Games have gotten easier. There really isn't any denying this. Yes, there are some exceptions but games are much easier for the most part. Let's take a little deeper look at this.
In the beginning, video games resided in the arcade. They were in the same category as pinball, pool, air hockey and foosball. Basically, video games were tests of skill. More accurately, tests of skill that you were meant to fail. These games didn't make any money while a person was actually playing. They made money when someone stepped up to the machine to play. For this reason, these games were viciously difficult and meant to last for five minutes tops.
I know that at this point most modern gamers are probably confused. You're wondering why anyone would keep plugging quarters into a machine that couldn't be beat. The answer is kind of complicated.
To begin with, there was the pride thing. You were human and therefore superior to the machine. Most games had a high score table and so you normally felt that if you weren't at or around the lowest score on the board then you were less than average. Most people will work hard just to keep from being perceived, or perceiving themselves, as inadequate. There was also the feeling of accomplishment when you hit the hit the high score and entered your initials. Since the game was located in a public place, most people in your neighborhood knew who's name was at the top of the list. Given, you were still a nerd, but at least you had one thing that you were better at than everyone else around you and you could prove it.
The next factor was just the draw at being really, really good at something. Yes, the games were impossible and short. This meant that the longer you survived and the higher you scored, the greater your sense of being good at the game. Levels were short and the first ten were usually "gimmes" that would make you feel like you had potential before you got figuratively violated. Don't you find it kind of funny that everyone thinks they're really good at Tetris? Can you even name one game that you love even though you suck at it? These games made you feel like you were good even as they handed you your ass. They made you feel that you could do better than you did last time. That's a very powerful element.
There was also just the sense of being in the zone. The early arcade games dropped you in the zone and kept you there. You became so focused on the game that you didn't worry about your grades, your reputation, your boss, your significant other, your bills, or any of the other shit that made your blood pressure rise. The game allowed you to feel in control without any overt effort. You weren't emersed in another "world." You were emersed in the act of overcoming an endless challenge.
Finally, there was the frustration. Yes, people play games to experience frustration. You could get mad at a game and be violent and confrontational with it in a way that you couldn't with any of the problems that plagued your real life. You could use the game to learn how to get a handle on your frustrations as well. Ever watch someone play golf? I'm not talking about watching PGA on TV, I'm talking about a normal person, playing golf in real life. The game is absolutely maddening. Getting pissed just makes your game get worse and worse. It's the same way with the early arcade games. The more pissed you were, the more mistakes you made. This gave games an interesting therapeutic element. You piled your real frustrations onto the game and had to deal with them in order to succeed. Maybe this is why so many mid to high level managers play golf.
So what happened? The industry got this wild hair up its ass about competing with Hollywood. I can't really say when this shift began. We can argue that it started in 1986 when game developers started making games with endings and allowing players to simply continue rather than start over. But the idea didn't really pick up steam until the release of the Playstation. After Final Fantasy VII, emphasis shifted from challenging the players skill and intellect to giving the player the experience of being the main character in a really long movie. Too bad having the main character die breaks the narrative.
To battle the disjointed experience that getting killed and replaying a segment created, developers just made the games easier. And easier. And easier. Until you were basically tripping over weapons, ammo and items as well as given the ability to heal completely with only a few seconds of hiding. Then suddenly we're killing Big Daddy with a wrench.
Most gamers that were all of seven years old when the PSOne came out probably don't see anything wrong this. To them, games are just interactive movies and anything that gets in the way of telling the story or is frustrating should be buried right next to Pacman, Zaxxon and Sinistar. Ironically, this is group also admits that they are bored and unsatisfied with gaming.
The biggest offenders in the easy games department are MMOs. While some have compared MMORPGs with Whack A Mole, I think that comparison is far to generous. Whack A Mole requires a quick reaction time and has an element of randomness that makes it far more compelling than most MMORPGs. Not only do you heal in a short amount of time in MMMORPGs, but you also don't get much in the way of penalty for getting killed. The end result is that I respawn and try to get to the enemy I was just fighting before they can heal so that I can hopefully kill the damn thing. If worse comes to worse, I can just continue charging until it's dead because I outnumber it. Exciting no?
This sorry situation has many gamers honestly believing that there is no way that an AI opponent can beat them. This is why we get these FFA PvP retards whining about how we need PvP and full loot to make games more challenging because "bots are predictable." While this is largely true in MMORPGs, it doesn't have to be this way.
If I learned anything during my years playing arcade and 8 bit console video games it's that enemies don't have to be smart to pose a challenge to the gamer. They simply have to be numerous and strategically placed in the most frustratingly inconvenient areas on the map. An opposing AI can literally have one function or an almost non-existent movement pattern and still kill a player even if they know what they're facing and where it's at. See the NES version of Ninja Gaiden, Contra Hard Corps, and Shinobi 3 for examples.
To take this further, a bot can just have one particular strategy that works in conjuntion with other bots. In Pacman, for example, each of the bots had a different strategy for catching the player. One ghost would try to chase you and be on your tail, two other ghosts would always try to cut you off and the last ghost would move randomly and rarely ever chase you. These are some incredibly simple behaviors, but when combined they make the game extremely difficult. Especially after the overall game speed has been kicked up a couple of times.
I can already hear some of you whining "But once you've figured out a monster or group of monsters you can beat them the same way every time!" In answer to this, I want to point out the approach to character classes in Warhammer Online. the development team have been very vocal about how they intend for every class to be "useful." This means that not only can every class solo, but every class can make a significant contribution to a group as well. Question: Why not apply this idea to mob AI as well? To put a finer point on it, why not make mobs so that you can combine them in just about any way and have a totally different strategic emphasis from that mob cluster.
The two best examples, that I can think of, that represent this are City of Heroes and Guild Wars. In CoH, you would often find groups of loitering bad guys with one big bad ass in the center. Sometimes there would be a big bad ass and a smaller bad ass. The fodder would protect the bad ass who would in turn lend support to the fodder. This resulted in some very intensely satisfying extended fights in CoH that could run for upwards of 15 minutes. Likewise, Guild Wars would combine bad guys that were built and programmed in a way that complimented each other. The end result was that you had scout your targets and plan your attacks with more depth. Why not extend that concept so that every monster compliments every other monster so you nearly infinite combinations? However, this isn't exactly the complete answer.
The biggest problem with providing challenge in an MMORPG, however, is the attitude of the players. Can't beat a certain boss or group of mobs? Just level and gear up to where they present a statistically insignificant challenge. Got to beat them right now? Just gather a small army of players and zerg them to death. As long as players are able to stack the deck unfairly in their favor, providing challenge to players will be an impossible dream. I guess that's okay.... Most players want to emerse themselves in a "virtual fantasy world" more than be challenged. Although, it's kind of hard to feel emersed in a "virtual fantasy world" when everyone has names like "URT3HSUXXOR!!!" and sit around making lame Chuck Norris jokes all day.
Maybe there'll be a day when we finally realize that games aren't movies or theme parks and get back to what made them great in the first place. Challenge.