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Are Games Getting Easier? The Death of Harder Difficulties

We as gamers remember lots of various moments throughout our time spent with our favorite hobby. Be it an overkill/extermination in Halo matchmaking, a friendly chat in an MMO, a notable NPC like Tingle or Mr. Resetti, or any other aspect of a game that made you enjoy your time spent with it. Whatever the moment may be, there can usually be a sense of accomplishment attached to it as well. No one would play games just to get from point A to point B or something equally mundane if there wasn’t a sense of reward or encouragement involved. I know I wouldn’t, at least.

Video games have come a long way in the past twenty or so years. There was a point in time when “gaming” and “gamer” were labels that usually signified nerdy people. The kind of kids who would play Dungeons and Dragons (DnD is awesome by the way) or spend hours reading comics or spend their free time, god forbid, “learning.” But things have changed and being nerdy is commonplace. With technology advancing at a steady rate, people can play video games just about everywhere and on anything. And as such, gaming has gone mainstream and it’s popularity appears to be growing exponentially. No more negative connotation to the “gamer” label or “gaming” as a hobby. “Great”, you might think to yourself. But what is the downside to all of this? At first glance you wouldn’t think there was one. More people playing games means more money spent, means more quality games, right? Well, not necessarily.

By looking at the title of this article you may be thinking to yourself, “What about the Souls series of games?” (i.e. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls) Well let’s just set those aside for now for they are the exception rather than the rule. Don’t worry we will come back to them.

I didn’t want to place labels on different groups of people but let’s be real here: there are the “casual” fans and the “hardcore” fans. The hardcore fans are the ones who usually own multiple consoles, or line up for midnight releases, or pre-order a game many months in advance and spent hours upon hours playing the games they love and buy merchandise and go to conventions. They play lots of different games and enjoy spending time gaming with others. The whole shebang. The casual fans are the people, for example, who only play mobile games on their phone/tablet during small breaks during their day (like bathroom breaks or lunch). They might only have a single console and play one or two different games. And they are more likely to be enjoy playing solo or offline games. I’m missing a few examples from both categories but you get the picture. Both groups spend money on gaming, but unfortunately it would appear that casual gamers far outnumber the hardcore.

Now, let’s examine what happens when developers and publishers have to try and appease more and more of the casual gamers each year. By trying to get more money out of the casual gamers’ pockets, game companies are doing a lot of things differently than they used to. There was a point in time when beating a game on it’s hardest difficulty was a legitimate accomplishment. Not just anybody could say they beat the any of the first couple of Halo games on Legendary, or the (2004 and upward) Ninja Gaiden series on Very Hard, as just a few examples.

The latter series games’ made a lot of “consessions” to appeal to the wider, casual audience as evidenced by the reviews seen on Wikipedia. As such, the games actually did suffer from dwindling review scores. There hasn’t been a new Ninja Gaiden game since 2014 with the poorly received Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The sales numbers indicate that as the review scores went down so did sales.

So if appealing to the casual market didn’t work, then why do it? Well the Ninja Gaiden series is just one example. Remember the Souls‘ series of games we mentioned previously? Well, those games (as hard as they are) sold fairly well. But compare that series’ total across all platforms (around 8-9 million) to something a lot more casual and mainstream like Minecraft (122 million) and you start to see a huge gap.

Granted, part of that could be due to the fact that the Souls’ games are ESRB rated Mature (ages 17+) and Minecraft is ESRB rated E10 (ages 10 and up). But taking that into consideration and setting it aside, what other discrepancy is there? Type of game? Difficulty? The fact that you can play with a larger amount of co-op players in Minecraft than Dark Souls?

Potentially all of these things. But think about it like this: if Minecraft‘s difficulty was as hard as Dark Souls, would as many people be playing it? Hardly. I know quite a few people personally who have quit the game over dying and losing their items. The fact that anyone from your grandma to your 5 year old child/relative can play it means more potential income. Conversely, if Dark Souls was as easy as Minecraft would more people play it? Possibly. Given that it’s difficulty is what makes people want to play the game, one can’t be certain.

I usually fall into the category of wanting to have fun while playing games. But like most people, every once in a while I enjoy a good challenge. Why is that? Doing something challenging gives us a sense of accomplishment and/or achievement and that feeling of pride makes us happy. There’s a reason why “achievements” became such a huge thing on the Xbox360.

Another reason why harder difficulties may be falling by the wayside is because of how society as a whole has been changing. Attention spans seem to be growing shorter by the year, with less and less time to invest in games. So if we can’t beat a level/mission/challenge/boss on our first try, there’s a tendency to give up. We need the games we chose to play during out limited free time to reward our short investment so that we can save and then get up and go about our business and come back to it later. Repeating a mission until we can figure out the strategy needed to win? Practically out of the question.

Funnily enough, after initially starting to write this article a new “hard game” has come to the forefront: Cuphead. Here is the description of the game from Wikipedia:

“Cuphead is a run and gun game, features a branching level sequence and is based around continuous boss fights. Cuphead has infinite lives and keeps weapons between deaths, and can continuously fire his blasts and has a quick dash ability that can be used at will. The player can also purchase more weapons and “Charms” from the shop using coins collected from the run-and-gun levels. Charms give the player special abilities like an extra life. Cuphead has a parry ability that, after successfully parrying five times in a row, enables Cuphead to perform an special move. The levels are accessible through an action role-playing game-style top-down perspective overworld with its own secret areas.”

I have yet to be able to play Cuphead myself but from watching videos of it, I feel like people that say the game is hard aren’t the average gamer. There’s a video out there of a “30+ year game journalist” who can’t even complete the tutorial (the story there is that either he is lying or just sucks.) It seems like Cuphead does have a steep learning curve indeed but conversely there is also a video out there of a guy who completes the game without taking a hit. I’m sure that took a lot of skill AND memorization but it just shows that even a game perceived to be hard can be made to look easy.

In conclusion, while there are certain games that come out and embrace harder difficulties (like Cuphead) there are just as many that merely cater to the casuals out there. Some games don’t even let you choose a difficulty anymore. I doubt the course will change but we can hope that the success of Cuphead will at least encourage developers to make games challenging and/or add harder difficulties.

Thoughts, comments, critiques or opinions? Shoot me an email.

-Matthew

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