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Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

Community Spotlight: What Does "Dumbing Down" Even Mean?

Posted by MikeB Thursday March 25 2010 at 1:48PM
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This week’s Community Spotlight focuses on the thread “Just what the hell does ‘dumbed down’ even mean anyway?” by Jimmy Scythe. The phrase is tossed around a lot, but what does it even mean? Jimmy’s take:

“Seriously! Look at the phrase. LOOK AT IT!!!!

The implication being that at one time a particular game was "intelligent" but has undergone some unholy voodoo and been turned into a version of Chutes and Ladders or, even worse, Ludo. This term is normally used in reference to a multiplatform game that was made for consoles and PC at the same time.

What's so confusing is when the term is applied to a brand new franchise that plays exactly the same on all platforms. How can you "dumb down" something that didn't even exsist previously? You can claim that one control type is less efficient than another, but that isn't the same as watering down the core mechanics.

Let's take Command & Conquer 3 as an example. Both the PC and console versions of the game use the exact same maps, the exact same factions, the exact same unit caps, and the exact same units. What exactly was "dumbed down?" Same thing with Morrowind. Both the PC and XBox versions had the same maps, the same kind of first/third person minimal interface, the quests, the items, the same NPCs... If it's the exact same game at it's core, how can it be "dumbed down?"

You might be able to say this about a game that started out on the PC and was poorly ported to a console, like CiV 2 being placed on the PSX near the end of it's life cycle, but If it was developed for both the PC and consoles or it was a one-for-one port....

And while we're on the subject, was Assassin's Creed "smarted up" by being ported to the PC?

I'm calling bullshit on this term and it's use.”

Huge_froglok offers the most obvious definition with regards to MMORPGs:

“I don't know what it means on those games.. Probably refer to the fact that the interfaces became simpler because they have to use a controller? The controls would definitely be dumbed down.

In terms of MMORPGs though, it refers to the fact that older MMORPGs used to require you to use your head. For instance, older MMORPGs didn't have minimaps, didn't have arrows taking you straight to where you need to go. They didn't give you directions all the time, keep you taksed.

MMORPGs are definitely dumbed down, so much to the point they are no longer fun. What is next? Will the game play itself? Maybe a game that plays itself would become more popular than WoW”

Rayx0r offers an interesting take, perhaps the game’s aren’t being dumbed down, perhaps we’re just better at them now?

“dumbed down:

Usually used by people who are not challenged by something. More times then not, its when a gamer is migrating from one game to another.

Almost always, its a term used by noobs. New gamers who havnt yet figured out that nearly all games that fit into specific genre follow the same formula (whether its UI, quests, AI etc.). This new formula the noob has previously figured out from the game he just migrated from. Therefore, he/she thinks the game has been "dumbed down" because they no longer feel the challenge they felt when they first entered the particular gaming genre.

Like it or not, games borrow from one another. You become better at these game aspects. Nothing is being "dumbed down", your just too dumb to realize you're becoming better at them.”

Comnitus disagrees that the streamlining of content and game mechanics constitutes dumbing down, if anything, it’s to the contrary:

“"Dumbed down" generally refers to two things when it comes to MMOs, one of which is good and one of which is not.

1. Streamlining/coalescence of content, game mechanics, etc. For example, adding a right-click option to crafting multiple items so that you don't get carpal tunnel. Or, a better example, what Blizzard is doing to WoW's stats in Cataclysm - removing unnecessary ones and simplifying (in a good way) talent trees, supposedly making every talent useful in some way. This is not dumbing down, this is improving the game.

2. Instant gratification/making content more acceptable. This one may be valid, depending on the situation and the severity. Usually, I'm against instant gratification people - I agree you should have to work if you want to earn something - but I disagree that you must work for 23 hours of the day for two months to get one super-epic sword. These are games; we must never forget that. I'll work for my goal, but make it as fun and painless as possible. If a developer decided to make content more accessible by reducing the difficult level or entry requirements, it could be considered "dumbing down", and I have no stance on it. Mainly because I don't care if other people get what I get or not. I'm not selfish or vain, and I'd be perfectly fine with everyone experiencing that awesome, epic fight that the devs obviously worked hard on. What good is it if only 10% of the population actually sees it?

Assassin's Creed is good on PC. The controls aren't crap like other console-to-PC ports, the graphics are stable and nice, and the gameplay is fun. I don't know if it's "smarted up", though.“

I consider the complaint of games being dumbed down to be a fairly legitimate one, but I don’t feel games that are simplified or streamlined don’t have a place in the marketplace. The reality is just that a lot of us old timers are still interested in new games, but we appear to be at odds with the people making them as they want to (naturally) reach a broader audience and this often results in what many gamers feel is “dumbing down.” The trend has been around on consoles for a long time, but since the PC market was still strong we didn’t experience it as much.

Nowadays, games are often designed towards the console audience and it sometimes feels like the PC gaming crowd is the red headed step child. The rift was most recently experienced with the whole Modern Warfare 2 vs. Bad Company 2 fiasco. On one hand, gamers felt slighted by Infinity Ward’s stance towards the PC version of Modern Warfare 2, and on the other we got Bad Company 2 from DICE who appeared to go out of their way to target PC gamers, which they in turn responded to by purchasing the game in droves, resulting in an active player population that is larger than both the PS3 and XBOX 360 versions combined.

The reasons this is boiling over to the MMO market even though MMOs are fairly secure as PC exclusive for the moment are the same, and are necessitated even further due to the fact these projects are often huge risky undertakings. The best way to recoup your investment is to maximize your chances of reaching a broader audience. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality.

What does “dumbing down” mean to you? And do you agree that MMOGs are trending towards being “dumbed down”? Let us know in the comments below.

NeVeRLiFt writes:

I would rather play an old game like System Shock 2 instead of a newer dumb down game say like Bioshock.

If you ever played the two games then it should be clear what it means when you say Bioshock is a dumb down game compared to System Shock 2.

Thu Mar 25 2010 3:30PM Report
mOoK writes:

Its all subjective when you use blanket terms like.

"dumb down"

It will always be subjective, but you can paint a better picture.

Use your words.

Thu Mar 25 2010 3:40PM Report
NeVeRLiFt writes:

Just look at the new Deus Ex games... they're dumb down compared to the first game.

Just go play them to see what it means and how bad it is. Anyone thats into gaming and who has half a brain can see what happened, nothing subjective about it.

Thu Mar 25 2010 3:44PM Report
mOoK writes:

It has everything to do with subjectivity.

What someone calls "dumbed down" another might call simplified.

Your example is "bad" - If a game is "bad" it doesn't mean its "dumbed down".  Bad could mean many things to the observer.  Badly written, poorly animated or in your case, just "bad".

The point is, I may agree with you,  but by just saying "dumbed down", how will I, the community you're a member of, or the developers/publishers, ever know?

I am merely suggesting we be a little more verbose.

 

Seriously, 

Thu Mar 25 2010 3:56PM Report
Arawnite writes:

To me "dumbed down" means that content or game mechanics was made easier for the average person to master. Specifically in MMO's, there has to be objectives that require a certain amount of skill. If everyone can just faceroll through things or be semi afk and still succeed, the game designers failed. Challenges = fun. Mastering difficult content = rewarding. Recognizing that skill doesn't matter anymore = not fun.

Thu Mar 25 2010 3:58PM Report
Unlight writes:

I usually see the phrase "dumbed down" used by people who had to perform a given game activity when it was still needlessly tedious and time consuming, but had been overhauled to remove some of the boredom associated with it.  It seems that some people just don't like it much when those that come after them aren't forced to endure the same misery as they did.

Aside from that, the one time I've felt something was dumbed down was when I once tried a FPS on a friend's console, that I had earlier played on PC.  The fact that I could basically tab through targets without actually having to aim at them has put me off consoles for good.  It may not be a dumbing down, per se, but at the very least, it's a personal disagreement with the use of controllers.  It sure was laughably easy to play the console version though.

Thu Mar 25 2010 4:06PM Report
gauge2k3 writes:

Words are symbols and therefore subjective, no way, this is new to me!  The point of symbolism is so people can understand "generally" what they represent. 

A nazi swat. represents a terrible implementation of national socialism and most people instantly refer to that when they think about it.  But there are actually many different meanings to it.  I could make up one right now if I wanted to.

You're thinking right now how this has anything to do with the arguement.  Well, "dumbed down" seems to generally represent an idea to people. 

What this represents to me is the "hand feeding" of tasks or content to people.  It doesn't shock people to know that for some people to enjoy this genre the had to hand carry them to the finish line?  Are we so shallow as a nation or species?  It may be that I am in the minority, if that is the case I am glad.  I would rather have the capability to do things for myself than to be hand fed everything in life, games included.

Thu Mar 25 2010 4:31PM Report
hogscraper writes:

Dumbed down to me has always meant that instead of having to think about it, the game thinks for you. In modern MMO's players rush to the end, not because that's fun, but because there is little effort in 'earning' your prize.  Dumbed down in this case is the fact that they practically made it impossible not to succeed. This doesn't happen in all games, but the ones that are at the top of the charts all seem to do it. 

I think the general population, though, wants things to be without effort. Look at how popular Zynga games are atm. You literally have to simply click a couple buttons to succeed. Mafia Wars has millions of players and to win a fight against another player? Just pick someone with a smaller family than yours and click one button. TADA! You win! Want to complete a cunning attack against a rival gang and rob their casino? Want to plan a daring overthrow of an entire organization?  Press one button and job well done!

Many MMO's today are absolutely dumbed down. You don't have to investigate the town to see who gives quests, everyone who does has some glowing thing pointing them out. Just ignore everything else. After clicking a button or two and getting the quest, the game marks it on your mini map then pops up a giant arrow pointing you there. If this is really what it takes to get you to play the game, why would you even bother playing? I think that's why so many people feel empty about the games they play. which in turns causes people to jump from game to game.  They put nothing into the 'win' and really just want to ride the rails until the game tells them they are a winner.  No exploration, no wasted time not being told you're a winner.

Maybe you could say dumbed down means lower expectations of input along with higher expectations or reward. 

Thu Mar 25 2010 5:24PM Report
Isane writes:

DUmbing down is a reference to a benchmark once set long ago. It is the difference between having to play a game..... As against 'whack a mole' games that play for you.

Simple really...

Thu Mar 25 2010 5:58PM Report
Dendro writes:

For me "Dumbing Down" means that a game is developed to be playable by everyone, from ages 6 to 60. There is no learning curve or an effort to be good at it. The game typically plays itself.

I have a flightsim IL Stromovik 1946 you can set the controls to an almost realistic flying (huge learning curve) or you can "dumb it down" to an arcade game where it can be played by anyone.

Thu Mar 25 2010 6:26PM Report
Comnitus writes:

Aw shucks, I feel kind of famous, thanks MMORPG.com.

Thu Mar 25 2010 6:57PM Report
Evasia writes:

Dragon age Origin nightmare was easy no real challenge its kind of dumb down rpg from today compare to some rpg's from 8 years ago.

Then they release awakening man it was even further dumb down then origin, and not becouse you get better at games.

Devs themselfs said nightmare is for brilliant players only lol, are they serieus?

No offcorse not now all casual players and all new gamers of last few years now think there brilliant :P

After morrowind came oblivion and oblivion was way more casual and not way more easy becouse many became better at gaming no it was made for avarage player.

Games are more and more dumb down so everybody can play them even on veryhard mode devs just give them illusion there intelligent hardcore players:P

When will developers go for DUMB UP ?

Thu Mar 25 2010 7:25PM Report
tmaker writes:

To me an example of dumbing down would be when they changed SWG so anyone could become a jedi

Thu Mar 25 2010 7:47PM Report
Cik_Asalin writes:

slow news day?

Thu Mar 25 2010 9:57PM Report
Ktara writes:

Can anyone say SWG NGE?

Thu Mar 25 2010 10:25PM Report
dadown writes:

To me, it means something that has been overly simplified so that there are few choices and a lack of variety in functionality. AC2 is a prime example of being 'dumbed-down' from AC1.

Thu Mar 25 2010 11:49PM Report
Strap writes:

You are all so damn smug and superior. Or at least that's how you sound.

I think my most hated type of forum post is the one in which the poster says a dungeon or raid or encounter is "not hard" as soon as they have done it once. The fact that it took a group of experienced gamers months of effort wont matter at all. It is still "not hard". It is such bullshit posing.

The truth is that MMO developers usually cater to players of varying skills and if you wish challenge you simply need to be among the first to play through content. Developers will definitely make older content more accessible, and the leveling process faster when most of the population is at level cap. That makes perfect sense even if It is something of a pity for those wishing to experience again the gaming they did with their first character.

Anyway, as someone else said, being more verbose would go a long way.

Fri Mar 26 2010 12:28AM Report
LordAdder writes:

'Dumbing-down' in the gaming industry refers to the changing of gameplay in a game, ANY game - whether a good game, an average game, a bad game, an expansion thereof, or a sequel - in such a way that certain elements that required thought, patience, exploration, trial-and-error, strategy, skill, and/or a learning curve are revealed or otherwise 'enhanced' so that any player can breeze through those elements with no chance of failure and at an accelerated rate of play, thereby allowing said players to reach the glorious endgame with all of it's inherently 'uber' and 'godly' items, power, and prestige.

'Dumbing-down' does NOT include such things as lowering time to harvest items or craft objects, improving pathing, nor improving a tedious combat mechanic.  These types of gameplay changes are usually welcome by all players, both new and seasoned, because they remove or improve unnecessarily restrictive elements of the game without making the game itself easier.

'Dumbing-down' can also be used to describe a gaming trend, whether within a specific genre, within a platform, or within the gaming industry as a whole, and this is how a game can be considered 'dumbed-down' even though it never before existed...

As was already pointed out, social gaming is the ultimate example of 'dumbing-down'.  Games such as Mafia Wars and FarmTown (and I use the word 'game' loosely here because they are NOT your typical games but are instead mindless yet insanely addictive pasttimes - and I speak from experience) are so hugely popular simply because no matter who you are, no matter how much gaming experience you have or don't have, no matter when you start playing, you are an instant winner over and over again, and there is next to no thought needed besides deciding which crops to plant or how many people to add to your Mafia family today. This is the holy grail of 'dumbed-down' gaming and people are flocking to it in droves, which will eventually spill back into the MMORPG gaming industry causing even more 'dumbing-down' to existing and newly developed games in an effort by developers to bring in the average Joe and hence more money.

For us old-school gamers who lived for the challenge, who truly earned the rewards we received, and who have fought against the general 'dumbing-down' of the genre for years, the end is in sight, and it doesn't look good.  There are only a handful of truly good, un-'dumbed-down' games left, and it is highly unlikely many more will be made.

Fri Mar 26 2010 12:50AM Report
pythi writes:

I would like to point a few things out in the form of links to your very own fourms.

http://www.mmorpg.com/discussion2.cfm/post/3460089

http://www.mmorpg.com/discussion2.cfm/post/3458047

If you still deny this is not real, please retire from online gaming.

Fri Mar 26 2010 3:42AM Report
astrob0y writes:

A great article :D

That will teach the trolls

Fri Mar 26 2010 6:15AM Report
Kyleran writes:

Dumbed down when referring to MMORPG's is most typically talking about the simplification of more modern games vs their earlier forebears and its practically trolling to say most of us don't understand its most common connotation.

Removing the tedious parts?  That is part of the challenge, learning to streamline your actions, become as efficent as possible in your gameplay, and learn to maximize you gaming profieciency. 

No need for that any more these days, as mentioned the games practically autoplay themselves these days.

Fri Mar 26 2010 6:30AM Report
einexile writes:

This phrase was popularized by Rush Limbaugh. I'd just as soon be done with it.

Fri Mar 26 2010 7:08AM Report
ericbelser writes:

LOL Nazis and politics already, have to love it.

Go watch "Idiocracy" if you want a definition of "dumbed down".

Elitist connotations aside, it is a very real phenomenon and has become glaringly obvious in the MMO world. The famous NGE of SWG was most definitely a "dumbing down". The pve raiding and levelling content of modern games has generally been made easier, simpler and more accessible over time -  a trend obvious to anyone who has been playing for any real length of time.

Fri Mar 26 2010 8:20AM Report
BadSpock writes:

There are still millions of people in games like WoW that DON'T face-roll through heroics and don't even attempt raids.

Anyone who uses the term "dumb downed" is particularly stupid themselves.

I've been playing MMO's for 10+ years now. The games are no "dumber" now then they were before, if anything they are a hell of a lot smarter -

The difference is, I and so many others have been playing for so long that we understand the formula SO well that the games are comparitively easy to our "first" games way back in the day.

Come on, UO was point and click.. and spam your mouse-button combat. There were like 3 stats. It was so relatively simple it's a joke.

But it was awesome.

Anyone who played "modern" games and went back in time to old school UO would think it was total crap. No content, no UI, no actions/skills, no stat theory-crafting...

Mages were the only ones who ever had to click more then a few buttons, and even they were primarly Kal Vas Flam and Corp Por or whatever it was.

Games today are INFINITELY more advanced due to the massive and lightning-paced advancement of technology. I have more processing power in my cell-phone then on the PC I used to play UO on.

We are just much better at some of them cause we've been playing so long. But as I get older I'm getting worse and worse at shooters (FPS) so I appreciate the slower pace of MMO's.

Complexity does NOT equate to intelligence, however. The smartest man will figure out the easiest and most practical/efficient way to do something.

Modern MMOs are a lot more practical and efficient then their predecessors.

IMO the only real issue I see is that most MMOs have been following the EQ model rather then the UO model, and those who do try and follow the UO model get it horribly wrong becasue they fail to learn the same lessons UO learned so very long ago.

Fri Mar 26 2010 8:57AM Report
cassiopaeia writes:

To me, the phrase 'dumbed down" is when a person of higher intellect that's used to talking as such is forced to talk on a much lower level.

As such, I believe the phrase has no business being used where MMORPGs are concerned.  I've been playing RPGs since I was in my early teens (13), first on the early gen consoles.  Nowadays, they don't seem that dificult to play at all, while my family (namely my mom) marvels that I'm able to handle very difficult bosses and puzzles (her words, not mine.)  I'm more inclined to agree that the games haven't gotten dumber, the player's become smarter.

Fri Mar 26 2010 9:40AM Report
battleaxe writes:

Back in the day, Everquest didn't have a map, didn't have little exclamation points over quest giver heads, and didn't show you exactly where to go for each quest.  You needed to click on every NPC to see if they had a quest for you.  Many quest chains would send you to another NPC and give you an approximate location in a zone, but you had to find them.  They didn't pop up on a map or a minimap.

In Wow, we not only have every quest giver light up, but they show up on the minimaps.  The quest objects show up on the maps.  Where you need to go to turn in a quest shows up on the map.  A quest log tells you specifically what you need in the UI itself.  You really don't have to read the actual quest text any more - it's not important and will just slow you down.  Besides a "dumbing down", this has really removed some of the immersion in the RP part of the game.  You have no incentive to undertand WHY you're out killing toothless wolves for teeth.

Fri Mar 26 2010 12:38PM Report
biofellis writes:

So, In an industry famous for 

  • pay-to-play beta,
  • shipping buggy release products
  • terms-of-service shenanigans
  • zealous, 'amendment-restrictive' user control (more TOS)
  • 'less than adequate' customer support
  • free to play hijinks
  • marketing misinformation
  • and occasional bouts of opportunistic greed...
When it comes to 'optimizing a game' for the 'lowest common denominator', you don't see that happening?

Interesting.

Fri Mar 26 2010 2:23PM Report
Blazz writes:

I guess we just have to wait for a few developers to see the niche that is forming and grab at it - they could make a smaller game that is more focussed on what us more challenge-oriented people want, and secure a small, but strong community. (Maybe 50,000 or so)

Every now and then, some developer will realise that there are few challenging games out there at the moment, and will create one, I think. Look at Demon's Souls - shining out as a true challenge in a sea of dull, lifeless cakewalks.

Fri Mar 26 2010 10:28PM Report
JYCowboy writes:

Let me quote a person of note that defines this term 'dumbing down':

"We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base ... There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an option to be part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves."

Nancy McIntyre

Nov. 15 2005 Star Wars Galaxies was changed with the New Game Enhancement (NGE) to a strickly level based, class based, FPS want-a-be themepark game from a 'sandbox' world sim.  Today it offers a great deal of content but many can never play the game having enjoyed the challenge of being a resident and not just a passing hero.

Sat Mar 27 2010 11:50AM Report
Soultice writes:

Dumbing down of the game can mean alot of things to players.  Mine had to do with mods that told a player what a boss was going to do next and what button to push  or how much threat a person had.

Gone were the days where you had to actually learn your class and actually think about what you were going to do.  Everything is basically handed to a player today. 

Now the dev's design games around mods instead of developing material that requires some time and thought.

I am not going to belittle any guild or legion for pushing content in games today.  It does require time and coordination to get the job done.  But mods are basically taking place of learning a class as a trained monkey can push a button when told to do so with a program.

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