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Ascended Souls

Fri 04 Nov 2011 7:45am GMT / 3:45am EDT / 12:45am PDT
RetailPublishing

From Software's unforgiving epic shifts 1.5 million units - and points to a bright future for niche genre titles

In the midst of the rolling debate about the entire future of the games industry and its business models, a fascinating figure emerged this week - although its significance was, perhaps, not entirely evident at first glance. Never mind financial results from social game operators or layoffs at mobile developers or profit forecasts at boxed game publishers; this week, From Software's Dark Souls announced hitting a shipment milestone of 1.5 million units worldwide.

This is an important figure on a few levels. It's important for fans of the game, of course, who can be happy in the knowledge that commercial success ensures future development along similar lines. It's important for From Software and for overseas publisher Namco Bandai for similar reasons - but it's important to the industry as a whole because it's something which, according to the prevailing conventional wisdom, shouldn't have happened.

Dark Souls, for the uninitiated, is a deeply unforgiving yet superbly well-tuned action RPG, set in a dark fantasy world and focused heavily on the intricacies of character development and tuning, as well as the building up of player skill. It's best known for a steep difficulty curve which ensures that players will die many, many times, and for punishing harshly for those deaths. It doesn't feature bombastic FPS set-pieces, cinematic quick-time events, perfectly rendered glistening sportsmen or motion-controlled mini-games. It's a game which has "Noble Failure" stamped all over it from the outset.

Dark Souls sales are important to the industry as a whole because it's something which, according to the prevailing conventional wisdom, shouldn't have happened

Yet here we are - 1.5 million units shipped, almost twice the eventual sell-through of its predecessor, Demon's Souls. That's 1.5 million units of a practically unknown IP sold in boxes at full price, using precisely the high-value traditional business model that some forecasters confidently predict going the way of the dodo. Is this really just a peculiar anomaly, or is there something important to be learned from this?

I don't really believe in peculiar anomalies when it comes to business models and market success, and I have little time for those who hide behind convenient terms like "fad", "craze" or indeed "anomaly" itself to avoid having to properly understand the reasons for the success of a product. Dark Souls is a success because it addresses an audience segment that's engaged by its ideas and willing to pay to experience it - an audience that we, as an industry, may be too ready to dismiss right now.

What can we learn here? Some things we already know, but it's helpful to have them reinforced. We know that there are over 50 million units each of the Xbox 360 and PS3 installed underneath TVs around the world. Those consoles were bought by people who are familiar with games - they're not intimidated by joypads and their multitudinous buttons, and by buying the hardware they indicate their willingness to also buy software, expensive as it is, on a semi-regular basis. So there's a market for traditional, boxed games - a market that's not made up of dinosaurs who have just failed to convert over to the brave new game types and business models of The Future, but who simply prefer more traditional gaming experiences.

I've stated before that I don't think the word "mainstream" is a terribly useful one in discussing the games market - the market is made up of a vast and sprawling variety of different niche audiences, and we just happen to stick the "mainstream" label on products that succeed at appealing to a number of niches on a variety of different levels. Talk to ten people about why they like Uncharted, or Halo, or Wii Sports, and you'll quite likely get ten different viewpoints and ten different contexts for enjoyment of the game in question.

What Dark Souls does, rather than spanning niches, is laser-focus on a few niche areas - and crucially, it engages and energises the base of people with an interest in this kind of game by demonstrating a real passion for and understanding of the kinds of experiences beloved by gamers in that category. Dark Souls isn't a success because it wants to be loved by everyone; it's a success because it's absolutely untroubled by the idea that most people will hate it, which will only boost the fervour of the niche audiences who absolutely love it.

The extent to which Dark Souls' fans love it is truly wonderful and astonishing to behold. They play it obsessively. They write about it. They tweet and blog about it. They encourage their friends to engage, discuss their progress with fellow fans, and are happy evangelists for the game. They're deeply engaged and involved, and that's the most powerful asset a franchise could ever hope to have.

Most western publishers are leaving money on the table every time they launch a game that manages to build a truly passionate fanbase

Moreover, if we're to bring this back to nuts and bolts, these fans are almost certainly happy to boost their investment in the game. Dark Souls' special edition has sold reasonably well, as I understand it - extra money in the bank from the top fans of the game. Unfortunately, western companies are still very poor at servicing passionate fanbases with post-launch products. Japan's game shops teem with merchandise ranging from character statues and T-shirts through to soundtracks and artbooks - relatively recently, Square Enix even launched eau de toilette and scented candles themed after Final Fantasy 7's Cloud and Sephiroth characters.

In the West, however, special editions tend to be the beginning and end of any attempt at monetising true fans of the franchise, which is a shame, since special editions really only catch those fans who are energised by pre-launch hype, not those who really fall in love with a game while they're actually playing it. DLC goes some way to filling in the gap, but it's still the case that most western publishers are leaving money on the table every time they launch a game that manages to build a truly passionate fanbase.

Yet even without this additional revenue stream on the back-end, the fact is that Dark Souls has achieved something which other publishers who want to stay alive in the increasingly tough console publishing market need to understand thoroughly. The game has ignited passion and excitement by presenting itself as an uncompromising, auteur-style vision, by being unafraid to focus on its core fans to the exclusion of a wider audience - but, crucially, by interpreting this to mean that it must strive to please its niche, not to mean that dips in quality will be forgiven since it's being sold to "fans", a common logical flaw of companies who take a more cynical approach to publishing niche-appeal products.

Dark Souls, for all that it's a game that gives the impression at times of hating its players, clearly loves its fans. It treats them well, and tells them that they're special - that this is an experience crafted for them, and that it doesn't care if the unwashed masses don't understand, as long as the fans do. Its fans reward it with passion, with enthusiasm, with evangelism, and with sales figures - and those figures could be boosted even more if that passion could be tapped into post-launch as well.

Not every game can go down this path, but as marketing budgets expand out of control and the cost of bringing a game to market shoots upwards, squeezing mid-range publishers and even new IPs from big publishers out of contention, Dark Souls' approach suggests another way forward. You don't have to be loved by everyone to be profitable and successful - you just have to approach one area with real passion and affection, and let that shine through every aspect of the development process and your engagement with the audience. Of course, that's easy to state on a page, and a lot harder to implement in practice - but if there's a company in our industry that can't demonstrate real passion and enthusiasm for games, it's got a deeper problem to contend with than shifting business models.

33 Comments

Tomasz Gop
Executive Producer

2 0 0.0
Great article, I'll evangelize now! :)

Posted:2 years ago

#1
From software is more known for its Armoured Core multi franchise series (which due to the modular nature of its mechs, probably does as well with the Gundam series, having a strong fan base in the Model Kits industry as well under Kotobukiya and a Anime franchise spin off)

What is show was the development of strong, rich core back to basics titles (without taking shortcuts) with the Armoured Core and Fantasy series (starting from King's field and then plowing straight into Demon Souls) can be a long rewarding IP for both developers and fans.

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Klaus Preisinger
Freelance Writing

1,034 912 0.9
Imo, the game is not punishing the player. Granted, if you die, you lose some currency, but you can reclaim it. If you dash to a treasure, pick it up and die from three monsters guarding it, you even get to keep it. Humanity, one of the other things you lose upon death is in 80% of all cases dropped as an inventory item. As a result, you hardly ever lose it and always have it ready when you really need it, e.g. bonfire before bossfights. The player has infinite lives and if he decides to stay undead, no other player can hotjoin his game to backstab him. Overall, there is no harsh punishment in this game, not by a longshot.

The game invites you to peek around corners you probably should not peek. All open world games have that in common. If Dark Souls kills the player for trying to explore a high level area it is the the game's fault, but when literally every MMO does the same it is not? Makes no sense to me.

If anything, the fights are a challenge, because they deviate from God of War style button mashing mode on default difficulty. In contrast to other 3rd person action games, Dark Souls can actually handle 1on1 fights with both, enemies of the same size and towering bosses. Does everything have to be dumbed down like SF4 or MK, that you can complete it half-asleep without ever blocking?

In essence, Dark Souls is not a game which is hard to play. Google for Dark Souls Speedrun, if you want to know just how bad you are. It has a metacritic score of 89, if anything, it should sell more than 1.5 million.

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Terence Gage
Freelance writer

1,288 120 0.1
I am a huge fan and proponent of Demon's Souls, and although I bought Dark Souls on launch and had looked forward to it for months, I've actually struggled quite a lot to get into it.

I think it's in part due to how many big releases there have been recently, all vying for my attention; when it came out I was busy playing through Crysis, and then I thought I'd finish the Team Ico Collection first as they're much briefer games, and now Uncharted 3 has the majority of my gaming time. I've put about 10 hours into Dark Souls and I enjoy it (as much as you can do with these games), but it hasn't got its hooks into me yet in the same way Demon's did last summer. Anyway, I'm digressing a little; I really like the Souls series and hope there will be more instalments. I just need to find a clear window in my gaming schedule where I can play it interrupted for a while, as it's the kind of game which I feel I'll need to give my full attention.

One final thought - I would be interested to see how the development & marketing budget for it compared to a roughly equivalent Western game, like say The Witcher 2 or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

Posted:2 years ago

#4

David Bachowski
VP Business Development

66 0 0.0
These kinds of games get me inspired as both a consumer and as a developer. Strong vision, and no compromise on that vision. Can only happen when everyone on board - publishers, developers, marketing team, is all on the same page with the product they are making.

Posted:2 years ago

#5
Namco bandai - this title worked out well as a sleeper hit and international frachise, consdiering the difficulties it had last year overall. Whereas Sony had the opportunity to, but did not perdict the huge worldwide potential it had.

Perhaps its worth looking further into more Japanese nich products and taking a good long gamble!

Posted:2 years ago

#6
See? There still is hope.

Posted:2 years ago

#7

Thom Holland
Illustrator, writer

2 0 0.0
I'm going to jump right on the fanboy bandwagon here.
I breezed through Uncharted 3 and Arkham City already and neither of them - despite both being INCREDIBLY EXCELLENT games - have given me the same thrill or fervour that Dark Souls has.
80 hours in, not rushing at all. Maybe 3/4 through. Still surprising and challenging. Sure, if you want to speed run you can do that (and I'll probably try when my balls get a bit bigger), or you can take it at your own pace and get completely absorbed. It hits that golden level of immersion and engagement that every game wishes it had.
OK, I'm done now :D
(Really pleased it's successful).

Posted:2 years ago

#8

Ben Reichert
Freelance writer/Game designer

1 0 0.0
This --> "The game has ignited passion and excitement by presenting itself as an uncompromising, auteur-style vision, by being unafraid to focus on its core fans to the exclusion of a wider audience - but, crucially, by interpreting this to mean that it must strive to please its niche, not to mean that dips in quality will be forgiven since it's being sold to "fans", a common logical flaw of companies who take a more cynical approach to publishing niche-appeal products."

Well said Rob. I often think games get ruined by the must-please-all attitude.

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Alex Johnson
Localization Producer

1 0 0.0
Nice article, Rob! Demon's Souls, aside from Amnesia: Dark Descent or The Ship, is one of the most refreshingly original and satisfying titles I have played in a long, long time. I have grown so bored of some of the big blockbuster titles of late that by the 8th hour in I'm praying for them to end. I dropped 70 hours into Demon's Souls and I still crave for the experience! Dark Souls is just as satisfying. I truly hope to see more products like this surface in the market.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

Mihai Cozma
Indie Games Developer

123 34 0.3
Nice article! Unfortunately most developers approach niches with the passion for their money only :(

Posted:2 years ago

#11

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,132 1,039 0.5
"but it's important to the industry as a whole because it's something which, according to the prevailing conventional wisdom, shouldn't have happened."

And that's because the prevailing conventional "wisdom" is mostly bullshit over-analysis, speculation and trend following nonsense. The current model is doomed or at least highly flawed because the stumble-bum rush to digital, freemium, download-only and other models forget that not ALL payers are ready and like it or not, won't be until a few important things occur.

Those game makers and publishers who keep pooh-poohing "Old" elements such as brick and mortar retail, used games, gamers with shitty online connections (who can STILL get a ton of play out of Dark Souls and Demon's Souls' rich, amazingly designed single player modes) will soon see that the 100% digital success they're seeking will be next to impossible because they've split the market into too many fragments while trying too hard to copy a terrible business model that's more about money that creativity.

Crap such as forced DRM, shipping games that have you to paying for "extra" content that should have been on the disc, this crazy mix of "Piracy is OK because it helps us sell games!" and "If you play this pirated game BEFORE its ship date, we'll come to your house and ask for it back!" paradox coming from two sides of a pool filled with "analyst" pee is all a mess.

Anyway, glad to hear Namco Bandai has had a killer year, as the 2010-early 2011 period must have been pretty disappointing. Solid, fun games like Enslaved and Majin didn't do well, Splatterhouse was a mess (that SHOULD have been better), Knight's Contract was really unique but too flawed and Clash of the Titans was undercooked yet way too long guilty pleasure of a licensed game. Their current and future lineup for consoles looks as if it'll be great, although I really HOPE Inversion gets a decent push from the company's PR. It's innovative and fun to play, uses a great engine and although the story seems confusing, the game could be a hit if enough people know about it.

Posted:2 years ago

#12
+1 Greg - plus i've always digged the Gunpla kits!

Posted:2 years ago

#13

Julian Cram
Project Manager

49 27 0.6
Really enjoyed the article, but couldn't exactly the same be said of Arkham Asylum, Deus Ex, Gears of War, Uncharted, Battlefield?

And I have no doubt Skyrim is going to smash sales as well.

Current conventional wisdom says all of these should have failed as well.

Posted:2 years ago

#14

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,132 1,039 0.5
Julian: You're right (although everyone seems to be dumping on BF3's "brief" single player campaign, despite Dice putting all that work into it. Pity).

Posted:2 years ago

#15

Sean Edwards
Director

6 6 1.0
I think you're right Julian, its something I have been thinking about recently. This whole issue of a shifting industry into mobile and casual games or social integration. The traditional gamer audience is still here and they still want there hardcore games. That market should not and I doubt will be, ignored. The amount of money AAA games make is huge, but on the flip side very few companies can afford to compete at the high end. This has resulted in lots of consolidation through out the industry with only a handful of publishers able to enter the arena. This doesn't mean indies haven't moved in to fill the gaps, they might not have the high production values but they make up for it where it counts, unique ideas and a focus on gameplay.

I have taken strict stance on my approach to skill and difficulty in my game Lunar Flight. It would be easy to compromise my vision of making something that expects people to gain skill and knowledge through play and experience rather than provide them paths of least resistance... I'm hoping that this will make people appreciate and feel more rewarded when they start to have some success.

Posted:2 years ago

#16
The thing is, the recent trends have been to make games acessible to all humans with opposable thumbs, be it your 7 month old on a ipad to your granny in her hunderds coupled with zimmer frames. But the same age old game play mechanics that made games such as day of tentacle, final fantasy 6, or hard core adventure puzzle games that took more than 10 hours to complete and thus represent fantastic value for money are still awaiting to be made and played. So let us have more coherent stuff and less fluff

Posted:2 years ago

#17

Sean Edwards
Director

6 6 1.0
I agree, in general 'gamers' want games with 'substance' not a checklist of focused group prioritised drivel.

Posted:2 years ago

#18

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,132 1,039 0.5
^Unfortunately, some publishers and sadly, some developers don't look at gamers as different PEOPLE with different gaming needs. They look at charts and graphs and numbers that rise and fall, never reveal ACTUAL user stats that might show growth high in one area while down in six others, claim "Everything is SUPER!!!! So, let's move on, nothing to see here..."

Meanwhile, I can smell the smoke from under the boat from all that furious paddling to keep the ship moving. And afloat, as there's a huge hole in that damn boat.

I think content is key, and GOOD content that's not nickel and dimed to users piecemeal, either.

Also, I'd say Dark Souls isn't a "cult RPG" at all. Between Demon's Souls and this, it's a proven winner that deserves more than being lowered to that status. Of course, I can see some analysts wanting a sequel to be rushed out the door for next year, but I hope From Software has the clout and smarts to say they need TIME to do these games, not pressure from fans, editors and financial folk to churn out a new game on demand.

Hell, I'd actually love to see From do an Adventures of Cookie and Cream game, but with DS' level of difficulty just for the hell of it. I'd laugh my ass off and be there to buy it on day one.

Posted:2 years ago

#19

Tony Johns

520 12 0.0
Same thing about Catherine.

Catherine is a puzzle game that also have animated anime cutscenes with characters in their 20s or 30s. And one attractive 18 year old demon girl who seduces the main character headding into his late 20s early 30s.

The puzzle gameplay is tough as nails and can be frustratingly hard...

Everything from market research says that this game would only be a nieche and it would fail in the market, but yet already it has sold 1million copies in North America. And it is one of Atlus's best selling games that they ever had published.

It is deffinately aimed for a nieche Otaku market.

And yet it has got the numbers of sales in the US market that even surprises most industry analysts.

I am still waiting for Catherine to arrive into PAL format, althogh I can easily import it from america but when I heard that the game was comming soon to my local stores I felt like I should try and wait for it since I have already pre-ordered it from my local game shop.

Should have arrived this week but yet there has been a supplier issue and I don't know when it would come to my local store.

Makes me so angry because I have been waiting for this game and I have just finished university classes for the year.

If it does not come by the time I finish my exams in 3 weeks time I am considering trying to import it.

Posted:2 years ago

#20

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,132 1,039 0.5
^ Catherine is also a good example of some users going in "expecting" something and getting something BETTER. The hype generated before it was announced was brilliant. First Atlus denied it would even be localized, then a few months they dropped a thinly veiled tease that it was indeed coming out and from there, they pretty much had gamers by the, er... you know. It's going to be on my "Best of 2011" list simply because it's one of those games where you're actually not disappointed by it because it does more right than it does wrong.

Posted:2 years ago

#21

Klaus Preisinger
Freelance Writing

1,034 912 0.9
If you are 14-18, you might fall for a game which has "tough" puzzles you breeze through. But those games were made to fool a player into a power fantasy of being brainiac.

Older gamers exist in vast numbers too. They will not be fooled into thinking they were smart by so easy puzzle wrapped in "oh this is tough" dialog. So when a genuinely tough puzzle game comes along, I am not surprised those people are on board.

Posted:2 years ago

#22

Jeff Wayne
Technical Architect

82 35 0.4
Enjoyed this article - nice success story for an engrossing game.

Posted:2 years ago

#23

Stephen Northcott
Senior Consulting Engineer

76 0 0.0
Dark Souls is the first game that has consistently held my interest, and made me think of a title as art, for a long long time. I think Populous was the last (admittedly very different) game that inspired me as much.
I had never played Demon Souls, but ordered it the day after I got Dark Souls.
Bravo. Great to see that this kind of gaming is having a resurgence.

Posted:2 years ago

#24

Andrew Goodchild
Studying development

1,227 388 0.3
I'm boping to pick this up at Xmas, I wanted to play Demon souls but don't have a PS3. I am also really looking forward to seeing From's Kinect based Steel Battilions game.

Posted:2 years ago

#25
It's great to see a company pushing for "real" games instead of going with the flow of the market in search of more money (social games + free to play).

Posted:2 years ago

#26

Terence Gage
Freelance writer

1,288 120 0.1
@ Andrew - "I am also really looking forward to seeing From's Kinect based Steel Battilions game."

Are FromSoftware developing that - I thought it was a Sega franchise? You're not mixing it up with Armoured Core, are you?

Posted:2 years ago

#27

Andrew Goodchild
Studying development

1,227 388 0.3
Steel Battilions is a Microsoft franchise iirc. From are developing this installment for MS.

Posted:2 years ago

#28

Andrew Goodchild
Studying development

1,227 388 0.3
Edit: The original titles were developed by Nude Maker and Capcom, but Microsoft published them.
The new installment, Steel Battilions : Heavy Armor is developed by From, and seems to be Capcom published. It uses a normal Xbox contrller to control the Mech, and Kinect to interact with crew apparently.

Posted:2 years ago

#29

Terence Gage
Freelance writer

1,288 120 0.1
Interesting; I knew Heavy Armo(u)r was a Kinect game, but didn't know From were developing it. I've never liked their Armoured Core games, but if they were to apply their focused and uncompromising design principals from Souls onto this game... it could be seriously awesome.

Posted:2 years ago

#30
@ Terence - in Nihon, the armoured core franchise is massive. spawning over 30 diff titles/platforms and cross franchise toys, animation - its on par with other NamcoBandai products. From Software work with most of the other japanese publishers, so it can vary depending on title.

They seem to have a 2 team structure

1/ Mech (armoured core type series) - Team A
2/ Fantasy (Souls + other) - Team B

Posted:2 years ago

#31

Scott Guy
3D Graphics and Quality Assurance Specialist

3 0 0.0
there is hope ! This is so good to hear. I have been quite worried. I hope I can always expect someone somewhere is crafting a high end title like this.

Posted:2 years ago

#32

Christopher Lee
Designer

8 0 0.0
As an industry, we need more games like Dark Souls. Not that there's anything wrong with mobile and social - they broaden the spectrum after all, but games like DS reminds gamers why we're gamers to begin with.

Posted:2 years ago

#33

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