Feeling invincible? … Super Mario 3D Land. Photo: firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently, I was playing Nintendo’s newest Mario offering, “Super Mario 3D Land”, on the 3DS handheld system.
It was incredible, with beautifully designed levels and addictive gameplay. It’s maybe the best handheld game I’ve ever played.
At one point, I died several times on a tough stage.
Original gamester … The Legend of Zelda.
Then came a surprise.
When I returned to life, a pop-up box offered me an item that granted permanent invincibility. Essentially, the game was letting me stroll unimpeded through the rest of the level.
I mean, this is Nintendo, the company that once brought us some of the most difficult games in the world – brutally tough fare like “Mega Man”, “Battletoads” and “Castlevania”. In those days, enemies were plentiful and your character had the resiliency of a newborn kitten.
And forget invincibility: Most old-school games couldn’t even save your progress. They had to be completed in one sitting (or not at all). Gamers still invoke the phrase “Nintendo Hard” as a nod to those hard-core roots.
What was going on? Had video games succumbed to the modern “everyone gets a trophy” mentality?
Nintendo declined my request for an interview. But Patrick Curry, CEO of Austin game developer Fun Machine, agreed with me.
“Games have definitely gotten a lot easier and just more forgiving,” he said.
Why is that?
“My thinking is that it’s not that people are more casual [players], it’s just that we have so many more gaming options and entertainment options,” he said. “For example, when I got a Nintendo game or a Game Boy game as a kid, it was this cherished thing that was my new game. And it was expensive, and my parents were like, ‘You’re going to play this thing.’ I had no other options. And I was happy to beat my head against the wall, because that was my one new game.”
Nowadays, of course, there are lots of free games online or available on smartphones.
“And so if a game starts getting really hard, then there’s something else I can go play that’s going to be just as rewarding, without all the head-banging on the wall,” Curry said.
Curry said he takes that short attention span into account when designing his own games.
There is software in Curry’s games that lets his team know if beta testers are getting frustrated (and more likely to quit) while playing. If that happens, they will make adjustments, such as reordering levels to ramp up the difficulty more slowly. Other games will alter the difficulty level based on a player’s skill level.
Cane-shaking aside, I’ve definitely noticed a gradual shift toward easier games, especially over the past decade.
A turning point was the 2006 debut of the Nintendo Wii, the first major console system with motion controls, said David Kaelin, who owns the a chain of used-game stores.
The Wii “is the console that turned the tide away from the 18- to 21-year-old male gamers and what really opened it up to people who are younger, kids, and people who are older – parents, grandparents – just people with jobs over the age of 21,” he said. “In order to make something accessible for more people, you essentially have to kind of water it down.”
Back in the day (meaning the 1970s and ’80s), games had simpler controls, with only one or two buttons to keep track of, Kaelin said.
“You just run and jump,” he said. “Sounds easy, but they’re actually really hard, and they require a lot of repetition because it takes a lot of attempts to get through a lot of those levels and the bosses on the older games.”
Anyone who has played “Donkey Kong” knows this. But newer games are the opposite, Kaelin said.
“They’re harder to figure out. There’s a much higher learning curve on just learning how to hold and use the controller and all the buttons, you have about 10 different buttons to figure out … and so just getting the hang of it takes quite awhile.”
The Texas gaming godfather Warren Spector, who runs Junction Point studio, agreed games have gotten easier. In the ’80s and ’90s, developers could count on a dedicated audience of early adopters, he said.
“The difficulty associated with playing a game, defeating a game, set them … apart from non-gamers,” he wrote in an email. “They – we – were much more forgiving then. We didn’t mind taking notes, drawing maps by hand, dealing with interfaces that proudly used every key on an Apple or PC keyboard. We certainly didn’t mind having to solve problems and puzzles without a lot in the way of clues!”
That doesn’t fly anymore, Spector said. That’s because players have been exposed to more sophisticated games, which have attracted a more mainstream and less forgiving audience. But that isn’t a bad thing, he said.
“I think it’s only natural that games would get easier as time went on,” he said. “I mean, developers are better at this now than we were back in the day – we were totally making it up as we went along – and certain kinds of games just started selling better while others (harder, less elegant ones, mostly) started selling worse.”
Lots of other technology gets easier over time – think of photography, he said.
Spector said he recently tried replaying the original “The Legend of Zelda”, a 1986 Nintendo classic that’s basically the Citizen Kane of video games.
“All I kept thinking … was, ‘Man, how did I ever get through this when it first came out ?”‘ he said.