The Making of Dark Souls
Dark Souls is the second game of the Souls series. It is considered by many as one of the greatest games of all time and the best title that represents the full essence of a Souls game.
Dark Souls established the reputation of Hidetaka Miyazaki as a game creator with the highest integrity, quality, and consistency. For the first time, fans, critics, and other game companies took notice of FromSoftware and the games they developed. A faithful following began to emerge, and the word "Souls game" started to have a meaning.
Discover how Dark Souls was created and the development story behind Hidetaka Miyazaki's second masterpiece.
Development Start: June 8, 2009
Official Reveal: Feb 2, 2011
Gameplay Reveal: Jun 7, 2011
Release Date: Sep 22, 2011
Background of Dark Souls
Dark Souls is the game that firmly established the reputation of both Miyazaki and FromSoftware. But to appreciate the full story, we have to begin with the failure of Demon's Souls.
The Failure of Demon's Souls
Demon's Souls was released on Feb 5, 2009, in Japan with disappointing sales. It underperformed and did not meet the financial expectations of Sony, who funded the game and published it in Japan.
For Miyazaki, he had a feeling that this would be the last Fantasy game he would be making for FromSoftware. He lost the chance. He would go back to making games for mecha robots.
Miyazaki: During the period when we just completed development, the evaluation and sales forecast within FromSoftware were not good, so I did not even imagine that I could be given another chance to develop a similar game again.
Knowll Insight: However, this would not stay long, as the western audience began to discover Demon's Souls.
The Success of Demon's Souls
Even though Demon's Souls was released exclusively for Japan, many western critics, players, streamers, and YouTubers imported the game, and it started to have a reputation as one of the hardest games in the PS3.
Through word of mouth, the game spread and soon players were requesting for an official release in the west. Atlus and Bandai Namco grabbed this opportunity, and with that, the sales of Demon's Souls exploded.
Miyazaki: The contrast between how we felt around the time of release and when the game broke the 100,000 sales mark was gigantic.
Where is the Demon's Souls Sequel?
With the success of Demon's Souls, you may ask, where is the sequel? And how does Dark Souls come into this story?
The key to understanding is that the initial failure of Demon's Souls removed any chance of FromSoftware making a sequel within that timeframe. Sony gave up entirely on Demon's Souls and would not even publish it outside Japan. It is only through Atlus and Bandai Namco that the western releases became possible.
Even the Sony president admitted this.
Shuhei Yoshida: For my personal experience playing Demon's Souls, when it was almost final, I spent around two hours playing it, and after all that time, I was still stuck at the beginning of the game. I told myself, "This is crap. This is an unbelievable bad game." So I stopped and put it aside.
We underestimated the quality of Demon's Souls, and to be honest, the media in Japan did the same.
We definitely dropped the ball from a publisher's perspective, including the studio management side. We were not able to grasp the value of the product we were making.
The Birth of Dark Souls
So the main question now is, what was Miyazaki doing between the period when Demon's Souls was considered a failure and when it became a success?
This is where Dark Souls comes into our story.
That period we are referring to above is around eight months, from Feb 2009 (Japan Release) to Oct 2009 (USA Release). Within those eight months, Miyazaki and his team started working on a game that is similar to Demon's Souls. But they would not be able to call it a sequel, as the IP of Demon's Souls belonged to Sony.
With Bandai Namco as their new partner, FromSoftware was creating a new Souls game.
And this new game is what became known as Dark Souls.
Miyazaki: Dark Souls' development began after some time had passed since the release of Demon's Souls. Back then, Demon's Souls wasn't still appreciated in Japan or globally yet. That happened later.
The worldwide release of Demon's Souls happened after. The reviews were being created at the end of the year, and it won some awards, but the development for Dark Souls had already begun by then.
Knowll Insight: Note that when Miyazaki started development for Dark Souls, it was still in the context of a director who failed in his first dark fantasy attempt. So we can say that this is a pure leap of faith in the side of FromSoftware to let him create another game that has the template of the previous "failed" game - extremely challenging, punishing difficulty, obscure game mechanics, implicit storytelling, etc.
And the primary motivation of Miyazaki in pursuing this, at the period when he thought he failed in his first try, is to realize and turn into reality the new ideas he and his team have learned while making Demon's Souls.
Miyazaki: At the start, it was more of the developers wanting to make a sequel, and we were not anticipating many sales for Demon's Souls. We did not want to let the game die, but we could not get more sales. Later on, we began to get really positive feedback, and the mood started to change around us, but never to a "Go! Go! Go!" situation.
We did not expect to have this much fame, and development is expensive, but the positive reviews came, and we were like, "Oh, we get more funding and time to develop!" It was exhilarating! But anyways, we were conservative.
Similar But Not a Sequel
In many interviews explaining the origin of Dark Souls, Miyazaki emphasizes that it is not a sequel. Of course, he should, as the new game is an IP of Bandai Namco, and both companies will go into legal trouble with Sony if he is not clear on this topic.
Miyazaki: Dark Souls isn't a sequel to our previous game, Demon's Souls, by any means. However, it was developed by the same producers and director, and so certain ideologies, ideas, and themes have carried over and are similar. It's an entirely new game with similar concepts.
Knowll Insight: The statement above is the formal and standard answer of Miyazaki when asked about the relation of Dark Souls to Demon's Souls. But in his Japanese interviews, which are more often informal, he shares something like this:
Isomura: Let's begin with the story-focused questions. Is there any connection to Demon's Souls?
Miyazaki: I would get scolded if I would not say no.
Isomura: There are a few people who hint that...
Miyazaki: It must be a coincidence! No, truly, there is no connection. No real connection.
Isomura: The more you keep explaining it, the more it sounds like you are lying!
Origins of the Title - Dark Souls
At the start of product development, Miyazaki wanted the title of the game to be Dark Race. He would not want to use the word Souls anywhere in the title, as that would remind people of Demon's Souls and would only make the explanation harder with regards to whether the new game is a sequel or not. So the title Dark Race solves possible legal issues as well as differentiates the game from its predecessor.
However, Miyazaki soon found out that he could not use Dark Race as it has some racist implications.
While searching for a better title, they started using the code name "Project Dark."
Miyazaki: Initially, before the Tokyo Game Show 2010, I planned to name it "Dark Race." This time, the player has a situation of being cursed, and that guy belongs to Dark Race. However, there was a discussion about the possibility of discriminatory context overseas, and while thinking that might be the case, we only have two days left before the game show.
Knowll Insight: Miyazaki continued searching for a fit title for the new game, and he came up with two candidates - "Dark Lord" and "Dark Ring."
He could not proceed with Dark Lord as someone else already owns its trademark. And with Dark Ring, it has an even worse connotation than Dark Race.
Miyazaki: Dark was confirmed as the title of the Project Dark, and both "Dark Lord" and "Dark Ring" were nominated. We could not get the trademark for Dark Lord, but we did for Dark Ring, so it was decided by then.
However, about the start of the year, we learned that "Dark Ring" means anus. It was said to mean anus in British slang.
Creation of the Dark Souls Prototype
Unlike Demon's Souls, Dark Souls has a well-documented prototype. Miyazaki and the team first created a prototype, before making the whole game. Later on, they reused as much as possible from it, even putting the entire prototype world in an area of the main game.
If you would like to imagine how the prototype of Dark Souls looks like, just visit the Painted World of Ariamis.
Miyazaki: We prepared a lot of concept art for the Painted World. It was actually based on the map we used for the Dark Souls prototype. We worked and spent a lot of effort on this prototype, as it is our means to truly convey our vision for the game, so much that I didn't want it to be wasted and planned to use it in the actual game. However, I could not find a way to fit it in, so in the end, I cheated and placed it in the Painted World.
And if you would like to see and fight the original boss of the Dark Souls prototype, just take a visit to Nito's domain.
Miyazaki: Nito was originally designed and created as the boss of the prototype map, so we gave him a vast range of attacks and effects. We were constantly discussing what color he should be and how he should look.
Miyazaki and Total Direction
It was during the development of Dark Souls that Miyazaki first revealed his concept of Total Direction in game design. If you would like to know more about what it means, read this entry.
To summarize, Total Direction means:
- Miyazaki takes full control of the direction of the game. This includes:
- All text in the game - labels, descriptions, menus
- All names in the game - character, location, armor, and item names
- The story and lore
- Background music and sound effects
- Cut scenes and artwork
- Map and level design
- He takes full accountability in all decisions
- He gives creative freedom to his members
- He promotes synergy in the team
- Still, everything must pass his approval, and he has the final say on the output:
- Character design
- Weapon design
- Armor design
- Boss fights and combat
- He engages the team with philosophical and conceptual discussions to flesh out the game and to align them to his vision
Miyazaki: I am aware that my approach to game direction during product development is a bit different from others. I call it "total direction." It means I get complete control of how a game is created, not only with regards to level design, but also on background music, sound effects, and everything else. I believe that gives it a unique quality.
Honestly, I truly enjoy the game director role because it's like being the total overall designer of a game.
The Tutorial of Dark Souls
Unknown to most people, Dark Souls has a tutorial. However, its tutorial is opposite to what you would typically expect from those of other games. It teaches you the mechanics of the game by throwing you directly at the monsters you will meet in the game. It is one of the reasons why most people could not pass beyond the start of the game, as it actually serves as a filter of whether you will have the fortitude for the game or not.
Miyazaki instructed the team to make the tutorial to be a representative of the actual experience. Hence, its difficulty.
Miyazaki: This may sound strange, but it's pretty common for the tutorial to be the last thing to integrated into a game. It's much easier to create it once you know what needs to be conveyed and how best to explain it to the player. I remember sharing that the Undead Asylum should reflect Dark Soul's dark fantasy aesthetic and just distill it from its purest essence.
We started with the scene of a gloomy basement cell and the stone architecture and then included that cold, sad atmosphere I mentioned earlier. Once we have moved in this direction, the area came together pretty quickly. In many ways, it fits directly in the center of designs we were creating up to that point.
Miyazaki's Sources of Influence
Dark Souls is the first game where Miyazaki became vocal about where he takes his inspirations. If you would like to see how Berserk influenced him, read this entry. If you would like to see all his other sources, read this entry.
Miyazaki: I'm an omnivore when it comes to sources. I consume all kinds of content; it could be a film, a game or a book.
New Game Features of Dark Souls
Dark Souls improves a lot on Demon's Souls. We listed below some of the major enhancements and changes that it introduced.
Among all the activities of a game designer, the map design is Miyazaki's favorite. He had wanted to create a game where the map is continuous and there is minimal loading screen. He was not able to achieve this in Demon's Souls but succeeded in Dark Souls.
Miyazaki: During the later development stage of Demon's Souls, I began to think of creating a vast connected map for a future game, so it was not planned to be adopted for Demon's Souls. And so, during the start of development for Dark Souls, I prepared a plan to implement the vast, seamless map.
Priority on Exploration
As a consequence of creating a mysterious, seamless world, Miyazaki wanted the player to explore it and discover everything inside it. He considers this as one of the differentiators of Dark Souls to the previous game.
Miyazaki: I created the world of Dark Souls completely inter-connected because I would like the player to enjoy discovering the vast world of the game. If you find any place you believe is reachable, please try to get there. Almost all of them are reachable.
One of the main differences between Dark Souls and Demon's Souls is that the first game focused almost entirely on combat and swordsmanship. I want the new game to focus more on the RPG aspects, especially in relation to rewarding player exploration. In fact, collaboration and exploration are the primary concepts for the game.
In Demon's Souls, when a character dies in a location, he revives in the Nexus and has to begin his journey again. In Dark Souls, Miyazaki introduced the concept of Bonfire, to improve the player's experience in completing a stage.
Miyazaki: In Dark Souls, we have included the ability for players to choose their recovery point. Essentially a respawn point. If your character dies, you won't be taken back to the beginning of the level, and as you discover the world, you can carve out your own territory and repeat quests you failed. This is a big difference. It's a mechanic that we want the players to use to plan their approach in the game.
The Bonfire represents many things. It works as a recovery point when the character's health is low, as the Bonfire helps them recover. It also serves as a respawn point. It's quite powerful from a gameplay perspective.
Secondly, the Bonfire serves to share experiences with other players. It's a site where players can come together and communicate, not verbally but emotionally.
Third, it's probably the main place in Dark Souls where users can rest and relax. In this cold, dark world, the Bonfire is a place of warmth, one of the few places in the game that is heartwarming. It conveys this dark fantasy world I'm trying to create.
PvP is already present in Demon's Souls. However, what it lacks is the role-playing aspect of it. In Dark Souls, Miyazaki introduced covenants, so players can role-play when they do PvP.
Miyazaki: The covenant system is quite unique in Dark Souls. As I want the player to enjoy role-playing mechanics in the game, I prepared different kinds of covenants that a player can join. Depending on the covenant a player selects in the game, the enemies in the game will change. This will introduce a lot of role-playing experience in the game.
Dual Wielding Weapons
Dual wielding weapons was first introduced in Dark Souls. For Miyazaki, doing this is a sign of mastery in combat.
Miyazaki: Dual-wielding is an option, but it's considered a difficult choice for new players. The default fighting style is raising a shield in one hand and a weapon in the other. The shield provides a lot of protection and is quite effective.
If you see another player dual-wielding, we want you to think, "Wow! This guy is special!" Dual-wielding is an approach to challenge yourself, but also have lots of downsides and makes the game much harder. If you get into trouble, you might want to go back to your sword and shield.
The Release Week
To get a context of how successful Dark Souls is compared to Demon's Souls, let us compare the first-week earnings of the two games.
Demon's Souls: 39,000 (Japan only)
Dark Souls: 279,567 (Japan only)
In fact, Dark Souls was able to outsell Demon's Souls one-year international sales in just one week in Japan.
Miyazaki: It was truly a big surprise for me because I did not expect the success at all. You could imagine how unpredictable it was for me as I still could not exactly describe it, just saying huge surprise here.
Possible DLC to Dark Souls?
Miyazaki initially shared that they did not have a plan for any DLC for Dark Souls. But there are some rumors. Could it be that there is a hidden Dark Souls expansion?
Miyazaki: Even if there will be a sequel to Dark Souls, it is still uncertain whether I will be selected to get involved in the development since the decision-maker is not me. I better not comment on the uncertainty. If I reveal my unwarranted opinion here, the management may scold me!