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As an outsider looking in at the game industry, many of the choices made by the largest AAA developers and publishers seem, to put it kindly, extremely counter intuitive. But there's one topic where the choices border on complete and total insanity: accessibility. In terms of accessibility, it seems like most AAA developers and publishers have a death wish.
While every other segment of the game market has embraced accessibility, AAA developers and publishers continue to dismiss it. In fact, they seem intent on creating AAA games which year after year, are becoming less accessible to more players than ever before. It's reached a point where they are starting to exclude players in the core audience. Yet the developers and publishers still insist they are creating games which are accessible to a wide, mainstream audience. This is pure fiction. It's very much a case of the industry claiming one thing while they do the exact opposite. The definition of hypocrisy.
I'd like to share my personal experience with AAA accessibility in recent years. I've been playing games for over 30 years. All types of games on multiple platforms. So I probably have twice as much gaming experience as the average player. I'd never had issues or problems with the difficulty of AAA games until 2007, when I first noticed the games were starting to drastically change. Each time I started playing a new game, it took less than an hour before I'd hit the pause button in frustration and say out loud "who the hell is this designed for?" Prior to 2007, I'd never played a single AAA game on the easy difficulty setting, by 2009 I was playing all games on easy, by default. It was never a problem of lack of skill. If I choose to, I can play any game on the highest difficulty level and complete it. The problem was, and continues to be, playing AAA games on normal difficulty became an exercise in masochism which sucked every second of fun and enjoyment out of the experience. It's also worth mentioning it was in this time frame when many AAA designers began relabeling normal difficulty as "hardcore." By the end of 2010, the high difficulty levels became so problematic I stopped buying new games outright. Now, I will not go near any game, from any publisher or developer, until the price is below $30. The bottom line is, the games are not designed with my preferences or skill set in mind. Despite the fact that I'm both a core and a hardcore player. To be honest, if not for my interest in game design, my involvement in AAA gaming as a consumer would have ended for good last year.
Last week I read several articles about EA and Bioware's plans for Mass Effect 3, which have motivated this post. Because given my experience with Mass Effect 2, I simply can't believe they actually plan to go through with it. From the second the combat began in Mass Effect 2, it was clear it the difficult level had been cranked way up. If I had to guess, I'd say Mass Effect 2 was on the order of 4 to 5 times more difficult on the normal difficulty setting than Mass Effect 1. The high difficulty of Mass Effect 2 absolutely destroyed the game as well as the franchise for me. In less than one week I went from being a fan boy to being someone who wanted nothing more to do with the series. I traded the game in within the week. Earlier I mentioned I stopped buying new AAA games last year. Mass Effect 2 was the game which prompted the change in my purchasing habits.
Inexplicably, Bioware plans to ramp up the difficulty levels even further with Mass Effect 3. Casey Hudson, Mass Effect's project director stated “normal is the new veteran in Mass Effect 3, effectively making it the most challenging game in the Mass Effect trilogy." Mass Effect designer Christina Norman stated "in Mass Effect 3 it's not just that the game is harder on Insanity, it's that this creature actually behaves differently on all difficulty levels." Well, so much for the notion that female designers would bring reason and maturity to the AAA community. This means the already quadrupled difficulty levels will now go even higher. Which raises the very same question I've asked since 2007: who the hell is the game designed for? Justify these changes by showing me one piece of legitimate research which proves the majority of the core audience prefers high to extreme difficulty. I doubt anyone can, so what's really behind the planned changes?
EA CEO Riccitiello actually answered the question in recent comments. He stated: "the final game in the trilogy is being further simplified to appeal to an even broader audience. One of the things that Ray Muzyuka and the team up in Edmonton have done is essentially step-by-step adjust the gameplay mechanics and some of the features that you'll see at E3 to put this in a genre equivalent to shooter-meets-RPG, and essentially address a much larger market opportunity than Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 began to approach. We're huge believers in the IP and are purposefully shifting it to address a larger market opportunity."
Basically, Riccitiello confirmed everything I've suspected about the practice of streamlining or dumbing down games. When Riccitiello states "purposefully shifting it to address a larger market opportunity," he does not mean making the game accessible to the larger, more diverse core audience. "Purposefully shifting it to address a larger market opportunity" means streamlining the game so it appeals to the Call of Duty - shooter / multiplayer audience. Everyone points the finger at casual and social players as the motivation for streamlining AAA games. But developers are not streamlining games to attract non-hardcore players. Developers are, in every genre. removing features which create depth and complexity for core players and replacing them with high difficulty, close quarters based combat to make the games more appealing to a sub-segment of hardcore audience. A.k.a. the Call of Duty - shooter audience. So developers are completely dismissing the preferences and skill sets of the vast majority of core players and focusing instead on the preferences and skill sets of a group of players who likely represent less than 5% of the total audience. This is the new definition of "accessibility."
As stated, I've been playing games for over 30 years. What truly puzzles me about the recent obsession with difficulty is, I've never associated difficulty with fun, enjoyment or satisfaction in AAA games, let alone high difficulty with fun. I've never been motivated to play games for difficulty or challenge and I've never known other players who have. I've done a fair amount of research on this subject and every study I've read clearly shows when difficulty levels increase, accessibility and player enjoyment decrease. You don't need a PhD to understand this so I just don't understand why AAA developers believe streamlining games for a narrow audience will end well for them. Because here's a wake up call for all the developers who are bending over backwards to pander to the COD audience: in an interview last year, Black Ops multiplayer design director David Vonderhaar disclosed some pretty amazing facts about the COD audience.
If the motivation behind raising difficulty levels is to widen the appeal to the Call of Duty and shooter audience, then logic dictates the overwhelming majority of Call of Duty players would exclusively play multiplayer. After all, the difficulty level of multiplayer is far higher than the single player mode. But Vonderhaar admits, "30 to 40 percent of Call of Duty players never venture into mulitplayer, according to Activision research." I believe he is talking about all Call of Duty games to date, not just Black Ops. But Black Ops alone has sold approx. 12.5 million copies, which means approx. 3 to 5 million people who purchased Black Ops never signed into a single multiplayer match. If you can find the life time COD sales figures, feel free to do the math.
Vonderhaar continued: "there's so much to the game (Black Ops) that's not in single-player." His goal is to "get as many of those people into multiplayer as possible." "The thing that was really important to us going into this game (Black Ops) was that we really had come to understand the diversity of the people who play MP, or want to play MP, and what happened for us was we had this opportunity to create this game that can spread that spectrum of player and personality and type. Even in Treyarch's own ranks, there's lots of different people here and they like lots of different things about Call of Duty multiplayer."
Hmm... so Vonderhaar thinks Black Ops is accessible to the wide range of people who play the game? Honestly? He thinks the multiplayer mode is accessible despite the fact his match making system is designed to ensure that 20% of the players will consistently dominate 80% of the players? When he was asked to cite reasons why so many players avoid multiplayer he stated "the first, and most obvious reason, is of course the toxicity of the online community. The atmosphere, the environment, is pretty hostile in some cases. Mom jokes. Lots of dick conversations. Lots of hatred and racial bigotry. The second reason is that the difficulty level of a single-player campaign game doesn't always prepare players for the multiplayer experience. Some people just want to be told a story; they want to go watch the movie version. Those types probably aren't ever going to be big into MP, but I'm going to sure as hell try to get them in." In other words, 30 to 40 percent of Call of Duty players are not motivated to buy or play the games for difficulty and they probably never will be.
So let's summarize. AAA developers are streamlining complexity and depth out of all games and replacing it with difficulty because they believe doing so will appeal to the Call of Duty and shooter audiences. Yet 30 to 40 percent of the COD audience never play in multiplayer because in the absence of skill based matchmaking, the difficulty levels are simply too high. They also don't play because the active multiplayer audience is for the most part, is filled with sociopaths. This is the audience AAA developers are pandering to?
For the record, Vonderhaar claimed his solution for the multiplayer accessibility problem was the addition of the combat training mode. Anyone who's played combat training understands how absolutely idiotic that claim is. My theory is combat training was actually intended to desensitize new players to the amount of cheating they'll be forced to deal with in live multiplayer. Because Black Ops combat training is populated with wall hacking aimbots which operate outside of the rules and physics the players are bound to. On the easiest difficulty setting, the bots, by design, abuse the player(s) in every way possible, as often as possible. Combat training is so ridiculous that even on tiny maps, the aimbots have the ability to snap aim head shots with sniper rifles in close quarters. The bot's weapons don't have recoil, drift (in scopes), range limits, and I believe they have hardcore mode damage enabled while the player(s) weapons do not. Vonderhaar allows the bots to abuse the advantage the system has over the player by keeping the bots constantly hidden behind line of sight obstacles as players move around the map. In short, there are no rules for the bots. Even worse, every time Black Ops is updated, Vonderhaar increases the difficulty level of the "recruit" mode. So again, another developer who abuses the vast majority of the players so he can pander to the very audience he admits is a big part of the problem.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight for the streamlining trend. But there's no question it will inevitably result in a partial or full collapse of the core market if developers and publishers don't make drastic course corrections in the very near future. They need to accept the fact they are driving far more players away from core gaming than they are attracting with high difficulty levels. Call of Duty sells million of copies to the same group of players over and over again. The fact that difficulty is a key reasons why so many COD players decide not to access a majority of the content they paid for should be a warning signal for everyone. Difficulty and or challenge are absolutely not motivating factors for the vast majority of players. Developers who believe they can create successful franchises by pandering to the tiny but vocal minority of players who enjoy abusive game play are building a house of cards. It's not a question of if the house will fall, the only question is when.
On a side note, if EA and Bioware decides to advertise Mass Effect 3 as an "core RPG" title, as they did with Mass Effect 2, I honestly believe the FTC should consider filing false advertising charges against them. Because Mass Effect 3 will without question, exceed the skill set of a majority of core players. If EA and Bioware withholds this fact when they market and advertise the game, they will intentionally mislead the majority of core players who buy it. Just as they did with Mass Effect 2 by withholding the fact the franchise had switched genres. EA and Bioware cheated a large numbers of players by not disclosing the facts about Mass Effect 2 prior to release, consumers should not quietly sit back and allow it to happen again.