Saturday, May 23, 2015

#90: Demon's Souls: Why Do So Many Like It?

Given how many people have asked me to try it, I find it surprising that it took me so long to play a Souls game. With an abundance of free time, I found myself enjoying my time with it. As I sit here, ruminating upon my new-found experiences with Demon's Souls, a question crossed my mind: Why exactly is Demon's Souls, and the Souls-series by extension, so popular and successful?

That might seem like a silly question to most, yet it makes no sense for Demon’s Souls to get so popular when one thinks about it. At the time of its release, the game had fierce competition from all sides. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Assassin's Creed 2 all came out in the holiday season of 2009, right when Demon's Souls first appeared on North American shores. These games are all remembered as some of the best in the console generation, especially for the PlayStation 3. A new IP with limited marketing from a fairly unknown developer, this stiff competition would make it theoretically difficult for Demon's Souls to gain footing in the hearts and minds of gamers.
Along those lines, Demon’s Souls’s unconventional design could have been considered a major obstacle in its success. Even now, it can be tough to tell non-Souls players why they work so well. Explaining this appeal when Demon’s Souls was new and not quite as popular would still have been even more so. This can be best demonstrated by the various claims that Demon's Souls is great because it is "hard". The punishing nature of its combat can make it seem “hard”, yet that is not truly the case. I will go into more detail later, but the game is only as punishing as it needs to be, and no more. Given the fact that so many people were introduced to the franchise on other such inaccurate explanations, it is logical to assume that they would avoid the franchise for fear of difficulty, as I did for a long time.

But Demon's Souls did not fall into the shadows of obscurity as one might expect. On the contrary, it grew as From Software continued iterating and reiterating on the core mechanics, transforming the ideas behind it into the very successful franchise we know today. That raises the question of why exactly this series became so popular and successful when so many other, more readily accessible games did not?

The most obvious reason is that its metric for success was significantly lower than that of most other games. There are many classic stories of publishers whose sales predictions for their games were "optimistic" at best. From the expected 7 million copies sold of Resident Evil 6 to the 5-6 million units projected for the Tomb Raider reboot, gamers have become familiar with excessively high hopes from laughably naive publishers. Though both examples come years after Demon's Souls's release, they represent the mentality of the modern AAA gaming space.
By all accounts, Demon's Souls was subject to much more realistic and manageable sales goals. Almost one year after the game came out, in September 2010, it was announced that the first entry in the Souls series soul-ed over 500,000 units. In the eyes of the various publishers responsible for each territory, this figure “nearly quadrupled sales expectations”. For From Software, who developed the product, it was enough to keep working on similar games. Under a different development house these numbers could have easily been interpreted as a failure, so part of the success and popularity of Demon's Souls could be partially attributed to From Software’s more conservative measurement of “success”.

That said, a lowered bar for success is not enough to achieve it. Like any game, Demon's Souls lives and dies by its design. Even now, years after the initial release, the game represents a genuine effort to cater to an underserved niche. The same design elements that would intuitively lead to its demise could actually be credited for Demon’s Soul’s popularity. There exist many people who dislike various aspects of modern game design. These people may not necessarily enjoy having an objective marker telling them exactly how far away they are from where they are supposed to go. Linearity of both game and level design might not satisfy their urge to explore and discover. Combat in many games may require too much of a focus on reflex and speed. It is for these people from whom Demon's Souls was designed. That, in turn, is the largest contributor to its success.
The world of Demon's Souls is deliberately designed to counter many of the expectations in more modern game design. No objective marker is present. In order to figure out where to go and what to do next, players must pay attention to both the visual and audio cues throughout the environment. Guidance does exist, but it is not as readily apparent as it may be in other games. One has to use their own logic and intuition in order to not only figure out what they need to do, but how to do it.
All of the various hidden weapons, armor and trinkets also serve to encourage exploration. Entire essays could be written exclusively on the placement of items in Demon’s Souls. Not only are they just far enough off the beaten path that players will naturally want to wander around areas to look for them, but they are placed in areas where one could logically be expected to find them. For example, players can find the Graverobber’s Ring, which shields its bearer from the vision of evil spirits, on the body of a corpse in an old jail cell. Though the game never draws attention to it, this one item tells the story of a man who used the ring to protect himself from the vengeful spirits of the graves he defiled. Yet, he ultimately could not outrun the law, and died once the chaos that started the game broke out. Almost all of the items in the game tell such stories. Attentive players looking to explore will find themselves enjoying the act of piecing together Boletaria’s history in this manner.

As I mentioned earlier, while combat in Demon's Souls is routinely described as "hard," the truth is not quite as simple. It is a learning process, where players have to figure out how to defeat the foes standing in their way, and even the ones charging at them with reckless abandon. It is less about placing an arbitrary challenge before the player and more about rewarding them for properly analyzing the enemy and capitalizing on moments in their animations where they are made vulnerable. The damage players take is only as high as it is to draw attention to their own mistakes, that they might correct them. Because these windows of opportunity tend to be fairly large, precision timing is not as important. The emphasis is on recognizing both the chances enemies give to attack and those the player gives for foes to do the same. Tactics are at the forefront.
By using these principles in its game design, among others, Demon's Souls caters to audiences that many other games simply don't or won't. I posit that these oft-forgotten gamers are very loyal to both Demon's Souls and the Souls games because it is one of the few franchises that satisfy their specific needs. Of course no one would argue that modern game design conventions are bad. But the same design philosophies that appeal to the largest subset of all gamers are not the ones that scratch the same proverbial itches that Demon's Souls will. So while Demon's Souls is meant for a specific niche, my guess is that this niche is both wide enough and so generally unappeased by other franchises that they took what they could get and ran with it.

Even if it were the case that the target audience was better served, the mechanics and design of Demon's Souls strongly encourage the creation of a community. The lack of hand-holding in the game almost forces players to collaborate and share their accumulated knowledge with others. Even without the aid of dedicated websites, the note system, where players can leave messages for others to take advice from, and the bloodstains that show where and how others died, both make it easy for people to aid one another indirectly. With these in-game tools, players are more likely to offer their knowledge to others that they have never, and will never, meet.
Even outside of the game’s systems, this spirit of cooperation exists in fans of Demon’s Souls. The moniker of a "wiki game," that expects one to look online for item information, character builds, and strategy, is often criticized. While I can definitely acknowledge that it is not a design that everyone will like, those that do will form healthy communities around them. As someone who invested 250+ hours into The Binding of Isaac, I know all too well how fun it can be to just talk and share advice with others. During my playthrough of Demon's Souls, the friends I knew who had played it previously were all too happy to offer tips whenever I asked. The community, and the loyalty born from it, are not accidents. They are logical consequences of the way the game was designed.

Seen in this light, what initially seemed like a freak accident could also be interpreted as an inevitable result of many interlocking circumstances. Given that Demon's Souls had such low expectations, served an undervalued niche, and encouraged this niche to work together and build a community, of course it would catch on with such fervor. It is counter-intuitive, yet the logic is there. As for me, now that I have acquired a taste for Souls, I plan to delve deeper into the Dark.

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