In defense of the easy button

One of the biggest criticisms directed at many recent games is how easy they are. Prince of Persia, Dead Space, and Fable 2 all shipped with built-in game mechanics that make it impossible to get lost. Prince of Persia lets you press a button at any time to have your AI companion summon a glowing ball that will show you the way to get to your goal. In Dead Space, a button press illuminates a line on the floor that points the way to progress. In Fable 2, you can turn on a “breadcrumb trail” that will show you the way to your quest objective. As someone with limited time and a poor sense of direction, I appreciate game design that attempts to make my experience as frustration free as possible.

Others are not so appreciative. In reviews and on popular internet gaming forums, these mechanics have been called “hand-holding” — or worse, “an excuse for poor level design.” The latter complaint particularly grates, as it could end up being truer than I’d like. As of right now, you could easily play any of those games and never take advantage of the “easy button”…but at the same time, I could easily see these mechanics taking the place of playtesting and fine-tuning level design. Halo 3 was famously play-tested to an extreme to make sure that players were able to figure out which way to go in order to proceed. Charts, graphs, and hundreds of hours of play-time were invested into making sure that players would not get lost. If Master Chief had the ability to summon a glowing line that pointed him to his next objective, would Bungie have taken the time to polish the levels to that extent?

[[image:vs081217_easy.jpg:The Prince has an Easy Button:center:0]]
I’m willing to take the chance that something ephemeral might be lost if the trade-off is a game where I’m never stuck for hours not knowing where to go or what to do. I understand that some gamers find enjoyment in the things that frustrate me. I’m not looking for an unbeatable challenge I can devote my life to — I just want to enjoy a game. I don’t see why gamers into extreme difficulty and gamers for whom challenge isn’t the point can’t cohabit. These “easy buttons” are just that: buttons. They only activate upon a player input. The existence of that option doesn’t mean you have to take advantage of it if it makes the game less fun for you. Shoot-em-up fans seem to be able to enjoy games which let you choose how many lives you start with, and those games are notorious for being brutally challenging. I’m not a big follower of the genre, but it seems to me that some of the most popular shooters have an infinite lives option — something hardcore fans make use of. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to get used to games giving us more options to tailor difficulty besides easy/medium/hard. As the gaming audience becomes more inclusive, I can easily see game design incorporating things like breadcrumb trails, the player tailoring seen in Tomb Raider Underworld (which gives you sliders that adjust the difficulty of the combat and platforming, as well as the ammo carried, independently of each other) and other options that mean the experiences players have with the same game is wildly divergent and keyed to their tastes.

19 thoughts on “In defense of the easy button

  1. Yeah, I totally agree. I always felt this way back when people used to complain about games that had “endless continues”. I mean, if you’re hardcore enough you could just….not use the continues, if you wanted to. But they allowed some people who might otherwise not finish a game to get through to the end. I never saw where the harm was in that….

  2. I respectfully disagree– The “easy button” in Prince of Persia killed it for me. An “easy button” alleviates any potential frustration, yes, but it also destroys any sense of accomplishment I could have earned. When I play a game, I want to feel like an active participant in the world around me.

    Sure, the “easy button” in PoP is a choice that’s up to the player to use, but again, it’s really hard to motivate myself to solve a puzzle when the solution is just a single button press away. What if other games implemented similar “easy buttons”? Say, an adventure game that told you the solution to every puzzle, or a Mario game that told you exactly when and where to jump and the fastest route to every star? What if Persona had an “easy button” that told you the proper response to every social link event so you didn’t have to think about it?

    Sands of Time succeeded because each room played out like a puzzle. Figuring out how to use the Prince’s skills to scale each room and then testing your reflexes by putting your plan into motion was exhilirating. The new PoP kills this feeling completely by effectively reducing the entire game to a big QTE that shows you in advance what all the button presses are going to be.

    Modern games like PoP are so afraid of frustrating the player that they resort to things like this– don’t forget, it’s an easy button for the developers too. Instead of spending time balancing the difficulty curve or fine tuning the level design, they resort to things like this.

    If I want to sit back and watch things unfold, I’ll turn on the t.v. or go to the movies. When I want to be an active participant, I play games.

  3. Great entry. I have no idea how those games you just mentioned implement it, but it sounds like the ‘easy button’ is just a feature to help you find your way.

    Finding things should never be the way a game challenges you, and in an action game, FPS specially, that would only work for getting you from one firefight to the next, I don’t think any difficulty loss would result.

    On the contrary, I sometimes find myself going around a room 30 times trying to find something just to find it in a small nook that I can only see if the camera is JUST so. The less of those I have to live through, the better.

  4. Ecchi, just because you can’t not use a hint feature if it’s available doesn’t mean they shouldn’t include it. There are games I’ve never finished because I got to a point where I couldn’t figure out where to go next, moved on to something else, and never went back.

  5. I don’t have a problem with not being forced to lose 10 minutes of work when I mess up or get messed up. If I die more than a few times in the same spot that’s probably it for me for the day on that particular game — I just don’t have the time to keep butting my head against a wall anymore.

  6. The thing is, Ecchi, “figuring out where to go” isn’t even a puzzle in Prince of Persia. The easy button is just a convenient direction toward a solution you already know if you have the wherewithal to press start, check the map and see which direction your next goal is in.

    I guess I’ll halfheartedly salute anyone that would rather have to check the map on a different screen when lost than simply pressing a button, but it’s not something that was designed as a “challenge.” Now, it would be a different story all together if the Y button did everything else for you, but that’s not the case.

  7. Dead Space needed it because the level design was like a labyrinth and the map was horrid. It’s like Metroid Prime, only everything is cramped and looks the same.

    Still a wonderful game, though. But the level design was bad.

  8. … am I playing the same game as everyone else here? PoP’s little navigation button doesn’t ever give solutions to puzzles, guide you towards light seeds (which, more often than not, is what you’re looking for), or do anything else that can be considered hand-holding. Unless you’re really really slow on the uptake, seeing a little glowy ball head towards a patch of vines on a wall isn’t going to be telling you anything you need to know except the answer to “wait, did I just come from all the crumbly pillars, or the vine covered cliffs?”

    At that, it’s only an issue because we have branching paths for the first time in the series since WW dabbled a little with exploration. Otherwise every game in the series has always made it very clear what, in general terms, you need to do to move forward, with the exception of a few rooms in Sands of Time where awkward camera placement forced you to pace around a bit trying to find the flagpole needed to get yourself started.

  9. One big thing I like about the 3D Mario games is that even though there’s lots of platforms and pits to navigate, there’s very few walls that obstruct the view, so I can always see the way to my objective. In contrast, the 3D Zelda and Metroid games are made up of hundreds of tiny rooms that all have view-obstructing walls, so I have to review the map every time I go through a door. Thus the 3D Mario games flow better, even if they sometimes have worse controls. Back in 2D everything was simpler, the walls didn’t really block the view, and I could eventually memorize a dungeon layout in Zelda or Metroid, but in 3D I get lost unless I have a clear view from point A to point B. The path doesn’t have to be simple, but it has to be visible.

  10. I’m in favor of games going in the direction of as much player-choice in difficulty as possible. Actual difficulty modes or sliders are one way to do it, and optional abilities that a player can use or ignore is another. It’s all good.

    I’d love it if it were the case that I could just play any game where the setting, characters, and action appealed to me, secure in the knowledge that I could tweak it to a difficulty that suited me, rather than having to research and/or guess whether it might end up being frustratingly hard or tediously easy.

  11. It’s all about self control, as the first commenter pointed out – if you don’t like unlimited continues (or “easy buttons”), then don’t use them.

    Then again, I mainly play RPGs, where I can beef up, given the proper amount of time. What do I know?

  12. I have to DISAGREE with Echhi as well, if only because the “easy button” in PoP will only guide you to an area you have already selected on the map, and only in the overworld portion; once you get to where the actual platforming takes place, it doesn’t do anything.

    It definitely COULD become a crutch for developers, but (at least in PoP’s case) it hasn’t yet.

  13. I think that you are right, I think it is good that games allow you to use “help” if you need it… as long as it’s not forced and game design doesn’t suffer because of it. The more options a player has the better!

  14. BioShock had an optional objective arrow that pointed you in the right direction, too. And, while you may die a lot in that game, there’s no real penalty for it if you have the Vita-Chambers turned on. That didn’t keep it off everyone’s Best Games of the Year list last year. I’m not saying Prince of Persia and Dead Space are at BioShock’s level, but I wouldn’t dismiss them out of hand just for having those features.

  15. This entire discussion (the psychology of self control Ecchi refers to) is closely tied to malleability of digital products in general (and their ethereal quality). Broadly speaking, we know game worlds aren’t real and can be manipulated in ways the real world can’t — either via built-in cheats or aids, or via external hacking (even looking up solutions on a gamefaq). This of course utterly destroys the escapist value of a game, because you can’t shake the sense that you’re playing a game from our world vs. existing in the game world. You become godlike, like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, and the game a meaningless shadow.

    So, the amount of self-control one needs to resist “cheating” — what Ecchi complains of — is in fact always present in any game, regardless of developer intentions. Accordingly, I mostly agree with Levi — why pretend digital worlds aren’t easily manipulated? Just give the consumer every sort of option so that the consumer can enjoy a product however he or she wants.

    I find the need to challenge the gamer ridiculously anachronistic — for example, forcing gamers to unlock new tracks in rhythm games. There’s this resistance to simply giving people entertainment, which is exactly what games like PoP (or Lips, in the music games department) do. Conversely, games that run through a single network hub, like World of Warcraft or Xbox Live Arcade titles have made competitive gaming far more rewarding (because you’re competing with humans) and largely cheat-proof. But when I buy a single player experience, it really should be up to me how I enjoy it. Forcing challenge on people with every game is like forcing people to only read Proust and Dostoyevsky.

  16. I’m in a weird spot here because I like the idea of being challenged and frustrated by games, but I also would like to have all access to the content on the disc that I purchased. I don’t want to not die in video games. Make me work harder. I don’t want the path laid out blatantly for me. I would just like some good hints. One game that teetered on being too easy but had perfect non-blatant hints? Wind Waker. You could follow Link’s eyes to figure out what to interact with, but his eyes don’t tell you HOW to interact with things.

    I’m more a fan of time-released content. The knowledge that playing enough Ikaruga would finally unlock unlimited continues, effectively a god code in shmups, kept me and my family playing through 10 hours of the game and improved our skill at the game. I’m sure that I would play any frustrating game if I knew that, were I to keep playing, it would reap a sure reward over time. But a game featuring sliders or some sort of tool that oversimplifies things from the get-go makes it more likely for most people to outright avoid the challenge and perhaps even decrease overall replayability. The way I see it, a Mega Man game with unlimited weapon power and the inability to fall to my death is not fun.

  17. “Shoot-em-up fans seem to be able to enjoy games which let you choose how many lives you start with”

    Most of us don’t actually change that number. That reduces the challenge of the game.

    “I’m not a big follower of the genre, but it seems to me that some of the most popular shooters have an infinite lives option — something hardcore fans make use of.”

    Nope. When I run out of lives, I restart the game. If I get further than I did last time, I usually watch the replay to see what I did right and what I did wrong.

  18. Why polarize the issue? I’m not for extra tough games like Ninja Gaiden, but there’s something equally grating about games where you needn’t even pay attention to win.

    The latest PoP isn’t very far from You Have To Burn The Rope and I really didn’t feel like continuing after three or so hours into the game. It felt as compelling as a rollercoaster without peaks and bottoms.

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