I recently posted my much-belated review of Dark Souls II. In it, I criticized the game for having lackluster online components, but didn't go into much detail other than to say that Soul Memory seems like a non-optimal matchmaking method and that invasions are rare and reserved for elite players. I wanted to take a moment to go over some of the other complaints that I have with the game's online mechanics, as well as to offer some suggestions for improving them. While it seems unlikely that From will make significant mechanical changes at the fundamental levels that I am about to propose, the fact that there is still at least one more DLC incoming means they have the opportunity to do so.
Putting some challenge back into revivals
Human Effigies were too rare to be
the only means of revival.
When the game initially released, humanity could only be restored by consuming a Human Effigy. This mechanic was an interesting departure, since the previous games had both relied on defeating bosses as the primary way of reviving. The idea of requiring a consumable item to restore humanity wasn't exactly earth-shattering or fundamentally broken, but the specific implementation had one major flaw: Human Effigies were very rare, and there was no way to farm them!
This made deaths feel extremely punitive and proved unpopular with players and critics, and so From reversed their design and went back to granting revivals from boss kills.
Incremental hollowing should be reversed by incremental revival
After the 1.03 patch, maintaining your humanity has become almost trivial. This is mostly due to the fact that the White Soapstone can be placed anywhere in the level (including right outside a boss's fog gate), and that players can use the Small Soapstone to fully restore humanity by spending a couple minutes killing standard enemies. By using the Small Soapstone, you spend a few minutes in another player's world, and killing enemies shortens this duration. At the end, you are sent back to your own world with fully restored health, humanity, item condition, estus, and a small reward (usually a Smooth & Silky Stone).
Revival via the Small Soapstone makes it far too easy to keep your humanity. It requires only a minimal investment of time and effort, and you don't even have to beat a boss to fulfill it. This practically nullifies the cumulative loss of health from hollowing and makes it almost trivial to maintain humanity throughout most of the game.
The Small White Soapstone can be used to easily restore full humanity - sometimes without any effort by the player!
Instead of full restoration, it should provide a partial restoration.
Fixing this imbalance seems easy enough: completing the Small Soapstone task should only partially restore the player's humanity. Instead of a full restore, the player's max HP could be restored equivalent to a single death. This incremental addition makes it harder to revive without committing to killing a boss, and would cause players to have to cope with partial hollowing more often.
In order to further balance the small and full White Soapstones, I also suggest that use of the full White Soapstone should be limited to the vicinity of a bonfire. This would prevent players from simply dropping the summon sign directly outside of a boss's fog gate, and would force the player to commit to going through a whole "level" as a phantom in order to earn their humanity back.
I'm also open to the idea of allowing Shades to be able to gain additional humanity if they defeat an area boss with the host. So laying a small summon sign outside of a boss fog gate, and then killing the boss with the host, could give 2 or 3 deaths' worth of humanity back to the Shade. Just hope that your summon doesn't expire before the boss dies!
Replace Soul Memory with a mechanic that works
We can't go into the important topic of increasing PvP activity without addressing the big elephant in the room: soul memory. In my review, I mentioned that Soul Memory doesn't do what it was intended to do: protect low-level players from being assassinated by elite griefers. The idea was that by tracking all the souls that had been accumulated, matchmaking would only match up players who had made equivalent progress in the game. Sounds like a good idea on paper, but it doesn't work that way in practice.
While it does protect beginner players from being invaded by high-level players, it doesn't do anything to protect poor players who are further into the game. On top of that, co-op play suffers collateral damage. It becomes very hard to manage your Soul Memory and ensure that you'll be able to reliably find co-op partners.
Soul memory can unduly punish
less skilled players!
On top of that, poor players are unduly punished by artificial inflation of Soul Memory. While a skilled player can keep their Soul Memory fairly low and spend every last soul on optimizing character levels, buying consumables, and upgrading equipment, a less-skilled player will likely lose many souls to repeat deaths. But those souls are counted in Soul Memory. Thus, the matchmaking level of the poor player is raised, but he or she is not able to spend any of those souls on improving the character.
One way to improve this would be to make it so that only souls spent are added to Soul Memory. That is, the souls only go into Memory if you use them to level up, buy items, or upgrade equipment. If you lose them to death, they would not go into Memory. This is still not optimal, as it doesn't do anything to slow down the griefers from optimizing their soul usage and decimating players via superior equipment. They could still speed run through the game, spend a bare minimum of souls to meet skill requirements for advanced weapons and armor, and then die at the end of the game or New Game+ in order to lower their Soul Memory.
In order to combat this, I would suggest that Soul Memory be replaced with a Soul Power rating that takes your current character level and the rankings of your equipment into account. Since players can carry unlimited equipment in Dark Souls II, this would need to only take into account the player's best equipment. "Best" equipment can be determined either by the amount invested in upgrading the equipment, or it can be based on equipment's stats (attack power for weapons, defense values for armor). By taking the character and equipment into account, PvP encounters are likely to be much more competitive, since one player shouldn't be able to completely dominate the other unless there is a very wide skill gap between the players themselves.
FROM could implement a ladder system that could take skill into account, but I don't think such a mechanic is necessary.
In any case, Soul Memory needs to change, since it doesn't fulfill its intended purpose, and it only serves to make the game even harder for poor or inexperienced players.
Widening the invasion user base
The lack of PvP play in the first playthrough is (in my opinion) a very major problem with the online component of Dark Souls II. This was also a problem in the first Dark Souls (for many of the same reasons), but it wasn't quite as severe as in the sequel due to the first game being more popular.
The big problems (that I see) with invasion mechanics revolve around the fact that invasions aren't very accessible early in the game, and there aren't proper incentives for players to want to invade to begin with.
Hollowness and Humanity in Dark Souls lore
I think that Demon's Souls had it right when it comes to properly incentivizing invasions. In Demon's Souls, successfully killing an invasion target revived the invader. Essentially, you were "taking the other player's soul" for your own. In Demon's Souls, invading filled a practical role in the game's core mechanics. Why Dark Souls II decided to abandon this philosophy is beyond me.
Crestfallen advice: pillage humanity from another player.
Part of the Dark Souls lore is that taking other creatures' souls helps to slow down the effect of hollowing and enables people to maintain their humanity and sanity. So it would seem to make sense that invading and killing other players in these games should provide humanity. The first Dark Souls got this right by giving "soft" Humanity, which can later be used to revive (assuming that you didn't fail to retrieve your bloodstain). Dark Souls II removed the "soft" Humanity stat, and it only provides items useful for leveling up in a PvP covenant. Invading has no utility whatsoever in Dark Souls II, so the majority of players don't have any reason to do it.
In order to offset this problem, I propose that invasions in Dark Souls II should have benefits akin to the co-op rules outlined above. Put simply: successfully invading and killing the host should award the invader full or partial revivals. Of course, in order to do this, invasions will need to be made possible when the invader is hollow.
If the target was human, then the invader should essentially "steal" that player's humanity. In this case, the invader's humanity should be fully restored upon returning to their world. This would be mechanically the "evil" analogue to defeating a boss as a summoned phantom ally via the White Soapstone.
So if there is an analogue to the full White Soapstone, then it makes sense for there to also be an analogue to the Small Soapstone. I would propose that if the targeted player is hollow, then [thematically] they do not have a humanity to give to the invader. Instead the invader should receive partial restoration of humanity / max HP equivalent to one death. Alternatively, the invader could be awarded with a boost in humanity equivalent to the victim's remaining humanity.
If the invader was already human, then perhaps a different award (such as a Human Effigy) could be provided instead of revival.
With proper incentives, more players outside of the PvP covenants will invade in more areas of the game,
giving more people an opportunity to practice PvP, and giving Blue Sentinels something to do.
As an additional reward, if the host has any summoned allies (including Blue Sentinels and NPC phantoms), then the invader should also be rewarded for killing those players. Since having summoned allies requires that the host be human, we can't offer additional revivals for killing the phantoms, since killing the host will already fully revive the invader. Instead, killing summoned allies could be one way of earning Human Effigies and large amounts of souls.
Finally, as a possible added rule, if the host player dies, but not at the hand of the invader, then the invader should only receive a partial restoration (regardless of whether the host was human or not). So if the host dies of an environmental death (such as by being killed by a standard enemy, falling, or poison effects), then the invader should not be rewarded with a full revival. This would hopefully encourage invaders to play more "cleanly" and engage the host in (relatively) fair personal combat. It would discourage invaders from following weaselly tactics such as running into a horde of powerful enemies to hopefully let those enemies do all the work for them, or simply poisoning the host and running away, or pushing them off a cliff.
These awards would all be in addition to the current covenant rewards for killing other players in PvP.
And as a final bit of clarification, there should not be any significant punishment for a failed invasion, as this would only further push away players who are not already committed to building PvP characters. Being killed while invading (or otherwise failing to kill the target), should not consume the Cracked Red Eye Orb. That way, if you don't kill the target, you can still use that Orb to invade another player.
This would make invading a more efficient way of restoring your humanity (assuming that you can actually kill the victim), since you don't have to go through a whole level and beat a boss.
Making invasions more accessible
Cracked Red Eye orbs are few and far between.
The other major disincentive to invasion (from my perspective) is the lack of accessibility of invasion items. First and foremost, Dark Souls II does not even have a re-useable invasion stone! And Cracked Red Eye Orbs (which are consumed when used) are few and far between unless you join a specific PvP covenant. The first Dark Souls had the same problem (although it did provide a re-useable Red Orb that was available from a PvP covenant NPC), and I am amazed that From didn't see this as an issue and address it in the sequel!
Since the ability to invade is [for all practical purposes] hidden behind a covenant, beyond a difficult mid-game boss, in an optional area of the game, and requires you to already have a Token of Spite, it is a feature of the game that many players simply won't find. Fortunately, the barrier to entry isn't quite as difficult as the first Dark Souls (which required you to beat the Four Kings earlier than you likely normally would, then return to the Abyss to talk to the serpent), but it is still a significant barrier.
Making invasions more easily accessible to all players, with varying soul levels and skill levels, would dramatically boost the pool of players engaging in PvP, and would help to make invasions feel more fair and balanced. Players would encounter a wider range of invader skill levels, rather than just elite players, and so invasions would be more competitive and enjoyable for everyone! Hopefully.
There are a couple ways to accomplish this. For one thing, the game should provide clearer in-game instructions for how invasions work. One major discouraging factor for newbies to try invasions is that many players simply don't understand how the mechanics work, and what the risks and rewards are. You shouldn't have to join a PvP covenant first in order to find out how PvP works, nor should players be reduced to having to look at online wikis and FAQs just to understand a basic mechanic that forms the backbone of the game's novelty and appeal.
Invading Knight Lautrec to retrieve Firelink's Fire Keeper's soul served as a sort of invasion tutorial,
but it was far too late in the game to serve as a teaching tool for most players.
One way to make invasions easier to understand would be to include some kind of invasion tutorial early in the game. The player could encounter an opportunity to fight a scripted invasion against an NPC (similar to the Lautrec invasion from the first Dark Souls, but much earlier in the game). This would help new players to better understand how invasions work, and realize what the rewards and possible penalties are. Of course, this assumes that invasions are given a worthwhile reward! There is a similar NPC invasion in Dark Souls II already, but it's much more esoteric and much less rewarding than Lautrec's encounter was.
Another way to accomplish this would be to add an NPC character very early in the game (possibly available after the player first arrives at Majula) who would help to educate the player regarding invasions. This NPC could sell a limited number of Cracked Red Eye Orbs and other PvP-related items,as well as encourage the player to engage in PvP (by providing a reward for turning in Tokens of Spite), and pointing the player in the direction of one or more of the PvP covenants. As it stands now, the player has to make it to Huntsman's Copse and defeat the difficult (and optional) Chariot Executioner boss in order to unlock the PvP covenant. This seems like an unnecessary hoop to require the player to jump through just to unlock the ability to practically invade.
Maybe even, make invasions necessary!
Another possible approach to broadening the PvP player-base would be to actually make invasions necessary at some points in the game.
Perhaps the Curse status could prevent players from using White Soapstones.
Remember how Demon's Souls used to have the occasional Server Event? Perhaps a similar mechanic could be added to Dark Souls II in order to encourage more online play and PvP. During, say, Halloween, From could have an event that temporarily disables the White Soapstones altogether, making it necessary for players to invade each other if they want to restore their humanity. Other server events could involve adjusting players' sin levels globally; making everyone more sinful (and thus more likely to be invaded by a Blue Sentinel) or forgiving sinful behavior (such as lifting "wretch" status).
There could similarly be bosses or enemies or status effects (curse, perhaps?) that could cause the White Soapstones to not work, again forcing player to invade if they want to restore their humanity. Alternatively, if the player dies often and reaches maximum hollow-ness (i.e. 50% max HP), then perhaps the White Soapstones could be disabled; thus, forcing the hollow to have to invade and kill another player (or burn an Effigy) in order to revive.
Again, using Demon's Souls as an example, there was a boss in Latria called the Old Monk that actually summoned another player in to fight on his behalf as a world boss! If you placed a summon sign anywhere in this world, you have a chance of being summoned by the boss instead. It's a really cool feature! Why doesn't Dark Souls have something like that?! The closest parallels in Dark Souls would be the Forest (DaS), Bell Keeper (DaSII), Rat King (DaSII), and Blue Sentinel (DaSII) covenants, which can summon players to fight in PvP. But these covenants require that the player specifically join them and equip a specific item in order to be eligible for summons. The Old Monk in Demon's Souls could summon any player who lays a summon sign or attempts an invasion anywhere in the Latria world.
The Old Monk in Demon's Souls would "kidnap" a blue or black phantom to fight on his behalf as a world boss!
As far as I know, no such mechanic exists anywhere in either Dark Souls game.
Improving co-op and invasion mechanics improves covenants
In addition to providing more frequent and competitive online play, the suggestions I offered above would also help to make some of the co-op and PvP covenants much more valuable and worth joining!
As it stands, the Way of Blue and Blue Sentinels covenants are practically useless for anybody who isn't in New Game+. There simply aren't enough invasions to make it worth joining either of these counter-invader covenants. By opening up invasions to more players with a wider range of skill levels, players in the Way of Blue and Blue Sentinels will be much more engaged in their respective covenants and would actually have the opportunity to gain levels in those covenants during their first playthrough.
Making invasions more accessible also means that newer players will be more likely to try out the dedicated PvP covenants such as the Brotherhood of Blood.
And if invading other players resulted in the invader becoming "sinful" (as it was in Dark Souls), then the sin and absolvement mechanics would be more relevant, and hunting the sinful via Cracked Blue Eye Orb would actually work! As it stands, this item never works, since the only way to become sinful is to kill a certain number of NPCs.
Cracked Blue Eye Orbs are practically useless due to a lack of "sinners".
Even though the first Dark Souls didn't get its multiplayer features perfect, its covenants all felt much more useful and relevant. There was more activity in the covenants, and their various functions worked much better (although still not as well as they could have).
Miscellanious improvements and corrollary effects
It would also be helpful if multiplayer had some cross-platform compatibility. Having the game available on three different platforms means that each individual platform has a much smaller user base. I don't know the exact usage statistics, but I would imagine that the PC version is probably the most active one (pending a PS4 or XBoxOne release).
In addition to improving some of the covenants, having better online play will also have other effects on the game as a whole.
Seed of a Tree of Giants
There are some items in the game that are geared towards reducing the risk of invasion from phantoms. But since invasions are rare below New Game+, these items feel like they have very limited worth. The Seed of Tree Giants would be made into a much more valuable starting gift if early-game invasions were more common. And having more frequent invasions might mean that players would actually have a reason to burn Human Effigies in bonfires.
But more importantly: getting players more involved in online play and covenants helps to broaden the appeal of the game and give players a greater investment in the game, which makes them more likely to remain active for much longer. Right now, there are a lot of players who get bored or frustrated with the game by the time they reach Huntsman's Copse or the Lost Bastille, and so both co-op and PvP play beyond those points really starts to suffer! Getting players more engaged with the game's advanced features and online play earlier in the game should make them more likely to stick around longer. This will further popularize the game and extend its life, increasing the chance of future DLC that could add new content and challenges for those of us who enjoy the game.
Summary of proposed changes:
- White Soapstone summon changes:
- White Soapstone should should only be usable near bonfires.
- Small White Soapstone should only restore partial Humanity.
- Make invasions more accessible and worthwhile:
- Allow players to use the Cracked Red Eye Orb when hollow.
- Failing to kill the target should not destroy the Cracked Red Eye Orb.
- Successfully invading and killing another player should restore the invader's humanity if hollowed.
- Successfully invading and killing another player while human should provide some additional reward besides the Token of Spite (perhaps a Human Effigy).
- A status effect (curse is a good candidate) should prevent players from using the White Soapstones.
- Add an early-game tutorial for invasions.
- Invasions could also be scripted, for example: Demon's Souls' Old Monk boss.
- Fixing invasion mechanics should also make covenants more worthwhile:
- More invasions improves Way of Blue and Blue Sentinel covenants.
- Invading and killing other players adds to the invader's sin and higher sin gives higher priority for Cracked Blue Eye Orb.
- Widening the player-base for invasions also improves other features and helps to make the game as a whole into a more engaging experience for all players.
What do you think? Would these changes improve Dark Souls II's overall online functionality?