I just wanted to share a few observations about the design of Demon's Souls. It's not a game for everyone for sure. Some people just like brutal challenge more than others - nothing right or wrong or better or worse, it's just entertainment, folks. But, if you loved it like I did, here are some characteristics of its design that I think made it successful.
NUMERO UNO: Consistency. There was very little about Demon's Souls that was random. After going through an area dozens of times, I became very well attuned to where enemies would walk, when they would attack, how they would attack, and exactly how many stabs of my spear it would take to defeat them. And almost every single time, with few exceptions, it was all extremely predictable as long as I played my part the same way as well. In computer science terms, this makes it "deterministic" as opposed to "randomized." Most games introduce randomness in their combat systems and AI code in order to make things less predictable. But, keeping things predictable can be good because it makes it something that you can learn. If things behaved differently each time, the learning process would become more frustrating and lengthy. To put it more plainly, it's a tough target to hit, but at least it's not a moving target. I think this is what a lot of people are getting at when they say that Souls is "fair."
NUMERO TWO: Variety. Very rarely did I find myself going "ugh not this again" in Demon's Souls. I was usually going, "WTF IS THIS?" or "Hmm..interesting...how am I gonna tackle this?" This is in stark contrast with many modern games that basically recycle the same combat scenarios over and over one after another (Mass Effect 2, lookin' at you..). This took away a lot of the pain in backtracking, because I was at least backtracking through interesting and diverse sections of the levels. Sure, after a while, they no longer become challenging (and that progression is rewarding in itself), but you still had to employ different tactics through each section which meant that you could never just switch your brain off. At a higher level, each of the five worlds had their own mix of enemies and dangers and their own unique moods. Very rarely did they just recycle the same model with a different skin. Thematically and mechanically, Souls excelled in spicing up your experience and keeping things interesting.
NUMERO TRES: Skill-based Progression. Yes, there were RPG elements and I did do some grinding for Souls in order to upgrade my weapons and stuff, but the vast majority of the progression in the game came from the improvement of my own skills and understanding of the game. Most obviously, you learn the traps in the levels and how to avoid them. You learn how to deal with the various enemies and what attack patterns they use. You learn the optimal way to go through levels so backtracking is less tedious. You learn new ways of using your weapons and items. The fantastic combat mechanics are obviously far more skill-based than what you'd find in most RPGs. Sure, there were times when grinding for souls allowed me to make some upgrades that allowed me to get past certain bosses, but compared to most RPGs, the ratio of skill to time-based progression is much larger. Again, I rarely felt like I was mindlessly grinding. Even when I was "grinding" I was able to find particularly efficient ways of getting souls.
NUMERO QUATTRO: This Wiki
. This is not exactly a part of the game's design, but it was absolutely vital to my enjoyment of the game. Demon's Souls is not a game that tells you much about itself, and discovering all that stuff on my own would've probably turned me off to the game. But, as with any good challenging game, a helpful community quickly grew around it, providing me with a means to short-cut all that trial and error. There was tons of information and loads of advice that got me through the experience. It really gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling and kind of restores your faith in humanity. Now, is it poor game design by From Software that I had to resort to the wiki? A year ago, I might have said "yes", but hey, most people have internet connections these days and know how to use the googles, so why not rely on it as designers? The guys who made Terraria sure as heck do, and they're doing great. Encouraging your players to do this is probably a good idea, and Demon's Souls did that with the message system (which in itself wasn't very helpful).
So, as an aspiring game designer, if I were to ever design a game like Demon's Souls, those are probably the things I would keep in mind the most as lessons learned. Anything that I missed?
LOOK WHO CAME: