The Myth of Hardcore

The title of “hardcore gamer” is not an identity; it is a temporary state of being. Many people start playing video games, and some of them keep playing more and more of them until they develop skills and tastes that place them into the “hardcore” category. Hardcore gamers stay hardcore for years or decades, and then their reflexes fade or their interests shift and they find themselves enjoying different things.

There’s this mistaken feeling among players who self-identify as “hardcore” that they’ve been left behind, that there’s this shift in the culture of development that has abandoned them. This is mostly nonsense. It’s true that for about a decade, most every game was made for a hardcore player… but that decade was the worst one in the history of video game design.

Now, don’t misunderstand; leave the comment box blank for now. The ten years from 1995-2005 released some of the most artistically complex, innovative, and fun games ever made. But the great majority of the public never found about about them because they were designed for people who’d been playing video games their whole life.

Personal Histories

I was born in 1985. I got a Game Boy for Christmas when I was seven or eight years old, but I had already been playing games on our home computers. Arcades were dying when I was young, but I still regarded them with fascination and played when I had the opportunity. I played Doom when it came out as shareware. I played on an NES and an 8-bit Sega Master System at my afterschool program. I started reading PC Gamer in 1995, with an issue that showed off how Windows 95 made Doom easy to play multiplayer.

I was never good at video games, but I worked at it. I used cheat codes to get past the hard parts until I realized one day that I didn’t need them anymore; I had developed the skills necessary to succeed on my own. I devoured the back catalogs of Infocom and Lucasarts. I upgraded my computer to run Half-Life, and knew that this game changed everything. I stayed up all night playing Team Fortress Classic and failed a test the next day. I’ve spent almost 20 years with video games as a primary past time. I sometimes play games on the Hard difficulty the first time through. I am a hardcore gamer.

My fiancée was born in 1984. The first games she played were the DOS versions of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Her family had an NES and a Genesis. She found and loved Doom II, and devoured it with the help of cheat codes. She downloaded FAQs on how to circle-strafe, and begged her non-gaming parents and friends to deathmatch with her. Then she tried TekWar and was confused by the controls: crouching was complicated, and the game wasn’t very good. Quake was even worse; jumping around, mouselooking, these all frustrated her and she never bothered to gain skill in them.

First-person shooting games were lost on her, and she didn’t pursue games that were too challenging. For the next decade, she remained a casual gamer in the dictionary sense of the word: she played SimCity, Civilization, and fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Soul Caliber, but never made games a prominent part of her life. It wasn’t until Left 4 Dead that she returned to first-person shooters, and only now is she gaining the proficiency with controls and reflexes that allow her to enjoy “hardcore” games.

New Generations

In 1985, when Super Mario Bros. was released, game developers hadn’t grown up with video games. Miyamoto was 20 when Pong came out. Sid Meier could vote before he could buy a video game console. Games were designed either for children or for computer geeks. They either had two buttons and a direction pad or they had a keyboard-based interface augmented by a sturdy instruction manual. Forward-thinking games incorporated a newly-popular device called a mouse.

In 1995, when Descent was released, game developers were gamers. John Romero published his first game at 17, and would soon ask gamers to “suck it down.” Jason Jones, a founder of Bungie, was 13 when his family got a Macintosh and the first thing he did on it was port over an Apple II game. The Playstation was released in September of 1995, and initially had eight action buttons and a D-pad; by a few years later, its primary controller had ten action buttons, a d-pad, two analog sticks, and a vibration feature.

Players who grew up with console systems in their homes were not only skilled at processing complex visual information, reacting quickly, and thinking with video game logic. They were also comfortable with controllers that used six fingers at once that required the player to move her thumbs from one control area to another during action sequences without looking away from the screen. For these newly-hardcore gamers like me, this was exciting and fun. For my fiancée, it was confusing and disorienting.

For an entire decade, game developers excluded people who hadn’t played video games as their primary past-time their entire lives. There was no entry-level system. There were few games that guided you into this complex world. The children who adopted games during this period were ones who were interested enough in the themes of the games or determined enough to overcome the controls that they could learn the skills. Half-Life popularized the idea of an in-game tutorial, but these typically became so complex that they were still inaccessible to the new player who had to look down to make sure his finger was still on the “S” key.


In 2005, the Wii controller was announced and its easy-to-use approach was soon dismissed as “waggle,” which was reinforced by poor control design on the part of shovelware developers. Flash games were expanding. The Sims series held 4 of the spots on the list of top 10 best-selling computer games. Suddenly, women were playing video games. Middle-aged women.

The hidden-object genre emerged. Developers scrambled to figure out how to make games for people who were only comfortable with one button to push. And as inexperienced players were once again given an entry to the world of gaming, the traditionally hardcore games began introducing features that welcomed new gamers. The most notable of these was to display on the screen what button to press to do an action. This approach had been around for years, but it’s only recently become wide-spread.

There’s a pride that comes with being a hardcore gamer for a lot of people. Casual gamers are babies, hardcore gamers say; they’re not interested in challenge or depth. They’re half right; casual gamers are babies. They’re newborn into the world of games, and they need a way to learn to play games. They need to develop the skills. Most of what hardcore gamers decry as “dumbing-down” is actually just the addition of features to help less-experienced players learn a game. Can it go too far? Sure. But the fact is that games have been too hard for too long.

The Proper Approach

I should be able to give my mother, who doesn’t play games, the “easy” mode of a game, and have her be able to make progress. “Normal” mode should not mean “challenging for players with decades of experience.” If you’re hardcore, congratulations. But being hardcore is not something you’re born with, and it sure as hell isn’t something you’ve always been. There was a time when you stared uncomprehendingly at the screen, maybe with an older sibling sighing and explaining for the tenth time how easy a game is. A frustrating introduction to games is unnecessary.

Should every game welcome the inexperienced player? No. There’s a place for complex games designed for the expert player. But most games aren’t like that. Most games would be perfect for experienced and inexperienced players alike, if the developers make a little effort to welcome the newcomer. Optional helper text, variable difficulties, and the option to skip especially hard material in order to get in more practice. Lack of punishing mechanics. It’s easy to make a game harder to satisfy the “hardcore.” Those who want a grueling experience can play on Impossible difficulty with Ironman mode on, and pursue the Total Mastery achievement.

Those who want a grueling experience should recognize that they were once unskilled, and that their skill will fade with age and shifting interest. They should recognize that their skill is not due to their determination or good taste, but to their experience. They should recognize that the hobby and the works that they love are not improved by excluding newcomers. Gaming does not benefit from being an exclusive treehouse club.

And developers should recognize not only that they need to guide the casual gamer, but that some people with decades of experience want and crave a challenge, and should put in the option for ridiculous, soul-crushing difficulty. Some designs are better-suited for one kind of player, but there’s little justification for excluding anyone. A substandard “easy” or “impossible” mode is better than none at all.

I’ve said my piece. If you have an opinion, please share it in the comments.

27 thoughts on “The Myth of Hardcore

  1. I would argue that having niche appeal was the reason “The ten years from 1995-2005 released some of the most artistically complex, innovative, and fun games ever made”. (although I’d argue the time period is more accurately 1991-2001). While I’m not arguing that games should be exclusionary in their design, there is a difference in tastes between the casual and “hardcore” markets. I would also argue that there are two types of “hardcore.” Those who have played games their whole life, and those who started playing games heavily only when games like Halo and Gears of War came out.

    People who grew up playing games are not just accustom to games with more complex controls. They are also accustom to games that try to rise to a higher artistic level, or which try to tell a story. When games were a niche market, developers catered to people who wanted this out of a game. It’s like the difference between Hollywood films and Graphic Novels. Graphic Novels are more niche, and auteurs like Alan More and Grant Morrison can make artistically resonant works without worrying about appealing to a “Mass Market,” as such a mass market doesn’t really exist in their medium. Whereas Hollywood has a steady stream of cliched action movies and romantic comedies overshadowing the few original ideas (many of which they just took from Graphic Novels).

    Games like Wii sports might be accessible to a generation not raised on videogames, but it is no a entry point to the overall world of games. Few people in their 50s would, after playing Wii Sports, go to the store and pick up Shadow of the Colossus or Super Mario or any other game for a “hardcore” market. Casual games have created a market, much larger than the one for “hardcore games”, for games which lack the progress in game design from the past 25 years. Games from 1986 onwards are quite structurally different from the arcade games and even most of the board games that came previous, and are therefore quite alien to people who expect that out of a game.

    1. You’re right that the self-describing “hardcore” crowd also includes people who entered the hobby with Halo and similar games. In this case, these are the people I mentioned above who are interested in the game enough to put forth a whole lot of effort to gain skill.

      Skill and experience with playing games is nearly orthogonal to a taste for artistic games. There are countless “hardcore” players that deride artsy games like SotC, and there are countless fans of artistic stories that would enjoy playing games if they were more accessible.

      A 50-year-old who enjoyed Wii Sports wouldn’t go right out and get Shadow of the Colossus. But they might go out and get Boom Blox, then a few months later get New Super Mario Bros. Wii because their son recommended it, then a year later pick up Super Mario Galaxy 2, and be on their way to skill and experience.

      1. I’m not entirely convinced that that is the case. Often the older generation that plays Wii Sports does not necesarrily think of it as really playing a videogame, in the same way someone who just plays bejeweled would not call themselves a gamer. I think this article describes the situation best: .

        There are, in essence, 3 audiences for games. People who didn’t grow up with games, who don’t want to play games that are “are really like video games”, people of the generation “hardcore” games are marketed to, who started playing heavily with games like Halo, who view the medium as a form of simple escapism or competition, and finally people who grew up with games and love it as a medium, which is more of a niche market. The people in the first group are unlikely to play any game in a non-arcade style no matter how accessible, the second group will buy the big-budget mass-market games, in the same way that they see the big-budget mass-market movies, and the final group will seek out games that interest them, and often look past the accessibility.

  2. Oh now, this is good stuff. Your thoughts develop on a tact similar to one of my own. My own personal history includes that I feel I am pretty good at video games–I beat Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox on the hardest difficulty, and Halo and Halo 2, Metal Arms, and others. Played older games commonly and while it did take some save states to beat ActRaiser I got 100% on Donkey Kong Country 2 (well, almost). For a while I mostly played FPSs and always started on the hardest difficulty, scoffing at the rest.

    My sister is a different case; she enjoys games, mostly the ones I’ve given to her (The Sims is in her background, but more recently it’s been Machinarium, Continuity, Knytt, and artistic flash games with little difficulty). She has trouble smoothly navigating 3D environments and is lost in an FPS. She loves the style of a game like Psychonauts but is content to watch me play it (Psychonauts is not really a hard game… but I’m saying that as someone who has long been comfortable double-jumping up sequences of three-dimensional floating platforms).

    Nowadays I usually start a game on Normal and leave it there. I change the difficulty to Hard if there’s no challenge, or to Easy if the game is irritating me. This once would have rather hurt my pride, but my philosophy now is, I’m playing this game for my own entertainment, aren’t I? I’m not doing it to impress anyone else. It just happens that, while years ago I got the most enjoyment out of overcoming a really (sometimes ridiculously) difficult challenge, nowadays I get the most enjoyment out of experiencing the storyline, music and style of a game, without worrying that I have to spend three hours on one level.

    I had two revelations about game difficulties: first, that the highest difficulties tend to be absurd. Not necessarily absurdly hard, but just plain absurd. In Halo 2 on Legendary, the Elites (who, story-wise, are supposed to be roughly as strong as you) can kill you with one punch, while it takes you several swipes with an Energy sword to kill them. In Myth (the early Bungie tactical game), beating a level on Legendary often entailed defeating groups of Soulless (enemy ranged units) literally ten times the size of your group of Archers (which, stats-wise, are nearly identical). In other words, you had to abuse the AI to the breaking point, going through battles micro-managing so much that you have your Archers dancing back and forth, dodging every javelin, while the Soulless just mindlessly sit there chucking them.

    The issue for me is that it begins to break the suspension of disbelief. It’s not issue if you’re playing the game as a challenge, if you aren’t concerned with why you need to kill the Baron or what that package Alric just received was or what the ramifications are of destroying the Tain. But if you ARE paying attention to the story, it makes you scratch your head that your forces can be on the edge of extinction when the enemy is so laughably incompetent.

    The other realization I had, because of my conversations with my sister, is that some people would just like to experience a game without the stress of obstacles. They don’t understand why they should have to complete a mental challenge just to see what happens next, or at any rate why they should have to complete a mental challenge just to avoid seeing the exact same content a second time. To this end, I propose a lowest-difficulty option which basically removes the challenge, or even the gameplay, of the game altogether; that skips most of the identical battles with mooks, turns boss fights into movies, and prevents your character from ever falling off a ledge. Basically what it would do is reduce every challenge of the game into a gentle prompt that says “Now direct your character over here…”, at which point, your character will succeed at whatever it is he needs to do to make the game progress.

    The point of this would be that someone like my sister could see all the amusing characters and imaginative locale of Psychonauts. Psychic bear in your way? Well, point the analog stick at him and Raz will take care of it. Have to race down a narrow hill? Go ahead, move back and forth–Raz knows not to fall off. And so on. In some games this would not be very difficult to implement (frankly, invulnerability and infinite lives would suffice in many cases), and the fact that it’s optional means it never needs to interfere with the lives of those who call themselves hardcore.

    1. I agree that difficulty is really poorly handled in some games. Especially high or low difficulty settings often expose issues with the fundamental mechanics of the game, like you describe with Myth. I’d still rather the option be there, even if it’s poorly-implemented.

  3. The desire to appeal to a lower and lower common denominator is difficult to cast as a positive, but you make a decent effort.

    The change you are describing happened as a result of increased investor power and the rise of the business school manager in game companies far more than as part of any ideology of popular inclusion.

    The idea that the difficulty curve of any game should, or even can, be controllable from a switch, is simplistic in the extreme. To begin with it ignores the entire field of multiplayer games in which such gameplay-shifting toggles would destabilize the experience.

    While auto-aim may make the assimilation of FPS controls less important, it does nothing to accelerate that assimilation. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of changes needed to make a grand strategy game of the 4X genre approachable by the mothers of its fanbase. I’m certain it would double if not treble the already lengthy development times of such games.

    1. The reason business folks support accessibility is the same reason designers should: because it expands the audience.

      Multiplayer games are obviously a more complex issue. The approach of Starcraft II seems most appropriate, where players are matched against players of appropriate skill level. I get the impression, though, that players aren’t allowed to play a more difficult match if they want to; if this is the case, I disagree with that specific choice.

  4. I’m quite happy that there are both less and more causal games around, but I still think quality wise games were better in the 90s – when a bit more was expected from the average player’s learning abilities. And it has nothing to do with “play on Impossible difficulty with Ironman mode on, and pursue the Total Mastery achievement” kind of “hardcore”. I think you focused way too much on video arcades obsessed gamers and games for them. Consequently, I must say I don’t really agree with what you wrote in “The Proper Approach”.

    In particular I don’t believe in aiming at creating a game for everyone – it dilutes the game’s core and wastes precious development time. Creating extravagant tutorials and help features is also a waste of time and resources in my opinion – that is, if your primary goal is making an impressive, interesting game.

    I’d also question what you say about games during 1995-2005 being particularly “hardcore” – perhaps it just shows what kind of game you were playing then. I’m almost exclusively a PC gamer and punishing games on the PC disappeared around the end of the 80s with the introduction of proper save game systems. Only some of the most arcade style games refused to allow flexible saving points – those were the true hardcore games yearning back to the 80s.

    However, I’ve spent a lot on time on the most popular RPGs, FPS games, adventure games and action adventure games of those times and while they often required a great time investment due to their huge sizes, they were easy to learn and offered fair challenges. I’m pretty sure the experiences they delivered would be weaker if the games were prepared with todays market potential in mind.

    The entire 90s was a great decade of innovation in games and full of fascinating gaming concepts. The only problem of those times might have been that there were too many amazing titles over such short period of time.

    1. One of my major goals in creating a game is usually for the game to be played. In order for the game to be accessible to people who are interested in it but not very skilled, you must design it to be accessible. This might mean help or tutorials, and it might mean crafting your teaching systems, but if you want to show your work to as many people as would appreciate it, you need to take skill level into account.

      1. Yes, I understand that. And I can understand there might be a need to take certain additional steps when a developer wants to ensure a decent enough popularity. But this doesn’t mean the game becomes better the more people are willing to play it. In my opinion there’s such a thing like going too far with accessibility.

        Nevertheless, I won’t pretend that I’m not adapting to player reactions to my games. For Snakes of Avalon for example I didn’t worry anymore about some puzzles being too cliched and easy and the interface being too simple. While designing it we’ve put certain other features before the goal of making incredible puzzles and complex interactions. This was to some extent the consequence to the experiences I had with a demo called Frantic Franko where I’ve focused primarily on crafting unique puzzles. In short – Snakes got quite popular and many people finished it, while Franko had most players get stuck and give up, but I also got several praises for puzzle creativity.

        Oh, and I think it all has even more to do with the average player’s lack of patience and the number of offerings to choose from rather than the player’s skill level.

        1. I’d say that, all other things being equal, more accessible is always better. Of course, all other things are never equal, and so each designer much choose for herself how much she’s willing to prioritize accessibility.

  5. First of all, congratulations on your engagement.
    Now on topic, as that Alec S and Igor Hardy said, there’s two types of hardcore gamers: the ones who want a complex controls so there’s a button sequence for any and all possible actions, tough puzzles, realistic fighting, etc, etc; and the ones that want unforgiving platforming, superhuman reflexes, and memorization. I’m painting with broad strokes, I realize, but still.
    Anyway, I have to say that I find “hardcore gamer” to be an identity, but you’re right that people have to develop ability and can have their interests change. However, as far as I can tell, people become hardcore not as a natural progression of ability, but because they want to become hardcore. There’s many, many definitions of “hardcore gamer,” but one thing that seems key is that easier games, games with simplistic game play, etc are uninteresting, boring, childish, etc. If that’s part of being a hardcore gamer, why is it that some people have developed the ability to play Mega Man games without difficulty and then go play a tower defense? You may successfully argue a definition to ‘fix’ that, but as it stands, I feel like I’m seeing people who are good at hardcore games, but not hardcore gamers. ‘Hardcore gamer’ is an identity because people take it up as an identity.
    ..Was that coherent?

  6. TLDR:skip to the last 2 paragraphs

    I found this page playing Majesty of Colors, which was a really excellent experience that I would have loved to see expanded a little (a lot) farther. That sounded sort of critical, but I didn’t mean it to. My only disappointment was length.

    I was born in 1980, and played my first video game in ’85. I have been solidly addicted to video games since about ’87. I played them as hard as I could get them, and if I felt like I had “figured out” a game to the point where there was no challenge, I got bored and stopped playing. I chastised my younger brother for using cheats, or asking me to beat a boss for him although I did it regularly (he is now a diamond league sc2 player). One of my all-time favorite games was StarCon2, which I cleared with no guide or advice. I consider(ed) myself to be of the hardcore gamer variety.

    3 years ago, I got married and soon after had children. I am a stay at home dad, and can only find time to play video games at night, after my wife falls asleep (I play in bed). I have definitely found my hardcore gamerness to be wearing off. I still play quite a bit, but many of the games that would have interested me 4 years ago, just don’t for some reason. One of the major motivating factors for me is still challenge, but the depth and artistic merits of a game, have to be there now for me to really enjoy it, and I tend to play indie games. My wife, on the other hand, likes the idea of games, but she can’t get past said challenge. She is just so far behind the learning curve, that it is just an exercise in failure and frustration to her.

    The problem is, I don’t think she would ever get there, no matter how smooth that learning curve is. She is just not interested enough to put in the kind of time and effort required. I wanted her to play Altitude with me, so I put her in a room with no other planes except me, with bouncy walls, and we just flew around, trying to tag pickups or chase each other. It can’t get easier than that. Still, she just wasn’t feeling it because the controls didn’t feel natural or enjoyable for her. So we basically just play adventure games, or “art” games together (machinarium was good for that).

    I guess my point, after that huge wall of text, is that I can really appreciate what you are getting at, but I just don’t think it is that simple. No matter how easy they make easy mode in a game with hardcore sensibilities, she won’t play it, despite a general enjoyment of the medium. I think many of the things, challenge included, that make a game that I will really love, can’t be fully captured by difficulty modes. I don’t want to see my deep, complicated, and challenging games get diluted so they can appeal to the masses. I also don’t want to see easy, beautiful, moving, and entertaining games that I can play with my wife become inaccessible.

    Would you take the sad ending out of a tragedy to appeal to people who like to feel good after they are finished watching a movie? Or even have a happy ending mode for them? Maybe a more appropriate example would be making a cryptic and mind-bending movie easier to understand for those who want an easygoing and relaxed movie watching experience. I know this isn’t exactly the same, but it captures the way I feel. Do you really think Amnsesia, or Super Meat Boy would benefit from having a super easy mode that my grandmother could handle?

    Sorry that was so long, but your article got me thinking, and I wanted to share.

    PS. I tend to play devil’s advocate; I don’t totally disagree with you.

    PPS. Ziggywolf5: Don’t diss tower defense. Have you played Titan Attacks?

    1. I’m not sure that Super Meat Boy would benefit much from an easier mode; it already does about as good of a job as it can at teaching you how to play, and its core concepts are twitch challenge and callbacks to earlier games. Note, however, that most SMB levels have a minimum of punishment; the cost of failure is the loss of a few seconds.

      Amnesia is actually a pretty easy game, I find; I think it could benefit from a mode in which the creatures’ attacks would never kill you, or an optional map. Your grandmother (assuming she’s not a horror movie buff) would probably never enjoy it. However, there are plenty of folks out there who would adore the terrifying atmosphere but might lack the skill.

      I’d be interested to see Amnesia re-done as a game that played itself except for choose-your-own-path and quick-time moments. It’d be a lot more accessible, but I wonder if it would have the same effect.

      1. What you say about SMB could be said about a great many games. How is Doom or Quake not primarily about twitch challenge? It’s true the amount of punishment in SMB is smaller than e.g. in most Super Mario Bros titles, however, the few seconds you mention is usually more like 20-30 seconds and those quickly add up with repeated failed attempts. The game will still drive you nuts if you’re not progressing at a decent pace.

        I’m currently in Rapture (World 5). While the game feels quite a bit sadistic I find the difficulty level perfect for myself and get a lot of satisfaction out of beating every new stage. In fact it’s only at this point in the game I think I really learned how to effectively control Meat Boy and minimize my blunders. However, I keep hearing even some experienced gamers give up in frustration precisely at Rapture.

        Again, I strongly believe making games and difficulty levels for everyone is impossible – especially good ones.

        1. Doom and Quake’s core challenges are really more about navigating a space and positioning oneself tactically. Their mechanics work equally well when played as a fast-paced twitch shooter or a more careful one. They do have a lot of times when you must be fast, but the margin for error is very wide. Note that they have some very simple and successful difficulty modes (although Quake’s are a bit too hard, if I recall).

          SMB does have many levels that are a bit too long. It’s just below my frustration quota right now. Many times I wish for a checkpoint system on some of the levels.

          1. The last boss level of SMB just made me give up the game, because it was so long, difficult and punishing (+ you start it by waiting 10 seconds before you have a free path to proceed). Very frustrating! :(

  7. I wouldn’t say that the earliest games were less complex because the developers didn’t have the experience to create complex games, but because of technological limitations, especially the home consoles.

    I don’t call myself a “hardcore gamer”, mostly because I think it sounds like the sort of label some G4 types came up with in a marketing meeting to lend themselves an air of credibility, and partly because the types of games labelled as “hardcore” are usually Xbox shoot-em-ups or truly turgid games like Mass Effect 2 which apparently have a good story simply because they use a Moral Choice System. I enjoy video games, generally more challenging or more complex ones (though I readily admit that more complex does not always make a game more challenging).

    True, I wasn’t always as proficient or skilled as I am now, and I would get frustrated when I was younger, but I practiced, and I got better, usually in a couple of days or less. I certainly didn’t have decades of experience, what I had was the curiosity and motivation necessary to try and appreciate these games on their own terms. It’s like any other interest, you have to make time and put in the effort. It’s not a question of experience, but will. Because games have such a large variety of forms, any game could serve as an introduction to games in general.

    Perhaps games were not “too hard”, perhaps your finance simply did not try hard enough.

    Since the crux of your argument is based on anecdote, here’s one of my own. My Mother owns a DS, she plays Brain Age and a crossword game. She’s not going to buy Fire Emblem on my recommendation. Casual gamers want casual games. Trying to court them by dumbing-down or compromising a game on the off chance that she won’t die as often will only lead to a shallower, bastardized experience.

    I’m not that up in arms about help screens, I can just ignore those. What I do object to is when efforts to make a game more “hospitable” that hinder the overall design or take focus off more important areas.

    Adding an unnecessary easy mode can only lead to a compromised experience. The designers spend too much time and money on an easy mode and not enough of better enemies or puzzles or potions or whatever.

    Currently I’m playing Prinny 2 on my PSP, and I like it’s approach to difficulty. The depth challenges remain the same, but the number of hits you are permitted to take before dying increases incrementally as the difficulty decreases.

    And stretching your metaphor, the market was much more interesting when games were a tree house, and you had to know the secret knock to get in (but that was easy enough to learn if you wanted).

    1. Technological limitations did little to limit true complexity. The Colecovision had controllers with 13 buttons, but failed to set a trend in part because designers at the time tended toward simpler control schemes. There were also dramatically complex simulations and roleplaying games in the ’80s, like the Gold Box D&D games or Elite. However, even the complex games were designed to be accessible to new players, often making use of extensive manuals.

      Making an easy mode takes very little time. Better enemies or puzzles or potions require many person-hours to implement; if you design with difficulty modes in mind, there’s very little added development time required to implement them. At their most basic implementation, difficulty modes require the change of a few multipliers from “1” to “.25.”

    2. “Casual gamers want casual games.” Only? Forever? We’re a special subspecies of homo sapiens sapiens that has zero interest in trying something different? Try again.

      “Perhaps games were not ‘too hard’, perhaps your finance [sic] simply did not try hard enough.”

      Hold on there, cowboy. Nowhere in this post–and certainly never in my own words–did Greg say that I said the games I don’t enjoy playing are “too hard”. Greg wrote about “confusing and disorienting” and that “these all frustrated her and she never bothered to gain skill in them.” This post is about his solution to that problem.

      As for “simply not trying hard enough,” you’re placing a value on gaming and your gaming skill that I find pretty hubristic. It’s nifty that you value gaming enough to spend days playing games and to find challenging games sacred, but judging my willpower by my gaming skill and effort is ludicrous. Gaming is a small slice of my life. I am, however, still a buyer and consumer of video games.

      1. Greg, while there were early exceptions, technological improvements certainly did allow for more complexity. Most Colecovision games really only used the numbered buttons in a straight forward way where the number on the button would correspond to a number on the screen.

        Do games not make use of manuals now? If anything you’re undermining your own argument. If it is as you say, and games with true complexity have always been around, but accessible to the novice players who were willing to read the instructions, then isn’t the burden still on the new comer to do the research?

        Why should they be designed with difficulty modes in mind if that will compromise the product overall? I’d rather have a content rich game than one “Easy” isn’t free, and more difficulty modes means more playtesting which eats up even more time and money. You asking companies to blow resources to correct a problem that does not actually exist.

        Melissa, you’re taking my comments too personally and getting unreasonably defensive, and I think your condescending tone is far more insulting than what you seem to believe I said to you.

        The majority of casual gamers are content just to throw away a few dollars for some little iPhone game to play on their daily commute. It’s a segmented market.

        If a child, including many who were half my age at the time, could pick up a Dualshock controller and in a few hours if not minutes know what to do, then I conclude that it was your personal inability at the time to try and get over the so-called “confusing and disorienting” aspects that made you lose interest in games.

        I play games for a couple of hours every day, which is more than enough time to become acquainted with the controls of a complex game. I don’t think it’s a matter of considering it “sacred”, I just think a reasonable challenge makes a game more fun.

        1. Technological developments have almost universally advanced graphics without advancing the available gameplay complexity. As a programmer, I’d say that no game currently on the market has gameplay too complex to implement on 1980s technology. 1980s tech would need to make certain things turn-based that are real-time today, and it couldn’t handle massively multiplayer mechanics, but those are relatively minor differences from a game design perspective. I challenge you to find five games released in 2010 with more complex gameplay than 1992’s Ultima VII or even 1988’s Captain Blood.

          Games generally don’t use manuals now. Many of the games I buy through Steam don’t even come with a manual, even one accessible via the right-click-menu in the games list. They have an in-game tutorial that usually assumes familiarity with gameplay concepts like WASD+Mouselook and taking cover to avoid fire.

          You’re setting up a false dichotomy with regard to difficulty settings vs. content. Basic difficulty settings are cheap to implement and test; content is very expensive. It benefits companies more to spend $5,000 on an easy difficulty setting that will make their game playable for 5% more players instead of spending $200,000 on a single new enemy that will have a slight effect on game quality. The magnitude of the costs are so different that the spending decisions won’t be made at the same meeting.

          1. I’m not that familiar the Ultima series, or WRPGs in general, so I can’t really name a game more complex than them. Complexity doesn’t just exist on a macro level. More complex AI means better, more intricate challenges, for example.

            Again, if games are more or less as complex now as they’ve always been, why do they need to be simplified suddenly?

            Sure, trivial difficulty might be all well and good for some five minute browser-based flash game where you play as a guy dreaming he’s an octopus, but it takes the value out of a more ambitious game.

            The cost figures you names are so overblown that I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not. And let’s be honest, you’re not just talking about sliding a few variable around, you’re talking about implementing new modes of play that wiil detract from the overall development of the game. How can a game hope to live up to it’s potential if the devs are too concerned that some old biddy might get a tad frustrated at the first level?

            I’ll quote an anonymous poster from a similar discussion:

            “How can you take a game like Mirror’s Edge, where the fun comes largely from the exhilaration of completing a demanding, intricate task, and design an easy mode that entertains the easy mode player as much as it entertains the hard mode player upon accomplishing such a feat? Having the game auto-play, ala SMBWii, removes the entire experience in a game like Mirror’s Edge. Dumbing down the input needed from the player won’t satisfy. And redesigning a section to accommodate will, necessarily, make both the hard design and the easy design suffer as the designer’s time is spread thin.”

            Using certain mechanics to make games less challenging will only detract. Take your suggestion of games allowing players to skip difficult content. What does that do besides remove all possible tension from the game? I’ll quote zinger’s review of Knytt stories from

            “How good designers successfully create exciting action segments instead is by interconnecting several different obstacles that must be cleared in sequence, so that in order to clear a specific segment you are required to use your experience with different enemy types (their movement patterns, abilities etc.) and the general mechanics of the game (your moveset, the surroundings and their properties and so on) as well as your reflexes. And if you’re not good enough, it’s game over (back to the beginning of the game, or to an appropriately placed checkpoint, depending on the game’s structure).

            It’s this constant death threat that creates the strong tension that, along with the speed factor appropriately tailored for each title, makes most action games so exciting, gets your adrenaline going and makes you feel like an action hero when you finally manage to put everything together and get away safe. Even the simple lakitu stage in Super Mario Brothers managed that to an astonishing degree, to give a most basic example. Compare that to the isolated action scenes in the Knytt games, where you can always replay the last segment instantly, and are thereby never concerned about death, which completely eliminates any chance of excitement to emerge, and makes them feel like chores instead of fun (which is what they are supposed to be, by the way!) And just to be explicit, of course it wouldn’t help to refrain from using the save points, because the composition of each and every obstacle sucks so much. They are basically designed to be laboriously straggled through and never returned to.”

            Does the lack of a manual really present that much of a problem in the age of Gamefaqs or Google? The only barrier that anyone should have to playing a game is a lack of time or interest on their part.

            Melissia, my habits aren’t that different from yours. I don’t have as much leisure time as I’d like, so I can usually only squeeze in an hour or so of game time per day (The pause game feature on my PSP and the sleep mode on my DS are a Godsend), but I still prefer more ambitious, more demanding games because I like to be engaged on something higher than a basic arcade mode (which can’t be implemented for certain genres).

            There are plenty of portable games and options for people with less times or more casual gamers, and that’s why this call to make existing franchises and styles more inviting sounds a bit selfish to me.

            I’m not accusing you of anything, but you yourself admit that the only “barrier” was a lack of interest on your part, and not any real fault of the designers.

          2. “There are plenty of portable games and options for people with less times or more casual gamers, and that’s why this call to make existing franchises and styles more inviting sounds a bit selfish to me.

            I’m not accusing you of anything, but you yourself admit that the only “barrier” was a lack of interest on your part, and not any real fault of the designers.”

            Oh, I’m not particularly interesting in existing franchises being more inviting. That’s Gregory’s schtick, and I don’t really care about SMB and Sonic. (Whether he’s being selfish or not, I’ll leave for him to argue.) I agree that there are plenty of games and styles for us who play games less often–tower defense games, Uplink, Left 4 Dead, etc. Dragon Age, not so much, although I enjoy it. I have no idea where I left off three months ago…

            What I’m interested in are designers/developers/fellow players not relegating those of us with less time to rinky-dink iPhone games and Bejweled, and it looks like you and I agree about the desire for non-triviality not being limited to gamers who invest more time (as in my previous Left 4 Dead Survival Mode example). I think the complexity/tension you describe is certainly possible in games that can be played in one-hour segments and that lack “do it again, stupid“-style difficulty, but it’s tricky to find.

            I wouldn’t suggest the games market be remade into my preferred style of game, though.

            All the rest of your comment is about Gregory’s stance rather than my own, I believe.

        2. “Melissa, you’re taking my comments too personally and getting unreasonably defensive, and I think your condescending tone is far more insulting than what you seem to believe I said to you.”

          The statement “Perhaps games were not ‘too hard’, perhaps your finance simply did not try hard enough,” is pretty direct and personal. Reasonability and degree of insult are in the eye of the beholder.

          “The majority of casual gamers are content just to throw away a few dollars for some little iPhone game to play on their daily commute. It’s a segmented market.”

          It’s a segmented market because game developers make it one. Greg’s labeled me a “casual gamer”, which is a term I don’t typically agree with; it’s overly simplistic, like “hardcore gamer” and implies, like you said, cheap iPhone games and Bejeweled. I’m a gamer who plays casually (less than a couple hours a day). I don’t like iPhone games. I love Left 4 Dead and Dragon Age. I also genuinely don’t believe that I’m a special butterfly. Am I so different from other folks who game casually?

          The application of the label “casual gamer” to a segment of the market is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you provide us/them with only $1 iPhone games to scratch their itch, that’s what their options will be, and you’ll have a segmented market that feels like a burden to support with easy modes. If you provide substantial games that can be approached casually–that is, in 10-30 minute segments (Left 4 Dead Survival Mode, for instance), without significant penalty upon failure or initial lack of skill (you know you’re going to die anyway!)–then the game wouldn’t have to be “dumbed down” at all, and those of us with less skill can simply get in more matches in 30 minutes.

          As for “conclud[ing] that it was your personal inability at the time to try and get over the so-called ‘confusing and disorienting’ aspects that made you lose interest in games,” it wasn’t a lack of ability, it was a lack of interest in spending time getting better. There are simply other things I’d rather be gaining skill in, and that’s no slight at all to less-casual gamers. I am, and have generally always been, a gamer who games casually.

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