Video games used to be complex and you had to deal with it. Part of the challenge was to overcome the challenges and limitations the game imposes upon you.
When we were kids, that was fine because we had the patience and time to enjoy these things. But now that many people have grown up and don't have the time or patience, these things have disappeared or have become more streamlined and less tiresome.
A change for the better, or worse?
Let's take a look at the games that were made prior to the 360/PS3 generation. Before that, games had only a sizable audience and consisted of the so-called “hardcore gamers“ for the most part (in other words, kids and teenagers). Three lives and then it's game over? Manual saving and limited saving options? Hours of progress lost due to no checkpoint system? Yep, these were the days.
But ever since the market has expanded to a bigger audience in the form of smartphones/tablets and social networks, games have become easier. After all, not everyone who uses these new platforms has the skill or patience to play, say, Ninja Gaiden or Battletoads for instance. Not to mention the controller required for such gameplay is missing.
This market expansion also meant that people who have a job or are otherwise busy with their lives don't have all day to play video games, and have a stressful life to boot. So a game that requires you to “study” it is too much for them, so a game with simpler mechanics is just the right thing for them.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that of course. After all, who are we to deny a person who likes video games, but is not a hardcore gamer, to play games that fit to their tastes? And to have fun with them, for that matter?
But whether it be the expanded market some call “casual” or the current generation of traditional games, something has changed. The game mechanics found in today's games has been optimized in their execution and user-friendliness.
There are two sides to it, and also two types of complexity: The good type and the bad type.
The good type is where the system is fair and it works, but it isn't spelling everything out loud to the player. In Adventure games, for instance, you have to search for clues and sometimes have to come up with the required combination of items or answer to a question yourself. If you don't know how to make use of the items you're stuck, if you screw up a conversation you might end up being killed.
But people loved that aspect of games. It is the heritage of the old Arcade games that were hard on purpose and wanted you to spend money to beat the game. Games were hard at first for that purpose, even though you bought the game and didn't have to be killed just to get another quarter.
Over time, games evolved to give you a challenge that is not cheap, but rather fair and, dare I say, teaches you something? “Even if you should fail in a game – many times even – you must not quit and always try again until you've reached the goal.” When you think about it, this was a very valuable lesson video games were teaching to youngsters back then.
Just to be clear: offering a tutorial is not ruining the experience someone would have had when finding out things on their own. But not everyone can figure things out themselves, so both tutorials and guides are a welcoming help.
So beating a game that is difficult can be a reward in itself, if the complexity is fair that is. But what if the complexity is tedious and outright bad?
Sometimes games over-emphasizes challenge and realism and makes games difficult for the wrong reasons. In this case, a game is just wasting our time instead of challenging or entertaining us.
One example of such a timewaster is the durability of weapons and equipment. In real life, these things would of course worn out and eventually break without proper maintenance and care. But more often than not, these games make the durability too hard, or too weak for that matter. As it realistic as it may be, it must not become too cumbersome or else it is seen as a chore.
The biggest offender I've found in my life regarding that is Dark Cloud.
The game requires you to repair your weapons after almost every level you've cleared. If the durability reaches zero, the weapon breaks and is lost, so you can't ignore that.
You can improve the durability of a weapon over time, but it takes time until the durability becomes a non-issue. Repairing a weapon costs money, so it is a strain on your budget as well and you sometimes have to leave a dungeon because the weapon is almost completely worn out.
In gameplay terms, the only balancing effect this mechanic has is that you can't stay in a dungeon forever, and it limits your money that is available. However, the game already requires you to buy potions to heal yourself (because there is no healing spell or no regenerating mana), and you have to buy water because Thirst is also in the game – that's two realistic mechanics already.
These things become less of an issue later on in the game because the threshold increases over time, but early on, the frequency at which you must cater to these things is atrocious. It breaks the game flow too much, you must concentrate on maintenance instead of fighting and city building.
Some might see this as fair game, and when I played the game back in 2001 I surely didn't mind. But after playing games that do not have these things, but have other challenges in place instead, it becomes evident that the game might be a better experience without that. And like I explained before, some people simply don't have the patience or time to put that much work into a game, so at least an option to disable these features for these type of people would be nice.
It also goes without saying that things like Durability and Thirst don't belong in this game in the first place. In the case of DayZ, for instance, it makes perfect sense because the game is all about survival. But JRPGs are anything but about survival.
Moving on to the current times and the new and streamlined type of games, one game that does its thing very well is Final Fantasy XIII. This game manages to make the game flow and experience smoother and doesn't waste time, while not dumping down the complexity at the same time.
In this game, all you do is exploration, fighting and watching an occasional cutscene. The game rarely uses pre-rendered movies, and even if it does it is done so appropriately, so most of the time it uses the in-game engine which makes things quite consistent.
Then there is the combat system, which is the pure definition of streamlining: The game has a lot of strategy to offer in combat, but the game introduces you to each feature one at a time. In fact, the first half of the game is one big tutorial, making for a perfect learning curve. Some might see this as a bad thing, however this does pay off once you reach the end of the game where you're being confronted with lots of challenges.
Basically, instead of giving the player complex challenges spread thorough the game, it plays it save and gives you the best challenge possible with the limited abilities you have, and then goes all out towards the end. This is different from the norm, but not a bad thing, just a different way of doing things.
The best part, however, is the checkpoint system of the game: In every single fight, and I mean in really every one, you can reload a checkpoint which brings you back to the moment right before you initiated a battle. So if you die, you can always try again or run away and train some more until you can overcome the challenge.
This saves you a lot of time. Normally in an JRPG, you would need to reload a save file and walk all the way to the monster group, maybe even redo all the training you did. But in this game, the only way you can lose your progress is if you forget to save before you turn off the console or you have an electricity outage – there's nothing that breaks the game flow or immersion in-game.
Overall, this game is a good example on how the evolution of game mechanic streamlining has improved the gaming experience.
At the end of the day, each person has its own tastes. Maybe someone who has a full-time job still enjoys an 40-hours long RPG with lots of difficult mechanics. Maybe a student that has a lot of time on his hands can't even beat Super Mario Bros. Everything is possible these days, and the point is not to declare one way or the other as the right one.
This is about fairness, to give everyone a chance to enjoy a video game suited towards their live schedule as well as their individual skill and preference.