Since the PC port of Dark Souls is to be released soon, I thought it'd be a good time to revive a draft I had started after the console version release.
If you've heard one thing about Dark Souls it's likely that it's a brutally difficult game. It recalls an age in gaming where tutorials were short, reflexes were crucial, and mistakes punished you with a genuine sense of loss. Dark Souls pushes you to quit in anger, only to return an hour later when you've cooled off.
These values can be viewed as being diametrically opposed to those of casual gaming today: Easy, routine, and addictive. But I'm not here to criticize that, rather I want to explain what mobile gaming can realistically take from such a different experience in order to better itself.
The lesson here is all in the multiplayer.
Multiplayer in it's most basic form features multiple players in the same virtual space at the same time, working together or against each other directly. It's a simple and enjoyable concept on an elemental level because people enjoy both competing against each other and working together. It's been fun for ages and will continue to be, but there's a problem today with mobile gaming that demands more.
The mobile gaming problem is in one of the benefits: picking up and playing anytime and anywhere. Portability and connectivity afford us flexibility, but as a result we're probably playing alone. This is where we need to innovate multiplayer: Better and more satisfying asynchronous play.
So how do you create player interaction without jamming them into the same server at the same time? Dark Souls and other games have approached this with a concept I call passive multiplayer.
Passive multiplayer lets players affect the experience of other players, without needing to attribute those effects to them. By creating a system that seamlessly integrates the actions of other players into the game world, we can create worlds that feel alive because they always contains the fresh marks of another presence, not just because someone else is standing there.
Early on in Dark Souls you obtain an item that lets you carve brief messages into the world that are constructed out of pre-defined sentence fragments. For example: "Beware" + "of fall" carved into the entrance of a pitch black hallway could indicate a near invisible pitfall. "Great treasure" + "ahead!" could lead players to treasure, or it could be trick to cause them to run carelessly towards danger.
These messages are then propagated into the game worlds of other players in the same spot. Whenever they reach that same room, they'll see it. Those players can also rate these messages with positive or negative feedback. The rating is visible on the message itself, so other readers of the message will get a sense of how truthful it is. Truthful messages tend to have tens or hundreds of positive ratings. It's easy to do, and gives recipients a sense of agency in helping others.
Note: A secondary rating effect is that positively rated messages also heal the author immediately if they are playing. It's undocumented and little-known, so it has little effect on motivation to rate or create messages.
Clearly this makes the game easier, but to understand how it can be translated for other purposes we should dig deeper.
Changing the odds with network effects
The difficulty of situations in Dark Souls varies from technically difficult but fair, to bafflingly unfair in every conceivable way. Early in the game the player must cross a large bridge filled with a scattering of weak enemies. At this point the player has learned to deal with these enemies comfortably but cautiously. However, as the player progresses to the quarter-way point a dragon swoops in and almost instantly incinerates you in a screen filling blast of fire.
On their own, no one realizes and reacts in time to avoid at least one death here. If you felt the game was unfair before, this part stuns you into despair and anger.
But if you were fortunate and aware, you may have seen a message at the start of the bridge warning you to "Run!". A full sprint all the way through gives you a chance of survival, but it's against your natural inclination to take it slow and clear the enemies. The game first teaches you to deal with enemies slowly, then it turns around and tricks you with that same lesson, and only your peers can give you a chance. Even if you fail to grasp the message meaning the first time around and end up dying, you return here with a sense of direction instead of bewilderment thanks to the message.
Here's another less lethal example. Some environments in Dark Souls contain hidden walls that lead to secret treasure. Unlike other games which lean on level design and hints to point the player towards secrets, Dark Souls offers nothing on it's own.
These secret walls are triggered by hitting them, so you have to ask yourself: What are the odds of a single player discovering a secret wall by accident because they happen to be fighting an enemy or happen to be swinging randomly? The odds are incredibly slim. Playing on your own that's just bad game design, but Dark Souls both is and isn't a single player game.
Now imagine 1000 players are working through their own version of that same room. The odds of at least 1 of those 1000 players accidentally discovering the secret is far better (well, a thousand times better), and that player is likely to leave a message for those other 999 players. As other players read, they rate, and some also leave additional notes to provide further clarity. These player made hints propagate across the network rapidly, saving countless virtual lives (and probably prevents many thrown controllers).
They could have made the secrets more obvious such that nearly every player found it on their own, but instead they chose to practically require players to help each other. Each player contributes to a crowd-sourced effort to improve the experience of other players. It builds a strange sense of camaraderie between people you have not, and likely will never, meet.
Dark Souls forces players to form a community despite little to no direct communication and interaction.
Together with everyone else playing you feel like you're facing up against a brutally unfair opponent: the game itself. Because it's not centred around a specific room or time, it's a feeling that permeates the whole experience. For a game that evokes loneliness and oppression through great level and game design, it also has a unique sense of community.
And that is both satisfying and remarkable.
How do you design a system where players help each other across different worlds? Is a high degree of difficulty necessary to create the feeling of a common enemy? These are just some of the questions to be asked.
It may come from an unexpected source, but Dark Souls has a lot to teach modern gaming aside from it's brutal difficulty.