Friday Roundtable: Are Games Being Dumbed Down?

Are Games Being Dumbed Down?

Uphill in the Snow, Both Ways

Some of us (relatively) old fogies like to shake our fists and bemoan the way the times, they are a-changin’. According to our campfire stories, the early days of gaming were a time when gamers still had honor, simple two-button controls were superior, and games were still back-breakingly difficult, “the way it should be”. But this last implies that games today have become mere child’s play, to be treated with scorn and not worthy of a single nervous twitch.

But has gaming really been scaled back and leveled down? Or is it all just foggy-minded rantings due to inaccurately perceived nostalgia? This week, our extended team, both young and old(er), comes together to debate this issue.

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Video games, in my opinion, have been getting easier when it comes to their standard difficulty setting. You can, of course, jack up the difficulty on the likes of Halo: Reach, Gears of War 3 or Mass Effect 2, but if you’re going in on the basic setting, chances are you’ll make it through to the other end with only a few mess-ups along the way. I understand why this is the case – when a developer or publisher invests millions of dollars into making a new game, usually with the hope of drawing more people back in for a sequel, allowing people to reach the end is usually a good thing.

Nevertheless, I feel this is all part of a gradual shift in gaming that I’m not entirely in favour of. Many gamers now play through games for the story, whereas I’ve always been more a fan of challenging gameplay. No matter how good the story is, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting to the end of an insanely tough game and then having the bragging rights to say that you did it. I started playing games when it was more about the gameplay as stories weren’t fully fleshed out, so my view is probably fairly biased.

There are some games out there that do a good job of delivering both. Halo: Reach, for example, is great for story lovers on Heroic difficulty or lower, but Legendary is perfect for those that don’t mind dying over and over again in order to complete the insanely tough challenge that it is.


Are Games Being Dumbed Down?I like to point to the fact that most of us had to use cheat codes to beat games back in the day as proof that games are getting dumbed down. Developers knew their games were tough, and that’s why the Konami code and IDKFA are so ingrained in gaming culture. Platformers were strewn with fireballs and bullets, and shooters and RPGs tended toward levels with mazelike complexity. Even if the puzzles did boil down to “find key, flip switch”, that was often enough at the end of a labyrinth.

However, a good portion of games in recent years have tended toward less challenge, particularly story-driven games where the developers want to railroad you down one path (in contrast to earlier, story-driven adventure games where your progress could be ground to a halt if you couldn’t solve a puzzle). While playing a typical shooter today, you don’t run into things like respawning monsters or alternate rooms filled with enemies and a shiny new weapon as your reward for taking the risk – it’s just a series of scripted pitched battles from point A to point B.

Games are unbelievably forgiving these days. In Diablo, for example, if you died in the dungeon and forgot to save beforehand, that was it. Your progress was lost. In its sequel, death is a slap on the wrist – you lose some gold, and are separated from your equipment. But it’s not as big a deal. Heck, some games practically reward you for dying. Tomb Raider Anniversary refilled you to full health every time you died. So, low health? Reach a checkpoint and dive off a cliff, you’re back better off than you started.


That’s a great point about the codes, Chad. I remember playing games like Super Mario 2 and Ninja Gaiden as a kid and being so frustrated at how difficult they were for me. Having to start from the beginning every time my limited life count dropped to zero was enough to drive me crazy. I’d think to myself, “Why do I not have an option to make this more beatable? Why shouldn’t a game I bought (well, my parents bought) not allow me to see everything it had to offer due to a difficulty curve I couldn’t overcome?”

Are Games Being Dumbed Down?

Artist’s rendering of Armand after a session of SMB2 or Ninja Gaiden.

What I wanted then, just as I want now, are options. When a game gives me proper difficulty adjustment options, I tend to enjoy it a lot more. Maybe I just feel like having a leisurely bout of zombie-head-smashing sometimes, for which the easy setting is ideal. Or maybe I want to feel a sense of challenge, but still get through the main game mode before moving onto something else. The games that are truly great, the ones that are appropriately balanced and have tight controls, will often spur me to retry on the harder settings after I’ve gotten my fill of the story. In the end though, for me it’s all about choice.

There has been an adjustment in gaming difficulty toward an easier experience, and this hasn’t been well received by those who prefer a greater challenge, which is why games like Demon’s Souls and The Witcher 2 have been generating so much buzz lately. Some people want to really work for their prize. Someone like me however, as much as I’m enjoying The Witcher 2, I’m also intimidated by it. An intimidation that makes it hard for me to approach the game and start up a session. Once I’m there, I may enjoy myself, but it’s not always easy.

In the end, I think developers have become much better at pacing games for adults with limited time and a hell of a lot of games to play. If we all only got one new game every couple of months, we might still need the much harder games. But I just don’t have the time to sink into really mastering every game I pick up. Often I just want to have some casual fun with a not-so-casual game.


It can definitely be intimidating, although usually there are other factors that drive the annoyance of a hard game up – I don’t mind reloading a save or checkpoint, but when it’s not well-optimized and I spend most of the time looking at a loading screen, I tend to get ticked off. That said, I really appreciated Demon’s Souls because of how hard it made me work. You really feel a sense of accomplishment when you progress. Remember how hard it was to beat Mega Man 2? It’s kind of like that.


Are Games Being Dumbed Down?

It’s the stuff our nightmares are made out of!

Seeing as I am part of a new generation of gamers, I was born into the transitional phase where the games with a high degree of difficulty were starting to phase out and the story-driven games came in. I think because of this, I have a really short temper, especially with Demon’s Souls which I just started playing a couple of days ago.

I have mentioned this numerous times, but I am attracted to games with a great story, and sometimes I really do not want much of a challenge in the game. To me, Uncharted 2 exhibits what I am talking about, and its story and characters are what really attracted me to the game. However, a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the games I felt that had a good balance of challenge and story and I felt satisfied after beating a boss or going through a certain location stealthily instead of going in with my guns blazing.

However, I feel like people can really make their playthroughs a little harder through another method besides changing the difficulty setting. To me, trophies and achievements make a game fun and challenging. If you want the normal experience, play the game and those achievements/trophies will not take effect unless through some accidental happenstance or (I really hate this) every mission yields a trophy/achievement, but strive for those rewards and the game becomes a tougher beast to defeat.


See, trophies and achievements provide little value for me. If I’m going to play a game long enough to “master” it and get all those things, it’s largely coincidental. I didn’t get the Platinum trophy in Fallout 3 because of the trophy – I got it because I loved the game and wanted to see and experience every nook and cranny of what the game had to offer. Trophies and achievements don’t really confer anything more than a bragging rights reward, and even then, so many people can platinum them that it’s nothing too special. Where’s my trophy for beating Emerald Weapon?


I’m not a big fan of achievements either, but I agree with Rexly that they can bring an added challenge to a game for those who want it. I prefer the kind I see in games like Borderlands and Dead Island that actually give you in-game rewards like experience points. It makes them feel much more like a part of the game instead of some external element, and when you build an experience curve with in-game achievements in mind, it gives the player a real reason to go after them.

Also, I never beat Mega Man 2 as a kid because the rental copy I’d play on was never in my possession long enough for me to master Quick Man’s stage. Mega Man 3 and X on the other hand – those were played for countless hours.

Are Games Being Dumbed Down?


Like Rexly, I too was born in the transitional period between hardcore challenges and what I think we’ve established to be the dumbing down of gaming. I remember playing some games such as Crash Bandicoot (which now is probably fairly straightforward, but when I was young provided me with a challenge) and getting stuck on levels, or bosses, or anything in between. That kind of challenge where you really had to make sense of it all for yourself was something I relished. That, and going into school the next day to try to talk it through with other kids.
If I’m honest, I agree that games are becoming too simple. Having recently completed the new releases Gears of War 3 and Rage, I felt somewhat let down by the challenge they provided. It started off soft, yes, as it should, but by the time I got to a mission or section where I would be continuously dying, and I thought things might finally start to get tricky, the game came to an end. An example: Gears of War 3 was notoriously easy, and not just for me. I remember reading things all over the place in which people questioned whether the game was easy, or they were just really good at it. Spoiler: it’s the first one. I played through Gears on Hardcore mode, and have started again on Insane. The latter is slightly more challenging, but still meh.

What I really miss is boss battles – there have to be a considerable amount of them for me to break a sweat and really enjoy my progression through a game. I want to be intimidated, and, like Armand, I sometimes get scared away from tricky games, but when I finally pluck up the courage to sit down and continue, every step forward is a reward in itself, regardless of achievements or trophies.


Are Games Being Dumbed Down?

Is this where we got “Nintendo Hard”?

Well, I’m of a mixed mind on the issue. First, I think using the term “dumbed down” is a disservice to the fact that the industry has changed drastically since it was young.  Back in the NES days (and I’m starting from here since that was really the first dedicated game system with more than 5 choices and a whole 8 bits!), a large number of the games were effectively ports.  From where? The arcade, that place designed to eat any number of valuable tokens and coins.  So, like modern ports, there usually wasn’t too much effort in modifying the game other than getting it up and running.  So now you’re sitting at home with a brand new Contra but it still has the exact same amount of flying bullets, tricky jumps, precise landings, and there went your last life. Continue? I’d love to, but there’s no coin slot, so the 2 built in are it.

Compare this to modern games which are instead built with the capabilities and limitations of the system in mind, and you get games that aren’t designed to make you rip out your hair, but that are meant to be a challenge that can be completed not just by someone with the reflexes of a mongoose on coke.
So in a roundabout way, my point is “yes, games are getting/have gotten easier” but they haven’t been “dumbed down.”  If anything, they’ve become more complex, and not simply in terms of how many buttons you need to press, but in terms of story-telling, interactivity, social interaction, and just plain fun.  If you really feel the need to punish yourself while gaming, then by all means play through on the highest difficulty of an FPS using only your fists, with all the controls inverted.
And achievements/trophies are mini-crack.


My initial twitch-answer was, “Yes, games are definitely getting too easy!” But once I considered for a minute, I think I have to re-evaluate my position.

I think that a large part of what makes games so much simpler today is the built-in auto-save features. If you die, anytime, at any boss, you’ll likely restart at a point you only passed two or three minutes ago, and get to retry that boss or tricky section ad nauseam until you’ve bested it. It’s very rare to see a game today that actually includes a final “Game Over” screen, without the option to continue, that’ll send you back to the beginning of the game.

But do I think the auto-save feature is a bad thing? Absolutely not. I know the only reasons I had the patience when I was a kid to keep restarting games after dying a miserable death were because a) I had more time and less responsibility on my hands, and b) I had fewer options/could afford fewer games, so it was either keep playing the game or play nothing. That’s not the case today, and if a game wanted to toy with me like that, it’d probably spend most of its existence on my shelf instead of being played. In contrast, I also just picked up Demon’s Souls, and am looking forward to a good thrashing…I guess I have at least a small masochistic streak in me.

I have to agree with Chad’s point about some games being way too forgiving when it comes to dying though. Both Bioshock and Dead Island were games with great, spooky atmospheres, and not being able to truly die in either game but just being resurrected a few feet away and losing nothing (save a bit of cash in Dead Island) really chipped away at the tense atmosphere. It got to a point where hearing the menacing groan of a Big Daddy didn’t even faze me anymore; I just looked for the nearest Vita Chamber and prepared to whittle away at his health in-between my rezzes.

Also, I’d like to add that I can imagine that developers who make epic, cinematic games that feature emotionally impressive storylines and clever dialogue have a vested interest in making sure that all of their game gets to be experienced by the gaming public. To that purpose, it makes sense that they would install failsafes like enemy level scaling and frequent checkpoints. I won’t be purchasing future installments of the Mass Effect franchise if I get pulverized and sent home in a shivering heap during the first twenty minutes of the first game.

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Share Your ThoughtsBnB writ­ers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think? Are games today too watered down and not challenging enough? Or does your hair still stand on end if you even think of those first few levels of Little Big Planet? 

The table is yours.


One thought on “Friday Roundtable: Are Games Being Dumbed Down?

  1. I dont like new games i reckon you should be able to handle dying in games..the more challenge the more special your acheivement is.. I played football in swedens top division i knew i have done something extraordinary..when you feel the pulse rising when you are in a tough fight and the whole game depended on you thats when the games come alive. Games is too easy period i cant even stand to play through mode of the games released now..and you guys are wrong. challenge is the foudation of accomplishment and to cater to individuals who dont understand that you have to actually do something good to be good at a game is very wrong..its sad to see that you older guys here dont emphasize challenge more im dissapointed

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