Kieron Gillen has a nice meditation on difficulty and games over at the Escapist: where do you find it these days? Gillen opines that real difficulty, something "balanced expertly on the precipice between hard and unfair" (like his example of God Hand), is increasingly pushed towards the edges. As the rules of the economic game have changed, many titles are forced to balance challenge with "completability," with the balance being skewed towards easy (or 'easier):
Once upon a time, games were competitors. Now, primarily, they're entertainers. They aimed to beat you. Now, to be beaten. Our language says much, really. While we've talked about difficulty curves forever, the problems now are "difficulty spikes." No one ever critiques a game for a difficulty-trough - because the former stops you getting anywhere and the latter is just something you coast throug
I'm not one of those gamers that particularly enjoys having my ass handed to me to the point where I simply cannot complete a game, though there are plenty of games that have challenged me to (my) max - I'm also the obsessive type, so the pattern of having side quests and optional challenges galore in my games of choice usually means I have more than enough to keep me busy. This question of balancing the commercial needs of AAA titles with what 'real' gamers (however you want to define that) want to see is an increasingly pressing problem — though not one that I expect will be resolved any time soon, other that to push more and more 'styles' of games towards the fringes.