Online gaming has changed the way people play video games in just a few short years. You can't pick up a game anymore without it having an online component and even if it doesn't need an internet connection to play, it will include features such as achievements, medals, and trophies as a way to connect you with others around the world. It's almost as if they have become their own kind of social network and reality they have. Just look at the Xbox 360 and PS3. They both have a dashboard that shows you all your friends, what they are doing, what games they have played recently and what kind of achievements or trophies they have obtained.
How, if at all, has this effected the difficulty in video games today? Well first off with any kind of achievement system it allows developers to create an easy playing experience for the gamer. By allowing the game to have an easy play through, it lets gamers enjoy the experience, complete the game, then show off what they have accomplished. If you want a real challenge then look towards the more difficult achievements in the games list. Most of the time though there is really only one or two extremely difficult things to do with the rest of it being some sort of collection achievement. Find all the stars in the game, collect all these pictures, kill one of every monster, upgrade all weapons and so on. Developers can make the first play through of the game easy by having even a basic story to follow, with a few good characters the player can get invested in and allow them to just sit back and enjoy the story unfold like a movie.
Wait a movie? I'm here to play a game not watch something. Indeed you are and so am I but a good story tends to make the gameplay much enjoyable now a days. What kind of story were you following with Mario in the original game? Saving a princess from a giant turtle. That was about it. You did it though because you were having fun smashing blocks, collecting coins and stomping goombas. You didn't really think about the story until you got to that Toad guy who in the end would tell you that your princess was in another castle. The game was hard still and when you finally beat it you didn't need an achievement to pop up and tell you because you knew and there wasn't really anyone else to brag about it to but your friends.
Another reason developers like to create an easy first play through is because it allows them to make games faster and get them out to the players sooner. Later, the company can just create a patch or downloadable content for the player to buy to continue the story or enjoy a new type of experience in the game's world. MMO's are pretty notorious for this type of development but plenty of other games do it to the difference being that MMO's won't usually charge you for patches because they are subscription based but most consoles games that have extra map packs, levels, characters and what not will. By doing all this the developers can concentrate on harder things down the line but most of the time it's not even that much harder. It's just another way for the company to get a little more money to continue cranking out new content to keep the player base invested in their games and not a competitors.
Following the downloadable content model there is another way companies have found to make games extremely easy while allowing them to rake in some money and that's on websites like Facebook or MySpace. The basic idea is to allow people to play a game, venture through it for maybe fifteen minutes or so and then be locked out of playing anymore until they either fill their time gauge or by purchasing more time to play. Sure it may only cost one dollar to get another few moves in but it can add up quickly if you get addicted. Tack on a cash shop where you can buy in-game items and it's a quick way for a company to make an easy hundred bucks. If you can get even a few people invested in it you can continue to make it more appealing and bring more people into it.
So how did we get from the games of yesteryear to the online social herding we have now? Technology. It has allowed us to communicate with people everywhere and share our lives with them even if they aren't in walking distance. Developers don't see much of a point of making something hard for most of their player base when some of them are just cruising on through because they are gaming prodigies. So they developed a way for a casual player to interact and play with their hardcore friend, allowing them to keep in touch and be sociable while they try to take down another team of players in an online match. Now it doesn't matter if the friend you played with across the street happened to move out-of-town, you can still keep in touch with them and play games online.
It's almost like companies are turning us into social shut ins and keeping us inside away from the open world. Maybe that's an article for another time though. Thanks everyone for reading my thoughts and perceptions of the gaming world!