Gamers as a group don't usually agree on much of anything. What's better, Skyrim or Mass Effect? Sonic or Mario? Is Pokémon Go even a video game at all? And that's not even getting into the inferno-like debates about representation of women, people of color, and sexualities that have wracked the games community over the past few years. (And subsequently spilled over into … everything else.)
But there's one thing that mainstream gamers tend to agree on, with roughly 3.8 million Google hits as I write this: games are too easy nowadays.
"Too easy" is a value judgment, and we'll get into that in a bit. But the core argument is that games now are easy, where games used to be much more difficult. It's an interesting piece of analysis, cutting to the very heart of what games are for and how they've evolved in the handful of decades they've been around.
Let's step back for a moment. Why do we play video games in the first place? For fun, right? Which is why you never see a gamer with a furrowed brow, scowling at the screen and maybe even uttering a few unsavory words as they try again and again. Do you think they're having fun?
What is fun, anyway?
Flow and Fiero
In the early days of the industry, every game ended the same way: death, failure, you lose. The experience of losing was a necessary part of the game experience—the inevitable conclusion. One would lose again and again. The question was not whether you would win the game, but how far you would go before you ultimately lost. There's no way to "win" Tetris or Space Invaders. But you can get a high score, and maybe earn a place on the leaderboard.
In his landmark book Theory of Fun (2004), game designer Raph Koster put forward the theory that we play video games for the feeling of flow. That's the sensation of performing exactly at the limit of your ability. When it happens, you can lose your sense of time and place because you're focusing so intently on the task at hand—that's why "just one more turn" of a game like Civilization (or even Angry Birds!) can leave you blinking at a clock wondering where you lost two hours.
Similarly, game designer Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken (2011), has popularized the theory that we play games for fiero, an Italian word for the emotion you get from overcoming a difficult obstacle. Dying a dozen times in a game is worth it for the rush once you finally succeed.
But both of these feelings depend heavily on a good match between the player's skill level and the game's difficulty level. If a game is too simple, it becomes boring. (That's why adults tend to outgrow tic-tac-toe once we know the trick to it.)
Similarly, games that are too impossibly difficult for the player become too frustrating. Once a player hits too high a frustration threshold, they're likely to put the controls down and stop playing entirely. So what's a game designer to do?
A Brief History of Difficulty Settings
Many arcade-style games thread this needle with constantly escalating difficulty. Early levels are easy, but the longer you play, the harder the game becomes. It's baked into the design so that for an accomplished player, early levels are trivially easy where they may be challenging to a novice. But this also means a player has to slog through an ever-increasing number of too-boring levels as their skill improves.
And so there's a long history of user-configurable difficulty settings in video games, too. The Atari 2600 had a physical hardware switch on the side making the games run faster or slower along with the processor.
The first user-settable software difficulty I remember encountering was for Wolfenstein 3D, a 1992 first-person shooter that defined the genre for decades to come. Even here, though, the designer has to make a decision about exactly how hard a hard mode should be, and how easy an easy mode should be.
Game designers have learned a lot about how to produce the feelings of fiero and flow. And now we can maximize the feeling of victory while minimizing the according degree of frustration. A Burrito Bison game delicately balances the feeling of increasing difficulty against the feeling of increasing power. The overall level of difficulty remains about the same throughout the game, but the feeling of achievement keeps on going because the game is balanced to constantly unlock new items that make something easy that had previously been difficult.
The games themselves have become smarter about detecting when frustration is likely to occur, too, so the game can temporarily lower difficulty to usher the player past that rough spot. Often microtransaction-driven games in particular have a "pity timer," where the game will give the player a lucky break after a long losing streak, to keep the player (and their credit card) from walking away.
So are these games too easy? Maybe. But there's another factor at work, too. Gradually, the kinds of games on the market have changed. And so have the ways that we enjoy them.
Narrative Changes Everything
Back in 1996, games researcher Dr. Richard Bartle wrote a landmark paper called "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs." In it he suggested four classifications of video game players: hearts enjoy the social element of connecting with other players; clubs are killers, who enjoy fierce competition and dominating other players; diamonds are achievers, who like to collect points, game currency, and achievements; and spades are explorers, who like to discover game worlds, quirks in the rules, and hidden secrets.
Nothing in there about flow or fiero in so many words. And, I should add, this is an older piece of scholarship than the Koster and McGonigal books. But I'm not arguing that any of these ideas are wrong; they're simply different lenses for analyzing what an individual player might value out of a game experience. Because all of us want different things out of our fun.
One of the biggest changes in games over the last few decades has been an increasing emphasis on narrative—even in games like the Call of Duty series, which at first glance is about shooting stuff. Games like Dishonored 2 are as much about the world and the story as about any sense of flow or fiero.
That means we invest time and attention differently, too, and accordingly, our tolerance for failure has decreased. Now you can easily go on playing a single game for days and weeks without ever "losing" a single time. It's not a big deal to lose three minutes into a game of Asteroids, where there is no way to save your progress. You can just start over. But you can play an entire level of Pac-Man in just the time that it takes to load from a saved game after you've died in Witcher 3.
This breed of games are meant to be "won," and winning means working your way toward a specific narrative punch: achieving the end of the story.
What is 'Too Easy'?
So let's get back to our original accusation that games are too easy nowadays. It's a hard comparison to make, because game mechanics and systems have evolved so much. A lot of games these days have a story difficulty mode. That's a very easy setting meant for players who are motivated by the narrative, where the actual game parts of the game are as simple as the game design team can make them, while maintaining some modicum of fiero.
That can rankle players who are deeply invested in more competitive modes of play—our spades—who view a game more as an opponent who must be defeated than an experience to be enjoyed. The very possibility that someone else can unlock the same achievements and milestones in the game with substantially less effort cheapens a competitive player's feeling of fiero, in the same way that knowing someone else has taken a shortcut can spoil your enjoyment of a race.
And yet, despite the wide availability of different difficulty modes, there are also people who think games are too hard—but the difficulty comes from mastering the interface, not from the overt challenges the games are designed to offer.
I've had that experience with games like Halo and Dishonored 2; the learning curve involved in mastering the controls and game mechanics was so steep that I hit my frustration limit almost immediately, and didn't continue playing. And with a modern console's joysticks, triggers, buttons, and touchpads, there's definitely a steep learning curve.
But dedicated gamers are more likely to be accustomed to any given set of controls. And they're more likely to be highly skilled, too, with a keen eye and fast reflexes honed over years of experience. That means that the exact same difficulty that was satisfying fifteen years ago, that once gave maximal fiero, would now be too easy.
The games have changed, yes. But the players have changed even more.