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.