I think the problem with a lot of ostensibly “hardcore” video games is that both their fanbases and their developers think having a high skill floor is the same thing as having a high skill ceiling.
I’m not sure I understand. Do you mind explaining the difference?
In the jargon of game design, the “skill ceiling” is the point beyond which further improvements in player skill start to yield diminishing returns; there’s only so good you can get before it just stops making a difference, and that point varies from game to game. A game’s skill ceiling is said to be low when you can quickly explore everything it has to offer, and high when there’s ample room for long-term improvement.
The “skill floor”, conversely, is the minimum level of player skill that’s required to meaningfully participate in the game at all. All interactive media has to make certain assumptions about the player’s ability to engage with it, so in practice every game has a skill floor. A game’s skill floor is said to be low when the game is approachable enough that you can pick up the necessary skills as you go, and high when only prior experience with other, similar games will do.
As an illustrative example, consider Super Mario Odyssey. By most measures it has a fairly low skill floor; some prior experience with 3D platformers will certainly help you get into it, but just about anybody can muddle through and pick up a few power moons. On the flip side, Super Mario Odyssey’s skill ceiling is quite high; if you really know what you’re doing, you can complete the game in an hour flat – you can look up some speed-running videos on YouTube to see how that works in practice.
The problem with confusing the two is that a game having a high skill floor doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it has a correspondingly high skill ceiling. It’s entirely possible to design a game where once you’ve gotten over that initial steep learning curve, that’s all there is to it – there’s nothing more to be learned. A lot of games that cater to the “hardcore” crowd fall into this trap; they’re tough to get into, often to the point that they’re accessible only to folks with extensive prior experience with other games in the genre, but once you are in there’s just not all that much to them.
If the floor and the ceiling are too close together, you’re stuck in a space you can barely move in, and most people will either be impressed that you can stand to stay there, or wonder why the hell you’d want to.
This right here is why I don’t have all that much interest in games like Dark Souls and so on. “It’s super hard” is rarely a reason for me to want to play anything by itself for more than a few minutes. There is a distinct and important difference between challenging, and unfair.