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.