Robert Boyd, designer of Cthulhu Saves the World and Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 carefully explores the design of the popular but often misunderstood action RPG hit.
Dark Souls has gained a reputation for being an excruciatingly difficult game. Yet despite that, the game has seen a great deal of success, both commercially (selling over a million copies in the U.S. and Europe as of the end of the publisher's last fiscal year) and critically (with a current Metacritic rating of 89).
Why has Dark Souls achieved mainstream success and has not remained merely a cult favorite? I'd like to argue that a major factor behind Dark Souls' success is the disconnect between its perceived difficulty and its actual difficulty. Dark Souls presents itself as an impossible challenge to the player outwardly, but inwardly, the game is subtly designed in many ways to help the player achieve the impossible.
(Note: this article includes a few spoilers.)
The publisher of Dark Souls actively sought to brand the game as a difficult game from day one. Just look at the name of the game's official website: PrepareToDie.com. Marketing the game as being extremely difficult increases the game's perceived difficulty without changing the actual difficulty at all.
2. It lets the players make their own rules
After stacking the odds against the player (with a huge, hostile world), the game starts stacking the odds back in the player's favor. First things first -- Dark Souls doesn't force the player to play the game in any particular way. Want to play a heavily armored knight, a light-on-her-feet warrior, a mage, a priest, or all of the above? Sure thing. The game lets you use the style of hero that you feel most comfortable with. Although the player chooses one of several set classes at the beginning of the game, class selection only determines the player's starting stats and equipment; where you go from there is entirely up to you.
3. It's difficult to truly mess up your stat progression
Dark Souls lets the player allocate their stats bonuses from level-ups however they wish. This gives the expert min-maxer a great deal of flexibility to create the ultimate Dark Souls destroying machine.
But what about the less experienced player who doesn't know what they're doing? No problem -- the design has taken that into account as well. There are several effective tools available to the player that have little to no reliance on stats, like elemental weapons, armor (armor increases weight but doesn't have specific stat requirements), and powerful fire magic called pyromancy, that the player can use to dig themselves out of the hole they've created with poor level-up choices.
All level-ups give a slight boost to the player's overall defense, so no matter what you choose, you're always getting slightly more resilient. And it's possible to max out all stats eventually -- so in the end, poor choices can be fixed with grinding.
4. We're all in this together
Although it's possible for players to fight amongst themselves, players can help each other, both through posting hints for other players and by joining other players' games to help defeat Dark Souls' many bosses.
Bosses give drastically more souls (the game's currency) than normal enemies do, and helping another player is the only way to defeat a boss more than once -- so the player has a definite incentive for helping out others. The game creates a feeling of "us vs. the game" and not just "us vs. us."