Dark Souls II and the Ripple Effect

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Games such as Ninja Gaiden depend entirely on perfected gameplay balance.

In his essay “The Importance of Gameplay Balance,” author Chris Francis discussed the idea of gameplay balance, and how crucial it is for a game to be considered a success. Gameplay balance, as Chris defined, is “the fine tuning of any metrics that affect gameplay experience.” He goes on to write:

“Difficulty is the most obvious form of gameplay balance. How much health should this level’s boss have to make him a good challenge? How much money should the player be able to easily obtain at a certain point in the game, and how much should items cost at that point? These are the kinds of balance issues that are most intuitive to any gamer, but the concept can apply to pretty much any aspect of game design. Balance may apply to calculating how dramatic of a flinch/stun effect a player’s attack inflicts on an enemy in order to make a player feel either powerful or weak, as well as to determine how much of a break the player can catch while the enemy recovers. It can also refer to ambience and gameplay pacing, as it is when figuring how fast a player can traverse across empty stretches of game world.”

Since I read those words, I haven’t been able to ignore the tiniest details in game and level design. Why did the developers put that enemy in that specific spot of this specifically shaped room? Why didn’t it work for the room to be just a bit larger, or for that enemy to spawn in the opposite corner? It’s helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the countless hours and untold levels of tinkering and perfecting developers go through to produce each segment of gameplay, and I’m especially appreciative when the final result is satisfying, just difficult enough to give me a challenge, just forgiving enough to make me feel empowered, just clever enough for me to not care that my actions and inputs are being carefully controlled and manipulated by artists and programmers alike.

Rarely, as a gamer, do I have the ability to see just how far reaching changes to level and gameplay design can be, but there are examples that demonstrate how significant even the slightest change can be to a complex, carefully crafted world. I recently spent 60 hours hacking my way through Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, a game that frustrated and surprised me in equal parts. My biggest takeaway was, despite benefitting from the gameplay design perfected in the original Dark Souls, how different Dark Souls II could feel, and many of these changes stem from one simple change to gameplay balance. This single change best represents the ripple effect that can be felt when making one small adjustment to gameplay, and its effects on the final product are worth a closer look, if only to better appreciate just how fragile gameplay balance really is.

Scholar of the First Sin

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The remake of Dark Souls II promised a much more difficult experience, and it delivered.

I haven’t played the original release of Dark Souls II, and to be frank I doubt I ever will. To those unfamiliar, the creator of the Souls series, Hidetaka Miyazaki, began work on another title, Bloodborne, after he finished Dark Souls. Therefore, Dark Souls II was not created by the mastermind behind the series, instead left in the very capable hands of Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura. Their original version, while praised by critics, left many fans of Dark Souls wanting. Complaints ranged from the level design to the difficulty of the enemies, and in a breath of fresh air, Tomohiro and Yui listened. A short time later, they announced Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, which reimagined the title. The location of items moved, as did enemies, creating a title the directors felt was more in line with the tone of Dark Souls.

Entering the game at Scholar of the First Sin, I can say that it does look like a sequel to Dark Souls, but there were changes I immediately noticed that I knew would end up changing the game in such dramatic ways that I worried that I would invest a significant amount of my time only to come to a warped, twisted version of the game I thought I knew, one that I would end up disliking. Those fears proved to be unfounded, yet the game did feel radically different in certain areas, thanks to one change – the ability to fast travel from the start of the game to any unlocked bonfire.

The Heart of Dark Souls

Many modern games, with large, sprawling worlds, allow players to fast travel, so why is incorporating it in a Dark Souls game such a big deal? To understand how this change had the impact it did later in the game, we must first understand what distinguished Dark Souls from the rest of the medium.

So, what makes Dark Souls? While playing Dark Souls II recently, I asked contributing writer Aaron Daniel, our resident Souls expert, this very question. “It’s more than just difficulty,” he said. “I like to tell people that the game isn’t just difficult – it’s old-school NES difficult.”

For those who remember the days of games like Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, old-school NES difficulty was about more than just being difficult for the sake of difficulty. The difficulty in these games came from a lack of coddling or hand-holding – these games forced the player to be on top of the action 100% of the time. Players could never just run through a level while paying attention to something else, mindlessly smashing buttons. As soon as the player’s focus wasn’t fully concentrated on the task at hand, these games would punish the player with defeat and make them start over from the beginning. There was no phoning it in, and the game wouldn’t give you any breaks.

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It may look pretty, but this section of Dark Souls is responsible for approximately half of the curse words I have ever uttered.

This design philosophy clearly had an impact on Hidetaka Miyazaki, who claims that he never set out to make a difficult game in Dark Souls, and I believe him (save for the infamous archers in Anor Londo). What he did was set out to make a game that would challenge the player to be focused when undertaking even the most simple of tasks, and to do this he made sure that every action in the game, no matter how trivial, carried with it some risk. This is crucial to understanding Dark Souls – even something as simple as backtracking to a bonfire (locations that act as save points in the game) proved to be difficult, and players could end up losing all of the souls they collected, which act as both experience points to level up and currency to buy items. At any moment, players could lose all of their progress, and this forced them to always be on their guard.

The way Hidetaka ensured players would always have to calculate this risk was to create a world that would double-back onto itself, one that was full of shortcuts players had to earn to unlock, one that perfectly hit that balance of just being challenging enough to make players learn the world, but would reward them for doing so, and was clever enough to disguise this manipulation. Players didn’t just complete levels in Dark Souls – they overcame them, mastered them. Bonfires were spaced just far enough apart that travelling from one to the next was a white-knuckle dash through demons and pits of lava, and the dread one felt when they stumbled onto a boss was second only to the elation they felt when defeating it. It wasn’t until later in the game that players were granted an item that allowed them to fast travel to bonfires, and even then players were limited to which ones they could travel to. Hidetaka wanted players to earn their victory, not just over the game’s bosses, but over the world.

Which brings me back to the beginning of Dark Souls II, in which the player can, right from the start, fast travel to any bonfire they already unlocked. To say this came as a shock would be an understatement – it seemed to betray one of the core elements of the original Dark Souls. But this one change affected more than just player movement throughout the world – it altered the tone of the game, for better and for worse.

“We’ll See,” Said the Zen Master

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The map for Dark Souls II illustrates how FromSoftware abandoned an interconnected world for one much larger.

It’s difficult to anticipate how one small change will ripple throughout the rest of the game, and ideas that seem sensical at the onset may end up being poor decisions down the road. But some of the changes in Dark Souls II, and their impacts, were immediately recognizable, such as the level design.

In Dark Souls II, developer FromSoftware didn’t need to create an interconnected world because of the fast travel mechanic – an easier method of world design would be to create a maze, with dead ends that obscured the way forward. This way, levels could end without having to loop back around to the start or connect to another area. Creating a maze-like world is certainly easier than creating an interconnected world, and given the likely possibility that Dark Souls II didn’t benefit from a long-cycle development, the developers decided to lay out the world in this manner to save time. This also had the added benefit of creating much larger worlds than before, since players wouldn’t have to always backtrack just to save their progress or to level up. The larger worlds also ensured that players wouldn’t reach the end of a level too fast, giving players a sense of accomplishment instead of making them feel like they wasted their time running down a dead end. This, naturally, led to the developers placing more bonfires than normal, to accommodate the size of the world and to encourage players to explore.

However, the last thing players want to do is wander a large world with nothing in it, so with the increase in bonfires came an increase in enemies. FromSoftware had no problem throwing waves of enemies at the player, because they knew that a bonfire would be right around the corner, and players didn’t have to worry about the condition of their equipment deteriorating too much, since the plentiful bonfires repaired their gear for them.

Already we can see how changing the formula to accompany fast travel led to an increase in enemies, which is where Dark Souls II really begins to differ from its predecessor. With more enemies comes an increase in difficulty – even though bonfires were plentiful, players still had to get through some tough situations just to find them. This higher enemy count raised the difficulty significantly, but it also provided successful players with more souls. FromSoftware saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – to more efficiently get past waves of increasingly difficult enemies, the rate at which players leveled up was increased. In Dark Souls, every time the player spends souls to level up, the next level requires a few extra souls to reach. For the original, a formula is used to calculate how many souls are necessary:

Levels 2-12: Cost = 0.0068 * Level^3 – 0.06 * Level^2 + 17.1 * Level + 639

Levels 13-240: Cost = 0.02 * Level^3 + 3.06 * Level^2 + 105.6 * Level – 895

For Dark Souls II, there is a standard chart that shows the very small incremental increase from level to level. Comparing the amount of souls needed to level up once the player is at level five, it’s clear that the original requires more, by approximately two hundred, than Dark Souls II. And the increase from level five to six in Dark Souls II is slight (far less than in Dark Souls), meaning that players level up considerably faster, due largely in part to the increased number of enemies.

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Despite tougher enemies, FromSoftware had to implement other mechanics to make sure players wouldn’t become over-powered.

However, leveling up so fast meant players would quickly outpace the enemies and run the risk of becoming god-like, which defeats the entire purpose and message of the Dark Souls games. These games were always meant to be a struggle, so how would FromSoftware deal with this change? One could argue that they could have made the amount of souls needed to level up even greater, therefore slowing down the rate of leveling. However, since players have no way of storing collected souls, and players lose them permanently if they die and are unable to make it back to their point of death to recollect them without dying again, FromSoftware wisely decided to increase the rate at which players level. But to counteract the risk of becoming god-like, FromSoftware scaled back the impact each level had on the player’s stats. When a player levels in Dark Souls, they select an attribute to increase by one point, and that attribute will impact various stats, such as health, stamina, etc. In Dark Souls II, the gains for these stats when their corresponding attribute was increased began to diminish almost instantly – it wasn’t long until I saw my stamina increasing by a pitiful one point per level, which was hardly worth it. This ensured that players wouldn’t grow too powerful too quickly.

But this creates another problem – if spending souls to level up loses its appeal so early in the game, then what motivation would players have to continue improving their character? This is where Dark Souls II really goes off the rails – to address this, a whole slew of new statistics were added to the game, such as agility, which influences how quickly the player consumes items and how many frames during and after a dodge the player is invincible. It seems strange that item consumption and dodging is influenced by level in Dark Souls II, but it makes sense since players will want to continue leveling up their character and improving it, while still somehow not becoming too powerful for the game world. However, this increase in statistics meant that, in the beginning of the game, players were far weaker than they were in Dark Souls – what few levels the game gifted players were spread thinner than usual, resulting in the biggest change yet to the formula. Because the game placed such a big emphasis on level, it became a far more important mechanic than it was in Dark Souls. Although a player’s level is important in the original, the proper gear trumped actual statistics; because of the changes to Dark Souls II, player level was far more important, to such a degree that I completed nearly all of the game with my starting weapon, something that is nearly impossible to do in the original Dark Souls.

Was It Worth It?

To recap – by implementing a fast travel mechanic, developer FromSoftware was able to avoid having to create an interconnected world, but this seemingly small change led to major repercussions on everything from leveling to enemy placement to the amount of statistics to the importance of level over gear. So many mechanics were changed that it’s a wonder this even feels like a Dark Souls game. There’s evidence to support that I am not alone in feeling this way – Hidetaka Miyazaki is returning to make Dark Souls III, and one of the changes he announced is that many of the statistics seen in Dark Souls II, such as agility, will be removed from the game.

But it’s still fascinating to see how one change rippled throughout every aspect of the game. In the end, I feel that Dark Souls II strayed too far from the established formula to consider it a successful sequel, but viewed on its own it’s a perfectly fine game, and it works because the developers understood this ripple effect. Making changes to a formula is fine, so long as developers understand the consequences of those changes, and are ready to adapt to them as needed. FromSoftware was ready to do this for Dark Souls II, and it’s what allowed the game to work as opposed to being a failed experiment.

Gameplay balance, as author Chris Francis wrote, is crucial to the success of every game. But the reality of game design is that changes will be made during development, and the game that is eventually released may look or play radically different than it did in the beginning. Developers need to be aware of how any change they make can impact that gameplay balance in ways they may not anticipate – without this consideration, games will release in an unbalanced state, dooming their chances of success.