Quality games must avoid difficulty for difficulty’s sake

Blair Hanley Frank

I’m sick and tired of hearing people complain about the lack of difficulty in modern video games. While the current crop of major releases is certainly easier than specimens of yesteryear like “Battletoads,” I don’t see that as a significant issue affecting the medium.
Historically, arcade games had to be fairly difficult. After all, quarters usually gave players extra lives, and so if the player died, they’d have to pay more money. Since early console games were often either console ports or spiritual successors to console games, it makes sense that they would follow a similar difficulty curve. In addition, incredibly difficult games took longer to complete (if you ever completed them), turning what was an awfully small amount of content into a fairly long experience. Back when large-scale data storage was expensive, it was hard to fit a massive expanse of a game onto a cartridge, so developers just made things harder.
Games today don’t face those technical limitations, which means that developers are able to tell more elaborate and meaningful stories, and build richer visual worlds. If you couldn’t finish “Super Mario Bros,” it wasn’t the end of the world. You didn’t really miss out on significant story developments, or some epiphany nestled into the middle of the game. In modern gaming, that’s less true, especially among games that are considered to be exemplars of the medium. In addition, gaming has spread beyond the hardcore folks who inhabited arcades and meticulously mapped the original Zelda games.
If we’re going to continue telling great stories and providing good experiences for those players who appreciate them, we have to understand that some of that will come at the expense of extreme difficulty. That’s not to say that games shouldn’t provide a challenge for the player: after all, that sense of achievement you get from completing a particularly difficult boss fight or hacking and slashing your way through a dungeon is a great feeling. But games should encourage the player to achieve those goals, not provide undue obstacles to them that hinders completion for no real value.
A great example of the latter is “Deus Ex: Human Revolution.” It’s one of my favorite games of last year, but the boss battles that capped off areas of the game were needlessly difficult. Without the proper weapons, a boss can be nearly impossible. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. But the bosses didn’t add a lot of value to the overall experience. There was no reason for them to be there other than to add that classic boss fight feel to the game, and I think ultimately Human Revolution was worse for it. That sort of difficulty is exactly what designers need to avoid.
Difficulty for difficulty’s sake is not at all what the next generation of video games needs to feature. Gaming is a fantastic medium that has the potential to tell stories and provide experiences in a novel manner that we weren’t able to accomplish before. But locking those experiences behind nearly-insurmountable challenges is not productive, either for the growth of a medium or for the overall health of a game.