So the internet is abuzz with the apparent revelation that Dark Souls 2, the much anticipated sequel to From Software’s cult hit Dark Souls, will be gracing us in March of 2014. Although this would seem to suggest it will be a release for the next generation consoles, the PS4, Xbox One and of-course PC, this has been categorically denied by its publisher and developers, citing that Dark Souls 2 is aiming to utilize a completely new engine to get the very best out of our current generation of gaming platforms. With that in mind it would seem that Dark Souls 2 could be the perfect swan song to an exceptional generation for gaming, ready to usher in the new era. In anticipation of E3 and Dark Souls 2’s ever impending release, I wish to offer the internet my take on the growing unease amongst Dark Souls fans, who fear that their cherished franchise could become the next victim of publishers setting unrealistic financial expectations for their niche titles.
I apologise if I’m re-hashing an argument the internet has already had it’s vigorous way with, but I think it’s important to reach as many people as possible with these concerns, as many gamers may still operate in a world blissfully unaware that to publishers they are mere financial statistics, rather than respected participants of this precious medium, which without it could not exist.
We already know, from comments made to OXM by Namco PR director Lee Kirton, that the marketing budget for Dark Souls 2 is going to be substantially larger than it was for Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Whilst this initially sounds like good news in terms of expanding the Souls community, be aware that this may have pushed developer From Software, into making the game unnecessarily accessible, by which I mean, easier, to accommodate its potentially expanding audience. I’ll be the first to succumb to the argument that difficulty is a subjective term, and some freakish warlord may have breezed through Dark Souls unscathed, but for us mere mortals, the sense of accomplishment in overcoming a seemingly insurmountable challenge, was the very driving force that made the game so compelling, and such a cult success in the first place.
So why does this matter? It does, mainly because of speculation that was rife when the game was first announced, that the difficulty would be toned down to accommodate a broader audience, or that the game would come shipped with an ‘easy mode’. While I agree that these things may entice a larger pool of players to consider the game, it would almost certainly detract from the experience that enticed so many of its current fans in the first place. Hypothetically speaking, it would be like releasing a sequel to ’50 Shades of Grey’ but toning down the overt sexual references in the hopes of appealing to a broader audience, essentially rendering the franchise facile. Luckily then it would seem that these fears have been answered. Yui Tanimura, the games director, commented in reply to accusations that the game will be easier, by stating that their intentions were ‘lost in translation’. He goes on to comment:
[quote]“What we meant by ‘making it more accessible’ was that we want to streamline away all of the tediousness, I suppose. We want to cut away all the fat and deliver a lean, pure, challenging experience.”[/quote]
Presumably, by ‘cut away all the fat’, Tanimura is referring to the back-tracking necessary to accomplish all your goals in the original Dark Souls. While this sounds like a welcome improvement, I reserve judgement on this one, purely because I found one of the great joys of Dark Souls was realising how all the environments were interconnected as you discovered various short-cuts between areas as you progressed. Aside from the expansive cast of enemies, this sense of scale in the environment, really leant itself to the mantra of the game, that is, in rewarding the player for overcoming its many obstacles. The first time I kicked down the ladder short-cut to the bonfire in Undead Burg was such an odd sense of elation, the likes of which I have rarely experienced in all my years of gaming. Tanimura goes on to say:
[quote]“We have the freedom to stay loyal to the core audience and core fans of Dark Souls and we’re not ordered [from Namco Bandai] to mass a large audience,”[/quote]
This is probably the news all Dark Souls fans we’re waiting to hear after a rocky bout of publicity suffered by all those involved with the games creation, but I receive it with some trepidation. For the developer to publicly state that they were not ordered in any way to tailor the game to accommodate a larger pool of players, leads me to a few conclusions. Either Tanimura is lying in some form, and the game HAS been developed with the consideration of a broader audience in mind, in which case, the final product will likely suffer in relation to its previous titles, and Namco’s ‘guns blazing’ marketing strategy will backfire (as it did for Capcom & Resident Evil 6). Alternatively, if this statement is true, then I hope the stronger marketing campaign will introduce the broader gaming community to a more challenging experience, that will inspire them to move on from the cookie cutter FPS titles that litter the market, thus progressing the industry as a whole in some way, this, however, sounds a little too good to be true.
The Escapist’s Jim Sterling, in his Jimquisition series, makes some excellent points in response to Namco’s plans to market the game as a ‘AAA’ title, exclaiming that no matter how it’s packaged, the Souls series is for a niche audience, and should be marketed as such, claiming that extensive advertising could ultimately backfire. He goes on to describe how the marketing for Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls worked because it was exactly the level of exposure, in the right places, the game needed to be considered successful. His conclusion draws a scathing assault on the current state of the games industry, with which I find it hard to disagree, he exerts:
[quote]Going ‘guns-blazing’ with it and, ‘hoping to god it works’ is what the main AAA industry has been doing for the past few years, and it’s NOT worked. Pumping boat loads of cash into advertising and then wishing on the tear-drops of a magical moon fairy doesn’t work. Did Lee Kirton think fans would be excited by this news? That hardcore gamers would be thrilled that AAA, a label fast becoming associated with overindulgent failure, Is a label being affixed to Dark Souls? If so, if Namco truly thought we’d be thrilled to hear it’s making the same financial decisions all the other companies fuck themselves making, then it exhibits just how astoundingly out of touch mainstream game publishers are with the audience, and with, well, reality. And it exhibits a freighting lack of understanding of how and why Dark Souls became successful.[/quote]
Publishers are well within their right to evaluate how the games they market are going to perform financially, but it’s critically important to operate within the ebbs and flows of the marketplace in which they reside, and even more important to understand it. The reason games like Call of Duty can afford elaborate marketing campaigns, is because they comprise such a large share of that market. Everyone and their nan has some experience of COD even if they have never played it. When you are such heavy hitter in the market place, announcing that your next cookie-cutter, yearly instalment is to be released is merely an exercise in publicity, rather than an attempt to expand their already gargantuan market-share. We are yet to really see what Namco-Bandai means by ‘balls out’ and ‘guns-blazing’, and my apprehension could be unwarranted, but to publicly announce this, like the fans desired it, was a clear example of the supreme gap in understanding between publishers and their audience. Using the example of Dead Space 3, Sterling makes a direct comparison:
[quote]Dead Space was a horror game, horror games are niche game with niche audiences, and there is nothing wrong with that. Dead Space would never be as big as Gears of War, and it had a loyal, mid-sized, but loyal fan-base, and it wasn’t enough, so Dead Space 3 crammed in a cover system, Uncharted sequences, and micro transactions, and none of that was going to work because the world already associates Dead Space with horror, and horror fans do not number 10 million.[/quote]
This critical failure to understand their audience is why copies of Dead Space 3 are now overwhelming the sales rack of every game retailer coaxed by the promise it would be a commercial success. It’s easy to speculate as to how From Software and it’s cherished Souls series will deal with the pressure of having to produce a title the publisher expects to be ‘AAA’, and a huge part of me trusts that despite this burden they will still deliver a stellar experience. But remember, if you are a fan of the series, and come March 2014 you realise the very fabric of the franchise has been compromised for the sake of someone else’s fiscal quarter, then please be wise enough to direct your vitriol to Namco-Bandai and not From Software, who I feel could be just as victimised by this fiasco as the fans.
All eyes are on E3, Namco, the ball is in your court, all the SunBros are clutching their Peculiar Dolls in the hope you don’t fuck this up for us. And dear reader, If you have got this far, then you probably care, so await my response to any progressions in the matter, be it good or bad.