A fairly common question with modern video games is whether or not games as a whole are becoming easier. On the surface, it would appear to be a no-brainer: It’s far more likely that you’ll see the end of a video game nowadays than it was ten or twenty years ago. But we need to ask ourselves, are we asking the right question? What if difficulty is based on more than how far you can get into a game before hitting a wall?
My point is thus: Many older games weren’t difficult, they were more punishing. An example of this is a lives counter, something that’s in less and less in modern video games. Extra lives allow you to restart from a recent point in a game after you die. When they run out, you get sent back even further – to the start of the level, or even to the start of the game. But does this add difficulty? The events of the game don’t become any more challenging to overcome with extra lives, it just means that after a somewhat arbitrary number of attempts the smacks you down with a much larger punishment. As such, most games now do away with a lives counter, and always allow you to restart from a recent checkpoint as many times as you wish.
Another example comes from RPGs, which have also progressed in a similar way. In the vast majority of old RPGs, dying or wiping your party lead to a Game Over screen, which lead back to the title screen and forced you to reload at your last save. Obviously, at the end of a dungeon, this could lose you hours of work. Recently, the trend in RPGs has been to offer safety nets – allowing you to restart boss battles, or skip back to a moment before. Again, this is difficulty versus punishment. It doesn’t make the gameplay any easier, but serves to speed things up and reduce the likelihood of you losing progress.
Obviously the points I’ve tried to raise here don’t apply universally. When Metroid Prime 3 launched, people were surprised to find that the game’s Normal difficulty was balanced to be the same as the earlier games’ Easy, and that the standard difficulty for the series had become “Veteran”. It is also the case that many old games, especially from the NES era, were heavily based on the design of the arcade. In the arcade, incredibly difficult games were an advantage, as every death meant another quarter from a determined customer. But, overall, I think most of what people see as games getting easier is actually just games becoming more polished, less punishing and (arguably) more fun experiences.