Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Video Game Difficulty

I've played a lot of video games over the years, mostly (but not entirely) sports and racing games. And I've noticed something, especially with the sports games: I really suck at them now! Why is that? Are the games getting harder, or my ability getting worse? Or was I never really that good to begin with? I think it's a little of all three, so let's start with the most obvious reason:

"Surely, you don't play video games anywhere near as often as you used to." This is true. I do still play that now-10-year-old NASCAR game quite a lot, and my skill level hasn't detereoriated noticeably in that game over the last several years. (I hit a plateau about four years ago and have been pretty consistent since.) So maybe if I still played video games as often as I did in college - I'm sure Amber and Marla appreciate the fact that I don't - I'd still be as good.

"Maybe you were just never that good to begin with, Chris. Remember that guy you played against in Madden several years ago?" Funny story: I used to think I was pretty good at Madden NFL 06 back in the day. Then, I played a game against someone from the floor above me in my apartment building. I think the score at halftime was...oh, I don't know, 49-7? That sounds about right. (I had the 7, of course.) And there was also that Super Smash Brothers tournament I entered at FSU, in which I got creamed. (By the way: want to meet some nerds? Attend a Super Smash Brothers tournament.) So, yeah, perhaps I've never really been that skilled a video gamer to begin with.

And that's the thing with video games, especially sports games. You set the difficulty. And that means you can easily fool yourself into thinking you're better than you are, especially the way that I normally set it up. I've found that I have the most fun with sports games when I win between 80 and 90% of the games I play, and I try to set up the difficulty level accordingly. You see, my idea of a fun challenge isn't so much winning the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup - I mean, winning the championship should pretty much be a given, right? - instead it's more like, can I break Drew Brees's single season passing yards record with Blaine Gabbert? Or, how does the scoreboard graphic handle it if I score over 100 points in a game? (That's far more doable in NCAA Football than in Madden, by the way, but it's been a while since I've pulled it off in either.)

"But didn't you win every single game in a full season of NHL 2002 on the hardest possible difficulty?" Yeah, well...that's just because I took advantage of "glitch goals". Used to be, sports games were filled with easily exploited flaws - a spot on the ice you can almost always score from, a offensive play that almost always fools the defense, etc - that allowed one to win consistently, even on the hardest difficulty levels. (In the case of NHL 2002, it was deflection goals. Hold down the deflection button, fire from the blue line, and...score! Most of the time, anyway.) Game manufacturers are getting better at avoiding glitches, though. They're also getting better at programming opponent AI in general. So, yes, sports video games have gotten harder over the last decade.

On the other hand, and while I don't play them anywhere near as often, I actually think other types of video games - the type that has "levels" that you progress through, and a well-defined endpoint, at which point you have "beaten the game" - have gotten easier. Video games of 15-20 years ago were occasionally very difficult to beat all the way through. Now - and I'm pretty sure James will correct me if I'm off-base here - I think games are designed so that even a schlub like me can "beat" it. Meanwhile, they also add additional achievements or side quests to keep the more skilled players interested. Most of all, online play is now often the main focus of game developers, rather than making a sufficiently challenging single player mode.

So, anyway, the end result of all this - less time played video games, more intelligently designed AI - is that while I used to put just about every sports game on the hardest possible difficulty, now, I most often use the second-lowest difficulty. It's actually kind of depressing, and frustrating, too; in fact, a few months ago, I resigned myself to defeat and stopped playing sports games altogether. If I can't win 80% of my games even on a relatively easy difficulty setting, then, well, @#$% it! I'm going to go find something else to do.

Well, that lasted about four months. Looking for a new (old) challenge, I've fired up the Xbox and started playing FIFA 12 again. But this time, I've adjusted the "CPU speed" slider downward so that when I give up a breakaway (is that a proper soccer term?), I'm not automatically screwed; maybe now I'll hopefully give up fewer than five goals a game. Progress! (That's an exaggeration, by the way. It was more like two or three goals a game. That's still a lot considering that we're talking about soccer here, but it doesn't sound as impressive.)

So, the moral of the story is this: if at first you don't succeed, take the easy way out! It's way easier than being persistent and, you know, "not giving up". ... You know, maybe that's why I'm not very good at these games.

1 comment:

James Allen said...

Mass-produced games have gotten a lot easier: if you hear about it on TV (Call of Duty, Battlefield, SimCity), it's easy, because the publishers have to earn all their money back from advertising and development and the general population doesn't want to buy a hard game.

There are less exploits (although some developers continue to cut corners on AI), but in heavily-scripted games like CoD, you are hand-held through the game that serves more like a movie than a actual game.

An exception to this phenomena is sports games, because the developers think that most people buy the same franchise annually, so they have to make it more difficult, made more so if you have not played each yearly installment.