A quick note before I start this blog: this was written and formatted on an iPad. As such, there may be some weird autocorrect issues or problems with formatting. I apologise in advance if this is the case, as it looks fine when I preview it.
The topic of difficulty comes up fairly regularly in the discussion surrounding video games. There are two schools of thought that appears when talking about it: 1. Video Games should be accessible to everyone, and that by paying full price for a title should enable you to see everything a game has to offer, and 2. Not every game is designed for everyone, and artistic vision should be valued above accessibility.
I'm somewhat conflicted about this. On the one hand, I'm all about providing players with options to tailor to their needs and abilities, especially since not everyone is capable of the same dexterity due to physical impairments. However, I like difficult games and I feel some video games would lose a lot of what make them special if played at a lower difficulty level.
This got me thinking about Dark Souls, because, well everything gets me thinking about Dark Souls. It's my all time favourite video game after all. However, I do feel that by having a standard lowered difficulty, it wouldn't be as special. For a start, by making the player less vulnerable, the combat wouldn't be as special. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it would be flat out boring if we simply lowered all attack values and increase the damage the player deals. Rather than a strategic dance of playing defensively and awaiting the right moment to attack, it would simply boil down to being a straight up hack and slash title, but the simple offensive combat in the series isn't satisfying enough to carry the game alone. I feel like even players who aren't in it for the challenge would become bored of the stagnant combat without the threat that accompanies it.
So I decided that I would try to think out how to make the game more accessible to newcomers without spoiling the intended experience.
Keep in mind that I am not a game designer, so this is merely a thought experiment rather than something I think the developers should actually do, since obviously, they know more about game design than I do.
Also, I will primarily be tackling Dark Souls 1, as delving into every game in the series would be too time consuming. Some of these changes could be applied to every game in the series, but a fair amount of them will be specific to Dark Souls 1.
With that in mind, let's jump into it.
Accessibility and Minor Changes
For Dark Souls 1, there is a very simple change I would make on an easier difficulty. I'd put designer notes on the ground in Firelink Shrine nudging players towards Undead Burg. The reason for this is simple, a lot of players bounce off the original title because they either head towards the Catacombs or New Londo first as the way to these areas are more obvious than the somewhat easy to miss path to Undead Burg. Players head to these areas and die repeatedly to enemies that they are not yet equipped to deal with; and due to Bandai Namco's Marketing that places emphasis on difficulty above all else they may quit thinking these areas are the start of the game, and may call bullshit on what the game expects of them this early on.
Dark Souls 3 has a good example of this done right. In the tutorial area players can fight a giant crystal lizard which is quite a formidable opponent for newcomers this early on. From Software put a designer note simply saying: turn back! The reason this is so effective is that it gives the player a warning without gating off the area. If they don't heed the warning and try to engage the enemy and fail, they won't think it's something they have to do this early in the game. This is all done without gating off the area for people who are familiar with the series or good enough at video games to try and get the loot from said enemy straight away.
Something as simple as that could be implemented in Dark Souls: a simple message placed before these areas warning them that this isn't the intended beginner path and that they should look elsewhere.
Next, I would add a tutorial system for how some of the more obscure mechanics work, such as humanity, kindling, and summoning. Maybe a simple developer message could work for this, or something a bit more obvious that will catch players eyes. I'd also make it easier for players to understand what each stat they're levelling up is for, and I would also make respecs readily available so players don't mess their build up and feel like they have to start again.
Finally I'd make it harder for players to mess up their run by killing npcs. My approach to this would be to make it so if the player aggros an npc accidentally, if that npc kills them they would reset to their normal passive state. I would also increase the amount of damage the player can do to the npc before they attack.
This change is simply to make some mistakes a little less punishing, but I would still keep the system of having npcs disappear forever if you kill them. Maybe I'd put a developer message somewhere stating this fact though.
Death, Souls, and Bonfires
Player death in Dark Souls can be quite punishing for new players. Losing all of your souls is enough for some players to quit the game out of sheer frustration. In the early game, it can also mean you've lost a lot of time and might have to grind for a decent length of time to get them back.
However I consider making your way back to your Souls with the threat of losing them to be a key aspect of Dark Souls, and the title would lose a lot of its tension if the mechanic was discarded entirely.
So how could we keep this system but make it less punishing and time consuming? With a few tweaks.
The first thing I'd do is make it so you don't lose all of your souls when you die the the first time. Maybe a third of them for the first death. If you die again before reaching your souls, you lose that third forever, along with another third of your souls. If you fail a third time, you lose all of your souls. I feel this change would make the game overall more forgiving but still keep that tension of losing progress that keeps players from playing too recklessly. This change would still force players to play carefully, but not be enough to destroy their time with the game.
Another thing I'd do is slightly increase the amount of Souls all enemies drop, and slightly lessen the increase in level cost in the early game. Not by too much, but enough so that players can get a few more levels early on to help them if they're struggling. Maybe around 5% or a little less. I'd also balance this with a stiffer incline of soul level cost for later levels. This would give players a bit of an early game boost without making them too overpowered.
While it may seem that this could allow players to over level easier and make the game a cakewalk, keep in mind that players can already do this in normal mode, it's just more time consuming. Also keep in mind that they would still have to earn these souls by facing the games enemies themselves, still keeping the risk reward element in tact.
One last thing I'd do to alleviate this punishment is make a few tweaks to bonfires. Firstly, all bonfires would be kindled to allow for 10 Estus flasks from the get go. You kindle them higher if you want, but for beginners who want an easier experience I feel like 10 Estus is a good base number of heals for them to deal with the threats they encounter without taking away the tension of running out of healing items before or during a boss encounter.
One final change to bonfires is placement. I would move the placement of some bonfires, and maybe add one or two. Not to every area, but to a few. One that sticks out to me the most is the hidden bonfire in Sens fortress. After all the bullshit a new player has to deal with in the start of that area, I feel like the second bonfire could be placed in a more obvious area for them. Like, the start of the second part rather than the awkward place it sits currently. Many players on normal mode missed that bonfire and were rightly salty that if they died to the boss of the area they had to start the whole damn thing over again.
Also, I was thinking about adding a bonfire just after the Taurus Demon fight, but that would ruin the experience of kicking down the ladder to reveal the earlier bonfire, so maybe I'd just tweak it to make it so the dragon after the first bonfire has a bigger window to sprint between his fire attacks, and/or make it so the trigger for him breathing the first time isn't when the player is already on the bridge - just to give them a bit of warning.
There are many more bonfires we could tweak, but you get the idea, so let's move on.
For combat against basic enemies, I wouldn't change a whole lot. The damage they can do is more than fair in my opinion, and learning to overcome them with some of the other tweaks already made should make them less of a brick wall for new players. The reason for this is that Dark Souls 1 already has a lot of ways to lower difficulty, it's just doesn't teach them well. These methods include: playing a ranged or magic class, increasing endurance and vitality stats, summoning npc companions when offline, and so on. I would simply make it so that there was a tooltip somewhere - maybe on loading screens - that could point players towards these options if they are struggling.
The major change I'd make is some of the placement of these enemies. For instance, I'd have fewer toxic dart enemies in Blighttown, maybe a few less enemies surrounding the boar in Undead parish, and I'd remove at least one of the dogs from the Capra Demon fight. These are just some examples, and I could list more, but again, this blog is already a mammoth read as is.
The only other change I would make is slightly widening the parry window. Again, not too much, but enough so that players who don't have the dexterity to confidently pull off the move on normal difficulty can still have a chance here.
Also, all classes would start with a 100% physical resistant shield in this easy mode. Other shields with less physical defence but more elemental defence would still exist though.
For bosses, there are two things I would change: firstly I would give the, less health. All of them. By around 25%. Some of these fights pretty significant endurance battles for newcomers, and lessening their health by a quarter could be enough to help players feel less like they're an insurmountable obstacle.
Secondly: while I'd leave their attacks to deal out roughly the same damage, I would make it so there are no one hit kills by bosses. I'd simply steal a machanic from Devil May Cry and make it so if an enemy is about to one hit kill the player from 75% health or up, they would instead be taken to 1-3% health. This would still make them feel the danger inherent in the more powerful attacks without some players feeling like it was unfair or something they couldn't foresee.
So this is how I'd design an easy mode for Dark Souls while still keeping a lot of what makes the series unique. Obviously, it isn't perfect. I'd have to actually experiment with the game to find out if these changes would work properly, and there's probably even more changes that would be needed to be made. However, for an idea of how From Software or developers of souls like games could approach an easier difficulty mode in the future, I think it's an okay place to start.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my ideas? If you disagree, what changes would you make?