Are Video Games Getting "Dumbed Down?"
Dumber and More Expensive?
To answer the question, we have to look at the history of video games. Starting with something simple like Pong, we can see that video games were extremely simple when they were first made. Even games like Pac Mac and Donkey Kong have simple gameplay concepts.
This doesn't mean they aren't good, it just means they were more rudimentary compared to games today.
In the 80's we started seeing more complicated concepts, similar to modern RPGs. Wizardry came out in 1981 and sold an "extremely successful" 24,000 copies (according to Wikipedia, so take that figure with a grain of salt).
At that point in time, video games were still a relatively obscure hobby for people who were capable of building their own computer (or buying a Commodore 64).
The 90's saw the release of many modern trends, like the invention of the FPS (Wolfenstein and DOOM); the perfection of graphic RPGs like Baldur's Gate, Ultima and many other aspects and genres of gaming that we've come to know and love.
This might be where most of the elitism against modern games comes from: Games from the time were hard, and not just in terms of in-game difficulty. User interfaces were clunky. Level design might force players to backtrack across levels to find a certain NPC or the red key card. This was one of the reasons Half-Life 1 was such a breath of fresh air in 1998: The player almost always knew where to go.
Today, gamer culture doesn't want to wait a few hours before they can "have fun." If the argument can be made that games are dumber, it could be made that movies are dumber. Compare the plot of Citizen Kane with the Dark Knight and you'll find that modern movies often strip out subtlety in favor of clarity. They're meant to appeal to a wider audience, and people don't like things they can't understand.
This isn't to say that the Dark Knight is better or worse than Citizen Kane; they're made to appeal to completely different generations of consumers. With this in mind, one can see that video games reflect this attitude.
There are only a handful of "mega publishers" in the world today. The rest have either sold out or went bankrupt because they couldn't find an audience for their game. Video games are a multi-billion dollar business, so companies are simply not going to invent in something that doesn't have mass appeal.
When people say that games are being "dumbed down," what they really mean is that many games are being made for consoles. This might result in fewer buttons to press. There are only sixteen on modern Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers as opposed to PC keyboards which can have over one hundred keys. Players will see a difference in the way menus and game interfaces are laid out, occasionally feeling limited.
The fact of the matter is that games are not getting dumber, they're getting more accessible. Most people don't realize that there are gamers significantly younger than they are, and younger gamers don't have the kind of patience and devotion to play something like System Shock 2 when they could be playing Bioshock. It's sad, but it's true.
Worse still, the attention span of audiences is much shorter than it was in gamers just fifteen years ago. Most people reading this article couldn't be bothered to read to the end of this paragraph, let alone this entire article.
We've seen a certain Call of Duty-fication of games recently, simply because Call of Duty is the latest 800-pound gorilla in the room. Companies have always emulated popular games. When Halo was new and popular, lots of games had two weapons and grenades.
In short: Business drives innovation but greed drives derivation. Games are not getting dumber, they're getting more derivative because it's a faster, safer way for companies to make money.