I recently read this article by Charles Salmon (@BeardsandPixels) which made me think.

Are modern games easier or simply designed better?

Returning to Super Metroid recently, Charles found the experience too obtuse. He wonders, were games really this difficult before, or have we just grown soft? Looking at the variety of games available today, he’s come to a conclusion that may just surprise you.

Metroid artwork

This article poses a very good question unfortunately the author dwells too long on Metroid to look for answers. Metroid is a bad example of difficulty. Not to say Metroid isn’t hard, but if Metroid was just a Mario-Style plat former; it would actually be pretty easy to beat. The “difficulty” in Metroid cames from overwhelming the player with a massive world with no mapping system with tons of unmarked secrets the player was required to find before proceeding.

There is no doubt that this is terrible design. A modern game wouldn’t do this to you because players have come to expect maps, clues, and usually outright instructions for solving puzzles or navigating the game world. That isn’t difficulty, only fake longevity.

What is difficulty?

There is something to be said for puzzles, and I guess you could say Metriod has hard puzzles. If you consider shooting every possible block in the game trying to find the one that is fake a puzzle. I don’t consider that difficulty, at least not in the way it is usually measured when comparing old and new games. Better game design has removed much of the fake difficulty. Situations in which the player is expected to do something totally random and unprecedented to continue the game have (should have?) been fixed. The games usually have built-in mechanisms like foreshadowing, clues, or NPCs to explain what to do.

What about gameplay difficulty?

The best way I can explain it is how people currently think of “beating” a game. The conversation today goes like this:

“Did you beat X yet?”

Instead of:

“Have you ever beaten X?”

Games you are assumed to have beaten

Games you will probably never beat

Beating games has changed from a matter of skill into a matter of time. Ninja Gaiden (NES) and Ghouls and Ghosts (NES) have a high level of difficulty because no amount of instructions or walkthroughs can help you beat them. You just need to become amazingly good at avoiding projectiles and enemies. Many people won’t have the “moxie” to complete these games and it isn’t because they don’t’ know what to do (watch me try). You aren’t “stuck” not knowing what to do. The path is clear, you just need to do it. It usually took about 300 tries. So why has the dynamic changed?

Save Game

I attribute the change to game saves. You rarely see a true “Game Over” screen anymore. Generally when you die or lose you just start over at the same section of the game. This is what gives games inevitability, if you play the same section over and over you will eventually beat it. This is essentially how old games worked, except in those games if you died enough times you started the whole game over again.

It was not fun to start the whole game over; I am thankful for saves. I don’t have the time to play Halo over from the start every time I turn on my Xbox. I like to know I have made progress every time I beat a level and that progress is mine to keep. Obviously games are much longer now so this is necessary. Most NES games can be beaten in less than 30 minutes if you just go all the way through. You would be lucky to complete most modern games, even the short ones, in less than 8 hours in one shot.

A friend of mine always jokes that people complain so often about how easy Mass Effect is, even on Insanity difficulty. He tells those people to start a new game every time they die. Then come back and complain how easy the game is.

2 replies
  1. Ilu V'm Piche
    Ilu V'm Piche says:

    I do think there were some (okay, a lot) of bad design features.. the example of a lack of save feature is a good point, as is shooting at everything until you luck out and hit the secret block/switch/item/etc. It does make the game more difficult, but it has nothing to do with skill. It’s fake longevity, yes.

    BUT, I have to semi-disagree with the point on the overwhelming overworld and lack of a map. If used for all games, yes, I think it’d be bad design and “fake” difficulty. However, I think that type of difficulty is useful and even necessary for certain games. Metroid is a great example of this. I do think that including maps in more recent games does dumb it down a bit. I think that feeling of being lost and unfamiliar with the world was a staple of the Metroid series, and I do long for it to return. I know it won’t though- people can’t operate without a map anymore, and I can’t expect them to. Still, I think that element of difficulty was right a home in a Metroid game. I wouldn’t want it in others, though… for the most part.

    I think that same element of being lost in a confusing and even maze-like world was also a great part of the fun of the original Legend of Zelda. I think it’d STILL be fun in Zelda. I do agree with Mach3racer that games are undoubtedly becoming easier… but thankfully, difficulty options are becoming more and more common.

  2. Mach3racer
    Mach3racer says:

    This sparks discussion on two fronts:
    1) Removing the difficult for difficult sakes examples i.e. UI or lack of Save feature – obviously makes games more difficult
    2) Skill required to beat the game

    I believe as a whole, games have gotten tremendously easier. I also believe the medium as a whole is moving toward story and movie plot elements instead of gameplay. If you go to see a movie, but the movie is too difficult to watch, nobody will go see it. As entertainment value goes up, alongside production quality, it becomes more of a necessity to force the player to complete the game.

    This matches trends with society by accepting disposable games ( indie games ) or lack of discipline, i.e. learning curves too steep


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