Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss Respects You
Tom Mc Shea explores how the recently released Dark Souls DLC avoids the problems so often associated with premium content.
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Dark Souls is defined by its difficulty. Death is an omnipresent threat in Lordran, so there's a sense of exhausted relief when you survive long enough to discover an area full of intriguing secrets and mysterious architecture. But to focus exclusively on the challenge misses the sublime beauty of this incredible experience. It's respect, not difficulty, that has propelled Dark Souls to such a hallowed place. Respect that you have the patience and perseverance to push forward, that a setback won't destroy your motivation. Contrast that respect with the excessive hand-holding found in most modern games, and you can understand why Dark Souls is so beloved. And that contrast is readily apparent in how Dark Souls handles downloadable content.
Respect doesn't often factor in to the publisher/consumer relationship. Entertainment, one of the most sought after resource for the buying public, trumps everything else, which puts game makers in an enviable position. Once they happen upon a formula that tickles the fancy of those with money to burn, developers can rely upon a steady revenue stream by breaking the experience into bite-size pieces and then selling it to their most loyal fans at an inflated price. It's an exploitative method of doing business that puts the financial burden on those who are most invested in the game, and developers have continually pushed to see how far they can take this delivery method without suffering a financial backlash.
Problems arise when extra content shows disrespect for the buying public. Multiplayer maps segment the user base into haves and have-nots, forcing people to shell out extra money if they don't want to spend their hours squaring off against an ever-shrinking pool of competitors. In series such as Call of Duty and Halo, developers have taken maps from older games and then resold them to players when the sequel hits. Charging players for the same content twice highlights the greed that is ever-present in downloadable content, and it's damaging to the long-term health of this relationship.
Story-driven games aren't exempt from this dilemma. In Mass Effect 2, important plot details were buried in downloadable content. If you were invested in this universe and wanted to know the outcome of the unanswered mysteries that surfaced during the adventure, you needed to shell out extra cash. Just playing through all three games in the series left many holes, so those who cared the most were forced to pay even more money to fill in the many blanks. This method is detrimental to players, who are nickeled-and-dimed between releases, and to the story, whose segmentation creates a state of confusion for those who only played the core experience. When developers don't respect their own stories enough to put them above petty cash grabbing, why should players?
There are more examples of how this disrespectful relationship has played out through the years, including season passes that urge you to shell out money for unannounced content and on-disc DLC that makes you pay to unlock content that's already on the disc, and it's clearly becoming a serious problem.
When developers don't respect their own stories enough to put them above petty cash grabbing, why should players?
And on the other side of the spectrum lies Dark Souls. It was originally released last October, but it wasn't until May that From Software announced that new areas would be sold to console owners for a premium price. This content debuted in August in Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition for the PC, which introduced sections hidden from all but the most ardent players, and then littered them with deadly enemies, puzzling secrets, and intense boss fights that challenged even those who had sunk hundreds of hours into the adventure. A couple of months after the PC version hit, Artorias of the Abyss became available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners. For $15, a new world awaited those who had been craving an outlet for their dark fantasies.
Exquisite level design and a bevy of unexpected events propelled Artorias of the Abyss to the heights you would expect from the Souls series, but it's not just the quality of the experience that elevates this content above many of its peers. Dark Souls was able to mitigate the inherent problem of charging more per hour of content than the initial package offers with a few steps that showed that this DLC was borne out of more than just a lust for more money.
Dark Souls, in both its game design and marketing, has a respect for its players that's sadly uncommon. Whereas many developers either detail the extra content months before the main game is complete, or hint strongly that there are premium features down the road, the creators of Dark Souls avoided this folly. As Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki told me in an interview, "If I remember correctly, it was about February or March 2012 when we began working on Artorias in earnest." Instead of fragmenting development early on, devoting prerelease resources to extra content that comes with an extra price, From Software completed Dark Souls before moving on to Artorias of the Abyss.
The form the content takes also differentiates itself from many of its peers. Artorias of the Abyss doesn't artificially segment the user base into niche factions or add crucial story details that illuminate missing plot points. Miyazaki explains, "We produced the original Dark Souls as a sheer stand-alone game the story of which ends in itself and that thought has not been changed. The Artorias of the Abyss version will give another dimension to the lore in the original game and will offer new game play, so I as the creator would like people to play the game but it does not mean that the original Dark Souls was uncompleted."
Dark Souls' story unfolds not through plot details but through lore, and the core game explains (or at least drops hints about) every situation you encounter. Backstory is told through the items you pick up and the way environments are laid out, so the careful observer can understand where Lordran has been and where it's going just by paying attention. Artorias of the Abyss expands on this lore, exploring a character infected by the darkness that's enveloping this land, but because this side story didn't factor into the main adventure, it doesn't feel as if you're missing important details by skipping the DLC. Because of this, Dark Souls doesn't leave you hanging, so desperate to tie up the loose ends that you feel compelled to shell out money for the new areas. Other industry blights, such as premium weapons and armor, are absent in Dark Souls, so there's never the feeling that you're getting a bastardized experience by keeping your wallet shut.
Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss is as uncommon as the game from which it sprung. From Software wasn't desperately trying to keep people from trading in Dark Souls at the used-game shop by adding premium content at a steady stream. It didn't divert resources away from the core development nor repackage areas from a previous game. It didn't segment the user base in damaging ways. Instead, it sold the extra content given to patient PC players to the console audience more than a year after it first hit store shelves, which makes the endeavor feel more like a $15 bonus than an insidious strategy to pad the company's coffers. The relationship between developers and players is a delicate one, and the only way it can thrive long-term is if both sides feel as though they're respected.
Dark Souls isn't the only game that expands the original experience without being disrespectful to the audience. What are some of your favorite examples of extra content that break away from the accepted DLC strategy?