Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Demon’s Souls is the most Solo-Friendly MMORPG

Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 20, 2010

Before I get into anything else, I wanted to mention that Demon’s Souls isn’t nearly as hard as everyone makes it out to be. Sure, you’re basically forced to die as part of the tutorial, but that’s the point. Death is an essential part of the gameplay in Demon’s Souls (DS from now on). It is occasionally an optimal gameplay strategy to find a cliff and jump off it, just so you don’t have to deal with the horrors of actually being alive. I can’t tell if the game is making an artistic statement there or they just didn’t quite think through the World Tendency system. When you die you lose all of your unspent XP (which you can recover with a corpse run), but it is extremely difficult to “lose” anything you’ve actually cashed in. All you lose out on is stuff that wasn’t real in the first place, so it’s way less disheartening than a death in Everquest.

Playing DS is exactly like Soloing an MMORPG. It’s got a compelling open-ended character development system and interesting crafting. You’re mostly living in your own instance of the world, but you can see the literal ghosts of your compatriots around you, simultaneously comforting you and reinforcing the essential loneliness of the universe. You can’t restore from a save if you screw up. Sometimes somebody comes by and ganks you just because. The narrative is a series of cool events and bosses, but is purposefully disjoint and confusing.

So, what’s so great about it? The first key is that the content itself is very precisely crafted. The game is a series of specifically designed dungeons, which are jam packed with content and atmosphere. You quickly learn that if there could possibly be an enemy hiding behind that door, there is. Most of the levels are fairly long, but are structured with a series of unlockable shortcuts that let you divide a level into conquerable subgoals. 90% of the items in the game are important and useful, and you are constantly rewarded with interesting and functionally distinct equipment. Really there’s two axis of development: your character’s stats and your knowledge. You’ll need both to succeed, but you can get help.

The design lineage of DS can be traced back to older difficult games like Tower of Druaga or Nethack. The game is difficult for a very specific reason: it wants you to turn to other people for help. But, the combination of specifically crafted content and modern technology integrates this directly in to the game. As you play the game, you will find notes left by other real players. These notes will mostly be extremely helpful, although sometimes they’re horrible lies. A voting system keeps the notes relevant, and a structured language keeps people on topic. The ghosts of current players and saved deaths of older players fit into this the same way. 99% of people would never be able to make it through the game without help, but the designers KNEW this and embraced it.

Very few people are capable of progressing through the later levels of a game like World of Warcraft at launch without turning to friends or the internet. Most players need some hand holding, and it can either come from the game designer or other players. It turns out if it comes from other players it really builds a sense of community and longevity in to a game, and this is where Demon’s Souls really succeeds. Even though I can’t directly talk to anyone in the crazy phantom realm that DS calls home, I feel close to them. We’re all going through the same trials, and as a group we can learn enough to overcome it all. Unlike real life, I know in the end we’ll succeed and feel deeply satisfied in the process. Everyone who enjoys MMORPGs will find much to love in Demon’s Souls.

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One Response to “Demon’s Souls is the most Solo-Friendly MMORPG”

  1. Cody said

    I’d just like to state that I agree with this completely. I’ve paid attention to MMO’s for a long time and for a game I didn’t intend to play like an MMO, that I didn’t even expect to be anything close to an MMO, I feel like I’m playing an MMO the whole time. Except that its a pretty easy MMO. I don’t have to group with people or join a guild. I don’t have to get help, though I can. I don’t have to participate in PvP, though its there and it gets the adrenaline pumping. I do grind a bit to progress my character, but I don’t have to. I think you could, if you were really really good, beat the whole game as a level 1.

    I am really excited for Demons Souls 2. It could be total Sony, corporate crap, since they own it. It could be a totally awesome genre changing MMO. It could be more of the same. Either of the last two options would be great.

    I think some things that could improve its MMO-ness… Make the ‘town’ bigger and make it a big shared instance. Perhaps multiple instances, but everyone should be in one of a few instances. Think Guild Wars towns. Allow for players to group up or opt-into a duel or even a Group vs Group fight. There doesn’t need to be Realm vs Realm or Guilds or anything complicated. Just give people the ability to join for cooperative or competitive gameplay sessions from this bigger, less instanced hub. Allow real trading between players in town and fix the bugs that allow duping, obviously. A player economy of any complexity would be nice. Crafting is a no go, IMO. Leave everything else alone in terms of gameplay, level design, etc. One last thing… design it such that it can be expanded.

    I’ve stopped playing MMO’s since they all became WoW but now that I’m playing Demon’s Souls i realize an MMO like this is really what I’ve been wanting. Casual, but deep. Allowing for you to play exactly as you wish… solo, group, pve only, pvp only, offline, online, its truly the best game in the last year, probably 2-5 years.

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