Dark Souls II co-director Yui Tanimura discusses development philosophies and game difficulty

Satisfaction and connections make Dark Souls.

Let’s change the conversation to the things you’ve added and changed to the game. Is there anything along those lines that you’d like to point out?

The biggest thing we prioritized while making Dark Souls II was for it to be a harsher game to play than the one while still providing more freedom to players. And when I speak of freedom, I mean that we tried to make it so that players could more readily spec and grow their characters as they like and go exploring around the game world on a whim. Things like that.

To give you a specific example, we changed up how some of the weapon upgrade systems work for this game. Not only did we make areas like material requirements and post-upgrade properties more transparent this time around, we also made it so you can revert elemental properties and just generally had the material restrictions be more lenient. We also did other things like up the sheer number of weapons you can upgrade overall.

That all makes sense. I definitely remember there being a sort of limit imposed upon how much you could upgrade in the first game because of the scarcity of some of the materials.

For sure, yeah. If you look at the mid-tier weapons this time around, you should find that they’ve become considerably easier to improve. We made it so that there are instances where you can grind certain enemies over and over to get the necessary item drops, so hopefully this means that players will be able to experiment more with the weapons that they want to use than they could before. Of course, you’ll still find restrictions imposed on the best weapons in the game, but yeah.

Could you talk a little more about the changes you made to implement that ability to explore you discussed earlier?

I guess the easiest way to put it is that there’s no one route to the end of the game that’s definitively the best one bar none. It all just depends on the individual player and how they’re equipped and whatnot. We really worked hard to limit the number of story-related choke points so you can just focus on finding a strategic route that’s right for you personally.

But wasn’t the first Dark Souls also more or less like that? The geography in that game was all seamlessly connected and it wasn’t like you inherently couldn’t go where you wanted. Technically the difficulty of certain areas just roped you in to an extent, but still…

Oh yeah, what I mean by freedom in Dark Souls II isn’t that there aren’t some clear-cut routes that are safer than others. But say that you hit an area where your magic isn’t all that useful or if you have low HP, you’re going to have some trouble getting through it. Different players and different characters by extension are going to be better at trudging through some areas than others at different points in time. We made sure that each of the various routes that you can take while playing through the game all have their own plusses and minuses like that.

I can definitely see how it’ll be fun for people to discuss how they’re progressing in the game. One person will argue that going one way is easiest and obviously the way to go, while someone else will vehemently disagree with them.

Indeed. Even internally at From, we’re split in terms of what sort of routes we ourselves prefer to take in the game.

You also mentioned something about making the game “harsher,” I think.

Let me make myself clear about that so nobody gets the wrong idea about what I have in mind. There’s more to raising the difficulty level as a developer than just being out to get the player. The idea behind that sentiment is that we want to imbue players with a sense of responsibility in how they carry themselves during exploration and character building segments. We want them to make an effort to try out different ways of playing as they figure out how to make their way through the game.

Can you give an example of what you mean?

The elemental switching you can do with weapons this time around that I mentioned early is a good example. By enabling players to swap out elements, our hope is that they’ll find out which ones work best for them in different situations and use them accordingly. And then if they fail to make a good decision, they’ll feel the implications of that mistake firsthand.

So basically Dark Souls II is harder on you if you don’t actively try to branch out in your strategies?

Yep, that’s the long and short of it. To give you another example, there’s an item in the game called a “Human Effigy,” which reverts you back to your Human form when you’re Undead. But there’s a catch: there are only a limited number of them that you can acquire within the game. So unless you’re careful about managing when you use them, the later parts of the game could prove to be rather troublesome to clear.

But again, we didn’t implement this system with a purely malicious intent in mind. Like I mentioned before, the point is that we want people to be conscientious about how they play and make do with what they have. That’s the basic message we want to convey when we make players go through those sorts of things.

Speaking of being Undead, when you’re in that state this time around, your health slowly drains with each successive death, right? I’ve seen a lot of people who played the previous game argue that such a move is excessive, but I’d like to hear what your take is on why that feature was introduced.

The biggest reason is that we wanted to more clearly delineate the differences between being alive as a Human and playing as an Undead. In the first Dark Souls game, there really isn’t that much of a practical difference in terms of how you play as a Human versus Undead. But in Dark Souls II, though, we wanted emphasize the fact that being Human is, in fact, superior to remaining Undead and ensure that players endeavored to revert to that state when possible. We noticed that a lot of people simply just preferred staying Undead in the previous game and we tried to make sure that didn’t remain the case in II.

Staying Undead was definitely a valid playing style in the last game, I agree. You couldn’t get invaded by other players and save for the fact that you looked pretty hideous in that state, I’d wager there weren’t really that many downsides to playing that way.

That’s how I feel, too. By making it so that your HP goes down bit by bit the more you die as an Undead, ideally people will therefore actively want to return to their Human form. When you become Human in Dark Souls II, you’re able to battle cooperatively with other players and it’s another way that we try to instill players with that sense of accomplishment we were discussing earlier. Since you can now get invaded in Undead form in this form, I feel there’s a much greater incentive to become Human in this game than what was there in the last game.

Hypothetically speaking, though, couldn’t you potentially end up in real trouble if you manage to run out of Human Effigies before finishing the game?

In that sort of worst case scenario, that could definitely be the case, sure.

Oh wow.

To be certain, we debated amongst ourselves as a team whether to provide a means to assist players in that sort of situation. But if we went about that in an overtly direct manner, we’d risk sacrificing that sense of accomplishment that’s integral to the series, so we decided against implementing anything of the sort in the end.

That being said, we made sure there were contingencies in place to avoid things being completely soul crushing, so if you find yourself in that situation, the game is still designed to be beatable.

Contingencies, huh? Can you explain that a little bit in more concrete terms?

So one simple idea we have that’s in the game is that there are items designed to soften the blow of being permanently Undead. There’s a ring you can equip, for instance, that raises your maximum health.

You could also argue that the way we handle Estus Flasks in Dark Souls II makes things tougher than before since we only give you one at the start of the game and then you have to pick up more one by one as you go about your journey. But on the flip side, to offset that, we made it so that there are also consumable healing items that you can use as well this time around, allowing you to readily compensate for your shortage of Estus.

I see. That way, if you wind up going somewhere that has an enemy giving you trouble, you can still ably take them on as long as you’re good about stocking up on those other healing items.

Yeah. Another way you can mitigate some of the hardships in the game is by joining a covenant called the “Way of the Blue,” which will summon in other players to aid you during invasions. If you choose to burn a Human Effigy at a bonfire, that will also prevent any invaders from entering your game for a limited stretch of time. Those are the sorts of things we have in mind in helping the player not feel excessively overwhelmed when they hit tough spots in the game.

When we’ve shown Dark Souls II off to members of the foreign press, some people have questioned how the game would turn out because of how we changed things like the invasions, thinking we might have taken things too far in how we tuned the difficulty. But the reality is that we ensured there are various safety nets present in the game in some form or another. There are even more beyond the ones I’ve described already, but it’s probably best if I don’t spoil that part of the game more than I already have.

So what you’re saying is that you made sure to balance the difficulty increase with the countermeasures you can take in response?

Exactly. By making it that way, players can come away feeling really pleased with themselves when they manage to achieve something major in the game. That’s what we’re hoping they come away feeling, at least.

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