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A Journey Into The Dark

September 30, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this interview with Dark Souls producer Kei Hirono, he reflects on the development of the game and what director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team at developer From Software have achieved with the eagerly anticipated, famously challenging, and innovative title.]

With all of the commentary about how the Japanese market is failing to create games that appeal globally, especially for hardcore audiences, you need only to point to Dark Souls as an example of a game that bucks the trend. Not only is it wildly successful in its home market -- as its debut on this week's Media Create charts at number one shows -- it is also one of the most eagerly anticipated games of 2011 in the West.

One reason it is anticipated so highly is simply because it's the direct successor to a well-respected and successful title: Demon's Souls, which debuted on the PlayStation 3 in 2009. It's a much more polished, thoroughly bigger and better-made version of that game, essentially, as many sequels and follow-ups are.

But it's also because it's a game that bucks trends: it's not simply a well-designed RPG, but it's one of the most challenging games yet released this generation. And as veteran developer Mark Cerny has often pointed out -- a point recently echoed by Gears of War's Cliff Bleszinski -- it's got innovative online play that may set the tone for how single player-focused developers will handle those modes in the future.

How did this game come together? To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to the game's producer at Namco Bandai, Kei Hirono. Gamasutra last spoke to Hirono at E3, where he told us that the secret to the game's success was getting out of the way of director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team at developer From Software. In this new interview, he reflects on the development of the game and what the team has achieved with the title.  

When we spoke at E3, you said that you're getting out of the way and letting the team really do the work. Our readers really liked that statement -- the idea that you really just let From make the decisions on the game.

Kei Hirono: Absolutely, our stance is the same -- we let devs do what they want. Every time we receive a build, we're actually surprised by the new aspects that have evolved. So our job is to deliver this game to you guys on time, so we'll do our best to do that, and make sure that a great game is delivered.

Normally you produce a lot of anime games.

KH: I do!

It's a pretty different experience from really hardcore games like Dark Souls.

KH: Well, the producer position might be a bit different in Japan; it's chiefly focused on the publishing side. Most of the design work and testing and so on is being handled by From Software; we're trusting them to be good enough for the task, so we're leaving it to them. Meanwhile, we're the ones who are figuring out how to deploy this product worldwide, in North America and Europe. It's really been a new experience for all of us.

You're gold on Dark Souls; how do you feel when you look at the final game and how it went?

KH: Oh, partly it's a relief that something we worked right up to the line on turned out so well. I do think it turned out wonderful, though, really.

Did it exceed the expectations you had at the beginning?

KH: It's really nothing like we pictured it at the start. There were concepts that went unimplemented because, especially with the online component, you can't really tell how some of it works until it's actually in motion. It was really a difficult project because it kept on changing and evolving as we were developing it. A lot got attached to it, so it's really a much greater project than we first conceived. I'm just glad it all came together.

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Cary Chichester
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I hope they manage to make the game consistently difficult this time. I had to grind a bit to get past some of the harder bosses in Demon's Souls, but after that hump the rest of the game ended up being too easy.

Lo Pan
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It is a real shame with this game that the developer (Hidetaka Miyazaki) refuses to offer difficulty levels. Smacks of short sightedness and narcissism. I had hoped this uncompromising design vision trend from Japanese developers was dying out, but that memo hasn't reached From Software.

How simple would it be to offer difficulty levels for players? Pretty damn simple (essentially spreadsheet values). However, the 'this is my/own design vision and you will play it this way or you aren't worthy' attitude just limits the game's appeal and sales. Hirono-san and the Namco producers should have had more courage and fought for the average gamer. Sadly Miyazaki, I won't be playing Dark Souls and I know its my fault because I'm not worthy or capable enough to play your masterpiece. Now where is that Gears of War 3 game disc...

Bryson Whiteman
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Lo Pan, I believe it's your perspective that is shortsighted. To me, the appeal of Demon's Souls was that it was a game that completely immersed you in its world. The rules are harsh but consistent. If there's a will, there's a way. You can progress when you pay closer attention to the environment, find creative solutions to challenges, find help online, or simply improve your playing ability (aka skillz, haha).

To add in difficulty levels, seems like completely missing the point of the game. It's supposed to be difficult! Besides creating additional issues (additional balancing required, logistical problems of players online playing with different difficulty settings, etc.)

I'm glad From Software was able to work out this partnership with Namco Bandai! I hope they are able to reach a wider audience and find a good balance between hardcore and mainstream appeal with their games.

Andrew Hopper
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I wonder how you feel about books with big words? Is Harry Potter the standard for literature now, because of its mass appeal?

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@Johnny Fox

Without coming down too heavy on Lo Pan, I think you hit on the important difference between this game and most others (and why a difficulty option misses the point of Dark Souls): there is no attempt at narrative or trying to provide a cinematic experience. The gameplay and bleak atmosphere IS the narrative.

I used to think that for video games to evolve into art, they would have to become more like movies. I really admire a game like L.A. Noire, and that may still be a fruitful path to explore, but I'm starting to become pessimistic games will ever provide the emotional and artistic depth of film, and a game like Dark Souls is refreshing because it is telling you: "learn the game mechanics, because gameplay is all, and 'story' is B.S." Same thing in Wii bowling, of course, but like someone said about Harry Potter: there's an audience for that, and there's an audience (albeit smaller) for something more challenging.

Jacob Pederson
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I'm not the most skilled 3rd person tactical fighter out there for sure, but I've beaten Bayonetta, Devil May Cry 4, and all the God of War games; you would think this might at least make me average :) I'm even a fan of some rouge-likes elements like are found in Diablo I, Minecraft, or Dead Rising, so I'm no stranger to difficultly; however Demon Souls was a complete turn-off for me. There is such a thing as too difficult; and that point is going to be different for everyone, hence, difficulty levels!

I don't think every game really needs a "causal" setting, like Gears has, but surely every game should have a "normal" setting?

Michael DeFazio
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taking the difficulty out of demon's souls, is like taking the blood, gore, and the suspense, away from a horror movie.

demon's souls is not about pushing pixels, or story, or cutscenes... this game is about putting you into a meat grinder and seeing if you can make it out alive (and IF you do, you'll fell like a million bucks). it is certainly not for everyone, but i'd rather the developers focus on balancing the game on the right side of impossible than try to make the difficulty "open ended" to attempt to appeal to a broader audience.

having an "easy mode" in demons souls would shield you from the depth the game has to offer'd probably never bother two handing weapons, learning all of the attack animations, learning to back-stab and reposte, or manage your stamina or pay attention to enemies and learn their patterns, or being obsessive compulsive about switching your equipment/rings/spells.

besides, i want it to mean something when i say, "yeah i beat demon's souls" without having to clarify (in easy mode)

Jeffrey Touchstone
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To me the hardship and struggle of Demon's soul and dark souls is part of the appeal. The difficultly of the struggle makes the elation of succeeding all the more sweet.

Lo Pan
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Everyone, I admire the protection of the 'difficulty is sacrosanct' to this game. However, as my original post stated...offer this ultra-hard 'Miyazaki' difficulty (perhaps even with an exclusive level or enemy) and keep this as the online enabled mode, but there is NO downside to offering a second, easier mode.

If the cool for Namco is to sell a game with limited/niche appeal and sales fine, but it seems a waste since Miyazaki's design vision is reaching a small percentage of the market.

I wonder if Cliffy B had done this with Gears would have sold 15+ million?

Andrew Hopper
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The downside of adding an easy difficulty is diminishing the brand name and alienating the target audience for this game. Why would I want to spend double my design and balancing budget to make an easy mode for a game and compete in a crowded market for easy games, when I could just dominate the hardcore market, perfect the formula and widen the player base for difficult games?

Hakim Boukellif
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"If the cool for Namco is to sell a game with limited/niche appeal and sales fine, but it seems a waste since Miyazaki's design vision is reaching a small percentage of the market."

This seems like an odd thing to say. You call it a waste that his design vision will only reach a limited amount of people, but in order to reach a larger number of people, he would have to severely compromise on that exact vision, which would result in his vision being received by no one at all.

"I wonder if Cliffy B had done this with Gears would have sold 15+ million?"

Demon's Souls wouldn't have sold anywhere close to 15+ million even if it did have a difficulty mode that would allow anyone who's held a controller more than twice to beat it. Even conceptually it just doesn't have the mass appeal of muscleheads blasting aliens. Certainly, the game might have sold more if you could get through it easier, though it would never go beyond a certain niche. However, in the long term for a game like this and for a company that wants to be able keep making games like this, it's more important to create a dedicated fanbase than it is to maximise sales today.

Christopher Nomi
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I know what you mean with the difficulty selection and it's advantages, but there is a downside actually. I know lots of players and what they do when there is a level to choose (especially these days). Since there is lots of great games to play these days on PC, XBOX, PS3, Wii, portables, etc... lots of gamers just wanna see how's the game and maybe finish it so they could go to the next game and if you put the difficulty selection on the game, most probably these gamers will leave it on normal or easy, and a very small percentage will try the hard or very hard difficulty, cause they don't want that frustrating experience, they just want to have a taste of the experience. For this game, the high difficulty is part of the experience the creators wants you to have. If you can't take it you should see it like a movie you did't like cause you were not the target audience.

My father cant take Tarantino's movies cause he thinks it has too much conversation and doesn't have action scenes, he prefers movies like avatar and transformers. So why doesn't Tarantino make movies that will appeal to a bigger audience? is he dum? well I think he is not. He makes the movies he wants to make, and he knows there is lots of people that like movies that doesnt have explosions every 5 minutes and nonstop action scenes

PS: sorry for my bad english XD

Robert Boyd
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Actually, I think Demon's Souls (and by extension Dark Souls) handles difficulty in a very elegant manner. The game is brutally hard...but it offers each player lots of help from other players (tips & warnings, viewing other player's deaths, summoning them into your game as assistants, etc.).

Lo Pan
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@Hakim and Andrew, resolving the balance issue is a simple as changing the damage values on enemies within the code. Say from 10,000 HP to 5,000 HP.

If making a game exceedingly difficult Miyazaki's primary design goal...that seems shockingly narrow minded. Design 101 stuff.

Its strange that so many developers on this site who demand balance and focus testing seem to abandon it for this series. Yes, the game looks great and has a fantastic combat system/engine, but it uncompromising difficulty kneecaps it. In a world where AAA games are pervasive, publishers and developers need use common sense with their 'design vision'.

Ramon Carroll
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Well, I'm sure that the consumer-base, along with the professional reviewers, have spoken on this issue. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls has garnered a huge following, not just some small niche-corner in the gaming community. A lot of people love the game. I love the game. Obviously, their design vision worked, right?

Hakim Boukellif
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Games are usually not defined by their mechanics. Like all forms of entertainment, games are meant to provide the player with an experience. Zelda games want players to experience an adventure, Pokemon wants to convey the fun of catching bugs in the forest etc. The game mechanics are just a means to that end.

In a technical game like Demon's Souls, replacing wolves with Pomeranians and tigers with American shorthairs completely changes the way the game is played, even if the mechanics are the same. As a result, it's also no longer providing the experience it was intended to provide.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Demons souls isnt hard, its just unforgiving. No holding your hand!. Demon souls and Dark souls would be very boring indeed if they were more forgiving, and shockingly short. The games are gripping because the fear of dying keeps you on edge. Your heart is pounding when you reach a new boss! With low difficulty, games have to resort to cheap trills to try and instill fear.

In a sense they arent that different than old-school platforming games - falling off a ledge means restarting - or stealth games where you can't be detected. The tension is much greater, and if the game is fair (it is clear why you fell, why you got detected), it isnt frustrating.

Besides, if you aim for universal appeal, you end up with vanilla. We dont need more vanilla.

David Serrano
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"KH: Not necessarily just the hardcore audience; more like something that people worldwide are willing to accept and enjoy."

1 - The game is not for the hardcore audience. Games like Demon Souls appeal to a sub-segment of a sub-segment of the hardcore audience. They have absolutely no appeal to at least 95 percent of the core audience, if not more.

2 - No, Demon Souls is not something people worldwide are willing to accept and enjoy. Fact: only 10 percent of the people who currently buy AAA games finish them. 90 percent of the players walk away because the games do not acknowledge or accommodate their preferences, time constraints or lifestyles. So world-wide, the majority of the possible audience is rejecting games which most of the people here, think are too easy or hold their hands. And the solution to this is to make the games even more difficult to play? Extreme difficulty will appeal to them? My god, pull your heads out of your asses... really. Every time a player walks away from a game, he or she becomes less likely to buy or play another. So every time it happens, it hurts the entire industry.

So go right ahead, make more masochistic games like Demon Souls. But be prepared to accept responsibility when the average age of a core player drop back down into the teens and the size and overall spending power of the audience returns to the pre-Playstation days.

Joel McCoy
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Hirono is essentially answering that question in the negative. It seems he agrees with your "retorts," obviously, because he's a business-minded individual who works on the publishing side of things.

Abbreviated for comprehension without interpretation:

CN: "Would you want to continue working on projects for the hardcore?"

KH: "I'd like to try my hand at projects with a broader potential market, including casual players. I already know the hardcore market, and want to see what other segments can be tapped."

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"Games like Demon Souls appeal to a sub-segment of a sub-segment of the hardcore audience. They have absolutely no appeal to at least 95 percent of the core audience, if not more."

Namco/FromSoftware are crying all the way to the bank: Dark Souls Surpasses 250K Japanese Sales In Opening Weekend (

And this is a sequel, so buyers know what sort of game they're getting.