Anyone remember back when game were hard? Remember when we sat in front of our TVs, just agonizing over how to find that darn magic whistle in Super Mario Bros. 3? It was beneath that white block? That would’ve saved me ten hours. It’s amazing to think how brutal games from just this last generation were at times, and even “children” games were scream inducing. Care to recall those repressed terrors of Psychonauts’s Meat Circus? Given how far the industry has come since then, it’s hard to imagine today, but there was once a time when games were just too hard. Now it seems that we’ve gone in the opposite direction: games are too easy. Save for some arcade or indie titles designed as retro throwbacks like Super Meat Boy and Guacamelee, just about every blockbuster heralding store shelves is so simple that we can polish them off like a half-baked pizza in a single sitting.

Why? Are we just getting too bad-ass for feeble game designers, or are game designers making games for a bunch of dodo brains who can’t play video games?

It’s really very simple to realize why games are so much easier when you look at what their being designed for nowadays. From Battlefield to Call of Duty, loads of games are built around multiplayer whereas PS2 era games were solo romps. Players and developers alike know the cash value that online multiplayer brings: playing with friends, bonding with friends, and experiencing more unique moments together while being challenged by a fellow human rather than a dumb AI. There’s a certain kind of entertainment from online play that offline games can’t give, but this principle also works in reverse. An exciting multiplayer has to be dynamic and balanced. A scripted narrative of narrow shooting galleries seems more like work than play. Gamers by nature are rebellious and creative and mixing and matching the combo platter yourself is more fun than simply eating the spoonfuls you’re served. This in itself is another reason games might be getting too easy. They’re simply too simple.

There has to be a level playing field of options and strategy that a real person can understand and benefit from in-game, but it comes at a cost. Players are handed a bazooka and flame-thrower automatically and told to run around the playground with it and have fun mowing down their friends in the playground. Developers progress the game that way, yet there’s so much more thrill in setting up the game yourself. How good a pro player can be next to a first time player is the ideal balance a game can find: decked out veterans will do the best, but a noob will still have a fighting chance. In online play, there are no difficulties, there’s just you, your gun, and your eyes. Single player “campaigns” (a word only really popularized during this console generation), have varying difficulty levels, and changing the difficulty can be a big or easy step. In FPSs like Call of Duty, it merely makes enemy fire more damaging, but in a game like Batman: Arkham City, it can take away certain assists on top of the more blistering blows Batman takes. Past games didn’t often come with staggered difficulties and we were just stuck with what the designers gave you for better or worse. 

A few game series still carry this tradition on. Portal, old-school JRPGs, and the New Super Mario Bros. games impose a single difficulty level whether you like it or not and it works well splendidly. I always found Portal to be a pleasant middle ground between making me scratch my head in wonder and making me feel so smart when I finally figured out how to best use the bouncy gel to get up to that one perch. Games like Final Fantasy and Xenoblade Saga let you make the game as hard as you want it to be: you can either level grind your way to near-invincibility or take on that nerve-wracking boss at a low level and test your luck. Getting to the goal posts in New Super Mario Bros. is always easy-peasy, but it becomes a real challenge if you want to collect every darn Star Coin you see or beat your own records. 

Assassin’s Creed 3’s director Alex Hutchinson probably best summarizes it: “A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes. If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game. You made a game that is essentially the worst possible version of your game.” That rings truer and truer for every triple A blockbuster title released: easy modes let you put the reins on the ideas at hand while a hard mode to makes you exploit them to survive. Muscling your way through a Metal Gear Solid on easy lets you just walk up and shoot everything, while hard mode forces you to think like the stealthy Snake you are and play the waiting game. It’s a different game that way and so much more satisfying when you finally tranquilize the jerk you’ve been tailing in the bushes for a good ten minutes.

Other games offer challenge in even smarter ways: Mass Effect 3 uses group AI and several diverse enemy types in each encounter to let the tactics of the game shine through. Even when you play on the default setting, you need to bring you and your squad mates’ best abilities into the fight; you can’t just mow your way home with a smoking gun and expect a casualty free day. You can still play on the easiest difficulty that makes Shepard nearly invincible, but you hardly feel like you’ve earned the galaxy’s admiration. 

A few others aren’t as smart. The otherwise beloved developer Naughty Dog moved from younger games like Jak & Daxter to heavier shoot ‘em ups when the PS3 debuted. There are ways to make third-person shooters challenging without being unfair, but Naughty Dog hasn’t mastered that art: enemies are downright bullet sponges, and those armored thugs aren’t only ridiculously hard to kill, but completely unbalanced. Why should they be able to shoot me from a mile away with a stupid shotgun despite the fact that I had just put 30 rounds in their often uncovered heads? It’s not only unfair, but it’s a clumsy contrast to the realism Naughty Dog was trying to convey.

So what if games aren’t getting too easy? What if we’re getting too darn good? With regards to our humble species, doesn't everything get better with practice for us humans? That might very well be a factor, but not a real solution. The designers could make the game harder and keep up with us. So the assumption might go that we aren't getting better. We're getting dumber.

Are games getting too short? They arguably are. The persistent focus on online multiplayer’s left FPSs’ single player campaigns to about the length of two Hollywood action films. The multiplayer itself’s often dumbed down to a level playing field for the most moderately skilled gamers with resources being taken from single player to improve the online play's quality. This ultimately means the core game itself is shorter even if its replay value is higher. While most people will take a better game over a longer one, increased length certainly doesn’t hinder our impressions.

If we look at “long games” our minds go to games like Rockstars high budget, high selling Grand Theft Auto V, and Ubisoft's likeminded Assassin's Creeds. They're arguably shorter than their counterparts from the last console generation, but we make them as long as we wish simply doing what we want in their worlds even while ignoring the story at hand. Just 10% of players finished the final mission in Red Dead Redemption and I'm calling it now that just as few will probably finish GTA V's main story. Yet that's freedom and players crave it, as GTA V's sales figures will indicate.

Let’s face it: too many games are definitely getting easier. Is this for the better or not? It all depends on who you ask. Easy games make us feel like a bad-ass when we slam through “difficult” modes and see that achievement pop up but when a hard game like Dark Souls comes along, we whine and complain about bettering ourselves as gamers to meet the challenge. Maybe widening the appeal of the market is why developers go out of their way to put games on a silver platter for us, maybe it’s online play and expansive content, or maybe we’re just too good. Or too bad.