February 3, 2010 12:00 PM | Simon Carless
[Why are the truly difficult games seeing the most critical acclaim today? Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander thinks she might see a new video gaming trend: Is "hard" the new "good"?]
The Wii's success helped drive something of a sea change in the way developers conceptualize game design. As young children, mothers and grandparents in nursing homes alike all joined Nintendo in spirit, it was suddenly more possible than ever to create games for a mass market.
At the same time, the surge in social networking and the growth of other new platforms with low entry barriers, like the iPhone, also helped bring broader-focused, more accessible gaming experiences to newer and bigger audiences. These new avenues more than revolutionized the term “gamer” -- they made it redundant, as a “gamer” could be anyone.
The timing couldn't have been better, either. The last two years' softening economy made it necessary for anyone with an interest in staying in business to cast a wide net. Alongside this evolving landscape came a subtle shift in design priorities: Developers seemed better off making games that were simple and inviting, rather than challenging or immersive.
This landscape shift also affected the core market. Among the online communities of hardcore fans, a Wii backlash had been simmering for some time, and even many professional reviewers, once optimistic, had begun to be frank about feeling as if the system was not "for them."
But while the Wii has become something of an avatar for the "gaming for everyone" concept, it's far from the only factor. Even core design has been trying to lower its barriers, prizing systems whereby players can set their own challenge level.
The evidence is everywhere, even very recently: Compare Bayonetta, with its simple two-button combo system, to the more complex button patterns of the earlier Devil May Cry games. Witness the streamlining of Mass Effect 2 .
It seems counterintuitive that such evolution would evoke much protest. While it's true that the easiest way to lower a game's barrier to entry is to dumb it down, most of these evolutions and innovations are just smarter design. Why frustrate players unnecessarily?
That's why it's so surprising that all of a sudden, it seems there's a movement -- an insurrection, if you will -- of players who want to be frustrated.
The evidence is subtle but compelling. For one example, look to major consumer website GameSpot’s Game of the Year for 2009: Atlus’ PS3 RPG Demon’s Souls, which received widespread critical acclaim – none of which failed to include a mention of the game’s steep challenge. GameSpot called it "ruthlessly, unforgivingly difficult."
Demon’s Souls was a sleeper hit, an anomaly in the era of accessibility. One would think the deck was stacked against a game that demanded such vicious persistence, such precise attention – and yet a surge of praise from critics and developers alike praised the game for reintroducing the experience of meaningful challenge, of a game that demanded something from its players rather than looked for ways to hand them things.
It wasn’t just Demon’s Souls that recently flipped the proverbial bird to the “gaming for everyone” trend. In many ways, the independent development scene can be viewed on the macro level as a harbinger of trends to come, and over the past year and into 2010, many indies have decided to be brutal to their players.
For example, it’s probably no coincidence that one of the most widely-acclaimed indie games in recent months is Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV, a game both named and designed around the concept of grueling platformer death by spikes (despite, of course, its genre-refreshing gravity-oriented innovations).
A few examples does not a cultural backlash make, but the surprising success of such challenging video games raises an important question: Do players like being frustrated after all?
Many old design concepts, like massive gaps between save points, limited “lives” or arcade-relic intentional brutality, were abandoned for good reason – they were needlessly frustrating. But in adopting piecemeal the design ideal that all frustration is bad, developers may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
So is hard the new "good"? That seems to be the case. More and more, both critical and audience response favors meaningful challenge over too much hand-holding, and learning experiences over games that demand little.
Certainly design wisdom can’t regress toward principles that were abandoned for good reason, but the current environment is beginning to show signs that it mustn’t race heedlessly toward an entirely new paradigm, either.