Gaming difficulty is history

Decline of the OUCH-factor?

Posted by a fellow gamenerd of mine this morning. While his post was mostly directed at video games on console, there’s essentially no difference of platform here and none between offline and online games either. Never have these media been closer than today, if not even multi-platform.

Game difficulty is a tough nut to crack, especially from a historical point of view – what was really harder about old games vs. what was simply broken? Are today’s games challenging in other ways maybe or should we admit that they had to become easier in order to motivate and appeal to a wider mainstream audience? After all, what good is a game that only a handful of players have the nerve to beat?

As for MMORPGs, the question is roughly the same and so are the factors to be taken into account. Have they become too popular and too polished to be hard(-core)? If so, is there a limit to how far this should go?
There is still a strong belief among some players that more than for other games, MMOs allow the player to create his own adventure and find his own challenges; personally, I find this a rather weak point when I look at today’s MMO tops. It assumes that the player is given enough freedom to do so, the tools to shape and co-create content and impact. It also assumes that said concept is not being “disturbed” from the developer’s side.

But then, maybe we should be looking at entirely different games? Less well-known, less popular – more difficult? You decide.


  1. I hear Demon’s Souls is pretty brutal. Ninja Gaiden was evil in the NES days, and I hear the most recent version is similarly tough… but for different reasons.

    I think that the “NES Hard” phenomena was ultimately just bad design with “gotcha” cheap kills and harsh punishing mechanics. The NES Battletoads was an awful, mean game, for one, designed to punish the players. (Tangential: punishment and challenge are two different things, but Battletoads had both in spades.) Sure, some players loved it, but I maintain that they are masochists more than gamers.

    These days games are better designed overall, and fairer in their punishment. Some of that is indeed meant to appeal to a wider player base (making games is expensive), some of it is just the evolution of design beyond rocky toddler years.

    Still, I think games should have a spectrum of difficulty settings, and should be player adjustable. High challenge and high punishment are niche products, but there is money in the niches. If you can capture a big core audience and still cater to the niches with a few toggles, why not?

  2. “but I maintain that they are masochists more than gamers.”

    haha…I give you that, Tesh! 😀
    I think it’s just very satisfying to some players to know that they beat something horrible – even if it was badly designed there’s that grim pride to know that you did it. somehow it’s just human nature to make a virtue out of your “suffering”.

    And if they can cater to different levels and audiences within the same game, I’m all for it – I just feel it doesn’t work nearly as well in MMOs as it does in a classic game because of the whole social factor.

    Moooooo!! ^^

  3. Just like the cartoon depicts, there is no relief without struggle first. There is no reward without risk first. If you want more of the latter, it must be balanced against more of the former. Trying to separate the stinging from the soothing results in a marginalized experience.
    Now, there’s also such a thing as too much struggle for too little payoff, and many older titles I feel were guilty of this.
    Here’s a question. It’s possible to be having *fun* while being challenged, just like it is *fun* to earn a reward. Perhaps: are you *really* having ‘fun’ playing today’s games? ‘Yesterday’s’ games?

    I cast my ballot into the pile yours occupies. (Long time lurker, thanks for all the great articles!)

  4. @Triple

    Hi there and thanks a lot! =)

    I agree completely of course, there’s only light where there is shadow and we can only appreciate the balance between these two poles. there’s no real feeling of achievement without challenge or struggle (often they are the same). it’s a developer’s big task to find the right balance which no doubt is tricky.

    concerning your question – “It’s possible to be having *fun* while being challenged, just like it is *fun* to earn a reward” –

    I don’t think these are 2 seperate things, or rather like you said yourself: it’s not the reward that matters (=is fun) in itself, but overcoming a challenge for the reward. so both challenge and reward are together on the same side, producing the fun. in that sense, both of them are fun to us. 🙂

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