Guide” - if a player dies eight times in a row, a green “!” block appears, and a system-controlled Luigi arrives to escort the player through the level. The Super Guide reappears in Donkey Kong Country Returns and also in Super Mario Galaxy 2 (where it’s called the “Cosmic Guide”).
Finally, in Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo takes it one step easier with “Assist Blocks” containing either an Invincibility Leaf or a P-wing. The Invincibility Leaf appears after Mario loses five lives in a single stage, rendering Mario invincible for the entire stage. If he loses 10 lives in a level, a P-Wing block appears, teleporting the player to the end of the level. Importantly, these items go into Mario’s inventory to be used when and where the player chooses.
Of course, these are optional, and players are free to ignore them. But it’s fair to say that recent Mario games, especially 3D Land, offer fewer stiff challenges to players than earlier SMB games, while still remaining fun to play. Other games in other genres illustrate a similar trajectory.
Among RPGs, two recent games employ different approaches to making things easier. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which I’m playing now) can be seen as a noob-friendly introduction to console RPGs. It’s got all the formulaic pieces in place, but offers them up with glowing “look here!” and “do this” hints, friendly AI, auto-targeting, and an accessible level-up system. Amalur is an action-RPG purposefully designed to welcome newcomers, but still deliver an expansive world, storyline, and dozens of sub-quests. Even its color palette seems to suggest, “Come on in, you’ll have fun!”
Skyrim, on the other hand, eases the player’s experience through refinement of existing systems. Gameplay and progression may not be easier than in Oblivon (though I think they are), but everything, including combat, feels more fluid and easier to manage.
The attribute system, for example, has been overhauled. In Oblivion, points could be allocated to boost stats, but the benefits of this process were difficult to discern. Skyrim translates points into perks, which can be allocated to any attribute, and the outcomes of your choices are far more clear. Better maps, improved quest management, individualized skills - all refine Skyrim and make for a better and, yes, easier (defined here as less frustrating) experience.
Even the hardest of hard have gotten easier. Some may disagree, but I say Dark Souls is easier than its predecessor Demon’s Souls. More items, more spells, more gear don’t just mean “more stuff,” they also make it easier to progress. Black Phantoms drop better items, decreasing the need for grind to acquire rare gear. Elemental effects for weapons and upgradeable armor help too, and the game’s many shortcuts ease navigation. Dark Souls is still a tough game, but even this game isn’t exempt from the broad trajectory to easy. Or at least easier.
Even as games have gotten easier to beat or manage on a challenge level, they’ve also become more difficult to control. Experienced players tend not to see this because we’re accustomed to dealing with what games ask us to do. Complexity arrives incrementally, and veteran players accommodate additional elements of intricacy, barely noticing the changes.
Robert Boyd’s recent “The Complification of Zelda” illustrates how complexity creep has made its way into a series once lauded for its elegant controls. He states the problem clearly:
Some time ago, I played an indie…shooter with an obtuse control scheme. To mitigate the complexity of their controls, they displayed a picture of the controller on the screen...with information on what each button did. “How ridiculous is this!” I thought to myself... Zelda: Skyward Sword does the exact same thing in the default UI… If your game’s controls are so complicated that you feel the need to display the controller on screen at all times for fear of players forgetting how to play your game, YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!
Boyd goes on to demonstrate Skyward Sword’s use of nine individual buttons to control:
- Confirm/Run/Pick Up
- Use Item (Select Item when the button is held)
- Items Menu
- Pouch Use (Select Pouch Item when the button is held)
- Lock camera
- First person mode/Divining
- Help Button
- Call Sword Spirit/Resynch controller/Call bird
And these are in addition to the motion controls requiring individual moves for:
- Slice sword (angle varies depending on how you wave the controller)
- Thrust sword
- Charge Sword with sky power
- Sword Spin attack
- Sword finishing move
- Draw shield/Shield Bash
As a developer who introduced a new system (Wii) with the expressed purpose of easing player interaction with games and enabling more natural, intuitive control, it would seem they have lost their way.
Other games using standard controllers rely on similarly labyrinthine control schemes, insisting on prior experience. I offered to give my casual-gamer wife a shot at Amalur, thinking it may offer a more welcoming path to RPG goodness. When she noticed an item on the menu screen devoted to “Moves,” full of options and sub-options for controlling combat maneuvers, she handed me the controller and left the room.
Last year the Entertainment Software Association published a document called “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” It presented sales, demographic, and usage data to suggest the game industry is vital to the overall economy. While it’s certainly true that more people are playing games than ever, including women and seniors, unit sales of traditional console and computer games has stagnated, with only a modest increase since 2002 (224 million in ‘02, 232 million in ‘10).
What role do accessibility and complexity play in these numbers? Are we making traditional games easier in hopes of attracting players that will never come? When we make these games more welcoming to newcomers by decreasing difficulty, adding help systems, etc., are we focusing on the wrong things? Can a game like Amalur be too easy and too difficult at the same time? Does it make sense to design “easier games" if we aren’t really making them easier to play?