Are video games easier today than they used to be? Do players who grow up with modern games have a tough time playing less forgiving games that are 20 years old? While death is less frequent and less punishing in modern video games, do players face other fail-states worse than death?
The answers demand looking at how games have changed in the last 20 years. Both from design and technology standpoints, developers of mainstream games have changed their priorities and default expectations of what gaming is.
Less intense gameplay is the most-cited reason, but may not actually be the biggest factor for why games today are easier than they used to be. With the advent of regenerating health instead of finding and collecting health packs, many action games today put the focus on constant forward progression instead of tense resource management.
This allows developers to dictate the pace of a story in ways they never could when exploration was left up to the player. Still, this removes one of the core advantages games enjoy over other mediums: player agency. You can’t decide the pace or speed to go through a movie, or look somewhere else in the movie’s world outside of what a filmmaker wants you to see. As games become more cinematic, they adopt these techniques, allowing the player less chances to fail. Sometimes, control over a player is wrestled away via in-game cut scenes that make sure you can look nowhere else but directly at an expensive scripted event.
When so much control is taken away so regularly, there are less opportunities for the player to fail. After all, when you’re walking a high beam, it’s all on you not to fall. When you’re strapped into a roller coaster ride, the people who designed it take every precaution to make sure you can’t fall.
It’s a core design difference; the expense of mainstream games means developers won’t allow you to miss the moments they deem most important. In the most egregious examples of this, players have to wait for in-game characters to do such simple things as open doors for them, or jump over an obstacle before the player is allowed to do the same.
In many of the biggest games today, level design has been simplified. There’s no other way to put it. Before, players would be asked to hunt for a series of keys in shifting levels that acted like demented Rube Goldberg machines. Now, players are often asked to follow a single path along a more directed experience.
The difference in level design between an older action game like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D and a modern military shooter such as Call of Duty: Ghosts is staggering. This doesn’t mean less work has gone into many modern games. The work is often found in different places: the timing, the extra art and sound design, as well as the technological and graphical prowess.
It does mean the challenge today is less abstract. Players don’t hit mental walls in figuring out how a level fits together and reacts to what they do. They can simply go forward according to the developer’s direction. Simply put, level design in mainstream games has become considerably less challenging for the player.
Difficulty levels are usually broken down into three categories: easy, normal, and hard. Sometimes an “insane” or “crazy” is added on top of these. Each one adjusts opponent health, numbers of opponents, A.I. behavior, the amount of damage you can soak up, and other factors.
Today, more and more video games are including scaling difficulty. Instead of relying on specifically modeled presets, many difficulty settings are now handled on a sliding scale. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a game that contains a scheme like this. In fact, many players find it crucial since they can level up (and have their opponents’ combat skills level up with them) despite focusing on non-combat skills.
When controls like these are left to the players, games can be made both easier and harder than they once were. In the effort to be as accessible as possible to the greatest number of players, the defaults on these games are generally left toward the easier side.
This doesn’t mean the game itself is easier overall. It merely means if you don’t touch that setting, the default the game starts with will be fairly easy. More experienced players are simply expected to adjust the slider themselves, but many don’t because they either don’t notice it, or mistake the default setting as the developer’s recommendation for how to enjoy the game best.
Besides, the alternative is to play Dark Souls and weep.
Death is no longer the only fail-state players can reach in video games. As choice becomes more and more of a factor in mainstream games, players can now fail in the eyes of other characters or even in their own heads. Games in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series often put no-win situations before the player. They require the sacrifice of a character or a town or even an entire race of people. They are not easy and, especially for players who bring their conscience with them, these fail-states can stick with players outside the game in a way a simple death and restart never could.
Some games feature easier gameplay because they present tougher choices than players have ever faced before. The difficulty is in the metagame, less in what happens on-screen and more in what happens in the player’s own mind.
Games like Dishonored and The Walking Dead are especially interesting because they hide failure-states that involve how a child is raised. You can reach the end of both games and have a heartbreaking moment when you realize the choices you’ve directed a character to make have perpetuated themselves in an impressionable mind. These moments are far more heartbreaking and chilling than a simple re-load could ever be.
One of the biggest differences has nothing to do with design at all. Death in a video game used to mean sitting at a loading screen for one, two, even three minutes at a time, watching crawling loading bars or spinning gears. This meant more beautiful loading screens, since you’d be seeing more of them, but it also meant fail-states were costly in a real-world way. Players paid for in-game death with real-world time.
Today, even the most complicated games re-load saves in under 30 seconds. As solid state drives (SSDs) replace hard drives (HDDs) as the industry standard, the worst re-loads are cut to a mere five or 10 seconds.
Today, death in video games is less costly in the most important measure there is — the time players have to play games.
Perhaps the most overlooked element of simplification within video games is how many developers have prioritized reward trees over gameplay. More and more, mainstream developers are focusing on making skill progression a game unto itself.
Think about it: today we have a genre known as the clicker. You click on enemies until they die. They spurt out rewards you can pay toward progressive advancements that eventually allow you to stop clicking entirely. The game will start to play itself, the rewards will collect themselves, and all you have to do is pick what you want off the skill progression tree at regular intervals. The game is about increasing the game’s own ability to automatically play itself.
This is the most outlandish yet popular example, but as this sort of grinding becomes more central to the gameplay experience, developers risk making the gameplay itself secondary. Many games allow free entry, but make their money off micro-transactions. Developers make the grinding especially grueling, encouraging you to pay your way past moments of their games that are deliberately crafted to be cruel and annoying.
In this way, these games make annoyance and repetition the new fail-state. Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you anymore. Not progressing is the new fail-state. There’s some existential value to that lesson, but the philosophy results in more games that appeal via addiction mechanics instead of through artistic direction and emotional responses.
Video games aren’t necessarily easier today and modern players don’t have an easier time of it. There are simply more fail-states today than there once were. Once, only death mattered. Today, some of the best games remind players that a bad choice can result in a different kind of failure, one that can even follow their conscience outside the game. Many micro-transaction games remind players the anxiety of addiction is a way of perpetuating failure, and like any addiction they’ll ask you to spend money to avoid repeating a fail-state. Failure can now be more haunting in your mind or more damaging to your bank account than it ever was when death was the only risk.
So yes, old games are difficult for modern players because choice and addiction mechanics they might understand aren’t present. They often become frustrated with the number of deaths they’d suffer. Similarly, if you plucked a player from 1995 and denied them playing and adapting through the evolution of 20 years of game design, they might struggle choosing what to do in an open world or go broke on clicker or MMO in the space of 24 hours. The fail-states that would frustrate each player have simply changed.