Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gameplay dumbing down / noobish

Somewhere between handily completing Assassin's Creed and breezing through nearly all of the missions in Grand Theft Auto IV, it struck me. Have games of today become dumber? This is not to suggest that the stories contained in these games are dumb: Assassin's Creed and GTA have both been praised for their incredible storytelling. What I mean is that it increasingly feels as though game designers feel that we the players are dumb, that we need our hands constantly held throughout a game, lest we throw down the controller in frustration.

These two recent console games, while obvious examples, are not the only offenders in this recent trend of dumbing-down the challenge factor in videogames. The recently released Too Human features automatically scaling enemies so that players will never encounter any foe that is way beyond their level of experience. Fable II will include a "Breadcrumb trail" so that adventurers will never get lost while traveling from one objective to the next in its sprawling fantasy world.

Compare these modern examples with titles that - not too long ago - offered considerably more challenge and really tested both the reflexes and intelligence of players. I grew up with graphic adventure games like Kings Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island, and Conquests of Camelot, all of which are famous for placing taxing levels of difficulty on the player. In a text-based PC adventure game from the 1980s, a typical player interaction might go something like this:

Of course, modern developers have argued strongly that some retro conventions - such as text-only input and broken save systems, deserve to be laid to rest. But even beyond those technical limitations, games from that period placed challenges in the way of the player that are sorely missed in the current crop of adventure games. One of the greatest features of early PC adventures was their ability to make the player feel as though he or she were really exploring a new landscape. There were no overhead maps or radar screens, no invisible walls keeping players from wandering into dangerous territory. Gamers had to feel out the landscape on their own, in some cases even creating pen and paper maps in the real world to keep track of their location in the game. That was one of the reasons why we loved Etrian Odyssey, an RPG for the DS that uses the touch screen for mapmaking. But games like Etrian Odyssey are an increasing rarity in a market that seems to reward simplicity over challenge.

How did this happen? How did game developers arrive at the notion that what we really wanted all along was less of a challenge in our videogames? Part of the answer can probably be found in the massive economic success of the video game industry. As the digital entertainment market approaches the popularity of film, games have come to resemble Hollywood movies in many respects. Publishers seek to create games that will have massive appeal with the public -- a public that increasingly includes new and less experienced gamers, as companies seek to reach out to new consumers. The recent game Spore might not be satisfying to hardcore gamers, but it will undoubtedly sell millions of copies by appealing to more causal PC owners like my father, who has never played a real-time strategy game before. Adventure games have definitely suffered from this phenomenon. They are very expensive to make, because of their extensive use of artwork and voice-acting. Because of that, they must be able to appeal to a large enough audience to recoup the initial cost of development. Consequently, developers are taking less risks and designing their games for the lowest common denominator

All hope is not lost. A small but vocal resistance has formed, made up of hardcore masochists, completists and those who remember what games were like before they became mass-market commodities. These devoted thrill seekers will actually take great care to make their gaming experience as difficult as possible, even in "nerfed" titles like Assassin's Creed. In that game, some hardcore fans decided that playing with the HUD activated was cheating, so they forced themselves to play without a radar map. By forcing themselves to actually hunt for the next objective, these players argue, the experience is improved, and actually approaches the level of difficulty found in earlier adventure games. The hardcore can also be found on YouTube. These are the ones doing speed runs in their favorite 2D platformers, trying to shave a few seconds off of their previous and untouchably fast performance. And of course, multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty 4 offer unlimited challenge, as gamers square off against human opponents that are just as skilled as themselves.

For a real, challenging adventure game, however, options are somewhat slim these days. I hope that some game designers remember the glory days of adventure gaming on the PC, and seek to implement some of the best features from that era in new projects. Give players a sense of control over their destiny, let them make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and let them explore the virtual worlds you create without limitation. Above all, force players to use their brains to interact with your game, rather than simply spoon feeding them cutscenes. Those things are what make gaming great, after all.

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