How the Balance Between Game Difficulty, Systems, and Accessibility is Getting Much Worse


We often measure true difficulty in video games to how accessible they are to a large audience.

Skill is the language that gamers use to play and watch games. It's what makes professional-level play, such as speedruns and e-sports, so compelling. Unfortunately, many modern game mechanics seem either too complicated for players to break down or too shallow to be worth understanding. Compounding the problem is a game's difficulty. If the difficulty of a game is balanced, players won't always succeed against the game's challenges, but instead have the tools available to gradually improve their skills and overcome any obstacles. If difficulty appears unbalanced, failing a section of a game over and over again can feel like a cheap death. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, a game's challenges can be way too easy, making overall progression feel extremely unsatisfying. It's rare that a game communicates its systems effectively enough to the point where players feel challenged without being unfair.

My current gaming diet includes Digimon World: Next Order, Nioh, and Fire Emblem Heroes. Accessibility and difficulty are approached very differently in these games, and while I appreciate all of them, their balance on this scale feels weighted towards one side versus the other. For the uninitiated, Digimon World: Next Order is the sequel to RPG cult classic Digimon World, Nioh is the spiritual successor to the Dark Souls series, and Fire Emblem Heroes is a strategy game that borrows some mechanics from the mainline Fire Emblem series. All three's predecessors are widely considered to be complex, systems-heavy, and fairly difficult games.

I personally enjoy the inscrutable ways Digimon evolve in Digimon World: Next Order because it mirrors a lot of what I liked about the original game. It's the slow and steady grinding for the best stats to produce the types of partners that would get me through the next area. Next Order's combat feels more like you're training a pet to indirectly follow your commands instead of executing direct orders. However, its difficulty spikes suddenly in such a way that it forces you to spend hours training lesser Digimon forms before moving on to more challenging areas. For a game that's marketed and designed more for children, there are a lot of stats to keep track of.

Nioh is similarly complicated. On top of choosing between primary and ranged weaponry, there are three different stances for different combat situations, each of which have their own branching skill tree and moveset. This is on top of magic, a living weapon ability (basically a super meter), and many kinds of loot that drop in the game you can choose from. I enjoy facing the various enemies and yokai boss monsters with all these tools at my disposal and appreciate the game's Dark Souls-inspired mechanics, but its UI is complicated and not easy to understand at first, especially for beginners. This is all without getting into the twilight (read: more difficult) missions.

Weirdly, Fire Emblem Heroes is both really easy and ridiculously complex for a free-to-play game. The gist is that you summon heroes using orbs earned by beating levels and completing tasks. You can upgrade heroes with battle experience, shards, crystals, skill points, and improve their rank with a combination of feathers and badges. Fire Emblem's traditional grid-based tactical gameplay is simplified for touch controls, but some mechanics remain the same, like character stat increases, sword-axe-lance (or rock-paper-scissors) weapon triangle, and powerful skill timers. However, the enemy AI is pretty predictable, making it too easy to manipulate for cheap advantages in battle. I love Fire Emblem and appreciate Nintendo giving me more of it, but for a free-to-play mobile title, it has just a few too many currencies and money sinks to ignore. It's competing with other phone games like Candy Crush, Words With Friends, and Pokemon Go for your dollar and attention.

I often get the question "What are you playing?," and sometimes explaining what's going on with a game's mechanics sounds an awful lot like reading Ikea furniture instructions. There's a lot of confusing ideas that somehow coalesce into a beautifully designed piece at the end. Just like assembling furniture, there's adversity in the process of playing. Can you figure out how to get this screw in this door so you can move on to the next challenge?

Layered on top of this complexity is a problem we experience when we talk about games. We'll often use the language of other games to explain new games; this assumes that the audience has played the source material or understands its mechanics. From there, developers add new mechanics and systems to set apart new games from everyone's old favorites. It limits gaming's accessibility to a wider player base. You don't necessarily see that in other mediums.

This is not to say that younger or newer players are necessarily afraid of complex and/or difficult games. In fact, Super Mario Maker's popularity is largely based on the community's masochistic exploration of designing Mario levels. Bloodborne's deep lore spawned a cottage industry of people trying to decrypt its greatest mysteries. League of Legends, one of the more complex MOBAs out there, continues to have a large player base despite constant updates and patches, and is regularly featured in Twitch's most popular streams. If anything, these examples prove that there is a burgeoning interest in complicated games, as long as they spawn communities dedicated to making the game approachable to newcomers.

Succinct, well-thought-out tutorials can make or break a game's first few hours, but it shouldn't have to be this way. There's room enough for overly intricate games, simple games, hard games, and easy games, and a great balance between all of these is essential. Without developers fine tuning their games' designs, games risk being worse than difficult or inaccessible; they risk being boring.