The evolution of technology and its effect on game difficulty

The Gameological Society–currently the best outlet for forward-thinking video game writing–recently reviewed the new Spider-Man game, The Amazing Spider-Man, and followed it up with a reader discussion of the game’s defining trait: difficulty. The review posits:

Web-swinging in 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was an acquired skill. It took days of practice—you had to learn the proper timing and how to gauge building height—before you started to actually move and feel like Spider-Man. Those first few nights with the game, I spent more time falling to the streets below and looking foolish than I did zipping through the air. Not so in The Amazing Spider-Man. In the opening moments of the game, you can simply hold down a button and steer with a joystick to unleash some vertigo-inducing acrobatics.

Even when I did, on occasion, fall to the street in The Amazing Spider-Man, an animation almost always kicked in so that Spider-Man, saving face, made a Nadia Comaneci-style landing, looking for all the world like he intended to fall to the street all along. That’s right—the game doesn’t have the guts to let me fall when I clearly deserve to fall. In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t a bad or unplayable game; it’s a painfully insecure game that’s far more interested in being liked than it is in having any degree of depth.

The review commenters largely agree with one another: games are much easier now and it’s your fault. That summary is reductive–there’s talk of how the ease of games makes them more inclusive as well as innovative difficulty systems–but the sentiment that games are easier now rings true in almost every comment, which I believe to be, at best, a half truth.

Technology and complexity are positively correlated in video games. Technological advances paved the way for increasingly complex and sophisticated game design, but the opposite is also true. In the nascent years of video game technology, games were understandably simplistic: functioning almost solely in two dimensions, player movements, abilities, and options were limited. With diminished resources, game designers had essentially only two ways to make games more engaging: make them incredibly long or incredibly difficult.

Both of these options required a certain amount of dedication from the gamer. The former was the road less traveled. Without the ability to save your progress, excessively long games were a chore for the player and required more hours than should be allotted to staring motionless at a television screen (eg, Sonic the Hedgehog, Kid Chameleon, et al). Therefore, designers often required technical perfection from gamers. For me, this is epitomized in titles like Mega Man 2, which required both the memorization of level progression as well as incredible feats of timing and platforming (see also: Ninja Gaiden).

The other aspect of early games that many people forget is that so many popular console titles began as money-sucking arcade games. Donkey Kong, Smash TV, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade, Contra, and their spiritual brethren were not hard because it made them better games. They were hard because you dying repeatedly was the only way for the machines to make money. When they were eventually ported to home consoles, their difficulty persisted but the need to funnel money into them disappeared making them ripe for both rabid followings and the belief that this is how games should be made.

Contemporary video games, then, are not easier because that’s what the industry demands. They’re easier because they can be while remaining engaging. Moveover, the design goals of games have changed. Arcades are dying or, more accurately, dead, so allowance eaters have been banished from the landscape. Instead, contemporary games put as much emphasis on telling/experiencing a story as they do on fighting your way through it, hence the preponderance of RPGs (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, Fallout, etc). If you’re looking for an empirically challenging video game experience in 2012, feel free to join in the Call of Duty epidemic or explore any of the myriad games being played competitively; AI will never be an adequate substitute for dedicated, thinking humans.

The problems cited with The Amazing Spider-Man in the Gameological review are not related to difficulty so much as shoddy gameplay. While the inclusion of the Web Rush feature may lighten the difficulty of the game, more damningly, as the review notes, it destroys the actual gameplay, restricting the player from experiencing the sensation of becoming Spider-Man.

Many gamers contend that the origins of gaming show the true distillation of the medium when in fact, the traits that defined those games were more a function of limited resources rather than perfected design. Comments like this

It may feel great to effortlessly zip through something, always in style and always successful, but it is a hollow experience, because without challenge nothing is achieved.

…carry an air of misunderstanding. The underlying assumption is that games, and more specifically their control scheme, are something to be conquered rather than experienced. While that was true of early games that didn’t offer much in the way of experiences–bopping Goombas on the head and saving the Princess are not deep moments–completing single-player games/modes has ceased being the premiere component of releases.

What hierarchical difficulty settings offer gamers is the ability to experience ostensibly flat, linear gaming experiences in different ways, whether that be more or more powerful enemies, limited resources, or however else difficulty settings affect gameplay. I still remember playing games on the Nintendo 64 that required the player to increase the level setting 75% of the way through the campaign because, presumably, the subsequent levels were either too difficult for easy-setting gamers or because you simply didn’t earn the right to see the story completed. The death of that feature was a major, unsung moment in the development of video games: there’s nothing here to conquer.

There’s no doubt that games are easier to complete now. The birth of save functions, death of the arcade, and the rise of competitive online gaming are probably the three biggest culprits for that, but to view those pejoratively misses the point of this and future generations of games.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The evolution of technology and its effect on game difficulty

  1. Agree completely.

    Every time I see “older games were harder and therefore better!” I remember the “insert coin to continue” screen that appeared on so many arcade games.

    It’s also reminds me every time someone complains about the Halo-esque checkpoint system in an FPS that it simply replaced the quicksave / quickload key combo that you did in FPSs before that.

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