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9 Things We can Learn about Game Design from Dark Souls
by Robert Boyd on 10/10/11 07:37:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


From Software's Dark Souls has gotten a lot of attention for featuring an extremely high level of difficulty, however it would be unfair to dismiss it as just another masochistic game. In this article, I examine nine areas that Dark Souls excels in and discuss how we can apply those lessons towards improving game design.


Level Design - Dark Souls has some of the most complex sets of level designs I've ever seen in a game. Each level typically has one main path but countless detours, secret areas, and shortcuts, and is usually connected to a number of other levels at various points as well.

Despite the high level of complexity and my horrible sense of direction, I've rarely gotten lost in the game DESPITE the complete absence of an in-game map! The fact that the game can maintain such a high level of map complexity without completely confusing the player is a testament to the skill of the developer's ability to create memorable areas, both through the visual style and through the memorable events that happen therein.

One aspect of the level design that bears special mention is the game's use of 3D space. The game is full of stairs, inclines, ladders, and cliffs. Rarely a minute passes where the player isn't going up or down in some way.

Even when there are not actual parts of the level above or below the player, there are always interesting things to look at in all directions such as the cavernous roof with a small opening for strange light in the top of the cave that you're exploring or the valley below the cliffside undead village that you're fighting for your life in.

If you're a professional level designer, you need to study the level design in Dark Souls to gain a better understanding of how you can improve your craft. If you're making a 3D game, take advantage of that fact and build your levels in every direction, not just x & y.


Sense of Scope - This aspect goes along with the level design but is sufficiently important to be worth discussing individually. Not since Shadow of the Colossus came out in 2005 have I seen a game that has such a great mastery of portraying the scope of its world to the player.

While you're exploring an area in Dark Souls, you might see a castle on the distant horizon. In most games, that castle would just be a nice piece of background art that the artists drew 'cause it looks pretty. Not in Dark Souls. Keep playing and no doubt before too long, you'll actually be exploring that castle (and have found something new on the horizon that you'll explore later).

This sense of scope also applies to the game's enemies. There are moments where you might see something in the distant that's so far off that you're not even sure what it is. Get a little closer and you may realize to your abject horror that the huge thing you see is alive and will probably destroy you without a moment's thought if you get any closer.

By portraying a sense of scope to the player, Dark Souls makes its world, enemies and quests feel epic in a way that simply having a long game would not accomplish. Dark Souls does this through its use of levels and enemies, but there are other ways to give a sense of scope.

For example, in the old SNES RPG, Lufia, the game begins with a playable introduction that lets the player use a group of legendary heroes. By seeing their power and the power of their foes firsthand, it gives a clear sense of the range of power in that world right from the start.


Enemy variety - It boggles my mind how so many big budget games today can have huge worlds, and then fail to populate them with interesting enemies. Take Deus Ex: Human Revolution for example. It's a good and often great game, but in the first 6 hours of playing it, I only saw one real enemy archetype - guy with gun.

Sure, some of the guys were walking and others were standing around, some of them were soldiers and others were punks, some had sniper rifles and others had machine guns, but for most practical purposes, the vast majority of enemies were very similar to each other, both visually and mechanically. How boring.

Not Dark Souls. Just in the first hour or two, I saw skeletons that won't stay dead, ghosts that could only be hurt under specific conditions, undead soldiers with a variety of weapons (including fire bombs), poisonous rats, well armored knights, and some impressive bosses. Sure, many of the enemies were fantasy archetypes, but they each had their own distinct visual style that set them apart and more importantly, they behaved differently from each other thus resulting in more varied gameplay.


Environmental combat - Walk to an arena. Have enemies spawn. Kill the enemies to unlock the next arena. Repeat. Bleh.

When did we forget that the environment can be a great way to add variety and depth to combat? Exploring a tight passage way in Dark Souls? Guess you'd better put away that huge broadsword since its wide swings will just bounce off the walls.

On a narrow ledge high above a deadly fall? Be wary of using fast, weak weapons because you might just combo yourself into an early grave. Better yet, you might decide to knock off that tough enemy off a cliff and avoid an otherwise hard fight.

Just fighting can get old. Add non-enemy factors like the environment to keep your combat engaging throughout the entire game.


Death matters - Stuck on a relatively hard part of your typical AAA game? No worries - just keep trying until you get lucky. Death doesn't matter since you can just reload whenever you mess up.

In Dark Souls, death hurts...some of the time. You lose all of your souls (the game's currency) whenever you die, but if you can return to the spot of your death without dying again, you can reclaim them. Dying does return you to the last bonfire you've activated, but those are usually never more than a few minutes away, what with all the shortcuts you unlock.

It's a far cry from the old 8-bit games where you could have been playing for an hour or two and have to start the entire game over due to running out of lives, but there's still a penalty involved for failure. And hey, sometimes you can take advantage of the death system - items are not lost upon death so making a nearly suicidal run to grab a valuable piece of equipment or treasure before your demise can be a valid strategy at times.

When failure has no penalty, tension is lost and victory becomes a matter of inevitability and loses its feeling of triumph.


Freedom of Solution - I'm currently playing a sorcerer in Dark Souls who wields a giant holy halberd. A halberd, for those unfamiliar with ancient weaponry, is basically a spear with an axe at the end. A wizard who is a master of the giant spear/axe - how often have you seen that in a game?

Dark Souls gives the player a wealth of possible equipment, stats, spells and items to play with and lets them forge their own solutions to the game's many challenges. Not only that, but the order that the player attempts those challenges is largely left up to the player (although some areas are easier than others).

By allowing the player to dictate their style of gameplay, you let them play the game they want to play and not the game you think they should be playing.


Style and creativity trump technology - Dark Souls doesn't have the most advanced engine out on the market. The frame rate suffers in the more demanding areas, the ragdoll physics sometimes result in laughable results (like when an enemy corpse gets stuck on your foot and you start dragging them around), the textures aren't always the highest quality, and the camera doesn't always do what you might want it to.

However, in 10 years, when people will have long forgotten many of the more technologically advanced games released this year in favor of even more technologically advanced games, people will still be going back and playing Dark Souls and thinking "What a beautiful game this is!" The game presents an amazing and cohesive world filled with terrifying enemies and that's what matters.

A great engine is nice, but vision is more important. The engine should serve the design's purpose and not the other way around.


Progression isn't just stats - About 5 hours into the game, I decided I wanted to start over and try a drastically different character build. I was able to surpass my progress from the first time in less than half the time that it had taken me the first time around.

My stats weren't any better the second time, but I had gained experience and understanding into the game's mechanics, the enemies, and the levels that allowed me to make much more rapid progression.

Allowing the player's character to level up is great. Allowing the player themselves to level up is even better. Well designed games have enough depth that the player can constantly improve themselves.


Multiplayer for people who hate multiplayer - I'm not a big fan of most multiplayer games. Sure, it's fun if you can get your friends together to play some co-op, but with most of my friends scattered around the world and all of us with our own jobs, families, and lives, it sometimes feels like more work than it's worth to arrange a multiplayer game session.

Playing with random strangers is an option, but from past experience, I've found that for every decent mature player that you run into, you're bound to run into twice as many immature ones. Again, it doesn't feel worth it.

Dark Souls handles multiplayer in a way I can appreciate. You can read and leave messages for other players offering tips (only using a set vocabulary and syntax so you don't have to worry about long strings of obscenities).

You can occasionally catch a glimpse of another player in your vicinity. And players can join other players as both friends and foes using certain items. However, if you want to, you can ignore all this (just stay undead all the time if you're worried about invading players).

Would it be nice for the more multiplayer inclined players out there if there was a robust matchmaking system that let you team up with your friends? Oh, probably. However, the way it is currently set up is ideal for people like myself who aren't fans of traditional multiplayer experiences.


Conclusion - Dark Souls is not a perfect game but it is a well designed one. As game designers, we would be well advised to learn the lessons it has to teach.

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Harold Myles
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Agree. I was a fan of Demon's Souls and was a bit weary of Dark Souls due to the short turn around and the feeling they might be trying to cash in on their hit with a crappy sequel.

But honestly Dark Souls improves on Demon's Souls and I am liking it much more than Demon's Souls.

There are lots of small improvements but I have to say I do like the world/atmosphere design the most. The "vertical environments" just really feel gigantic, even though I have played other games with much more area. It is just the feeling of ascending and descending that creates tension and dread.

Adam Bishop
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I haven't played Demon/Dark Souls, but a lot of the points you raise here could also be applied to a great overlooked game from last year - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. It has some really great level design, both from a gameplay and visual standpoint, and the combat is consistently varied and interesting, both in terms of the options available to you and the enemies you face. It's a fairly forgiving game in that death has no permanent meaning and checkpoints are reasonably placed, but it's also a game with complex mechanics that demands that you master them if you expect to move forward.

Jeff Beaudoin
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This is an apt comparison.

In playing Dark Souls I was heavily reminded of Lords of Shadow. The combat is much less chaotic and punishes you more for just mashing buttons, though.

Mark Venturelli
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Holy crap, no. I had to login just to reply to this.

Lords of Shadow was one of the most offensive atrociously-designed games I have ever played.

Greg Wilcox
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From Software has been building up to Dark Souls since the King's Field days, so I'm glad to see them getting this praise and recognition from gamers (and game designers) across the globe. I call Demon's Souls and Dark Souls their "revenge" for folks not getting into their more oddball RPG's such as Evergrace and Eternal Ring. Enemy variety has always been one of their strong points, as games such as Shadow Tower and Shadow Tower Abyss show. They also know how to truly frighten players into paying attention to their surroundings. In every KF or ST game, it's possible to die horribly within the first minute of play if you don't watch where you walk. Of course, what's here trumps those games in terms of scope, as noted...

james sadler
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I originally didn't have an interest in playing Demon's Souls when it was first released. It wasn't until I had read some really good articles about the game that I decided to pick it up. This was back in May I believe. I got home and popped the game into my PS3 and played it for about 2-3 hours. In that whole time I never even got close to the first boss. I turned the system off in frustration and left the game in its case for months while I played a lot of other games. A few weeks ago when the ads for Dark Souls really started coming out I decided to play the game again and was very happy to find I was still getting frustrated, but was enjoying it more. I understood the mechanic of it and respected the difficulty. Within an hour or two I beat the first boss and continued to the second. I thought about pre-ordering Dark Souls but decided that I should play through Demon's Souls first. Wish I had thought of all this sooner so I could have pre-ordered the Collectors Set for the same price as the normal one, but by the time I thought of it all of the PS3 ones were sold out, so I am now waiting to finish Demon's Souls before I look into Dark Souls.

The game really does have a great mechanic to it, and it is one that a lot of games currently are severely lacking. The level of detail in some of the most unimportant things, like the valley beyond the castle seen through a crumbled wall, is just amazing. There are things I hope to see improved in Dark Souls, but I'll have to wait to find out.

Lars Doucet
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I'll have to check this game out! Sounds really interesting.

Josh Bycer
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Something tells me that I'm going to be the dissenting opinion when it comes to Dark Souls. I personally think that it pales in comparison to Demon's Souls and that the design is worse in it. To explain why here would be one of the largest comments on Gamasutra, but there is a two part analysis coming soon :)

Robert Boyd
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There are some things that Demon's Souls definitely does better like the enemy lock-on system and the dedicated servers. Demon's Souls is also more new player friendly (it's easier to figure out where you should be going in Demon's Souls whereas Dark Souls will often give the player access to an area long before they should be going there).

In any case, I'll be interested to read your article!

John Martins
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I couldn't possibly choose between the two, both have their pros and cons, but they fit together perfectly. I'll be playing both of them for a long time to come. Initially though, I felt as though Dark Souls wouldn't be able to match its predecessor, the flaws seemed more apparent at the beginning of the game and I'd all but forgotten what made me tick in Demon's Souls. Once you start to get really deep into the game though... it's just incredible. Two of my favourite games ever.

David Serrano
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"When failure has no penalty, tension is lost and victory becomes a matter of inevitability and loses its feeling of triumph."

But trying to provide players with a feeling of triumph or a sense of accomplishment by constantly punishing them must be reconciled against the fact that 9 out of 10 players already walk away from normal difficulty games long before they reach that point.

Penalizing or punishing players may be a means to a means but ultimately, what does it accomplish when you lose 90 percent of your audience along the way? At some point, developers and designs need to accept most players have a limited amount of time to play as well as limited amount of patience. At this point they've made it abundantly clear the games they buy and play must reflect their lifestyles and provide enough flexibility to accommodate their schedules... not the other way around. If they only have 2 to 3 hours to play, how many of them will spend the time trying to complete the equivalent of a Klingon rite of ascension? The answer is: 1 out of 10.

Games like Dark Souls may be useful for exploring esoteric design concepts. But everyone who raves about them shouldn't lose sight of the fact these games are in fact, completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the players in all audiences and markets.

Robert Boyd
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I would argue that the reason why people aren't finishing most games has little to do with difficulty and much more to do with most games not having enough fun to justify their length. People aren't finishing games because they get stuck, they're not finishing them because they get bored and voluntarily quit.

Sure, Dark Souls isn't for everyone - why is that a problem? There isn't a game out there that is for everyone and in fact, trying to make a game for everyone often results in a tepid game that doesn't really excel in any particular way. Demon's Souls sold well enough that it got released under the PS3's Greatest Hits line so obviously there's some sort of market for this kind of game.

David Holmin
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"...completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the players in all audiences and markets."

But the audience it does target loves it. I know it's the best game I've played in years. It's been a decade since I've had so much enjoyment and thrill out of a (new) game, because it's so different and completely deviates from the "expect nothing from your audience" and "hide nothing" formula that most other AAA games follow today. Why would you deny us this game? There are plenty other non-Dark Souls games out there.

Great article, by the way!

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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You die in Dark Souls not because the game is punishing you. You die because you made a mistake. You left yourself open after an attack, you didn't observe before charging in, you didn't look at the obvious trap laid ahead, etc. Otherwise its actually easy, each opponent has weak points, you can exploit the environment to your advantage, etc. Other players even leave warnings on ambush points.

The only exception is the horribly clunky camera system when in tight spaces. That can get you killed.

The actual "punishment" is that your collected souls (used as exp and currency) are left at where you died and you are given one chance to retrieve them.

Mark Venturelli
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"Games like Dark Souls may be useful for exploring esoteric design concepts. But everyone who raves about them shouldn't lose sight of the fact these games are in fact, completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the players in all audiences and markets."

As are the best works in any medium. Thank god there are still some developers out there involved in big-buck games that are not as narrow minded as you.

John Martins
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Doesn't it mean they'd rather create a game they love than bend to the whims of the general public? From Software have got it right. I want to buy games from developers who love making games, not developers who love making money.

Harold Myles
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"Games like Dark Souls may be useful for exploring esoteric design concepts. But everyone who raves about them shouldn't lose sight of the fact these games are in fact, completely inaccessible to the vast majority of the players in all audiences and markets. "

I would echo Robert on this one; Dark Souls may not be for everyone, and that is not a problem.

People are raving about these games for their design principles, not because they are inaccessible, but because they are not watered down in an attempt to be accessible.

I think a big problem in the industry is trying to cater to everyone and break into mass market. There are a few types of games that can cater to mass market taste and still remain intact and compelling. But many more game types must compromise to do so.

This is one of the reasons there are so many crappy mainstream games.

From Software seems to know their audience and are taking the approach of letting the audience come to them, instead of them going to the audience. Its commendable and appears to be paying off.

David Holmin
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Glenn Sturgeon
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From Software realy came through with the "Souls" games proving yet again they are masters of game design and developement. They did so in the past with the Chromehounds, Otogi, Kings Field, Shadow tower and Ecco night series.

Your blog was a great read, its nice to know there are others out there that see exactly what From software was trying to do and give credit for the degree of well exicuted deliverance they achieved.

Nothing else feels like a From software game.

Heres an intresting piece at 1up with bits of Masahiro Sakurai's (kirby, smash bros creator) perspective of the game.

Have a Great day / night.