Video games as a massive form of entertainment are old enough to have spanned several generations. The popularity of video games exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, with titles such as Pong and Pacman, so using simple math, a fifteen-year-old in 1975 would be 62 years old in 2022. That’s old enough to have grandchildren who are also old enough to play games.
Soon, if not now, grandparents will speak to their grandchildren about gaming in their good old days and how these games used to be better. Or how gamers today are spoiled with many advantages that didn’t exist back then.
On the other hand, you have news about dinossindgeil beating all Souls games without getting a single hit, which is quite an accomplishment. There are dedicated gamers, professional eSports competitions, and speedrunners showing tremendous skills.
So, are games getting more challenging or more accessible? We’ll explore different aspects of gaming in this article to get a comprehensive view of the direction gaming has taken in the past few decades until now.
Games were difficult back then
During the pioneering gaming days, everything was more experimental, and developers consisted mainly of a single person doing everything. This person needed not only to program a fun game but also assess collateral aspects of it, such as its difficulty. There was no team, no focus groups, and no investigations on how challenging (or frustrating) a gaming experience would be.
Since early games had basic mechanics and not much else to offer, these were sometimes punishingly hard. Let’s take a look at Contra, a notoriously hard game from 1986 (if you’re curious, you can check Contra: Evolution for Android). You have three lives, and a single hit will kill you. Not only that, but you also lose the guns you collected.
Prince of Persia is another example. In this game, you have 1 hour to finish, and it’s so filled with traps and hurdles that you will die a lot until you master the game. Consider that when playing one of the latest iterations, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, for a great comparison of how difficulty evolved through the decades.
In a way, people during the 1980s and 1990s became very proficient with games, much like dinossindgeil did with the Souls saga.
But some of the difficulties stemmed not only because of design choices but from a lack of enough data to understand what would make life easier for gamers. Consider the Ultima RPG series, most notably the very popular Ultima VII, released in 1993, a Skyrim of its age. This game offers a whole interactive world where you can bake bread, people have daily routines, and a compelling plot. However, the interface is so messy that sometimes you inadvertently attack your companions. There’s no quest log either, so you better memorize everything.
Genres also matter. In early times, games were just games. Then, game genres such as strategy, RPG, platformer, etc., appeared. Depending on what kind of player you are, certain genres will be more difficult for you than for other gamers. Some players lack the aiming skills for an FPS but are excellent when besieging an enemy town in a strategy game.
Games became mainstream
Gradually more big names like Sony and Microsoft got into gaming, and with them came the massification of video games as a form of entertainment. The popularity of consoles was a significant factor in games becoming popular and, thus, more accessible. These devices are easy to set up, you spend less money than in an equivalently-powered computer, and you can play on the sofa.
The fact that consoles have controllers means aiming, for instance, is less precise than with a mouse. Developers needed to create systems to account for this or make it easier to aim in consoles. This is why FPS games mostly aren’t crossplay: console players would always be at a disadvantage against PC players with a mouse and keyboard.
Another two crucial issues directly impacted difficulty in games. First, since games became massive and more profitable, bigger teams were in charge of game development, which meant more dedicated people for each area. This resulted in a lot of new systems and elements which made games arguably easier. Second, if you want to sell the idea of playing games to the uninitiated, you can’t punish them with difficult experiences.
Thus, in-game tutorials appeared. Dots on NPCs who you are supposed to talk to. Lines on the ground show the exact path you have to take. Health bars instead of lives. Then regenerating health bars. Every single concept you can think of has probably been developed to make games easier or more straightforward, hence, more appealing to a broader consumer base.
This is why speedrunners and others need to achieve amazing feats, such as winning a game in one hour or getting through all the Souls series, including Dark Souls, which is regularly mentioned as one of the hardest games of recent times, without getting hit. It’s not noteworthy anymore to have finished a game since anybody can do that.
Today’s games are more flexible
All of this doesn’t mean games are definitely easier today. First, the gaming ecosystem has many different developers; some offer challenging games like Cuphead, Darkest Dungeons, and many others. Also, hardcore gamers are legion, and most developers offer several gameplay modes, including what’s dubbed the “Iron Man” mode, where you have only one life. If you die, you must start all over again, just like in old-school games.
The rise of multiplayer gaming also brought in more difficulty. For instance, in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, you can’t resurrect when dying. Moreover, since you’re playing against other human opponents, they are as skilled as they can be. Competitive multiplayer modes offer a lot of replayability and appeal when you have already finished a game and know how to beat the AI.
The fact that multiplayer is so challenging is why eSports became popular. Players and teams are highly proficient at their respective games, and matches between them are a sight to behold for gaming fans. There’s probably no AI capable of offering such difficulty to a gamer as a seasoned eSports player could.
The difficulty is in 3D
We tend to think about polar opposites: good/bad, nice/ugly, and so on. But the difficulty in gaming has many aspects, so it’s a bit primitive to use a bar to decide how easy or hard something is.
Some games might have excellent pathfinding options, but enemies are brutal. Other games are entirely absent of any HUDs or directions, but easy to dominate. This means that design choices and the so-called ‘quality-of-life’ features the developers present are as important as any difficulty setting.
Control schemes are also an important aspect. How cumbersome is it to attack, jump or place buildings can create extra artificial difficulty in an otherwise straightforward game, such as in Flappy Bird.
Finally, since games today have so many features and elements, you can do what dinossindgeil did and create your own artificial difficulty by setting goals beyond what the developer’s trophies demand. The virtual sky’s the limit.