It's not just the gaming market that's changed. The games themselves have become epics, lasting days, if not months. However, one thing hasn't changed: Death. In almost game you play, you die, likely multiple times. This was relevant 10 years ago. Now, it just seems like an annoyance.
Take Halo 2 for instance. You walk into a room uncaringly, are blown away by a group of Elites, and within seconds you're back in action, right at the door you entered moments ago. You don't lose anything; you still have all your weapons and you even have full shields. What's the point of even making a game challenging anymore?
It's obvious that with the extended length, the old "three lives and your dead" routine isn't going to work for the vast majority of games on the market. Playing fifteen hours and being sent all the way back to the beginning of the game isn't feasible.
It seems that now all we're doing when we play is work through each title without a single care as to whether or not we're actually performing well. There's no real point in trying to avoid enemy fire in some games. You can go in guns blazing and hope for the best every time in Halo 2. The same can be said for Splinter Cell. You can experiment as much as you want with no repercussions.
Is this where the entertainment value derives from in today's games? Take Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox. People complained it's far too difficult, yet you have an unlimited amount of chances to make through any section you're stuck in. Is it really the difficulty that's causing you problems, or the fact that you're simply not making progress as quickly as you'd like?
Some games try to derive their challenge by adding in bonuses for great play or inserting special mission objectives. These have nothing to do with the games challenge level, but everything to do with replay value. Any generic platformer will have hidden things to collect strewn around the stages. When you have an unlimited amount of time and chances to get them, it's going to happen eventually and there's no stress in doing so.
Going back to Halo 2 for a moment: what if the game designers simply made Master Chief invincible? Would that change the gameplay dynamics? Yes, obviously. It would also cut the game down to five hours, not 10 or more. Would you still feel like you've paid money for a great product? Probably not.
That really doesn't make much sense when you think about it. Is it all that different? Not particularly. Sure, you can jack the difficulty up to legendary, but where's the tension? You're not going into the final battle with one life and no continues. A three year old with no experience with FPS's is eventually going to pull through in due time. You can play as recklessly as you want and with no repercussions.
So, why are companies even bothering with new artificial intelligence? Does it matter? It may look impressive when an enemy soldier dives for cover, but all he's really doing is making your job a little more annoying. In most games, it's not making things anymore difficult.
Is there a solution here? As games become more like movies, will the need for story overshadow health bars? Maybe this is just the beginning of where games are going and developers are still holding on to the roots of the industry. Either way, it's obvious that something needs to change, and developers need to make a move in the direction they plan on taking us soon, and a big one at that.