Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Difficulty of It

There's always talk among hardcore and retro gamers about how games nowadays are much easier than they used to be. And in many ways, that's clearly true -- quick reflexes, learning to perform exactly the way the game wants you to, are a big part of older action games. Today's games are more story-oriented, less twitch-based, and the audience is MUCH, much larger. So design philosophies have changed accordingly, toning down the difficulty so more players can experience more of the game.

But there are also reasons old games were tough that I'm glad to see going by the wayside. Older games usually lacked niceties like save features, meaning that if you want to finish, say, Rygar or Blaster Master on the NES, you'd better be prepared to play all day. The game designs were less forgiving as well -- for instance, most older adventure games allowed plenty of room for the player to screw up irrevocably by picking up, leaving behind, or misusing an item. AI enemy behavior was rudimentary, with a "crank up the firepower/stamina on the bots" approach that proved more frustrating than challenging. And heaven help you if a game was moderately complex and you misplaced the manual.

I think games today take greater pains to entertain, and moreover, not to waste the player's time. It's easier to save before heading into a dangerous situation, or even rely on a handy autosave that kicks in whenever you accomplish something meaningful. Designers have learned how to guide the player through the game world, allowing for a sense of discovery without the frustration of getting lost in a maze of identical passages. AI still struggles to achieve its promise, but online play makes human opponents readily available -- they can be very tough, too, but it's usually a fair fight.

So, yeah, games are easier than they used to be. And I'm definitely older than I used to be. My skills are not what they once were, and I want to experience as many games as possible before I pass on. So every hour spent not retracing my steps is appreciated.

Those who still appreciate a really tough game can find goals that will put up a good fight. For example, there's an XBLA Smash TV achievement calling for the player to finish the game without using a single continue -- for most people, myself included, that's just too crazy to even contemplate. But everyone can finish the game using the generous continue system and see everything it has to offer. That's not a bad thing in my book.


  1. Amen on the unforgiving older adventure games. I was playing the old Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy text adventure recently, and I had to use an online walkthrough to ensure I didn't ruin my game by failing to pick up my junk mail in the first stage.

  2. I think Douglas Adams took particular pleasure in presenting the player with absurd conundra and punishing dead ends (usually for the sake of a joke). His followup game, Bureaucracy, is like virtual Kafka.

    Sierra's Space Quest IV had a really annoying "puzzle" -- if the player picked up some unstable ordnance found lying around in the early part of the game, it would prove fatal later on. (I don't think the delay lasted beyond that first area of the game, so it could have been worse. But still!)