Games, and their target audience, have changed. This point can be contested and debated all we like but sometime or another it’s going to hit everyone that this hobby, past-time, whatever you like to call it, has evolved over time. Graphics, gameplay, story, battle systems – all of these things have come leaps and bounds since the 8-bit or even the 16-bit era. Graphics and story go hand-in-hand in some pretty obvious ways. Wider range of available character emotions, sophisticated animations and detail-rich environments allow for more storytelling than ever before. This is a great thing and while some people will argue that gameplay has suffered for it, this is really just a scapegoat. You can’t blame visuals or story for bad game design. However, I mentioned that the audience for gaming has changed – people who would have never played a game before the PlayStation are now the main demographic for most games and this is becoming more and more apparent the further along we go.
Accessibility. It’s a point of contention for many – no wonder, as many of us grew up on difficult, puzzling games like Metroid and Zelda. Not necessarily impossible, but certainly games that required a bit of brainpower to get the entire experience. There are so many factors to consider as to why developers are simplifying the games they create. One that I keep going back to is that the Internet is now in nearly every home – certainly, if you’re playing video games it’s more than likely you have an active connection. Look at the Wii U’s Miiverse for certain ‘older’ games, like Super Metroid or Mega Man X and you’ll see exactly what is happening. You can argue that we, as kids, got stuck on these games too and occasionally shared game tips and helped each other on the playground. However, with the Internet being available now, today’s kids don’t need to excersize their problem-solving abilities or think about the information presented to them – they can just ask a wider forum. So is this simplification just an effort to prevent that kind of behaviour? Maybe, maybe not.
Others point to the increased length of games nowadays. In the past, not much could be achieved with the technology of the day in terms of creating a long-lasting experience. Developers had to resort to making games more difficult to stretch the playtime and pad the game out – nobody wanted to spend money on a game to only find it lasted one, maybe two hours. Many games had a consistent difficulty curve and at least one or two ‘spikes’ – parts of a game designed to act as a progress wall until the problem had been solved or the enemy overcome. This became less common during the 16-bit and 32-bit eras and now it’s very rarely seen. With the ability to create longer games with more content than ever before, this has become less of an issue and the developer can make the game hold players’ hands through while still crafting a thirty hour experience or more.
This is where some people would blame story for the issue – I can understand it. After all, a developer has spent months, maybe even years, crafting a deep, intricate story for the user to experience and if the game is too difficult or too inaccessible, they probably won’t see all of it. Final Fantasy XIII was a great example of this. While I’ve never had too much of a problem completing previous Final Fantasy games, Square Enix felt the need to simplify it to the point where many of the series’ fans didn’t even recognize it anymore. Gone are the towns, gone are the explorable environments, gone is the need to heal your characters after each battle. The game, for many hours, is a long trek down a linear corridor separated only by cut-scenes. There are no random battles, so the developer has placed enough enemies that ensure you’re the right level for the challenges ahead and your characters are not at all customizable, rather their upgrade progress is presented in pretty much a straight line. You are healed after every battle, removing any sort of challenge when running low on items. All of this serves to ensure that even newcomers to the series, or even the RPG genre as a whole, can see the whole story – but when the game has been dumbed down so much, many series die-hards found that they didn’t want to see it all anyway. Is story to blame? No, but some developers certainly miss priorities.
At least with MMORPGs, the reason why accessibility has become such an issue is immediately obvious. With games like World of Warcraft, players are paying a subscription fee each month to ensure constant updates rich with content. However, many people are unable to devote the time and effort to the game previously required to progress and see all of the game’s high-end ‘raid’ content. Blizzard have band-aided this problem by providing them with numerous ways to access almost all that the game has to offer. Raids, dungeons which require a group of 10 or 25 players, have always been an extremely challenging affair, testing leadership abilities, player skill and team co-ordination. The bosses have abilities that need to be watched for, damage areas that need to be avoided, all sorts of mechanics to make the raiders’ lives as difficult as possible. With the end of the Cataclysm expansion and now the Mists of Pandaria pack, Blizzard have added a tool called ‘Looking for Raid’, a point of contention for many hardcore players. It enables anyone to queue up for a random group of 25 strangers, cross-server and instantly go to the raid – tactics are not required as the abilities of the enemies have been weakened drastically. These raids are so forgiving that many don’t even consider this raiding. Of course, this tool does not prevent normal or ‘heroic’ (basically hard mode) raiders from doing the normal content. However, many newer players have no idea how to play their class effectively and would be of no use in a ‘real’ raiding team or guild, not to mention that this ease-of-access effectively kills the motivation to get better and join a guild. Is this a bad thing, or a good thing? You can argue that it has somewhat killed the sense of community and of a journey – but you can also argue that it gives players with other commitments or who maybe aren’t as skilled a way to see all of the game’s endgame content in one way or another, or those who do want to learn the more advanced mechanics a way to get ‘gear’ and join in quicker than ever before. It’s a tricky issue to navigate and one I don’t think we’ll see an answer to any time soon.
So the debate about this will rage on for some time. Of course, there are still games that do require a lot more puzzle-solving than average but these tend to be targeted towards smaller, niche audiences. The more gaming moves towards a wider audience, the more ‘accessible’ it will become. Is it possible to create a truly compelling gaming experience while still maintaining a level of simplicity and accessibility – and perhaps, more importantly, is accessibility actually about simplicity or just about making things easier? There’s certainly a lot to think about where this issue is concerned, no matter which side of the fence you sit on. Some people find fun in the challenge and there are certainly still games out there to cater for them – you just have to look a little harder for them now.
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