Imagine a time when beating a video game was not a given thing, but a serious accomplishment achieved only by those persistent enough to overcome hard challenges. In the era of accessibility, this is no longer a viable direction for game design. Accessibility is not a bad thing. It may even be the primary factor that drove the progression of video games from obscurity and into the mainstream of entertainment culture. But achieving this position had a toll on the integrity and complexity of challenges. Accommodating a mass market is hardly compatible with satisfying the high standards of dedicated nerds. While game difficulty is commonly adjustable with a simple user setting, the effect of this setting is often limited to tweaking numbers to increase the health and damage of NPC-enemies, without adding any increased depth of gameplay. This results in a design trend commonly referred to as ‘bullet sponges’, enemies that require an absurd amount of attacks to defeat. This phenomenon can be especially jarring in games depicting themselves as modern and realistic in theme and narrative, while presenting antagonist characters who will only die after having survived 134 bullets to the head. Even worse, adjusting difficulty with this simplistic approach may not even increase the challenge of an encounter. Instead, in some cases, it simply draws it out over a longer period of time without adding complexity to the gameplay, while forcing the Player to repeat the same action patterns over and over again. We consider this cheap game design.
Imagine a game that cannot be trivialized by studying a guide. Imagine a challenging boss fight that cannot be beaten by memorizing a pattern, but requires you to stay present and adapt your strategy. Imagine finally finding the right strategy, and then witnessing it succeed only once before the game adapts with a counter. Imagine pretending to be bad, but then changing style and reaping the benefits of being underestimated. Imagine playing a singleplayer game that forces you to use your intuition and adapt like you would in a competitive multiplayer game. That is what we would consider rich game design.
“The widespread adoption of learning in games will be one of the most important advances ever to be made in game AI. Genuinely adaptive AIs will change the way in which games are played by forcing each player to continually search for new strategies to defeat the AI, rather than perfecting a single technique.”
John Manslow, 2002