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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.