“Games are becoming too easy”, “Twenty years ago, it took me thirty tries to get through the last world in Super Mario Bros. 3. Nowadays, doing the same in Super Mario Galaxy takes no effort”, “I did not even break a sweat when trying to finish last year’s biggest shooter. It was disappointing”. Everybody who follows the gaming world with relative proximity has stumbled upon many such remarks way too many times lately, and how could we possibly disagree?!
The original The Legend of Zelda did not even tell the players where to find the dungeons, while Skyward Sword allowed adventurers to use their sword as a tracking device for a number of objects. Super Mario Bros was filled with ridiculously designed stages that demanded absurd precision or the ability to avoid the thirty bullet bills that came Mario’s way while the poor plumber had to land on a tiny square jumping off of a precariously positioned spring, while most of us do not even know how the Super Mario Galaxy “Game Over” screen looks like. Back then, games were pure evil and developers went to huge lengths to turn our lives into a pit of misery and frustration while we tried to finish their games. Gaming was made for the tough kids on those days.
Fast forward to the year 2014 and as players who have been gaming for a really long time decide to journey once again into the oldest games they can find in their library, they will awkwardly find out that landing Mario on that tiny square is not as hard as it was and that finding that dungeon on The Legend of Zelda is not actually tough, since it is more of a matter of total lack of direction as to where to go.
Recalling Super Mario Bros. brings memories of pain and anger not because its stages were lunatic in its difficulty, but because the game had a Game Over system that punished gamers too severely in hopes of extending gameplay time, and increasing the value of a cartridge that could not pack much information. The same goes for The Legend of Zelda and its aimless exploration. When the game’s level design is evaluated by itself, it is not hard, the difficulty comes from the game design choice of not giving players any kind of vital information, thus, attempting to extend gameplay time on what is a very limited software.
It doesn’t take much to realize that we, as human beings, possess a huge ability to learn, not only mentally speaking, but also physically. Our brains’ ability to get slowly better in insane mathematical equations by exercise is the equal to our muscle’s potential to get stronger and give us better physical resistance upon being flexed many times. It is something that, with a good amount of effort, happens so naturally and smoothly that we only come to notice our improvements when we stop and think about it.
Through the years, and with intense exposure to videogames, we begin to process virtual environments and all of their dimensions much more easily; we manage to get a hang of new control schemes without much trouble and without having to glance at the keys to check their positions every three seconds as if they could have ran away from their usual place just to prank us; and, after many hours of gameplay, we begin to use our previous experiences to build fixed strategy trees to deal with situations on which games throw us frequently. In a way, our brains become machines specially calibrated to obliterate all challenges developers can possibly think of.
I still remember many of my struggles with Super Mario 64 back when a 12-year-old me attempted to clear the game while collecting all of its stars. One of the stars that was eluding me particularly stands out. The shiny devil was located in the Wet-Dry World, locked in the top area of a cage that could only be reached by an elevator that moved a little bit too fast. I could never get it, but a few years later – when I decided it was a matter of honor to complete Super Mario 64 – I went back to the game, realized what I had to do to get the star and did so without much trouble.
I did not look it up on the internet, I did not even play the game that much during that period of time, I just learned further – by playing other games – how to deal with troubling scenarios presented to me by different games. If that still sounds hard to believe, and modern games still look like they truly are a lot easier, then try giving a young child a Wii U controller and send him or her exploring one of Super Mario 3D World’s early levels.
The kid’s difficulties and troubles will look ridiculous to longtime gamers, but sooner or later it is possible to realize that their difficulties to get through the first boss battle are a lot like my troubles to get that star locked in a long vertical cage. In a few years they will probably remember that Bowser battle as a really tough challenge, while games played after acquiring a lot of experience will seem like child’s play.
Sitting opposite to gamers on this difficulty issue are the ones who have to make sure they are able to produce good games that keep players engaged all the way through by not being too easy and not extremely hard either. They have to come up with a difficulty curve that walks side by side with the intensity on which gamers develop their skills during gameplay while also trying to account for the previous experience most gamers have had with the series, or – in the case of a new IP – with similar titles. And it is exactly here that the source of all this debate is.
Companies need to build a game that makes new players feel welcome, and not scaring them away with ridiculous difficulty is vital. On the other hand, that same game cannot be easy to the point where the so-called hardcore crowd will yawn their way through the whole adventure without even facing a heart-pounding moment. It is like walking on a tightrope, only a little bit harder. Truthfully, not all games are built the same, so it is possible to divide all games into three distinct groups when it comes to the nature of their difficulty, and each one of them has their own problems, or solutions regarding that matter.
Firstly, if a game is so unique in its mechanics that even experienced gamers are forced to build their skills from the ground up then the field is evened out and young gamers and longtime fans will pretty much face the same ordeals before mastering the title, even if – due to accumulated hours of gaming – the latter group will still have a nice edge.
Secondly, if a game’s difficulty is strictly connected to how skilled its enemies are – and in here we have RPGs, shooters, fighters, among others – then difficulty is, when possible, easily set up by players who, based on how they judge their personal skills, will either make the AI as dumb as a brick or as gifted as a soldier who has seen way too many battles to make a move without taking strategic cover or attacking when a good opportunity has yet to present itself.
When developing software that is filed under this second category, developers’ only concerns regarding difficulty is programming three or four distinct levels of AI whose skills are evenly apart, allowing the jump from easy to normal, and normal to hard to be natural and not too extreme in order to avoid a bumpy ride for players who are trying to increase the challenge of the game along with their skills.
Finally, we have games whose challenge is intrinsically connected to their level design, and here lies the central problem of this debate on difficulty. Developers need to go in assuming the game is a fresh start for everybody, otherwise they would be alienating a big amount of young players who are taking their first steps into the gaming world right now, therefore the difficulty curve cannot start being built up from the previous installment of that series or from the assumption that everybody playing the game is an insanely experienced player on platformers or adventure titles.
In a way, playing the first level of Super Mario 3D World is like going through the first level of Super Mario 64, the main difference is just about fifteen years of 3-D gaming luggage, where instead of fumbling with a new grand environment in a totally unprecedented perspective, we are looking at something that has already been mastered in all its quirks and nuances.
This disease is not limited to long-running series, though, as it extends to any games that take a good deal of inspiration from previously released games – which is almost every game out nowadays – or titles that make jumping or solving a puzzle the main component of their challenge. And, differently from games on which the difficulty can be easily set up on a menu, the challenge of those titles comes directly from the way their levels are built, not allowing it to be adjusted on the fly.
It would be quite pleasant if a solution to this scenario could be materialized out of thin air. However, as it turns out, as long as there are games that are not radically different from everything we have played before, or that gravitate around killing enemies rather than going from point A and to point B, people whose backs are already hunched from carrying too many gaming hours around will have to carry the extra burden of experience. The burden that makes learning and adapting to a new gaming scenario so ridiculously natural and easy that it gives us the impression that games, as a whole, have become way too easy to figure out.
Sometimes it is fair to blame the developers for not taking their mechanics to levels high enough to challenge us, as all of the games should have a decent difficulty peak that makes experienced gamers break into a mild sweat. However – most of the times – the culprit lives along us for all of our lives. It is not under our noses, but it is somewhere right behind it.