Over this long weekend I had another go at Bloodborne. I'd tried to play it before and found it really hard to get into — you're very much thrown in at the deep end and left to figure it out. This weekend I took my time and really began to get into it, until I reached the first boss fight... and got stuck.
This prompted me to think about how Bloodborne's design philosophy compares to my own for our game, Talesinger.
Bloodborne follows the same basic design as Dark Souls, with a different IP and slightly different combat mechanics, and like its stablemates, it's an undeniably good game. From Software have carved a substantial niche for themselves with beautifully crafted but punishingly difficult action-RPGs. "Masocore" used to be reserved for platformers, but they've really owned it in the RPG space.
There are three pillars to these games:
- Incredibly tough combat
- Rich, cryptic world lore
- Asynchronous multiplayer
Let's lay out how these complement each other.
The core feature is the tough combat — setting an "are you good enough?" challenge for the player. It's crazy hard but always consistent and predictable enough that the player can learn to overcome every foe, given enough tries. In addition, the game is designed to force you to practice, practice, practice — with deliberately sparse save points, and the risk/reward mechanic of repopulating enemies whenever you save.
The lore serves as a reward for beating those challenges — but critically, there is no exposition. Everything is teased and hinted, tantalizing you with even more secrets to learn. Fallen London serves up its lore in a similar fashion, but gated by grinding challenges rather than hard skills. In both cases it works by raising intriguing questions about the world but never revealing a complete answer; you always have questions.
This motivates players to explore every corner of the game rather than mainline the core plot and call it a day. The open, maze-like structure of the game, with its many optional bosses, also feeds this ambition. It's no coincidence that these games have deep, layered and ambiguous backstories. Story is a key motivator.
The multiplayer elements are very clever — allowing players to summon assistance helps them get over difficult humps, and allowing PvP challenges lets them show off their hard-won skills. The ability to leave messages allows the player community to not only help each other but contribute to the game's lore by leaving tips, fan theories, micro-fan-fiction vignettes or actual spoilers within the game itself. So this feature feeds both of the above motivators: encouraging players to get better and to discover more secrets.
It's beautifully balanced. But this comes at a price.
The design explicitly serves only players who can commit the necessary hours of practice to "get good." The usual RPG stat buffs are present, allowing an unskilled player to make their avatar more powerful, but these require so much grinding that it is faster to learn the hard skills to beat the game instead — and this is how it must be, because beating monsters purely by leveling up would break the elegant design.
I have both a job and a family, however.
This leaves very little time for practicing Bloodborne. I am not part of the target audience of dedicated hardcore gamers. Dark Souls and Bloodborne have successfully drawn many previously casual players into their dedicated fan base, but only those who are willing and able to pay the many hours of commitment that those games demand.
I'm not unusual in being time-poor. Millions of gamers have busy lives and can't spend as much time playing as they would like. More importantly though, there are millions of non-gamers who might enjoy playing, but are alienated by even moderate difficulty and the sort of jargon that I deployed in the design outline above. I've been playing and making games for over 30 years and there is new gaming slang even I don't understand in some genres. (MOBAs are particularly bad for this!)
In fact, for a lot of people, the mere fact that a game's core mechanic is combat is off-putting. And when I think about my favorite RPGs and why I play them, it's rarely because I enjoy killing imaginary monsters; although that can be satisfying, there are many combat games that don't interest me at all. I play for the discovery of new places, new stories. And that is an urge common to fans of books, cinema and games.
So, when we began designing Talesinger, we deliberately structured the game without combat. We're adapting the core loops of an RPG — exploration, upgrading, crafting, customizing — so that they all feed into dialogue choices and character interaction. We actively avoid putting the player under time pressure. It's all about story pressure instead — setting up hard choices for the player to decide what to do, where to go, who to help, how to help them, and why you do it. The design is all about accessibility.
Where Bloodborne makes a virtue of its difficulty and uses story as a motivator to grow the (maso)core of the gaming market, Talesinger is intended to be frictionless and use story as a motivator to expand the reach of the gaming market.
We'll see how that turns out, shall we?