[Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander makes a case in favor of game difficulty as genre feature, and suggests frustrated audiences don't need better game design -- but different games.]
Welcome to the Era of Accessibility, where video games' once-uncertain climb from nerd niche to global cultural phenomenon has become an all-out storm on the battlements. Motion controls, intuitive design innovations and other seductions mean games are becoming both interesting to and playable by a broader audience than ever.
Bullet Hell is no longer marketable, only old-schoolers want to level-grind, and because nobody reads tutorials, games must teach you how to play them and play them well, without you ever realizing you're learning.
Games should hook you fast and easy, but you should be able to pick-up-and-play -- and then put it down again after a few moments, feeling satisfied and successful. "Bite-size chunks" are the holy grail. If anyone ever gets bored or frustrated, the designer has failed.
Aw, c'mon now. All these wussies are totally ruining
I kid, of course. The focus on accessibility -- drawing new audiences and better engaging existing ones -- means we're learning more about intuitiveness and experience than ever before. Sorry, hardcore market, but video games are for everyone now, and you're fast becoming an irrelevant niche.
Okay, so maybe I'm kind of kidding there, too. But only kind of. There is
a middle ground between total ease and controller-chucking frustration, and if games are to inherit their rightful place in The Future Of Entertainment (!!), we need to find it.
Why Different Strokes Are Essential
Entertainment media that is penetrative on a broad and permanent scale features a broad swath of "levels," and we accept them. Just because 'Twilight' has more mass appeal than, say Roberto Bolano's challenging '2666' doesn't indicate that either of them needs repairing.
Music buffs enjoy ignoring the Billboard charts in favor of lo-fi, shoegaze, shitgaze, bloghouse, chillwave or no-fi, but are they "wrong" if Lil' Wayne is still what sells? Who's the bigger film buff, the gal that religiously hits the cineplex for every single blockbuster to reach the big screen, or the one who regularly watches difficult foreign language indie flicks every night on her laptop at home?
A Street Fighter II
tournament is no more or less useful than a Rock Band
bar night, even though the latter is more common and better-attended. Right, I'm being heavy-handed, but you get it.
The era of accessibility has unfortunately become one of entitlement. Now that Nintendo can make a game that even your mom can love, and now that Blizzard has made a game you can talk about with even your lamest coworkers, it's easy to address traditional genre design -- say, the brutal shooter, the Japanese RPG, or the obsessively detailed world-builder -- and demand that it should make concessions to accessibility. Y'know, so you
can be really awesome at it.
It's Gotta Be All About You, Now?
But one man's frustration is another man's feature. Even within those well-acclimated to gaming, two players can have oppositional reactions to the same title: It's too easy for one, too hard for another. There should be less hand-holding; there should be more.
What does a player's enjoyment of challenge have to do with cultural relevance? Some games do have a single baseline difficulty level that can be enjoyed by all, but these by default must be enormously simple experiences -- say, Tetris
. If all we had were games that everyone could enjoy, we wouldn't have too many different kinds of games. And in the end, we wouldn't have a very diverse audience, either.
Instead of thinking "core versus casual," we'd be served to look at things like complexity, challenge, difficulty and tedium as components of specific genres, rather than universal concepts that must be reduced across the board for a title to be considered accessible.
Many critics and fans, for example, bemoan RPGs' overwhelmingly enormous worlds with too many sidequests, too much grinding, too many tiny objects to find (as columnist Lewis Denby did right here at Gamasutra
But to genre devotees, those aren't minuses -- those are an identifying part of the experience. Yes, it's obtuse when an adventure game asks you to break into a museum not with the fire axe in your inventory, but by giving a fruit pie to an orphan in exchange for a length of string used to fix a wind chime you can trade to an antiques dealer for a ticket to a costume ball where you have to ring your alarm clock to cause a distraction so you can steal a club soda to spill on the guy in uniform so that he'll take his outfit off and you can wear it in order to con your way into the museum by pretending to be a security guard (as long as you remembered to get the fake ID from the floor of the taxi cab in the game's opening sequence).
But guess what? That's why people who loved old adventure games loved them. Raise your hand if you're thinking, "man, I wish they still made them like that." If your hand isn't up, then hey! You don't like traditional adventure games! To Lewis and friends, I say: If you don't like too many sidequests, then maybe you don't like RPGs.
"Everything For Everyone" Means Nothing To Most
"Something for everyone" is a worthy goal for games in an era when we're trying to reach everyone. Those who find a sticking point with nearly everything they play these days are being underserved, perhaps, by a lack of breadth and diversity in genre.
But the concept of "everything for everyone" won't help. In fact, perhaps the hesitance to embrace specifics about which design components should and should not be difficult, and a lack of understanding on to what degree certain audiences do and don't enjoy being challenged means a landscape where many people just can't tell whether a game is for them or not.
And naturally, some frustrations are "features" to no one. There's certainly a fine line to be explored between appropriate components of depth and stuff that just doesn't serve the title or genre in any way. No one who likes adventure games likes pixel-hunting; no one who likes RPGs enjoys five-hour gaps between save points, for example.
The styles of modern literature evolve over the ages. Lord of the Rings, for example, is -- let's be honest -- much more valuable to us today for the precedents it set for fantasy, and not so much for its writing. Some pieces of difficult, classical drama may be irrelevant today, but others are enormously important (Shakespeare? Euripides, Aeschylus?).
If a player's not having fun, that might mean there's something wrong with the game. But it also might mean the player's simply playing the wrong
game. Let's use design innovation to make them the right
games, instead of trying to fix what ain't broke.
As we look to the future, let's refine the traditions of our past, not regret them as design flaws just because they're frustrating to more moderate audiences. Those big babies should just go play Wii Fit
Okay, I'm a hundred percent kidding there.