Are Games Too Easy?

The question of difficulty within gaming is a tricky one really. The general consensus from the hardcore who began their gaming experiences by spending hours in the local arcade is that games now-a-days are too easy, dumbed down and ultimately disappointing. To a “hardcore” life-long gamer having their hand held throughout long periods within a game or having everything explained over and over again is a frustrating experience. Is it fair to lament all games for becoming too easy though? In my experience “hard core” gamers can be an elitist bunch, apparently putting together an expensive rig and learning an overly complex economy of an MMO is obviously a sign of brain power, yet playing on a console and enjoying more simplistic titles is hardly a sign of stupidity.

Difficulty settings within games are often seen as the best way of adjusting the gaming experience for the more hardened gaming elite or the greenhorns having their training wheels removed. It’s clear that the most simplistic of titles can become punishingly difficult by pumping up the difficulty, increasing the aggressiveness of the AI, reducing your own health. But this isn’t really the point is it?. To feel like you’re having a fair fight, the act of simply giving the AI the ability the shoot the top off a boiled egg at 800 metres is not going to cut it. Making the AI more aggressive and use tactics more effectively, that’s better. But more integral to the game’s overall difficulty, however, are its systems, its mechanics and the level of explanation it gives you. Or at least this is what I believe the argument being made against the “easy” titles which are being released now.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the most illuminating example of a game treating it’s intended audience as totally stupid and perhaps unfairly so. It was a surprise to myself and perhaps many others when it was announced that Galaxy 2 was to be bundled with a tutorial DVD, but was it really needed? Considering that it also comes with a handy pull out guide, an instruction book AND in game tutorials, which repeat themselves, I suspect not. Galaxy 2 is slightly more complicated than your average Mario game, yet anyone who would have gotten on with the first Galaxy title won’t have any issues. Anyone whose played any Mario game or any other adventure title for that fact won’t have too much problem. Why oh why then, did Nintendo put it all in? The success of New Super Mario Bros (whilst perplexing to me) introduced another generation to the ageing Italian plumber, ans Nintendo wanted them spending their money on Galaxy 2. New Super Mario Bros, however, is painfully simple by comparison, so perhaps they thought that many would fail to understand it.

There is a particular irony here though, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is hard, at moments really hard and the tutorial DVD isn’t exactly going to do you any favours there. But again, the compromise Nintendo make here is in the lives system. As in the days of old, Galaxy 2 features lives and continues, but arbitrarily so. Run out of lives? No problem, it doesn’t matter, which begs the question as to why bother. It is within this system we can locate the root of difficulty in games, the arcade. Put in some money, get some more lives, the harder the game, the more money you pump in, and continue until all you pocket money is gone. This is not to say all games were made hard because of this, but you get the picture. But if in creating Galaxy 2, Nintendo wanted to retain this archaic system it can only have been for nostalgic reasons as It doesn’t really seem to do much more. The critical question here then is, does the excessive level of tutorials and endless (if arbitrary) lives detract from the game? Unless you really hate tutorials, no I expect not. What it does show you, is that developers, as Nintendo do in this instance, expect a very different gamer to be buying it’s products that just those who played on NES and SNES Mario titles.

Gears of War whilst being hugely popular has been criticised for being brainless, dumbed down and essentially lacking any real challenge. Gears doesn’t set out to patronise you quite as much as Galaxy 2 seems to though. Considering the difference in aesthetic you’d assume that Gears would simply be the more difficult title, however that doesn’t appear to be the case. As you start the game have the option taking a quick tutorial, which is necessary to run you through the controls and then you’re thrust head first into fire fights and giblets galore. The simple duck, shoot, throw grenade, repeat style of gameplay does not differ all that often and any changes come about by having to alter you tactics slightly. But is Gears too easy? Simple perhaps, but for some the latter stages proved to be quite a challenge. The crux is, I think, is the try and die nature of it. There is nothing stopping you repeating a sequence, again and again, until you either succeed or throw the disc out of the window. So whilst a particular moment may challenge you, there is nothing stopping you from simply repeating a sequence ad infinitum until you get it right. This doesn’t promote any real reason to not die, want to see what happens when you run to the cover on the left? You die, ah. So what? Start again, run to the right, what can go wrong?

Gears also sports another growing trend within gaming which has some all hot and bothered, and that’s regenerating health. The evolution within gaming has gone from one hit KOs to health bars and now it seems that a lot of developers see this as somewhat archaic. It’d be fair to say that the move from health bars to health regeneration was to simplfiy the gaming process, I can count many an occation where the search for a health giving item has spoilt a game for me. However, it might also be worth considering how easy the ability to regenerate makes a game, especially in a cover based shooter. Providing you aren’t killed outright you can limp to cover and wait for your health to return to normal. I won’t pass judgement here on whether this mechanic is a game breaker, there are some games which utilise this system effectively and there are also others which are cheapened by it. Without a doubt though, games like Gears are made significantly easier by having recharable health as opposed to med packs. Some have gone one step further though, it’s worth considering Prince of Persia or Bioshock for not actually letting you die. (To be honest this is semantics really, you still get defeated and have to start at a checkpoint/vita chamber, so ludically it operates in the same fashion. This is a far cry from instant kills and continues.)

There are no strong incentives in games like this to think, to plan, or even to master anything, you can simply blunder through if you wish. Okay, for many the incentive may be because trail an error gameplay is akin to bashing your face into a brick wall, but the game doesn’t openly promote it. In the days of continues this approach is likely to cost you a lot more than just your sanity, getting stuck on a boss on Mega Man or Metal Slug could cost you a small fortune. Successfully completing either game on even a handful of continues requires practice, patience, planning and of course skill. This is where we reach a potential issue in this argument, to master the tougher games means you’ll have probably died, a lot and thus spent a lot of money. This then of course makes the forgiving gameplay features of newer titles which let you die over and over not so different. Although I think there is a significant difference between completing a game through skill, or simple bloody-mindedness.

The easiest way to really highlight the change in difficulty Vs sense of achievement with the continues system is to play the Metal Slug anthology. You can experience again the rock-hard gaming which taunted so many all those years ago, there is one key difference here though. Whilst you do have lives and continues, it doesn’t actually limit you as to how many you can use. If I remember rightly, completing Metal Slug 4 took me around 47 lives, and when I finally  succeded in completing it felt a little hollow. I love the Metal Slug games, although the challenge of them is so integral to the experience, if you remove it, you’re stripping the game of it’s most important part. In the past practise and repetition were important, now it is seen as frustrating.

Recently we have seen some high profile examples of punishingly difficult games becoming popular with younger gamers too. Demon’s Souls, the highly acclaimed and quasi-MMO for those who didn’t know, made huge waves in the United States and was then released throughout the world, gaining generally high praise as it went. What was the draw to Demon’s Souls though? It was an incredibly well made RPG which, whilst not revolutionising the genre in many obvious ways, captured the attention of many. We’re missing something though, that something is what made DS special for many and infuriating for some, something that made the whole struggle feel worth while, but also something that made you feel as if the developers must hate you, and you personally, because that’s the only reason you could explain how tough it is.

Demon’s Souls is a game of bosses and enemies with a plethora of instant kill attacks, an almost non-existent check point system and a game which virtually tells you nothing of this. Herein lies the achievement. Snatching victory against the first boss, whilst hanging onto life with the tips of you fingers is an exhilarating feeling, yet being killed by a low level enemy after fighting through hordes and hordes, only to be sent back to the beginning (and losing half you life bar and all you souls) is enough to make you plant you controller through the TV. Demon’s Souls is a prime example of the line developers have to tread in order to make a game which presents a significant challenge without feeling cheap a la Ninja Gaiden. Really, it’s not so simple as this, I would argue Demon’s Souls gets it just right and that is why it is such a compelling game, however many would consider it to be the epitome of cheap and rage-quit.

The main development, the crowning jewel in the development in gaming difficuly has to be the ability to save your progress. I remember spending hours and hours playing through to the end of Sonic 2 only then to be called down for dinner. Okay, I can leave the console on and resume play later, but that was frowned upon by those who paid for the electricity bills (aka parents). Very often though, I would have mastered the first few levels of a game almost solely because I’d replay them so often and not be able to save my progress any further. Before memory cards and cartridge-saves, many games tried the password save system, giving players at least a chance at starting somewhere other than from the beginning. For some reason though, this felt like cheating, it wasn’t my progress, not really. In a game where you couldn’t save your progress, seeing the ending credits was something to be truley proud of, there was a palpable sense of achievement. However necessary the ability to save the game is, something as simple as a side scroling shooter becomes that much easier if you don’t have to start from the beginning every time.

The truth is though, that developers cannot afford to produce games which are as difficult as they once did. Instead of competing with 10, 20 perhaps even 30 other arcade machines for money, there are hundreds of other titles all ready and waiting. If a game becomes too frustrating because of its difficulty the majority of people would simply pick something else, whereas in the days where quality titles were often fewer and further between it wasn’t always possible. This choice is ultimately a good thing though, Demon’s Souls isn’t for all, neither is Super Mario Galaxy 2, they’re both geared towards gamers who want quite different things from their gaming experience. A call for altogether more difficult games is not going to be heeded by many developers, at least not those who want to produce the next AAA title, difficult games fit is a niche which is dictated by a myriad of factors and quite often has proven so hard to get right. Yet I can quite appreciate calls for games to retain a little bit of dignity as far as hand-holding is concerned. Give help where help is needed, but don’t force everyone down the same path. Tutorials and hints have been welcomed by many and for the most part are completely necessary, the real challenge is finding where the balance lies. Are games really getting easier these days? Short answer, yes. Long answer, yes but it might possibly be for a good reason.

Chr15 6r33n (Follow me on Twitter at chrisgreen87 and for Chronoludic updates click here)

 RSS Feed
This entry was posted in Editorials and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Apolo Imagod
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    I had to leave a short comment to praise your excellent post. Quite frankly I’ve become exhausted by the multiple cries from so called “hardcore gamers” for more difficult games, and condemning this or that game for being too easy. The fact of the matter is that this is a completely subjective matter, and just as there are going to be people who like their games hard, there are those who like them not so much.

    As a subjective matter we must accept it as such, and not try to pretend like there are any extra particular qualifications that make one side better than the other, except for “it’s better FOR ME”. I grew up with the tough games. Playing Contra required skills… you had a finite amount of lives and if you lost them all… there was no continue, that was that. You had to start from the beginning. When I finished that game I felt like the King of the World. So I know where they are coming from, but I’m not going to pretend like that’s they only way it must be. I REALLY ENJOYED Prince of Persia. I wasn’t even thinking whether it was easy or not…

    The thing is, different games are good for different reasons. Some games because they leave you with a sense of achievement (like when I defeated the fire demon in Demon’s Souls), others it’s from the experience transmitted by the narrative, and ambiance (be it from an inspiring soundtrack, or beautifully crafted scenarios), like Prince of Persia…

    And this why I like the way you discuss it here, because you recognize this, while still discussing the problems with taking it too far on either sides (games that are stupidly easy and overly tender to the player, and games that are hard just for the sake of being hard).

    • Posted August 29, 2010 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Thanks for you comments and kind remarks, it’s good to hear from people to see what they think. This subject is one which many have dwelled on for a long time, this post was really just may views on the matter, it strikes me as there are many different factors which dictate a game’s difficulty and people see those differently. For many the difficulty doesn’t appear to be an issue if the game is compelling enough anyway. Games overall are getting easier, but that’s because there are more of them you’re always going to have a larger spectrum of difficulty.

  2. codicier
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    The most obvious solution are games who’s difficulty is designed to scale with player skill such as the Left4dead franchise.
    Or there is the simple but effective fall back of difficulty levels, although the big issue with that is often its hard to judge what the correct difficulty is for you until you are half way through the game.

    I think having a challenge is great, after beating the final mission of Sc2 on hard after years without touching a RTS seriously i could have punched the air in joy, but my skill isn’t everybody’s skill and i really don’t see why people both lower down & further up the skill spectrum would not benefit from having a difficulty tailored to their skill level so they experience the same skin of the teeth victory i did.

    I think increasingly as the audience of single player games broadens that their skill levels will become increasingly adaptive, while those looking for a chance to /flex will congregate more and more around competitive multi-player games.

    • Posted September 7, 2010 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      What difficutly is right? It’s a good question really, one I suspect many struggle with silently. The tricky part with multiple difficulty settings is that the more you have the more you struggle with the scaling, too many often means less attention is given to each one. However the more minimal approach (3 or less) may in fact be too little choice. I guess that not every game can be universal in its appeal, perhaps some developers should try not to force them that way.

  3. Felix Pleșoianu
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I’ve been playing two MMORPGs as of late, Runes of Magic and Pardus. The former is about as difficult as watching TV, and I love it for that, as sometimes an easy game is exactly what I need. Pardus is a very different beast: I had to play through a long tutorial first, and once in the game it’s a continuous challenge to manage resources, plan ahead, establish goals, escape deadly attackers and so on. And I love it for that, because sometimes facing a challenge is exactly what I need.

    My point is, yes, games on average may be far easier now than they used to be, but the average gamer is also older, not to mention gamers are a more diverse bunch. What we need is diversity: easy games for those who just want to relax, and harder games for those who want to be challenged. Not that the distinction is so clear-cut: my own game Space Shooter is considered easy by some, and impossible by others (and challenging by myself — it’s how I balanced it).

    Thankfully there is enough diversity in gaming. Let’s keep it that way.

    • Posted September 7, 2010 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      I agree 100% with your comments on diversity and the wider spectrum of gamers. One very mportant fact worth noting is that more games are being made today than there ever were, it appears that the easier titles are just balancing everything out more.

  4. avmf8
    Posted September 11, 2010 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    My problem with games is this. I end up often with a game that is either to hard or too easy. for me either scenario is boring. the issue is I am not a casual player and I am not hardcore I may been leaning more to hardcore but am not quite there.

    I think what is more neede is isntead of trying to have difficulty levels for each game have games with differing difficulty levels. To describe what I mean I will use models as an example. There is model kits or varrying degrees of difficulty.

    So it will say on the box what difficulty level the kit is. Since most games just do not do difficutly levels very good. Also many game makers don’t seem to know the difference between hard and tedious.

    Take Rayman I remember one I played forget which one. But it was challenging without being tedious. Other games I have seen they simply try and make it hard by for example putting allot of bad guys and long checkpoints. That is not making the game challenging that is making it tedious.

    The issue is most game makers want to make either the game really hard or really easy. Also as for tutorials I want to mention a pet peeve I have I had a run in with last night.

    I was playing Assassins Creed finished the game but upon finishing I found I had all but one achievement left. It was one about talking to this character and hearing every dialog. Well anyway I restart to get it and to my horror I could not skip the tutorial.

    I had to go through this annoying tutorial telling me how to play a game I already mastered.

    Also one last thing that does not really have to do with difficulty but is annoying. What I am referring to is cut scenes that are long and you can’t skip them. It is ok to have long cut scenes but let the player skip them if they so choose.

    • Posted September 11, 2010 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      I think there are varying degrees of skill and finesse displayed by developers when trying to increase difficulty settings within games. There are certainly cheap ways of making a game more difficult, as you mentioned extra AI spawning and longer distance between checkpoints are still all too frequent in some games, and as I mentoned in the piece sometimes just increasing the stats of the AI is what is resorted to.

      Although I think what you also may be addressing is bad game design, unskippable cutscenes, poor checkpoint positioning and a manditory tutorials are elements within gaming that simply shouldn’t exist any more as they are fairly easy to remedy if the dev team is aware they have become an issue. It seems that as some people long for the difficulty of the older generations of games, some developers cling to a series of arbitrary gaming issues which belong firmly in the past now.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: