Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Original, Hardcore RPGs? Nah, Those Won’t Sell!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 18, 2010

Pardon me while I snicker just a little. I don’t mean anything by it.

Sony Regrets Not Publishing Demon’s Souls In North America

“Despite Sony’s close relationship to the game’s production, the company determined Demon’s Souls was too demanding and unusual to connect with Western audiences. Atlus, known for localizing niche Japanese games in North America, acquired the publishing rights.

“Likely to Sony’s surprise, Demon’s Souls went on to receive exceptionally positive reviews, and strong sales for a lightly-marketed game, selling more than 150,000 units in its first month alone.”

Okay. I haven’t played Demon’s Souls. I don’t have a PS3. I’ve read a few reviews and figure that if the day comes that I get a PS3, this will be a game I want to try. Anyway – bottom line, I’m not qualified to comment on the game itself. So I know what I’ve been told – it’s an action RPG known for being punishingly hard… or, as some reviewers call it, “old-school hard.”  Though it’s definitely not “retro” in any way beyond difficulty, it did some weird things with how defeat was handled, etc. It’s just… “different.” It was viewed as being suitable only for a “niche audience.” And hey, in all honesty, I would have probably made the same assessment. It received pretty much nothing by way of marketing in the west, but word-of-mouth and high review scores helped it succeed in spite of all that.

What message does thus tell us, as game developers, and game players? Besides the fact that Atlus should continue to be celebrated for its genius in recognizing the value and appeal of these kinds of games (and will we see a Persona 5?!?!?) and bringing them to our shores?

My take-away, especially after seeing this kind of stuff from GDC this year, and after hearing much the same rhetoric twelve years ago, back when RPGs were a dead-or-dying genre that all the smart money knew to avoid, is this:

The big publishers really don’t know jack about what their audience wants. They really only know what they’ve been successful in selling to them in the past.

This isn’t really a slam against the big publishers. As an indie, I really don’t know for sure what my potential audience wants, either. I have some guesses and requests which I may try and fill, but it’s still a crap shoot. The thing is – I can afford to take the risk. If Frayed Knights fails – ah, well, I’ll hopefully still have my day job. I’ll survive financially, though I may only be making quick & dirty web games after that… But in the meantime, we have the indies like Gareth Fouche, Vince D. Weller, Elder Prince, Steven Peeler, Indinera Falls, Jason Compton, Thomas Riegsecker, Georgina Bensley, and Jeff Vogel  taking chances with games and getting a bit more exploratory with gameplay, setting, and story. There are never guarantees.

While the big money is – to some degree out  of necessity, I feel – fleeing to the safety of well-known, proven designs, this isn’t because of some genius of marketing or oracular vision. This is simply a case of going after the most low-hanging fruit possible. And they’ll continue to miss opportunities that smaller publishers – and the indies – will be able to take advantage of. It’s just how these things work.

But I still have a tough time resisting the urge to snicker. Just a little.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism, Mainstream Games - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Robyrt said,

    Demon’s Souls also benefits from two other factors:

    1. Being the only game in town for those who want high production values and high difficulty in their action games
    2. Critical praise, because game reviewers are even more excited about meaningful difficulty than the rest of us

    But yeah, nobody would have predicted that a punishing game without an existing franchise (as opposed to Mega Man 9, which had profit potential written all over it) would be successful. This is, after all, the era of the Vita-Chamber and the New Super Mario bubble.

  • Demiath said,

    I own Demon’s Souls, have been pretty active in the word-of-mouth process and would say that the game is probably the most important console-only RPG to have been produced in ages.

    All that being said, if I was Sony I might not have published the game either. For all its relative commercial success and underground hype, it’s still pretty much the definition of a “niche” product. Though I’m personally prepared to defend virtually all of From Software’s potentially controversial design choices in Demon’s Souls, I also fully realize that the game is definitely not for everyone. DS always deserved to be published in the West, but since that did happen eventually (at least in the US) I don’t see much reason to complain about how the game was handled by the publishing industry.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that’s why I am trying to keep my snickering to a minimum. As I said in the post… if I was on the board trying to give it a yay/nay decision, just from what I’ve heard *I* might have voted against allocating resources to publishing it. It’s not simply a case of, “Gee, that would have been profitable.” When you have a limited number of producers you can assign out to handling localization, and a limited number of slots in your publishing schedule, you have to make some hard decisions based on opportunity costs.

    And so — yeah, without unlimited manpower and unlimited people, you have to ignore the fruit higher up the trees. Leave ’em to someone else.

    That’s where folks like Atlus comes in. That’s where the indies come in.

    But that’s also why – when I see the mainstream developers once again abandoning certain aspects of RPG-dom for … “streamlining”, I don’t see that as some kind of a cue that they know something we don’t know, or that an audience has really disappeared. If anything, the opposite is true. But they are in the pursuit of the biggest bang for the buck on a very macro scale, and that’s what they are left with.

  • WCG said,

    I know nothing about Demon’s Souls. But I thought Robyrt brought up an interesting point, that game reviewers aren’t exactly typical game-players. I suspect that they play FAR more games than most of us, are much better at games requiring eye-hand coordination and other demanding skills, and are much more likely to use the multi-player features of games.

    True, I’m on the low end of the spectrum on all those things (except, perhaps, in the number of games I try). But I wonder how many game developers work to satisfy the needs of game reviewers, rather than the needs of the average person who buys their game. (Of course, this works the opposite way, too, with games dumbed down in order to appeal to the widest demographic. I’m not going to pretend that any of this is easy for a game developer.)