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Ascended Souls

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.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.