Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Economics of Ease

This may seem like a middle aged bloke pining for his youth, but let me just say; Games today are nowhere near as difficult as they were when I was young.

Yes there is a certain amount of nostalgia associated with that statement; however it’s also an irrefutable fact! I’ll even go on to say the reason games are easier is purely economic.

Back in the 80s (Haha! More nostalgia!) one of the primary sources of high end gaming experiences was the local arcade. Or in my case, having grown up in a small rural community, it was back in the 90s you could play Mortal Kombat at the local Laundromat. Nevertheless when on holidays I’d locate the nearest coin-ops and pump the majority of my spending money into them. My spending money was by no means meagre however it never really lasted more than a day.

These games were hard, unfriendly to new players and bloody addictive. As a result my brothers and I experienced game play in 3 minutes blocks between which we’d frantically feed our parents hard earned coins into that tiny but insatiable slot. The response was almost Pavlovian;

  • “Warrior needs food badly...” = insert 20c
  • “Woah! Shell Shocked!” = insert $1
  • “Game over... Continue?” = insert whatever we’ve got left!

Now with the benefit of hindsight the economic incentive for this level of difficulty is obvious. And just as obvious is the incentive we had to be better at the games we played.

This level of difficulty was mirrored on the home systems we enjoyed. The arcade ports were just as difficult and the titles developed exclusively for the home platforms shared this apparent contempt for the player. But as a wise man pointed out while we discussed this very issue; there were far fewer gamers back in the “good ol’ days” and the kinds of people who enjoyed games also enjoyed more intellectual pursuits.

Find a gamer in the 80s or 90s and chances are they would enjoy chess, puzzles and generally derive value from things that required skill and cunning. These attributes characterised the games we played as youths. Yes they were hard; but with this level difficulty, also came a high level of satisfaction when you managed to achieve victory!

Then the rabble came. I blame Sony. Their slick marketing of the Playstation brought gaming into popular culture and as it became less of a niche pursuit the difficulty of games was diminished.

This time the economic incentive was to sell more games to people who would play at home. So as the demographic broadened then by necessity the skill and cunning required to enjoy games was lessened. If game got a reputation for being unforgiving fewer of this new wave of gamers would be willing to shell out cash for a copy. Who wants to pay to be punished? Actually don’t answer that.

But it gets worse because then the MMOs came. These games are all about extracting as much cash as possible for the audience but instead of inserting coins every 3 minutes you insert credit card details every month. The value proposition of an MMO is so much greater than that of an arcade game but they’ve achieved that by flattening the difficulty curve to such an extent that a human doesn’t even have to be at the keyboard to be successful! If a game is so repetitive that it can be botted; how can it really be all that interesting? As I’ve said before this is a dangerous concession to the lowest common denominator and it’s made entirely as an economic decision.

 Just look at the Nintendo Wii. It has out sold the Xbox 360 and Play Station 3 presumably on the premise that it’s more accessible thus securing a larger market. But that may be to the platforms own detriment. The Wii may well the best selling console but it’s also the least played (ref )

I don’t want to come off as a grumpy old man caught up in the nostalgia of his youth. I think it’s great that games now have a wider audience; as the capital generated by this larger player base has facilitated the production some really entertaining titles. It’s just that these titles are designed so the majority of players will be able to witness the final cinematic.

All hope is not lost though as there also seems to be a bit of trend towards ramping up difficulty ('s_Souls#Reception ). Maybe we’ll witness the creation of a new subgenre, Hardcore games for Hardcore gamers.

Whatever happens I really hope that games in general aren’t diminished by their acceptance into a larger market.

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