In the brave new gameworld of the early 90s everything seemed to run smoothly for those who, day after day, had to struggle against the same level sweating and with their eyes almost covered in red and without any external contact, until they had finished their lonely stage, in order to boast inside their friends’ circle. Everyone who played had its virtual dreamland of picket fence, dog and job until some day, though no fault of nobody, a powerful avalanche took over the world and collapsed the minds of the most experienced and dedicated players: the games were turning easy. The panic was spread across the countries, articles started to circle the hottest spots on the gamers’ social networks and magazines, people started to insult while others hit themselves (virtually, of course) and even threats to end up with the fanboysim from its roots, if nothing was made to remedy the atrocities done in the titles filled with hype: A zombie outbreak in which the word dumbing down was the banner of the hordes of the living dead gamers.
Videogames are dumbing themselves down. It’s an apparent reality that grows in forums, portals, magazines, cafes, classrooms and networks and it’s fueled by every single title that, maybe because of the hype o just for a huge fan affiliation from the prequels of such title, turns into a huge disappointing by simplistic to the gamers who were expecting a challenge. Some of them apportion the blame onto the increasing videogame culture and the intentionality of knocking on everyone’s door with a title down their arm; others blame it on a wrong management and a lack of feedback in all the stages of the development of the game. Others directly found a dark strategy from the illuminati, in order to change the course of the history, but that’s a different story.
Inside the debate, two forces struggle for the power: the casual gamers and the hardcore ones. It’s still unknown if with such practices there’s an intention of merge both groups in a game that reunites something partial, an essence of what the predecessors of such game were, and make it interesting for every new player at the same time; or just to completely tear them apart into two opposing forces and give to each one a portion of what they ask in different and separated titles, or even nothing at all.
Diablo III experienced a huge shift inside his beloved character customization and the way the players were seeking for loot. For better or worse, the boundaries between a properly simplifaction and dumbed down move were thinner enough for creating a huge side of detractors and lovers.
What is clear is that this is happening, titles and more titles try to simplify, for no reason, a huge portion of the mechanics embedded in the games, which is reflected on its content and maybe because of that they decide to focus on the void of spectacular nature, the fiction film look like and the glitter, and turn a step backwards onto linearity. Some of them fed from the suppression of content which was susceptible of being changed, others just only by the decreasing of the difficulty in a radical way. So there is a huge difference between what practices do commonly use game developers in order to simplify their titles, and which of them fall into dumbing down. But not everything is a wrong move from its roots, simplification is a way itself for betterment, so the question we shall ask is: where is the lining that separates both things?
Simplification against dumbing down
I think that the focus of the debate relies around both ways to attempt the creation of a new game, and it’s worth to know when happens one way, the other or both. They’re eager to be misunderstood, provided the first shock the player receives after trying the game for the very first time turns into a share of his feelings, as soon as he can by yelling elsewhere that a game is easy, or ask what the hell just happened to the game in which he put all his hopes. But still for him is impossible to distinguish if the game is easy or looks easy.
By simplification is understood the diminish of the quantity of game elements to make it more accessible to newcomers, to those new players that enter in the circle of terror. The quantity of elements that suffers an impact must be high in order to make the veteran plares aware of it. Subtle changes are barely perceptible by players who already are paying attention to new or updated content.
Minecraft’s reduced mechanics are an example of simplification: they add a more valuable experience from the simple fact of just pushing a button and running from one side to another, balancing the whole system for the player’s betterment.
So simplifying is reducing the game mechanics in a way that could scare everyone who already has a notion of what an specific genre represents. In an action game, for example, such activity would be the drastic reduction of buttons about to push and the feedback they do provide, the more intense and disturbing amount of quick time events, making the player feel inside an on-rail amusement park experience or the powerful add of a sidekick that manages to solve the player’s needs even without desiring them. In strategy dependent games, the simplification would come by an interface reduction, less skill, less customization options, etc.; giving some sort of disintegration of the main skeleton that holds the game’s base, making it child-like. But not everything is meant for crying and, for such thing, simplification has not to be taken as something catastrophic or terribly wrong, but something dangerous if balance is not taken as the main banner for such trimmed-content wars. Simplification acts for player’s betterment as well (well, that’s the intentionality from which designers start). The suppression of tedious or repetitive elements, the long sized and dull mechanics taken as the savior of a game by its revolutionary idea could be taken away, being profitable for a vast community of players who were asking for a removal.
What happened to the stealthy and risky way Splinter Cell was? It had his step back by adding an instant kill ability that erased with just a button up to 5 foes. The community blamed on it, and in its next title a notable increase of difficculty and diminish on this feature has been taken.
Intentionally nobody has in mind the necessity of creating an incommodity for those who are his clients, nobody wants to lay a nail track, take their shoes and hit them with whips to the thousands of players who have put their hopes on forthcoming titles. “if I do erase the older combat system, who was able to hold more attack combinations hitting all the possible buttons; for a new one and redesigned that only requires a few movements or button hits, I’m going to incorporate a series of elements who will make the sense of maintain the same difficulty than his predecessor. Perhaps by adding enemies with different interactions and AI, making levels longer or adding variety mixing it with some sort of creativity”. What we cannot do is to cross our arms and reject the change directly, if a novelty is offered, is just because of the core fact of innovate and alter stuff for the good of the entire experience the player gets from playing the game. But without balance, all the system becomes obsolete and out of place, and here there’s no escape.
But there’s always a dark side, and we’ve not came for rejecting it because it’s true that there’s titles that have been simplified and so disproportionally that have turned the experience into a head slide, a step back and an unnecessary easy way for players who had to feel, some way or another, like if they were playing with cheats in an ecosystem that seemed to have eradicated them. Repetitive combats with null charisma with highly powerful actions, constrained options for an role playing game, unlimited checkpoints, fixed difficulty, unbalanced progression and to match depending on the engagement of the first levels and losing touch after, dangerous unlockables, etc. To sum up, the list of examples is enough wide for not realizing that it is happening and that players, who are the critical base of the game’s jungle, have reason. On the next article, the other side of the moon known as dumbing down with some few characteristics will be tackled. Stay tuned and be wise.