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Is the video game industry "dumbing down" for the casual?

In this article, I think about whether or not we are "dumbing down" as in industry for the casual audience, citing possible examples. I also go into ways that we can increase accessibility without alienating the hardcore gamer.

Glen Joyner Jr, Blogger

January 28, 2013

10 Min Read

Generally, human beings enjoy a good challenge. Overcoming some form of obstacle tends to make us feel good. This may be why some of us play video games, especially those old-schoolers that enjoy a romp through Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden (NES). For a long time, games were developed mostly for that old-school audience, but things began to change when the Nintendo DS and Wii hit the market. Games became a bit more accessible, so their difficulty, and sometimes complexity, decreased. This became even more evident during the boom of mobile gaming. Mobile games are generally much simpler in controls, concepts, and sometimes challenges.

This simplification has worried some hardcore gamers, as they believe that the decrease in difficulty and/or complexity is seeping into the most hardcore of games. Essentially, there is a belief that the industry is “dumbing down” games to attract the casual gamer. With the rise of the casual gamer as an audience, there could be some merit to this. But should the hardcore gamers really be worried? 

Causal Gaming

Let’s start with the area that is likely the biggest contributor to this shift: casual gaming. Though the Nintendo DS and Nintendo Wii brought on new approachability and accessibility in video games, it truly didn’t peak until the mobile gaming market boomed. Across all three platforms, games were created to be easier, simpler to control, and sometimes less complex (save for some puzzle games, like Machinarium) to attract a far wider range of players. This is generally fine, as most of the audience in the mobile market and the Wii console are casual gamers. In fact, developing for the casual gaming audience is generally easier than for the hardcore gaming audience: there isn’t as much of a need for complex controls, or sometimes complex design, in the casual gaming market.

Overall, the fact that games in the casual gaming market are relatively easy isn’t bad. The concern is that this ease of gamplay is spreading into, and altering, the games aimed at the hardcore gamers. This ranges from changes to difficulty and the addition of features, like restore points, to make games easier. 

Restore Points

Restore points (the ability to store the exact state of the game and then restore it later as if you just turned back time) have been said to ruin old games. You can find restore points not just in emulators, but also most recently in the 3DS and Wii U versions of virtual console games. The dislike of restore points stems from the feeling that using restore points removes a lot of challenge from old games. Dying in those games had the consequence of retreading old ground, from replaying the current area to restarting from the beginning of the game and needing to replay entire levels simply because the player died one time. Retreading previously completed levels is not an issue for hardcore gamers, but for new gamers wishing to experience the old games, the high difficulty may be too much for them to want to continue the game, or is simply too intimidating for them to even try the game in the first place.

I can definitely see why people dislike restore points. Erasing the mistake leading to dying means skipping the consequence of repeating the level, which in turn means that they don’t have to worry about dying sooner in the level or getting to the same spot with less health, so they can successfully complete it. However, is the option required? No. The player has the choice to use restore points, but it is not forced upon them.  Does the use of restore points take away from the experience? That depends on the person. The experience of a game is generally subjective, so for those who use restore points, the simple act of completing the level could be the experience, regardless of what they used to get there. This likely means that the player isn’t skilled at the game, but being highly skilled is something they may not care about. Furthermore, they may use restore points as a learning tool so that they can understand the game mechanics and can return later in order to complete the game without the aid of restore points. Lastly, and the one of the reasons I appreciate restore points, the person may simply not have much time for gaming, and thus having to redo levels or retread old ground actually degrades the experience due to their personal time constraints. They want to see all that the game has to offer, but they don’t want to waste time replaying the content they have technically already played. 

So is it bad to use such a feature? This question was even posted in the Nintendo Force magazine where Lucas M. Thomas (editor-in-chief of the magazine) wrote about how he would finally be able to finish Zelda 2 thanks to restore points, and was curious if a victory in a game through this manner is just as valid. I say it isn’t a bad feature, as it’s up to the player to decide if the experience is impacted by the use of restore points, and whether or not they use them as a potential learning tool or to save time in their busy life. If it doesn’t hinder the experience and they are still having fun (one of the purposes of playing the average video game), then all the power to them. Besides, to some new players, using the restore points is like an easy mode and then not using them is like a hard mode.

Speaking of such modes in games…

Dark Souls Easy Mode

I had forgotten about the game Dark Souls potentially having an easy mode added until I watched a video by Jim Sterling on the same subject (skip to 1:03 for the relevant content of the video). In short, the developers of Dark Souls (a game regarded as one of the, if not the number one, most difficult games available in the current market) expressed interest in adding an easy mode to this game. Many gamers railed against this addition, as they argued it would ruin the experience of the game. Dark Souls is meant to be hard, so adding an easier mode defeats the purpose of playing. The availability of an easy mode turned out to be a mistranslation and wouldn’t be occurring, but the reaction to such a possibility is worth looking into.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the easy mode would have been an option that a player could choose either at the start of the game or during gameplay.  This means that the selection of an easier difficulty would be up to the player, not the developer. It can be used if the player chooses to do so. Whether this changes the experience is again based on the player. For those players who are very unskilled with the type of gameplay in Dark Souls, the high difficulty could be intimidating and might persuade the player to not try the game. However, inexperienced gamers might be more willing to try the game if an easy mode was available, and for them, the difficulty setting for easy may still be much harder than any game they have experienced before.  Playing on an easier difficulty may allow them to build up the skills (those same skills that veteran gamers have gained over the course of gaming’s history) needed to play successfully on the harder difficulty. Adding in an easier mode could also allow a broader audience to experience the fun that hardcore gamers have in difficult games without completely turning them off to the game, allowing more gamers to join in any discussion about it.

Now let’s say that instead of giving the player the option, the developer changed the difficulty of the game entirely. The outcry would be far more appropriate and could easily be viewed as “dumbing down” for the sake of a broader audience, as the core elements are changed for everyone. The choice wouldn’t be given to the player, and thus a game players loved is being irreversibly altered in a manner they didn’t want. Such a move would alienate the existing fan base, which in turn could tarnish the image of the series and developer.

The availability of an easy mode is not a bad thing. It allows for new players to try out a game, then work their way up to the same skill set as more veteran players. However, there may be something wrong with the current difficulty system, or maybe the current system has been altered too much.

Difficulty Settings

Difficulty settings are nothing new. They’ve been around for years and have allowed many players to tweak the game so that they are able to play and finish it. Traditionally, the settings were Easy, Medium/Normal, and Hard. These days we also see Very Easy, Easy, Medium/Normal, Hard, and Very Hard (there have been other terms used, but mean the same thing). This scaling has worked well in the past, but for some people, Very Hard may no longer be “Very Hard.” This is a possible example of the industry “dumbing down” game difficulty, and I would agree that this could negatively impact the experience of skilled players. Very Hard is meant for the most veteran player of that type of game. If that difficulty is not catering to that audience properly, then it should be adjusted. Difficulties should match their target audience, which is in no way an easy task but should definitely be considered during game development.

However, the decreasing difficulty of the Very Hard setting could indicate that we need a change in how difficulty is implemented. In Kid Icarus: Uprising, there was an intensity setting ranging from 0.1 to 9.0 and settable for each mission. A lower number meant the enemies’ weaponry was weaker and easier to dodge, whereas a higher number increased the damage done by those same weapons and increased their overall projectile size, making the attacks more difficult to dodge. The game would also recommend a difficulty based on past performance and also had a risk and reward system, where a higher difficulty meant greater risk but the player would gain far better loot.

There’s also the option shown in the upcoming game Cloudberry Kingdom where the player can customize the level of difficulty, and then the levels are randomly generated based on those difficulty settings. This not only allows for a new experience every time it’s played, but also allows the user to scale difficulty up or down as they learn the game. This may not work for all games, but it definitely sounds like a good idea to keep in mind.

Thinking Ahead

I wouldn’t claim that anything said above is the right answer, but I believe that, now more than ever, the subject of “dumbing down” games is something that the industry should be mindful of when developing a game. Having a larger audience play the game can only be beneficial, as long as the features implemented to reach that full range doesn’t detract from the game (or in some cases, alter the game to the point that it is far different than those previously found in a series). And why shouldn’t we try to allow a larger audience play our games? We want gaming to be more accepted, yet we shun new players if they aren’t as good as the average hardcore gamer who is naturally skilled or has spent many hours playing various games to develop those skills. Also, game development is a business, so a wider audience means more potential profit. More importantly, however, is that developers are creators. We create with an audience in mind, and we should make sure that we create content for them. We should be mindful that if we make the game (or modify it later) for a wide audience, we do it in such a way that gives an enjoyable experience of all involved. After all, it’s that experience, however subjective, that matters most in the end.

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