Quest undying: Understanding the appeal of Dark Souls

As Dark Souls II nears launch, Christian Nutt reflects on what sets the franchise apart -- and speaks to Namco Bandai's Brian Hong to find out how the publisher's approach to it led to success.
Dark Souls is a very interesting game. One thing that interests me about it is that two years later, as its sequel is about to launch, people are still playing it. I see them talking about it on Twitter; my husband booted it up this week to play it some more -- he's already played it extensively -- and before long another player joined his session. That seems remarkable, for what's mainly a single player console game, and one that hasn't been promoted much at all of late. In an era when we constantly hear that the window is smaller and smaller for premium packaged titles to find audiences and that DLC, multiplayer modes, and grind are necessary to keep it jammed open even an inch, that's an achievement. The game has little grind, very idiosyncratic multiplayer, and only one DLC pack, which you need to progress far into the game to even access.

Prepare to Die

Of course, when you talk Dark Souls, you must discuss its notorious difficulty. I recently had a chance to speak to Brian Hong, director of strategic and digital marketing at Namco Bandai Games, about how the publisher's initial discussions of the game went. "A lot of people said, 'Well, this game's really hard, but you don't want to talk about how hard it is, because it's going to scare people away!' But as we kept going through and stripping everything down, I realized that this is actually the most defining characteristic that puts its first step forward." Those people, whoever they were, were obviously wrong: Rather than shying away from Dark Souls' difficulty, Namco Bandai highlighted this facet of the game, and it went on to be a great success because of this. I think they were not simply wrong in the idea that a difficult game would scare players off, though. They were wrong because the game's motto, "prepare to die" -- and the PR, press strategy, and marketing as an extension of this motto -- set expectations for those players before they even booted it up. The trend this generation was to try and make triple-A games into amusement park rides, where players ever moved onward, seeing new things all the while -- stuck for moments, maybe, but not long. Developers put tremendous effort into creating situations that seemed challenging -- but weren't. Dark Souls forces you to learn how to deal with its challenges to progress. There is no other option. "Prepare to die" thus communicates not just "it's hard" but also its creative ethos: Try, fail, learn, and try again. Its success reinforces the efficacy of learning as a core principle of game design, of course. Even grinding doesn't work in Dark Souls. Yes, you can get stronger, but that won't help you understand its challenges or uncover its secrets. You're more likely to survive a tough boss battle by trusting your wits, not your stats. (If you want to learn more about the game's design, Gamasutra has two excellent pieces from Cthulhu Saves the World creator Robert Boyd: 9 things we can learn about game design from Dark Souls, and Exploring the design of Dark Souls.)

"This game is hard, and we're not going to apologize for it"

Faced with a game like that, says Hong, "I said, 'You know what? I want to go out hard, and say this game is hard, and we're not going to apologize for it. If you're a hardcore gamer, you're going to love this game.'" That strategy helped win it an initial batch of fans that could be converted into evangelists, he says: "The message that we try to get out to all the folks out there is that if you try this, if you just invest some time into it, you're going to find this pot of gold you could not have imagined before. And there is just legions of folks out there that personally give testimony to that very fact, and all we can say is, 'Listen to your fellow gamer, please.' When they say with utmost earnestness, 'Try this game, please! You're going to love it if you give it a chance,' don't listen to us, listen to your fellow gamer." An interesting insight from Hong is how the game's difficulty affects community-building, which is something we're seeing in challenging but popular (and somewhat obtuse!) games from DayZ and Rust to Monster Hunter, too. Players help each other -- because they need each other -- and that's how communities form. This hasn't done much to hurt its longevity. In fact, this community is what informed Hong's approach, not the other way around. Before Dark Souls came Demon's Souls, a PlayStation 3 exclusive which had a small but passionate fan base. Hong scouted it for clues into how to market Dark Souls to a wider audience. "They said, 'Look, if you can get past the early difficulty, if you can just dig a little bit deeper and invest some time in this, you will find out how ridiculously deep and awesome this game is.' These were the voices telling me how to talk about the challenge of the game..."

Growing in its own way

Another interesting facet of the game is its innovation in player communication and multiplayer. Players can leave messages inside the game world for others to find; this idea has already traveled around the industry (in the form of Nintendo's Miiverse service, and in Ubisoft's ZombiU, among other places.) The perversity of Dark Souls, however, means that these can be hints, or they can be intentionally misleading. Sometimes, they're lifesavers. Sometimes, you'll hurtle off a cliff to your doom at an anonymous suggestion. The multiplayer is also worth discussing: If you open up your single-player game, hostile players (who gain a big resource bonus for killing you) can invade (fair's fair: you get a big bonus if you repel them.) There's also more traditional co-op, but there is no method to pick and choose who you play with. It's whoever's available, and it's all but impossible to arrange multiplayer sessions with friends. This is both thrilling and enlivening of the single player game in a very original way, and frustrating for players who want a more traditional co-op experience. Further on from that, this approach is both indicative of how innovation can come out of developers treading their own path and ignoring trends and best practices, and it also shows how an isolationist mentality can keep features that would enhance the play experience from being included. I've heard time and again from the publisher, both on the Japan and U.S. side, that developer From Software is mainly left to its own devices. Namco Bandai has a surprising amount of trust in the studio. It's based on esteem. Says Hong, "From Software, I find them to be an incredibly passionate and earnest group of individuals... So you can see what they put into this game, and the outcome of it is nothing but their desire to realize a vision." This means, however, that they are not as open to feedback as many studios reflexively are in this age of uncertainty. "The From Software guys are truly artists, in the sense that when we talk about the success of Dark Souls, they say, 'You know what? We're not going to hear really too much about what you're saying. Just let us make the game.' And you can actually really appreciate that," says Hong. Is it better to get out of the way, or to enforce industry standards?

The road to understanding

"We're not going to hear really too much about what you're saying. Just let us make the game." That's scary for any publisher to hear, but amazingly, Namco Bandai seems to give the studio a lot of leeway. That's because it has paid off, so far. Hong honestly feels it's necessary -- or otherwise the franchise could lose its identity, and its fans. Publisher machinations could only harm the game, he says: "You try to stay as much true to the vision and the heart of the game, because ultimately the gamers are very sophisticated, some of the smartest consumers out there. You try to do a cash grab by watering something down, making it easier -- whatever you think that they want -- they will instantly pick up on that and just kick you to the curb." That hands-off approach, and Dark Souls' growth as a Japanese game that is unconcerned with many of the tropes and conventional wisdom of the Western triple-A space, has actually allowed it to thrive, and carve out its own niche. Hong is leery about the idea that you can even easily measure the success of Dark Souls against other games: "Well, it is a unique type of property. And it is not the type of game where we can treat or apply the typical market forces and say whether or not it's a success. For us, the business stuff aside, we know that this a game you pick up and you try, and you may put it down and not try it again -- sometimes for a long time, sometimes ever." That uncertainty, baked into Dark Souls' very design, seems to have given the publisher a unique view of the title's potential, its developer, and gameplay. It's not just the players who strive to understand Dark Souls, then, but everyone who encounters it. If you have to work to understand something, you'll respect it once you do. In fact, the key to the success of Dark Souls is understanding: The developers understood the game they were making, and didn't waver. The publisher first understood to trust the developer and then that being honest about the game would connect it to an audience. And finally, players understood what they were getting into, and then as they slowly came to understand the game itself, they loved it all the more. If Dark Souls has taught Hong any lessons, he says, it's to trust in the community to help build the success of the games he works on. "Well, the lineup of properties we have, whether they be Naruto, Dragon Ball, Tales, or even Armored Core -- I've worked on many, many franchises here, they all have their own personality and group, and that's the most interesting thing of all. We reach out and seek out the community leaders for all of these different groups, and they're all different people, but the one thing they share is crazy passion for this stuff." In essence, then, his job is to learn from them, enable them -- and to let the developers make the games they want to make.

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