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Visual Spectacle vs Challenge: Consumers and Game Difficulty

Visual Spectacle vs Challenge: Consumers and Game Difficulty

Sep 20, 2013

There is no doubt about it, the average video game of today much easier than they were years ago, even on the last generation. But why is this? There are a number of reasons behind it, which the developers implement for their sake, or for the gaming community itself.

One thing that struck me is that since starting GTA V, I have died a lot more than any other game of late. Most games I can breeze through with relative ease, yet I’m only a few missions into GTA and I’m respawning at the hospital multiple times. The secret Rockstar have to avoid complaints, is a checkpoint system that is remarkably higher in quantity than in previous entries. Instead of restarting the entire mission, you merely replay the last 3 minutes. But why this concept has changed? Rockstar have changed their approach to mission structure in a few years.

Video games have come along leaps and bounds within the last decade, and with that, the challenge involved has changed dramatically. Nowadays, gamers demand more of a cinematic experience from their games, as the boundaries between the video game and movies is narrowing. With the many titles that make it onto the big screen as an adaptation, this proves the potential for the industry. Games like Uncharted or Heavy Rain show that it is truly possible to create an immersive, story-driven experience very similar to watching a movie, but is also interactive. As consumers play more games like this, they expect more cinema in their gaming life, and so trivial, simplistic games come under scrutiny.



And with cinema, you want to experience the story and visual aspects without too much disruption of constantly meeting your doom; and therefore the games are easier. Playing Uncharted from start to finish will be a fun venture, with the odd challenge, but nothing you can’t overcome after a few attempts. Yet try the original Rayman. I haven’t completed that game to this day, and I’m pretty sure I never got past the fourth level. How that game was aimed at kids baffles me. And this pretty much sums up how game difficulty has changed with time. A wildly complicated adult game like Uncharted is easier than a side scrolling platformer for pre-teens.


An all too common sight


Another viewpoint is that video games are a lot more complex, and with this comes a longer development cycle, with more people putting in hard work. And if you’d written a book, but readers gave up halfway, you’d be disappointed, right? Well I should think game developers think similarly. If you are going to play their game, the creators are going to want you to see the climactic, awesome ending they have had everything building up to. And so, to avoid gamers getting stuck, the difficulty has been lowered.

Along with the cinematic feel, the storyline is now crucial to games. And gamers want to know what happens at the end, and if they can’t find out because there is a certain level or boss they cannot beat, it ruins it for them. Games began in the arcade essentially, when they had to be challenging in order for customers to keep inserting their loose change. Now, this isn’t really the case. Games were all about challenge and very little plot, but with more immersion comes more need for incentive.

There are exceptions however, such as the recent Dark Souls franchise, which is infamously ridiculously difficult. So much so they the enhanced edition is named Prepare to Die, referencing it’s strenuous gameplay. To some, this is a great title which harkens back to the glory games of gaming where they were tough challenges, yet to the mainstream community, probably isn’t enjoyable. If core gamers want a challenge, then alternative games, perhaps indie, provide the challenge that they long for.


Dark Souls: How can you beat this?


For developers, a high difficulty curve can be bad for business, as they wish to attract  those who had not previously played their games. If a game is immensely hard, new gamers are less likely to persevere and learn. Take Battlefield 3 for example. In most ways it is now superior to the Call of Duty franchise, with a better physics engine and a more complex online multiplayer. Yet Call of Duty is still the more popular franchise, as people have played the games countless of times, are used to the controls, and the difficulty curve is relatively low. It doesn’t take long till you’re topping the leaderboard online, something which takes Battlefield players a few weeks (or months, in my case), to achieve.

In most cases, people just enjoy winning. The last thing you want to do at the end of a working day is get beaten by artificial intelligence. And as gaming is a more casual and acceptable past time these days, the level of challenge has adapted accordingly. People do not enjoy failing levels, and will inevitably just shut the game down, and perhaps tell their friends it isn’t very good, merely because it’s difficult.. However, failing does in effect make winning all the more enjoyable, as your perceptions are altered to see succeeding in a video game as a greater victory if it is harder.

In order to make failing more enjoyable, some games have created death cut scenes. Dead Space shows each death in horrific detail with guts and gore galore, which gamers genuinely are interested to see, and alleviates the disappointment in losing. Personally, I often threw Isaac into deadly scenarios just to see what would happen. However, as a survival horror game, the essence of surviving means it has to be challenging to some extent. But with the third installment, it is more action-focussed for a mainstream audience, and proved a much easier play-through. Perhaps then, the modern gamer is fickle, and impatient. Back when games were a true challenge, you had little choice. All games had poor interfaces and controls, along with limited saving or checkpoints. But now, it’s a different story.


We all want to see what happens in Dead Space


One easily noticeable example is the Elder Scrolls series. The third instalment, Morrowind, saw you locate different quests by following instructions in various notes. Even the most simple task of walking somewhere becomes somewhat of a challenge. However, with Oblivion, Bethesda implemented a market on your map, so you can easily find your way to the desired location, without the need for cognitive thought as such.

Tomb Raider used to have incredibly complex puzzles standing in the way of the player and the next level. But the recent reboot had very few of these, and at best took a few minutes to work out (along with hints). It seems these kind of alterations embody what has changed within the industry, and how game difficulty has also evolved.

Perhaps instead, people enjoy the illusion of a challenge instead of an actual challenge. Back in the PsOne era, I barely ever completed a game. Nowadays, I feel like I have to complete every game that I purchase, as I want to see it through to the end. And I’m sure there are many people out there with similar thoughts. Gamer mindsets have changed, whether because of the adapting difficutly, or because they demanded an easier gaming experience, as they evolved.


Equivalent to Regular 5 years ago?


AAA titles now take a huge team of people to create, and business becomes all the more crucial. A few decades back, games were developed by perhaps 20 people, but now it is an international team of hundreds or thousands, and so it has to be a success. Therefore, to make money, you can make an easy, enjoyable game people will purchase. Of course, back in the eighties, with such limited resources and hardware capabilities, the only real way to create a lengthy game was to add replay-ability by means of difficulty and frequent deaths. There is also a sense that gamers want to unlock their achievements, and if the extra-hard mode is literally impossible, gamers will be annoyed that they cannot complete the game to 100%.

What is important to remember, is when developing a game, the difficulty must be present at the heart of the game. As gaming has become a bigger industry, it has had to adapt for it’s audience. Franchises have devolved when they attempt to toy with difficulty in order to make their game more accessible, merely by making it far too easy. At the end of the day, it is gamer preference and sales which influence how games are developed, and so the end products have adapted in accordance.


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