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Thursday, May 8, 2008

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The Decline Of Game Difficulty
6:00 AM | Cord Kruse | 15 comments

A recent article in The Escapist online gaming magazine offers an examination of the declining difficulty in mainstream games. The feature explores the reasons why developers have reduced the difficulty level, the overall impact of the change, and the creation of a niche market for those who still want a punishing challenge.

While few go as far as LEGO Star Wars developer Traveller's Tales did, we saw a related attitude rise among games that were traditionally for a limited demographic: an attitude I tend to characterize as "entryist." The math was simple: The cost of making games has risen, but publishers have reached the upper limit of what they can reasonably charge the consumer. This means developers have to work out a way to sell the game to more people while not compromising their core audience in order to stay profitable. Traveller's Tales achieved this by making LEGO Star Wars easier while maintaining enough depth to satisfy experienced players. Newcomers could have a more basic experience and be lured in, while seasoned gamers could go off and do their own thing.

The results of the entryist movement have been mixed. Compare what happens when you say "Knights of the Old Republic," which practically beat itself, and "Deus Ex: Invisible War," which was nigh impossible, in a room full of gamers. Fine-tuning difficulty remains problematic for developers. While it may have been satisfactory for System Shock 2 to sell 250,000 units in 1999, sales numbers like that in today's development environment would be disastrous. So while Bioshock plays similarly to SS2, it's far more forgiving if you're not an experienced first-person gamer. Ken Levine was famously quoted as telling the team he wanted his grandmother to be able to complete it on "Easy."

Which is all well and good, but there's a problem with entryism: No one appreciates the top end, since everyone follows the path of least resistance. If "Grandma Mode" is available, hardcore gamers are more likely to waltz through the game than attempt a harder difficulty. There's no point to putting yourself through a tougher experience if the end result is the same. Fundamentally, the entryist movement has failed - the bottom level has been lowered, but the top level, the level at which games were originally designed to be played, has been weakened in turn. In short, Mass Effect is not Planescape: Torment.
To read the full article follow the link provided below.

The Escapist: Hard Times

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