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Behind the Line: Farewell to Demon’s Souls

Demon’s Souls servers will be getting sunset next year. I’m a fan of, and have written about, the Souls games before, so I’d like to take a moment this week to remember the game for what it was, and what it wasn’t. In fact, in many ways Demon’s Souls is my favorite Souls game.

For every battle won, a greater battle takes its place and so it goes until we fall. And in the end we all fall. Even the gods have their time.

Intro

Demon’s Souls should be recognized for the impact that it had. As an Atlus import, the expectations were probably moderate. But where the Disgaea franchise found its own comfortable niche, Demon’s Souls snowballed. Demon’s Souls was the exceedingly rare game where word of mouth and reputation truly worked to draw new players in.

The game was familiar, with its medieval setting and “old school” difficulty, yet compelling with fairness that simultaniously challenged and respected the player. It was also exotic with its sparse narrative, deep systems to explore, horrific imagery, and unearthly sound design. This combination found an elusive and profitable “underserved market” that no one knew was there, even the market itself.

Unexpected Success

Normally game sales follow a line similar to a movie’s box office. The first week or two sees most of the revenue, and everything drops off after that. Demon’s Souls release was more like a snowball. When it came out there was no massive media push to let people know about it. As Demon’s Souls reputation grew, it got more coverage, and more sales. What happened here was something that you can never plan or design for.  Its success fed itself and it grew. The game was almost like a boogey man out there. “Have you played Demon’s Souls? It’s supposed to be really tough. I’d like to see how you can handle it!” The intrigue grew and grew, and along with it the reputation, and market awareness. Eventually it was big enough that the market had to take notice.

If it weren’t for that success, I doubt Dark Souls would have had the funding it had. Without that, It wouldn’t have been the experience it was. Demon’s Souls proved the style worked, and got significant publisher dollars invested into Dark Souls.

With that many teeth, who needs eyes?

Legacy

Demon’s Souls legacy on game design is undeniable. Demon’s Souls begat Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Nigh, Salt and Sanctuary, Let it Die, and more. The underserved market is underserved no more. What’s more, there is now a template for other games to follow as the medium develops. Or, a new tool for developers to use to create a new type of experience.

Demon’s Souls also experimented with new ways for players to interact with each other. Leaving messages, invading, or assisting are all ways to add a communal element to a single player game. While “multiplayer”, or even “massively multiplayer” may technically apply to the game, those terms aren’t accurate. Messages created a sense of community. You know people are out there, you can see the evidence on the floor all around you. Some help, some sabotage, but there are real people out there doing this. Invasions give a sense of ever present danger. The moment you see the warning appear you realize that the rules have changed.

On the other hand, assisting another player can create a tremendous cameraderie. It gives an experienced player the opportunity to help out a rookie, or for a group to band together for an epic showdown, if they want. The limited options for communication have been frustrating for some players, but it does add to the etherial atmosphere of the game.

We should also recognize that the difficulty of Demon’s Souls eventually helped shape the exclusionary and toxic “git gud” subculture. Because the game is so difficult, the bar of entry is so high, some players look at skill in the game as some right of passage, or a purity test for a “real gamer”. Of all the good design lessons to take from the game, we should also learn from how the public reacts to it. Games can be a means to bring people together, and Demon’s Souls did so as it gained momentum. Games can also be used to divide people. Are you a “real gamer” if you can’t beat a Souls game? Some will use the question to elevate and separate themselves from others.

This guy would be at home with Pinhead, and the Cenobites.

Misses, and relics

On that note, we should also recognize the feature misfires of Demon’s Souls.

First is the “Tendencies”. Character and World tendencies could shift between white and black depending on the actions and successes or failures of the player. These tendencies would in turn affect what could happen in a stage. At or near pure white or black world tendency certain doors would open. It’s an interesting idea to reflect the effect that the player has on themselves and their environment. In fact, it also allows for community events where all worlds can turn pure black for halloween, or pure white for new years for example.

In execution, though, tendencies are clunky at best. Most affects are only at the far ends of tendencies, meaning players are pushed to artificially force tendency changes to access hidden areas. The ways to affect tendency are also heavy handed, turning the effort into tedious busy work. Worst of all, the online community can affect your world tendency as well. A percentage of your tendency was based on the world wide averages. This made getting pure white or pure black very difficult without disconnecting from the servers to force the issue, adding another layer of annoyance.

Then there’s the player notes. It’s easy to see the thinking. Players will try to amass their own knowledge base in game to assist or hinder each other. This will build on itself to create a sense of communal struggle against the system of the game. Unfortunately what’s far more effective than this is a simple wiki. Detailed walk throughs, strategies and tactics, highlighting areas to explore, and discussions about plot elements and significance of little details through the wiki are probably more effective at both conveying the information, and building the community. If this system were in place 20 years ago, without a more robust alternative, it could feel very different. And even though this feature has figured into subsequent games, I don’t feel it ever really fully achieved what it intended.

Slay a dragon, take a nap

Respect and Memories

Demon’s Souls is a game that fought, and succeeded, way above its weight class. As a niche title, it caused waves in the AAA space. It has also lasted FAR FAR longer than anyone would have predicted. Its servers were originally going to go down way back in 2012, but Atlus decided, or managed, to keep them up. Six years later, it’s finally time. But remember, this doesn’t mean the game is gone entirely. It will continue to be playable in offline mode. You won’t have help, or invasions, but you will have an easier time managing tendencies. You won’t have new comments, but the wiki will still be there.

So let’s remember, and even re-live those great moments.

  • Running into the Tower Knight for the first time
  • Meeting Patches and learning how much of a lying jerk he is
  • Fighting the Dragon God (still one of my personal favorite dragon designs)
  • Taking the wrong turn on the castle walls and running into a red eyed black knight.
  • The tragedy of Prince Ostrava
  • Fighting the Penetrator Knight with Biorr of the Twin Fangs
  • Facing the horror of the Tower of Latria, including MINDFLAYERS
  • Taking on the enormous Storm King
  • Any time you find a way to out-smart the game
  • The Penetrator appearing by skewering the Fat Official that has been tormenting you

 

 

(Yeah, a lot of my favorite moments are from Castle Boletaria. I really like that stage.)

 


Kynetyk is a veteran of the games industry.  Behind the Line is to help improve understanding of what goes on in the game development process and the business behind it.  From “What’s taking this game so long to release”, to “why are there bugs”, to “Why is this free to play” or anything else, if there is a topic that you would like to see covered, please write in to kynetyk@enthusiacs.com or follow on twitter @kynetykknows

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