Monday, October 26, 2009

Design Right: Demon's Souls

In this new feature, Design Right, I'm going to look at games other than my own -- specifically, at certain things that other games do right. I spend a lot of time thinking about other games and what they do well, and I think it's useful for discussion.

So. Demon's Souls, for the PS3. Yes, I am more than just a PC Gamer -- have been my entire life (early childhood was a mix of Atari, NES, and the 386). At the moment I've got three gaming PCs in the house, a Wii, two DS lites, a GBA, an original Gameboy, a PS3, a PS2, an N64, a SNES, and a NES. I enjoy a wide variety of consoles, and the absence of the 360 isn't anything against it; I imagine I'll pick one up in the next year or two. But that's really a digression.

Critical Reception & Target Audience
Demon's Souls (DS from now on) is pretty well-loved critically at this point, and player reaction also seems pretty positive in the main. I've noticed a fair bit of griping from players about how hard it is, or that it's got repetitive hack and slash gameplay, or that it really isn't that innovative, or this or that other complaint. I'm not here to bash (or even review) other developers' games, but I think those criticisms bear noting in the context of a design discussion. In short: I think the people with those complaints are outside the target audience of the game, plain and simple. DS is a demanding game, and people outside the demographic at which it is squarely aimed probably have a lower likelihood of enjoying it. True for any game to an extent, but especially true for a game with such a demanding difficulty game.

For my own part, I place myself outside the target audience that I think would really normally enjoy the game -- I had planned on giving this game a miss, to be honest, but then reading a diary of a player's experiences with the game changed my mind. I'm not generally a hack and slash fan, I enjoy a few dungeon crawlers but not usually on the Playstation systems, and while I do enjoy a difficult game it has to really grab me with its setting in order for me to want to play it. So DS was an obvious miss for me.

And yet I bought it, and I love it. Why? This is because it gets one single aspect of the design absolutely right. It took me a while to figure out exactly what that was, but here it is: realistic fear. When I play Demon's Souls, I feel like I'm really a semi-formidable hero out adventuring in a world full of danger. Death is real, and is everpresent. Mistakes are costly.

My Play Experience
Those sound almost like negatives, don't they? So let me back up just a hair. This was my experience with DS:

1. I started as a Hunter, did the tutorial easily, thought the mechanics were kind of okay, and proceeded to level one.

2. I spent two and a half hours dying in level one, accomplishing literally nothing permanent. Well, I picked up some random junk off of bad guys, a cruddy ring, and a few weapons that were all worse than my starting weapons. I gained no experience, I gained no levels, I gained no permanent items of worth -- in fact, I ran out of permanent items, with no easy way to replenish them. Arrows for my bow and healing herbs were in dangerously low supply, making the game even harder as I went.

3. I was getting better, however, so I decided to start over. This time I decided to start as a Barbarian, since he has better stats and worse equipment. I figured that with my growing skills at the game, this might make for the best path overall. To some extent, this was a bit true -- for the next two and a half hours, I largely did better than before. I explored a tiny few areas that I'd never been to as the Hunter, but the battles with armored knights were absolutely brutal because of my lack of armor. I could win against a few, but over time I'd wear down and one would get me. I figured I had to be getting close to the first boss, though.

4. I wasn't, not even close. After seeing a note online about how Royalty was the easiest class (a fact of which I was very skeptical, not having used magic yet and wary of another perishable weapon such as my Hunter's arrows), I decided to start over with a female Royal. This time, the game was a breeze by comparison. My lady spellcaster went blasting all over the level, killing most enemies from a distance in one or two hits. And she had better armor than the Barbarian. And her magic power regenerates, unlike the Hunter's arrows. I was starting to have piles and piles of healing herbs, because it was so straightforward to stay out of range. I started getting further into the first level, and discovered that I'd previously only seen the first 20% of the first level, if that. Within an hour, I'd beaten the first level with ease.

5. Another half hour, and the second level was mostly complete, though it took me a couple of tries with the boss. Another half hour, and the third level was complete, and I beat the boss on the first go. Another hour and a few deaths in the fourth level, and I beat that boss on the first go. Mostly just spamming my one magic spell, but resorting to my fairly-reasonably swordplay skills gained from 5 hours of dying with my other two characters. And the best part: I actually got to level up and improve my character -- a lot. 35 levels' worth in just a few hours, in fact.

6. Now I'm in the fifth level, and I haven't died yet. It's sort of challenging, and certainly death lurks around every bend the same as in the other past levels, but with caution nothing feels unfair to me. There are some traps, but with care they can be avoided, and some were even survivable when I triggered them, which was a surprise. There were three separate occasions in the fifth level where I was sure I was dead, but I survived with a sliver of health.

What Am I Getting Out Of This Now?
So, what is it that I'm getting out of Demon's Souls at this stage? The combat is pretty okay, but mostly I'm just spamming the same single spell repeatedly, dodging, and occasionally blocking. Very occasionally I whack something with my sword, using either Strong Attack or Normal Attack (R1 or R2). Once again, this doesn't sound riveting on paper -- unless you've been paying attention very closely, or have already played the game and have an affinity for it.

The reason DS works for me, and I suspect for others, is that fear factor. When you die, you entere a Soul state, which you remain in until you defeat another boss (or complete one of a few other conditions). When in the Soul state, you have even less health, and a few other disadvantages. This is huge! This means that there's a massive disincentive to just run into a room, die on a trap (while seeing what it does), and then respawn and avoid the trap. If you do that, not only are you put back to the start of the level (losing all your EXP/currency), but you also go into Soul state if you aren't already.

What Is Lost On Death, And Why It Works
The loss of the EXP/currency is bad enough by itself, to be honest. That creates a state of tension past a certain point where you really don't want to die because it undoes enough progress that you'll have some pain regaining it. This is just the sort of design decision I've lamented in other games, such as when save points are too few and far between in Final Fantasy titles, though -- what's different here? First, this is an action game; in Final Fantasy you have random encounters often with foes of ranging difficulty, and occasionally which are inescapable. So in Final Fantasy, when I have accomplished a lot but haven't saved, the pressure to save is extremely unpleasant, because it feels like my progress might be arbitrarily taken away at any time if I don't find a save point. That aspect is not fun when it occurs, though I love Final Fantasy in general.

With DS, as an action game, this is a situation where there are no random encounters. I can always run at high speed back through the level to the exit to go spent my EXP/currency if I'm really worried, without too much risk of getting killed that way. So retreat is always an option, which takes the edge off of my feeling trapped into the current level, which I think is really important. Secondly, except for traps (which mostly have not killed me in one hit so far -- up through most of the 5th of 15 levels), I can pretty much see enemies coming. So if an enemy looks too formidable, I can always, once again, retreat if my current wares are too valuable. Thirdly, since this is an action game without random encounters, I know that my survival mostly depends on my own skills at combat and observation.

There is also the fact that the ONLY thing I lose is my EXP/currency, and the transition into soul state. In other words, important things that I've triggered in the level (doors opened, switches tripped, etc) stay as I left them even after death. Plus, any items that I've picked up remain mine. That's another huge difference between the Final Fantasy model, where you're literally dumped back at the last save point with nothing to show for it after a death (FFVI let you keep your EXP, actually, but most did not do this to my knowledge).

Generating Fear
I love Silent Hill 2 partly because it scares the crud out of me. All of that is thematic fear, based on a story, plus the absolute incompetence of your character as a fighter. I love Left 4 Dead in spite of the fact that it never scares me at all, because it's fun for other reasons. Those two are both obvious candidates for dealing in fear because of their subject matter. DS is less obvious as a source of fear, but that's part of why it works so brilliantly: it takes the ordinary game activity of a hero questing, and makes commonplace activities filled with danger.

The death mechanic that I've described above is vital to this. Death is everpresent in DS, and it really hurts, but it's also not so devastating that it saps the player's will to go on (well, those that like the game, anyway). This creates a finely balanced sense of fear versus exploration. When I find a new side tunnel, or what I suspect is a side tunnel, I know that there might well be high-level enemies waiting along it. On the other hand, this might not be a side tunnel or it might contain some worthwhile treasure. So I proceed, albeit very carefully. Every step is measured, every nook and cranny warily eyed, every echoing footstep (from myself) slightly unnerving.

In short: if I was a reasonably brave hero proceeding down such a tunnel in real life, I have a feeling this is how I'd be feeling and reacting. And that, right there, is what Demon's Souls has offered me that no other game that I can think of has. No other game has transported me quite so convincingly, simply because I've never felt the real-life-style risk of being a flesh and blood being in a very dangerous place. I've felt that in real life in a few circumstances I'd rather not enumerate here, and DS does the best job I've ever seen of approximating that feeling. To be fair, Silent Hill 2 comes close to that feeling from a completely different design angle, but it's a different sort of beast in general.

New Subgenre?
So that's basically what DS is, to me. It's a Dungeon Simulator. It's like a Flight Simulator for planes, except for heroes exploring dungeons. Most people who aren't really into planes are going to prefer more arcade-style flight controls (I know I do), and the same is probably true of people who aren't really into dungeons, or scary stuff, or whatever other themes they connect with in Demon's Souls.

I can see why some people hate the game, for the same reason that some people hate flight simulators. These games ask a lot of preparation, and the payoff is only worth it if you are the sort of personality already primed to receive it. The act of flying a plane using a flight simulator is very complex, and that takes a lot of the visceral thrill out of the flying, for me. By contrast, the combat in DS is comparatively simple to a lot of other hack and slash games (no real combo system, fewer attacks in general so far, etc), and this is going to alienate the action game players who liked, for instance, the second two Prince of Persia games on the PS2.

The purpose, in both cases, is essentially the same: with a flight simulator, it is to realistically simulate the complex activity that is piloting an aircraft. With a dungeon simulator, it is to realistically simulate the simple-yet-terrifying experience of surviving a dungeon full of monsters that are stronger than you. Let's be honest: if you're exploring a dungeon, and your life is really at risk, how much fancy swordplay are you likely to employ? You're going to kill your enemies as efficiently as possible and have done with it, breathing a small sigh of relief with each downed foe. The ease of dispatching any given enemy is irrelevant to you, you're just glad your attention is no longer diverted from whatever other dangers might be about to spring upon you.

What Did I Get Out Of This At First?
So, clearly I like the game at this point. But how on earth did I ever get past the first five hours of nothing but death, death, death, and little exploration? I mean, there was almost no tangible reward for all that effort... right?

Well, in an in-game sense, that is true. My only real reward in-game was occasionally getting one room further along some path or another. There were a few divergent paths past a certain point, and I explored all of them to at least a small degree before finally creating my Royal. To some extent, those few glimpses of that-which-was-just-out-of-reach was enough to keep me going.

But also, there was a noticeable improvement in my skills with the melee weapons as I progressed, and that was also gratifying even if it wasn't yet getting me anywhere. I'm as adept as anyone at Zelda, and the Sands of Time game was no trouble either, but I rather avoided the sequels to SoT. As I played, I was very surprised how many parallels the control scheme was suddenly having to Zelda, except it was a more robust, satisfying-when-you-win version of the Zelda combat.

Old School Charm?
So, that was it. The combat was simple, but still deep enough that I could feel myself getting better at it, and that was fun. There was enough tantalizing newness on the horizon to justify going back. Frankly, this reminded me a lot of my days on the NES and the Atari, when I was a kid playing the same level(s) over and over in hopes of advancing to the next. The feeling of satisfaction I got from progressing to the next level was unlike anything you can get from most modern games, simply because they are (and this is almost always a good thing) more forgiving.

As unlikely as it seems, though, DS managed to hit just the right amount of old-school-difficulty mixed with modern sentiments via its death mechanic, it's simplified combat, and it's general style of level design. That's a really hard thing to pull off, I'm certain, though I've never tried to design a game like that. There are plenty of games out there that are simply Too Hard To Be Fun (except for the masochist hardcore players, who flock to them), or which are Old School But Not In A Good Way (in other words, retro without allowing for any of the advances of the last 20+ years of game design innovation).

What To Take Away From This?
Demon's Souls walks a very fine line indeed, and it is hard to sum up what it does without the shorthand of a subgenre like "Dungeon Simulator" for reference. However, I think it's a testament to the fact that it is largely designed right that so many people, reviewers included, are so excited about the title. It was one I never thought I'd buy, but I'm glad I did. I suppose this has almost taken on the tenor of a review at this point, but that wasn't my intention -- rather, I think the instructive thing being discussed here are those few key design tweaks that make DS into a success for the audience it has found, including myself, whereas with just a few small changes in the wrong direction the entire game could have been an utter failure.

I think it's partly that "I can't believe I like this, but it's actually pretty awesome" sentiment that has made the game such a hit with those reviewers who have liked it; and for anyone who is laboring away on a game design that is just not working, I think that the realization that all it takes is a few small tweaks to an otherwise broken formula is a good thing to know.

If you were working on a broken version of a game like DS, where the difficulty is brutal in an un-fun way, how would you go about lessening that un-fun factor while keeping the difficulty pleasingly high? DS shows us that you can make a mix of penalties that are very severe, combined with those that are very forgiving (keeping all the items and all the triggered switches, etc, is extremely kind in the middle of a very unkind game), to make a game that feels extremely tough without feeling cheap or unfair (to most).

But, more than that, it shows the value of waiting until your gameplay mechanics are perfectly balanced against one another, rather than calling "good enough" and just stopping. The difference between that one bit of polish could just be the difference between huge critical acclaim and complete obscurity -- and given how much other work goes into any game, not taking the time to put on that final, critical layer of design polish is the same as running the entire race just to give up three feet from the finish line.


Unknown said...

I *love* this game also. It creates a true sense of dread (from the serious consequences of dying in the game like you said) walking down a dark tunnel wondering what might be waiting ahead. The art direction also does a great job I think. The level design and texture work create such an oppressive and bleak game world.

BeardyBrave said...

I think you've nailed it there. It has a very specific target demographic and it's one that I too was surprised to find myself in. I actually imported the Asian version back in March and to date I've seen nothing to top it.

The design in the online space is what really makes it for me. I can't think of another single player game that weaves the online play so seamlessly into a single player world and, crucially, maintain that feeling of isolation that is so wonderfully described.