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No Country for Old Games
by Tom Battey on 04/09/14 01:35:00 pm   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.

 

Now is the time to be playing Dark Souls II. Just under a month since launch, the world of Drangleic is teeming with activity, the ghosts of other players teeming around me as I explore, sometimes materialising to irritatingly shank me in the spine. Glowing signs litter the ground near the sites of tough battles as recently victorious players offer their services to those less fortunate in exchange for souls and special items.

But it won't last. I remember my return trips to the original Dark Souls, months or years after launch. The game was a wasteland. Summoning other players to help was almost impossible because anyone still playing had beaten the game multiple times, become Dark Souls professionals. And player-on-player combat was equally frustrating, as the only people left playing were seasoned die-hards and knew every cheap trick in the book. Fighting an endless stream of backflipping heavily armoured clones was no fun at all.

To get the most out of Dark Souls II you need to be playing it now, when the game is still fresh to even the most hardened of fans.

For those that don't know, I'm a huge fan of Dark Souls. Dark Souls is one of my favourite games ever. I love the crumbling medieval world, I love the crunchy combat, I love the towering bosses, and I love how the game refuses to hold your hand at any point. So it was a given that I'd set aside a hefty chunk of time to really get stuck in to the sequel as soon as it arrived.

It was cool being one of the frontrunners in the new game. I'd encounter enemies that I knew everyone else in the world must be getting stuck on from the sheer number of desperate messages and player summon signs near them. I'd encounter areas that were clearly intended as multiplayer battle arenas, but that stood empty as not enough people had reached them yet to really engage with one another.

Dark Souls 2 Coop
Cooperative online multiplayer is a key component of the Souls franchise.

I recently went on holiday (real-life holiday, not Dark Souls holiday), a holiday that involved not playing Dark Souls II for a week. Firing the game up again on return, it already feels different. I'm encountering players who are on at least their second playthrough already. It's harder to get summoned to help others near the start of the game now, because the majority of players have already raced past these points. Someone announced on Twitter this morning that they've already cleared every achievement in the game. Now that's some serious devotion to Dark Souls.

But it makes me wonder what will happen to this game over the next few months. When does the optimal period for playing it end? How will a new player's experience of the game in one, two months' time be different to mine playing on day one?

It's an issue that's relevant to all online games - how can developers keep the game experience inviting to newcomers after the initial rush of the launch months wear off?

Often they can't - competitive online shooting games are notoriously impenetrable to newbies once a dedicated player base has been given enough time to master the game. People with a passing interest in a game like Titanfall have perhaps a couple of months to get invested before the online game becomes dominated by the seasoned hardcore. Joining a Call of Duty match today without a firm familiarity with the franchise is an exercise in swift and repeated death.

But these competitive games are less interested in constantly introducing new players as they are in cultivating a dedicated fan base from the players who buy the game on near enough day one, and keeping them playing until the next release in the series shakes things up and allows another brief window for new players to join the community.

Massively multiplayer games have a different approach to player acquisition and retention after launch; these are games that are intended to be around for years, even decades. These games have to attempt a balancing act between remaining accessible enough for new players and staving off boredom and content exhaustion in their die-hard players. Regular expansions that introduce new content that can be enjoyed at different levels by newcomers and veterans alike are employed to keep these games viable.

A game like Dark Souls sits somewhere in the middle of these two approaches. It's not a competitive game with the replayability required to keep a hardcore fan base actively playing for a year or more - or at least not aside from a few truly dedicated players. It's also not quite a persistent world built to keep people playing indefinitely for years - it's a huge game with a long post-game tail, but it doesn't offer the same 'endless' playability as a truly massively multiplayer game like EVE or World of Warcraft.

Instead it's this strange new-ish thing, a primarily single player experience that is nonetheless actively shaped by the activities of its worldwide player base. Dark Souls II today is a different game to Dark Souls II only three weeks ago, and will be a different experience entirely in a year's time.

Destiny
Bungie's Destiny looks set to rely on Dark Souls-style seamless multiplayer gameplay.

This sort of slowly-changing quasi-multiplayer experience is going to become more common as more games begin to adopt this hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer elements. Bungie's Destiny looks to ambitiously combine single- and multiplayer experiences in a seamless online world, and Ubisoft's upcoming Watch Dogs allows players to directly and indirectly affect each other's games in a manner not dissimilar to Dark Souls.

These games now exist in a strange place, a place with a limited time span. It used to be that the game you bought would provide the same experience for as long after purchase as you chose to play it. A copy of Super Mario World plays identically today as it did on launch - providing you've managed to keep 20 years worth of dust out of the cartridge, anyway.

Even competitive multiplayer games tend to remain relevant until the next game in the series is released - hardcore Halo players will tend to continue playing the most recent Halo game until a sequel arrives. The experience may begin to stagnate as fewer new players join, but after a few months it will remain a fairly stable experience for those dedicated to the game.

That's not the case with a game like Dark Souls II, or Destiny or Watch Dogs. These games require an active player base to deliver the intended experience, but also have a finite amount of content, a suggested endpoint at which all but the most dedicated of players are likely to stop playing the game.

It makes games feel more like an event, something that exists at a set point in time. Dark Souls II feels like an event right now - I'm experiencing the game fresh alongside countless other players, and sharing that experience with even more people through social media. One day everyone is screaming about one particular boss on Twitter; the next it's mentioned no more as the bulk of the player base pushes past it.

But this won't be the case in a few months time. The 'event' that is Dark Souls II will effectively be over; the game will still be completely playable, but this experience of visiting it with fresh eyes alongside thousands of others will be gone.

And that makes me wonder what will happen to these games in many years time. Super Mario World is still 100% viable after 20 years. Dark Souls II may perhaps be 70% viable after that length of time - that's an arbitrary value invented by me based on how much value I feel the multiplayer component adds to the overall Dark Souls experience.

But what about a game like Destiny, something that looks to place a much greater emphasis on the multiplayer component than Dark Souls? Will a game like that even be worth playing when almost everyone else in the world has stopped playing?

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand I love the feeling of games as an 'event'; being part of the Dark Souls II community from day one adds an element to that game that's just impossible to emulate in a completely static experience. It's like going to the theatre and experiencing something live, something that may be repeated but will never be exactly the same again, as opposed to going to the cinema and watching a print of something destined to be repeated thousands of times. It feels more alive.

But I'm also aware that this is something I can only really experience once; if I'm hit with a burst of nostalgia in a few years' time and decide to revisit Dark Souls II, then I'll still be able to play the game, but it will be impossible to recapture the experience of playing in the launch month. That makes it all the more important to savour this first play through, which makes it all the more delightful - but I am somewhat saddened by the fact that the games we play today are destined to effectively vanish, to remain as memories rather than something tangible we can revisit again and again.

What we gain in a sense of shared wonder and camaraderie, we lose in true longevity and the ability to act on our future nostalgia. The future classics of today will be, by the time that future rolls around, only a shell of their former selves.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.


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Comments


Daniel Cook
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We tend to think of games as a static form of media, like a book or a movie. That's the form that many single player games take. But games need not be this alone.

Most multiplayer games and all folk games are generally some very different. They are human processes, rituals and living culture. Like sports or religion or government, such social pattern evolve over time. The players change and so the game changes as well. Machines made of people evolve.

We should build our games with this in mind. Because it isn't some odd side effect, but a basic aspect of how games work. You play a game, your brain changes, you talk to others, you play together and create new skills and new languages around the game. That wave keep traveling and mutating for decades or centuries.

I see games as static media is an extraordinarily specific form of game. They come from a time where we need to sell games through media channels, so we hacked play into the form of a degenerate puzzle intended to be played a tiny number of time until the player buys the sequel. But clearly, this is not all games, nor should we let nostalgia for that brief era of games as boxed products limit our understanding of this vast landscape of play.

Tom Battey
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This is true - the embracing of persistent online elements has made the human element of games much more apparent and integral. There is something like the passing down of folklore in the way Twitter discussed Dark Souls II in the days after its launch. It's something I love, but something that's also clearly finite - even the best games can't last forever in this form. Which is just something we'll have to accept and embrace.

Christian Nutt
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But even single player games that don't change aren't static media, either -- you learn to play better, you find a community who knows more/different things, you go back to it. That was true in the schoolyard for NES and it's still true in the days of AGDQ livestreams. =)

Robert Marney
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This is why so many popular franchises have adopted the sports model. Here is this year's installment of our game! Experience it anew with all the other die-hard fans! It's not a bad system, as long as each entry is sufficiently different to provide a new experience.

There is one issue specific to Souls-style games: unlike traiditional competitive games, the multiplayer component is an escape valve for less skilled players. As the summon signs thin out, the likelihood that you can hire a seasoned mercenary for help decreases, and the game becomes more difficult. In response, the latest patch for Dark Souls II is already toning down the difficulty spikes to compensate.

Tom Battey
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The sports model works great for games with a primarily multiplayer focus - your Fifas, Halos and CoDs - but less so in a game that also looks to provide a narrative experience. I mean I absolutely love the Souls series, but even I can see how quickly the designers would run out of ideas if they shot for a yearly release schedule.

And that is an issue with the Souls games in particular - there are certain bosses that are clearly supposed to be played with more than one player. Being forced to do it solo dramatically increases the difficulty of the game to the point that it almost breaks it, and the AI comrades you can summon can't compensate. It's an issue I can see becoming more prevalent as games like Destiny begin to rely more heavily on similar mechanics.

David Holmin
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"there are certain bosses that are clearly supposed to be played with more than one player"

Which bosses? I've beaten Dark Souls solo, and I'm halfway through Dark Souls 2, with no huge problems on the bosses. The most difficult one so far has to be The Pursuer, but it still felt very fair and designed to be beatable solo w/o taking damage when you learn the patterns, similarly to a Punch-Out opponent.

I haven't played co-op, but I imagine it must make the fights much less "clean" and less revolving around learning boss patterns. (If it works as I expect with the boss simply having one target player at a time.)

Theresa Catalano
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Well, luckily for the Souls games they work extremely well even just as purely single player games. The multiplayer additions are awesome and unique, but the games are strong enough that they don't live or die by them. They will still be just as fun 20, or even 50 years from now. The same can't be said of games that rely more heavily on multiplayer.

Tom Battey
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The games themselves are still great as a purely single player experience, if a little lacking in soul (hah). However, there are some sections of the games, particularly certain bosses, that are clearly designed with multiplayer in mind. Having to do these solo dramatically increases the difficulty, and significantly alters the experience of playing the game. The games will still be great years from now, but they won't play quite as they were intended to.

Scott Lavigne
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I haven't played Dark Souls II yet (waiting on PC release), but the first game has plenty of "soul" playing alone, and I think messages, etc. from other players can significantly take away from the experience. In the first game, there are several points with AI opponents or allies meant to simulate the multiplayer aspect without ending up with a geared up low soul level char that's on NG+++ just soloing things for you.

I'd have to agree with Theresa: the games have done something really unique with their multiplayer aspects, but the core game is completely fine without them being used.

Majahret Diviera
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This is something that I have always thought of, and I too think of the first few weeks of the games launch as an event. It's great seeing it for the first time, struggling with everyone else, learning with everyone else and just over all having a blast at it. Also, the online structure of the Souls games have continued to evolve and become more persistent in its single player side of things. Demon's Souls started it off by just having red phantom enemies and NPCs already existing in the world, it didn't really simulate summoning NPCs or being invaded by them, but set up the ground works for them. Dark Souls took that a step further, by actually having certain NPCs show up that you could summon while human, and even having other NPCs invade your game in specific locations. Dark Souls 2 further expanded on that by giving even more variety in both NPC summons and invasion.

The Souls games do this to simulate the online aspects while being off line or keep to their own design mythos even when the player base might not be where it used to be and it does a pretty fantastic job. Dark Souls 2 more than the previous two entries in the Souls series, takes this to heart and to a whole new level. it keeps the new design choices of having no safe moments from invasion even when offline, and keeps you on your toes. Not only does the game let you summon and be invaded, but it also goes out of its way to allow you to invade an NPC of its world, furthering the simulation of the online environment even when offline.

Very few games have gone this far to keep to a standard, and best of all, Fromsoftware know not to lock any achievements/trophies behind online only requirements. there are many different spells and weapons that one seems to only be able to get by being online. There are a few covenants which require you to rank up in there, through PvP invasions or co-op but none of those rewards are locked away from you if you are not online. After playing the game through a few times, those high ranked rewards will be made available to the player allowing them to complete those trophies/achievements even when playing the game fully offline. For some of the other covenants that require certain drops, you can either farm those from specific enemies, or you will just end up getting enough through multiple playthroughs. Being online is definitely a big plus since it can help in getting certain spells or items faster, but there is always a way to be able to get all the achievements or platinum trophy even when playing it offline, which helps in the long run. Even more so when you have new players starting out a year or 2 after the game launched (much like with Dark Souls, it had a pretty good strong start, then died off, but after a few months and especially after the announcement of its sequel, it garnered new players 2 years after it launched, something most games cant seem to replicate) so even without the proper player base, those new players can still get that full experience even without the strong user base.

Adam O'Donoghue
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An additional feature that I believe contributes to the atrophy of online interaction over a game's life, and the difficulty of newcomers to a veteran community, is the degree to which a player can identify that other players in the game world are people like themselves, and are not merely resources, or objectives.

An example would be to contrast competitive games like Halo or COD with a game like Journey. In many competitive games the prevailing stream of design is to focus upon 'the player', a template that any person can fill through play. This approach is advantageous due to its control in orchestrating direct player engagement by rewarding 'the player' for skillful play; however, a consequence of this that this isolates 'the player' from other 'players' due to the ego-centric focus of game design. As a result 'the player' does not, nor needs, to engage with the goals of 'other players', and thus interaction is limited to self-serving objective orientation. Other players are just ghosts, things controlled by people, yet, devoid of human agency: thus allowing player to ignore how their actions may impede 'the player' experience of other players.

Journey, on the other hand, elegantly focuses upon humanizing its avatars, and focuses upon developing a language of game mechanics players can use to communicate with each other. While the game has an egocentric goal it never infringes upon the capacity of other players for interacting with each other. The interaction itself is an important focus of the game.

Michael Bakerman
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I definitely feel that the "Play Now While it's Hot" online system is set up to push consumers to buy a game sooner than later. I'm playing Dark Souls 1 at the moment, and although I absolutely love the game, it's relatively a ghost town compared to what it likely was in the past. This doesn't exactly bother me much since I like solo games just fine, and the game functions extraordinarily well on its own, but it is a little scary to think what Could Be if more games started basing large portions of their systems off of "online population" factors, and/or became yearly release. The shelf-life and replayability (or even playability in general) could take a considerable hit, making games that have been on the shelf for merely 1 year, now defunct, obsolete, and not worth picking up.


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