The catalyst behind Miyazaki and FromSoftware's golden age.
Demon’s Souls is the first game of the Souls series. It is considered the catalyst behind the golden age of FromSoftware under the creative leadership of its best game director, Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Demon’s Souls laid out the foundation and the template that all future Souls games will follow, giving FromSoftware a series of commercial and critical success and making them among the best and most well-known game developers in the Action RPG genre.
Discover how Demon’s Souls was created and the development story behind Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first masterpiece.
- Development Start: 2005
- Official Reveal: Oct 9, 2008
- Release Date - Japan: Feb 5, 2009
- Release Date - North America: Oct 6, 2009
Background of Demon's Souls
Demon’s Souls started the successful journey of FromSoftware in creating the Souls games. But to appreciate the full story, we have to begin with a 30-year-old analyst applying for a new job in FromSoftware, Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Miyazaki has just resigned from his job at Oracle and decided to follow his dreams of creating video games. He had difficulty looking for a job, though, as Japan is not too welcoming to employees switching careers. But Miyazaki persevered and got an interview with FromSoftware. With luck on his side, he passed the interview and got hired as a game planner for Armored Core: Last Raven.
Miyazaki was dedicated, and FromSoftware was impressed. He got promoted to his next project, Armored Core 4, and became a game director. He continued working with passion and determination, and he was given afterward another project to direct, Armored Core for Answer.
Miyazaki: I began as the lead planner on the Armored Core 4 game but became the director in the middle of the prototyping stage. As the game’s lead planner, I was in charge of the story, setting, design, and game systems. One of the more unique features I worked on was the Quick Boost mechanic.
Sony Enters the Story - A Collaboration
It is in this stage of our story that Sony enters the scene. From 2004 to 2006, the Elder Scrolls series are very popular. And Sony wants to create something similar.
Sony wants a new game to match the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and aims to collaborate with FromSoftware in creating this new title.
Miyazaki: Yes, at the time, the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was truly a big deal, and I believe SCE wanted a game similar to that.
Sony approached FromSoftware due to its history in making the King’s Field games. They envisioned creating the newest version of King’s Field as a contender against Elder Scrolls.
Sakurai: I’ve always loved FromSoftware’s games such as “Kingsfield” and “Armored Core.” When I happened to talk with them about “Kingsfield,” I talked about something like, “Wouldn’t you make the latest Kingsfield?” So, it was decided that “Would you like to make it together?”
Knowll Insight: Note that when these discussions were happening, Miyazaki was working as the director for Armored Core for Answer. When Sony and FromSoftware agreed on making a new game, the director was not Miyazaki.
The output of this collaboration is what will be known as Demon’s Souls.
Demon’s Souls - The Collaboration Goes into Trouble
So the two companies agreed to create a game that would match the latest Elder Scrolls entry. However, as early as the prototyping stage, difficulties beset the development team. The problems were too much that there was even a chance of the game being canceled.
The original director and his team were trying their best to make it as similar to Oblivion as possible.
It was at this stage that Miyazaki entered the picture. While working as the director for Armored Core for Answer, he learned about this other project in FromSoftware that was struggling and beset with various issues. It was considered a failed project, but it interested him. And that’s because it is a fantasy game, his favorite genre.
Could this be the opportunity he had been waiting for?
Miyazaki: I’d worked exclusively on Armored Core titles in my role at From Software. But I’d always wanted to make a dark fantasy game that drew on the Fighting Fantasy series of books. The Demon’s Souls project was that opening that I’d always been waiting for.
Knowll Insight: With three projects under his belt and two of them being as a director, Miyazaki grabbed the opportunity. He didn’t care if the project was failing or not, as long as he could direct it and steer it to his own visions.
Miyazaki: Demon’s Souls was not doing well. The project had issues, and the team had been unable to make a compelling prototype. But when I learned that it was a fantasy-action role-playing game, I was thrilled. I realized if I could find a way to take control of the game, I could make it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if ever my ideas fail, nobody would care as it was already a failure.
Knowll Insight: So, the original director got pulled, and though Miyazaki was already working on the Armored Core game as a director, he got the directorial position in Demon’s Souls. This is not the last time he will be working simultaneously as the director for two games. In fact, it will become a trend for all the Souls games.
Miyazaki: When Demon’s Souls was in the early stages of planning and was about to enter the prototyping phase, I joined as the director. It was a completely different and challenging project at that time compared to what it ended up becoming.
Miyazaki Saves Demon’s Souls
After Miyazaki took control of the project as the director, he introduced changes to save the game and steer the development team in the right direction.
The first major thing he changed is the goal of making an Oblivion clone, and he expressed this intent through the change of the game’s camera perspective. He is slowly and gradually starting to create the blueprint that will become known as a Souls game.
Miyazaki: One thing I recall was that the camera perspective was entirely different.
At the time, the approach was to make it first-person, or to be specific, a game in which you can switch between first and third-person camera.
Personally, though, I didn’t believe we could compete by taking the same approach as Oblivion, so I wanted to shift the focus to gameplay elements like combat and exploration. I had to do a lot to convince everyone that a third-person perspective was the best way to go.
Knowll Insight: By just changing the camera perspective, Miyazaki was able to influence the direction of the game and what it needed to focus on.
Miyazaki: I began by explaining the direction of the game. I just shared the focus on combat and exploration, and in order to facilitate those, I knew that a locked third-person perspective was the best way to go, so I explained my logic.
Whether you consider the environment design, the object and enemy placement, or the back-and-forth action in combat, I knew we couldn’t achieve our best unless the camera perspective was fixed. Even considering the multiplayer elements and other aspects of gameplay, I felt that a third-person perspective was best. I shared a lot of stuff like that and whatever came to my mind to convince them.
Finding the Essence of Demon’s Souls
More importantly, Miyazaki gave the game and the team working on it a unified vision of what the game is all about, the essence of Demon’s Souls.
Miyazaki: The first thing I thought about when developing this game was to recreate the classic RPG with modern technology. As I shared earlier, I would like to express the fun and joy we felt in the old games, such as discovery, the joy of thinking, and a sense of accomplishment, on the latest platform called the PS3.
For Demon’s Souls, I want the player to experience that he is suddenly thrown out into a world that he didn’t know. I want him to sense that feeling of “Oh, what should I do next?” All of my favorite old games were like that. It’s like an atmosphere of “I’m going to do this, but is it okay?”
For example, after acquiring a ship in an RPG game, can I say that it’s close to the feeling of “Hey, this can go anywhere!” And there is the excitement of going to a strange island and getting killed on the road. I wanted that kind of adventure.
The Birth of the Souls Game
Once Miyazaki had decided and articulated the essence of Demon’s Souls, he has inadvertently given birth to the concept of the Souls game.
The moment Miyazaki used the words challenge, difficulty, and accomplishment in the same sentence, he had made his winning template for all his future games.
Miyazaki: Making the game “difficult” was never the goal. What we primarily aimed for is to provide a sense of accomplishment. We understood that having high difficulty is just one way to provide an intense feeling of accomplishment through preparing strategies, overcoming obstacles, and discovering new things. Our goal of providing a sense of accomplishment has been the foundation of the game since we started the development, and it is something we never strayed from.
Knowll Insight: Though Miyazaki would repeatedly share that “difficulty” was never the goal, it was the main attribute that Demon’s Souls, and the rest of the Souls game, will become famous for.
Death gained a new meaning for Miyazaki’s Demon’s Souls. It became a means for the player to learn, adapt, and overcome the challenges presented in the game. And from this comes the exhilarating feeling that most Souls players are familiar with, that sense of accomplishment.
Miyazaki: I thought that failure was a necessary element in order to enjoy a strategy and get a sense of achievement when it succeeded. The most obvious form was “Death,” which was adopted by Demon’s Souls. So, in the first design, it was written as “Character is lost if he dies in the soul body (when I die, I lose my body)” (laughs). I was thinking about a game design with “death” in mind.
Knowll Insight: However, as this is the first Souls game, and it has never been done before and is still unproven, there is a high risk that the deaths in the game will be misunderstood as extremely frustrating.
In fact, Miyazaki and his team were very worried that they had made Demon’s Souls so difficult that they hid this information from Sony.
Miyazaki: Honestly, we didn’t really mention that aspect of the game when we did the presentations to Sony. We knew that members of the publisher would feel that way and that they would ask us to change it. So during the product concept presentation, I didn’t talk about it much. Of course, I informed our producer at Sony, but he actually agreed with me. He thought that if we were too upfront about all the death, about this new game concept, with the marketing people, they would have run a mile. So that’s why we had to be a bit sneaky about it.
Features of Demon’s Souls
Now that Miyazaki had rallied the team and given them a vision they could all march to, it was time that he proceed with the creation of the remaining parts of a Souls game. This section will focus on the features that Miyazaki introduced and have become a staple in all the Souls games.
Challenge and Accomplishment
We have already discussed above that the essence of a Souls game is challenge and accomplishment. For most players, these two factors manifest as difficulty. The more difficult a game is, the higher the sense of achievement.
Miyazaki: You need to experience the game to appreciate the approach. It has none of the great graphics that are shown today on high-spec games, no massive combos with impressive special effects. Demon’s Souls’ greatest asset is the experience, and that can only be experienced to be appreciated.
Death as Learning
Miyazaki believes that the ultimate manifestation of failure in the game is death. And for every death, there is a learning opportunity.
Miyazaki: If you think carefully, you can win. I want you to do one thing at a time, to discover and win.
It is not a game in which you die a lot, but an experience that keeps you very aware of your surroundings and tests your knowledge of its contents and system constantly.
In the game, armor and weapons are not made for showing off but for their stats and usefulness. We really wanted players to focus on that part of the game, to feel the joy of having defeated challenges because they made the right choices. But to get to this point, you need failures, failures from which you learn.
For a game to succeed in using death as the major way of teaching players, it has to be fair, or else it will cause frustration.
Miyazaki: If you are knocked down, I want you to fall because of the player. Otherwise, the player will not think about growing or strategizing. It’s unreasonable to die because of a game or system. It’s also not good to win probabilistically. I try not to be something like, “You can win if you do it over and over.” If you don’t point out as a game that “It’s your fault, it’s your fault,” it’s challenging to operate, it’s unreasonable, or it’s one-hundredth of a critical hit. It is a little different. I care about that. This is an ingenious part so that even if you are knocked down, you can do it again and again without breaking your heart.
Death is Your Fault
With the game perceived as fair by the player, it is only inevitable that the player will accept that his failure in the game is his own fault.
Miyazaki: It’s not good if the player simply becomes uncomfortable when they die. If you die, you will have to receive it as “your fault.”
In terms of consideration, I was also very concerned about operability. If you die due to a mistake in the operation or how to operate it, you will be frustrated, and you will lose your motivation. For me, I wanted to move the player’s thoughts in the direction of “I was terrible because I was doing it badly.”
Death Penalty - Dropping Your Souls
One of the new mechanics is where the player loses his souls, the main currency of the game, if he dies twice before reaching his bloodstain. Many players find this frustrating, but Miyazaki believes it adds to the integrity of the game.
Miyazaki: The nature of the bloodstain was discussed many times during development. We understood the frustration that players have experienced, but the primary reason we settled on this mechanic is that if the dropped souls could be regained anytime, there would be no suspense or a sense of accomplishment. We want players to feel like, “I can’t die until I get all those souls back,” or “I did it! I made it to my bloodstain!”
This ties back into my previous answer, but the element of failure, the fact that you can lose lots of souls when you die, was necessary to give players that sense of accomplishment.
Game Currency - Souls
In the game, the experience points and money are combined into one currency called the “soul.”
Miyazaki: I combined the two to keep things simpler and better.
The narration style of the Souls games is evident as early as Demon’s Souls. The player has to find out for himself what the story is all about.
Miyazaki: I don’t explain anything in the game because I think there is no choice but to push it, and the intent of this game is to have you solve it yourself.
Kajii: Our approach was really to try to sidestep a preset narrative. There is no real story unfolding in front of you. Instead, the experience is all about you and the choices you’re making step by step. In a sense, I feel like the game returns to the approach of early video games where you’re anxious at every step. You feel as if death and failure are watching over your shoulder all the time, but that is tempered by the sense of intense joy when you surpass a challenge. Those very human feelings are what we wanted to explore in Demon’s Souls, and that’s where the fun lies.
Demon’s Souls and all the Souls games after it do not have maps. For players who have been spoilt by other games, this is unusual and could be frustrating.
Miyazaki: I wanted to find and remember the map by myself. Even if you don’t know it at first, it will become a place where you know. That feeling is precious, after all.
In a way, it is similar to the old games. If you are struggling with the absence of a map, it will soon become a familiar place. If you dive into the dungeon over and over again, you will remember that this is the way. I think that feeling is a sense of accomplishment.
For a game that is reliant on death as learning, having static levels is crucial. Even if the level is not viewed as fair by the players, since it is static, there is no more surprise or unfairness involved. Any future deaths are “your fault.”
Levels in Demon’s Souls are all static, meaning you can repeat it as many times as you want, and it will still be the same.
Miyazaki: I wanted to make a system that makes learning easier. For example, the placement of enemies is fixed as a result of a game design that allows you to experience a sense of achievement by learning to die. In other words, even if you die and lose all your soul, you will be able to clear it when you try again by remembering the enemy’s placement.
Brilliant Level Design
One characteristic of all Souls games is the excellent level design. These levels are all hand-crafted by Miyazaki and his team. They were designed to extract the maximum challenge and accomplishment. Miyazaki shares below how long it took to develop the levels in Demon’s Souls.
Miyazaki: Counting from the earliest stage of development, materializing the visions I had in my mind for each world, it took a little over two years to create. After I had a firm grasp of the settings inside my head, I’d say it took about a year to go from the detailed artwork and level design work to the final product.
Warning - Death Ahead
In addition to being fixed and static, the levels in the game use a sense of warning to the players through visual cues or sound. If you can hear a monster grunting, it is most probably hidden and waiting to pounce when you walk near it.
Miyazaki: In the game, there will be hints on some places where players will most likely die. I tried to design the map so that I could hint at something suspicious. Also, the usage of blood marks and messages can help players avoid sudden traps and unexpected deaths.
Epic Boss Fights
Demon’s Souls is famous for its difficulty primarily because of its boss fights. It is not uncommon for a player to spend several nights fighting the same boss and getting walled.
These bosses are a delight to battle, though, and the reward is an incomparable sense of achievement.
Miyazaki: When designing the bosses, I made sure that they would be varied and exciting. I prepared various gameplay and strategies for each one so that players don’t get tired of the same fight every time. We wanted to surprise players and encourage them to prepare different tactics and to think on their feet.
Each boss has a concept that can be expressed very simply. The Maneater, for instance, can be summed up by saying, “there’s another enemy.”
Online - Low Communication Load
Miyazaki believes that most games now are extremely heavy in multiplayer. He does not prefer creating games where players can just meet up in the game and plow through the story and challenges.
Miyazaki: I felt that the existing online games have a high communication load, and that is a barrier that I can’t enjoy. In a word, it’s a “troublesome” story.
I explained to SCE, “If the online play so far is a phone call, what we want to do is email.” The communication load is less if you communicate by email than if you speak directly. I was aiming for that.
Online - Blood Stains
Demon’s Souls introduced the feature where if a player dies, he will leave a bloodstain that can be viewed by others if they are online. Miyazaki shares that he finds them delightful.
Miyazaki: Speaking of bloodstains and messages, I think that the system worked almost as expected. I myself play Demon’s Souls at home, but if there are blood spots in the place I am in, I’m happy and can’t help it. I enjoy watching the last actions of the player.
Online - Invasions
One of the amazing things you will experience while playing a Souls game online is when you get invaded. Miyazaki shares that it adds a lot to the role-playing experience. You will typically spend some time hunting or avoiding this invader that will try to kill your character.
Miyazaki: My image was that both role-played each other’s enemies. I thought that it would be best if there happened to be a smart enemy, and it was actually a player!
Regarding the point of starting from searching for each other, there was a desire to fight strategically using a full map, so it is a part that was intentionally included.
Online - Boss Becomes You
Demon Souls is the first Souls game to introduce the feature where a player can become the boss. This will not be repeated again until Dark Souls III.
Miyazaki: I had a lot of trouble, but I’m glad I was able to include it in the game. That’s the excitement of being suddenly called a boss, and I don’t know what happened at first. Suddenly, you are summoned to an unknown place, and you have a strange thing on your head (laughs).
Miyazaki shares that Demon’s Souls is, in essence, a single-player game. Everything they are adding to the online is aimed to enhance the single-player experience.
Miyazaki: If anything, the intention of wanting to use the network as a “tool to make single play RPG more interesting” and to give various stimuli to single play RPG is greater. The fun that Demon’s Souls aims for is just the fun of a single-play RPG, and it is positioned as one of the elements that emerged from the pillar of the networking plan for cooperative play and hostile play.
The Official Reveal
Now that we have covered the new features of Demon’s Souls, we can continue the story of its making. The game has been developed, and they are about to do the first public reveal.
Unlike the later Souls games, Demon’s Souls’ official reveal and gameplay reveal happened at the same time. In the future, they will always be separate events, typically with several months in between.
Demon’s Souls at the Tokyo Game Show
Miyazaki and the team had a high expectation of Demon’s Soul’s reveal at the Tokyo Game Show. This is only natural for any game development team sharing their hard-worked game with the fans for the first time.
However, the result was not as expected. It was a disaster. The game looked familiar to the players, but its behavior was different from what they expected. The controls of the game are different, the combat is deliberate and methodical, and the difficulty is unforgiving. If you are coming from a different action RPG, you would think Demon’s Souls is clunky.
To get a context of what happened in the TGS 2008, look at some of the games that appeared with Demon’s Souls:
- Prince of Persia
- Halo 3
Compared to these games, Demon’s Souls would surely feel slow and clunky. Remember, the word Souls game does not have a meaning to anyone at that time.
Kajii: When we first demoed Demon’s Souls at the Tokyo Game Show, it was nothing short of a disaster. Players were initially excited about the concept of a dark fantasy game, but they were so critical of the gameplay. Many people presumed we were still iterating on the combat at that stage of development, despite it being nearly finished! The truth is that Demon’s Souls is not well suited to previews, particularly at shows.
You can’t possibly understand its approach in five minutes. Because of the action-RPG style, people simply expected it to handle in the same way as Sengoku Musou. When it didn’t, they were left disoriented. This perception was aggravated by the fact that the controls aren’t based on any familiar scheme. Only a handful of players finished the demo. Some even put the controller down at the character creation screen, which was particularly disheartening.
Knowll Insight: Back at the headquarters, Miyazaki and the development team were worried. Were they wrong in the approach they took for Demon’s Souls? Would Sony make them change the game?
Miyazaki: We were sure we went too far in this. The team kept waiting for Sony to tell us to rethink our approach, but that instruction never came.
Kajii: Here at Sony, we aim to deliver games that touch the broadest possible audience, so there was a critical decision to be made. Do we ask FromSoftware to make the game more accessible, or do we let them pursue the creative road they have set for this project? Of course, we chose the latter, and fortunately, it was the right choice.
But the decision was not entirely a selfless one. In truth, we could allow the project such creative freedom thanks to fortunate timing and release schedules. In that context, we were lucky. This is not the kind of title that companies can generally afford to create without a perfect alignment of the right timing, skilled individuals, and management’s willingness to take risks.
The theme of risk permeates the game itself, where players are constantly challenged, and the stakes are continuously raised. Initially, the plan was to have the game feature permadeath, where the death of a character would result in the save file being erased. Of course, we all agreed that we probably went too far with that. But it shows the lengths we went in exploring the meaning and mechanisms of death in the game while tuning that rewarding feeling the game was supposed to provide.
The Release Week
Miyazaki and his team continued with the development of the game without altering any of its features, and finally, the release day for Japan came.
As expected by now, the game did not do well. It underperformed and did not meet its financial expectations of Sony.
It sold only around 20,000 plus copies, which is much less than Sony had hoped.
Kajii: Initially, sales were poor. We sold between 20-30,000 copies in Japan in the first week, and as the first feedback we had during development from TGS was not so good, we were really disappointed and worried that the project would fail. As a developer, you immediately slip into a new mode of thinking, wondering if things would have been different if we’d focused on different features. It was a hard time.
Knowll Insight: Miyazaki, of course, was downhearted. This is the kind of game he wanted to do the most. If there is a game he was eager to succeed, it is Demon’s Souls.
Miyazaki: During the period when we had 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.
Sony Drops the Ball
Even the president of Sony believes that the game is terrible. He disliked the game so much that he would not let it be published by Sony outside of Japan. He believes that it is a failure and will not earn any profit.
Shuhei Yoshida: In 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 unbelievably 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.
Demon’s Souls Ascends
Like the Phoenix, Demon’s Souls will ascend, though.
The West Discovers Demon’s Souls
And it all happened because of a small group of western video game streamers and Youtubers. Even though the game was released exclusively for Japan only, a few players and streamers imported the game, and Demon’s Souls started to have a reputation in the western gaming community for its punishing difficulty and gained a cult following.
Reviews started to pour out, and the general reception was very positive. Critics loved it for what it is - a demanding game for serious players.
A Worldwide Release
Players who heard about it became curious and wanted to experience it for themselves. Through word of mouth, the game spread, and soon players were requesting 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.
Rumor of a Sequel
With the success of Demon’s Souls, fans were wondering if there will be a sequel to it, or maybe, a spiritual sequel, in case Sony is not interested in a second collaboration.
Miyazaki: I’m just an employee of the development company, so I can’t directly share whether there will be a sequel to Demon’s Souls. However, my personal opinion is that we learned many things during the creation of Demon’s Souls, and there were many things that we couldn’t do the first time, so I would welcome the opportunity to create an even better game in a similar style if the chance arises.
First Week Sales Comparison:
- Demon’s Souls: 39,000 (Japan Only)
- Dark Souls: 279,567 (Japan Only)
- Dark Souls II: 261,147 (Japan Only)
- Bloodborne: 731,407
- Dark Souls III: 1.13 million
- Sekiro: 1.5 million
Sales Trend Comparison:
- Demon’s Souls in 10 years: 1.83 million
- Dark Souls in 18 months: 2.37 million
- Dark Souls II in 12 months: 2.5 million
- Bloodborne in 1 month: 1 million
- Dark Souls III in 3 months: 3 million
- Sekiro in 3 months: 3.8 million
- Elden Ring in 3 weeks: 12 million