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Soulsborne series

On the Branch Gaming

In my recent time playing Dark Souls for On the Branch Gaming, we discussed several ideas for ways that the game could have been improved. I'm not sure if From Soft will be making any more Dark Souls or Bloodborne games (at least not anytime soon), but if they do, here's a list of some things that I'd like to see them improve. At the very least, we can consider this to be a retrospective, "How could they have done it better?" brainstorm, and any other developers who want to try their hand at a Souls-Borne-style game could maybe try these alternative designs out for their games.

This isn't a wishlist of changes that I'd like to see in specific games. I've already done those for each of the Souls games:

Some of these posts (and the ideas presented in them) haven't aged very well, but I do stand by most of the suggestions offered in the above posts. At the very least, they offer perspective on how my own perceptions of the games have evolved over time.

Table of Contents

More informative UI

The UI is something that could definitely use some work. Each game in the series made minor tweaks to the UI - sometimes improving the overall experience, other times seeming to regress to a clunkier interface. But there are some things that probably should have been present, if not in Demon's Souls, then at least by Dark Souls or Dark Souls II. Some of these things seem so obvious that it boggles my brain that nobody at FROMSoft thought of them. Or maybe they were always items near the bottom of the priority list, that the team simply ran out of time to ever implement.

Collection log

Something that persitently bothered me across all the Souls-Borne games was the intrusive item-pickup notification. That giant, black box sitting almost dead in the center of the screen, partially blocking your view of your character and his or her immediate surroundings, did not need to be there. If you pick up an item in the heat of battle, then having to press X to dismiss it could be just enough of a distraction to get you killed.

Dark Souls - item pick-up
While playing Dark Souls with On the Branch Gaming,
I was reminded how distracting the item-pickup notifications are.

Instead of this big notification box, I propose an alternative: put a smaller notification in the corner of the screen somewhere that vanished after a few seconds. Since we don't want to miss knowing what we just picked up, the game should also include an item-collection log in the menu. Heck, it wouldn't even need to be a separate screen, it could just be a sorting option in the existing menu: sort by recently-acquired.

This way, I don't have to have my view of the action blocked by some intrusive notification box, I won't have to distract myself by pushing a button to dismiss said notification, and I'd be free to review my recently-acquired items at my own leisure (and read their item descriptions). This is one thing that the recently-released Nioh got right! That game displayed recently-collected items in the corner of the UI, where it wasn't distracting at all. The inventory of that game could also be easily sorted by "newest". The only limitation of this system was that you would have to search through each category in your inventory to find a specific item that you picked up. Ideally, I would like to have a single screen that just lists all my inventory items so that I could sort through that.

Dark Souls III - weapon sorting
There's no way to sort by acquisition. I'd prefer to see all recently-acquired items in one screen.

More HUD indicators

Another improvement that Nioh made to its Dark Souls-inspired UI is the inclusion of more indicators for various timed effects and other events. For one, Nioh's UI highlights your Amarita (experience) counter gold when you have enough to level up. The stance indicator also shows a timer for the duration of any elemental weapon buffs you may apply to your weapon, and there's a cool-down timer for your guardian spirit / living weapon gauge. I haven't noticed any indicators for the duration of defensive buffs yet, but maybe that's hidden somewhere too.

Nioh - UI timers
One of Nioh's strengths is that its UI has more indicators for buff durations and other effects.

I really wish that the Souls-Borne games had these indicators. All of the games have status indicators under the health bar for when certain effects are active, and Dark Souls II and III included little indicators for weapon durability, but none of the games gave any indication as to how long buffs from spells (such as Magic Weapon), or buffs from items (such as Charcoal Pine Resin), or effects from spells like Seek Guidance or Replenishment would last. Sure, you could experiment to find out how long these effects last, but that's not really practical if you're wondering how long the buff form a consumable item (for which you have very limited supply) might last.

The Souls-Borne games generally have pretty clean UIs, and I definitely don't want them to get cluttered up like an Armored Core UI (another of FROMSoft's IPs). But there are easy enough ways to include some subtle indicators. Weapon buff durations could be displayed with a small, colored meter underneath the weapon's durability, or at the top of the weapon icon. Buffs that affect the character (such as Dark Souls' Green Blossom or Bloodborne's Beast-Blood Pellet) could have a duration indicator similar to those that are provided for status ailments like poison. Alternatively, a little radial timer could be displayed under the character's health bar similar to how The Witcher III displays its character buffs. And it would also be simple and clean for the Soul / Blood Echo counter to include a small gauge for how close the character is to leveling.

Dark Souls III - Profaned Greatsword +2
Profaned Greatsword favors strength,
but then becomes balanced at +2.

Preview equipment upgrade paths

It's hard to know which weapons and equipment you might want to invest your hard-earned upgrades into. This is especially true early in the game, when upgrade materials are few and far between. It can be frustrating to level up your character in one direction, only to find that your favorite weapon (upgraded) scale best with a stat that you didn't prioritize. And you already burnt precious upgrade materials on that weapon! In many cases, it can be pretty easy to guess how a weapon's scaling will end up, but there are some cases (in Dark Souls III, especially) in which the games can throw curve balls.

This can be alleviated if the game would add an extra page to equipment's inventory that shows its full upgrade path, or at the very least, what the weapon would look like when its fully upgraded with each respective reinforcement / infusion.

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Demonstrative tutorial

I've also never really cared for how the Souls games handle their tutorials. It's fine that they incorporate their trademark asynchronous messaging system, but it just doesn't really do much to help the player actually learn how to perform the techniques in question. Telling the player what button to push to parry is one thing, but what the player really needs is some kind of demonstration of the timing required and a chance to practice until they get it right. Souls games don't really do either of those things.

Souls tutorials only tell you the controls. They don't demonstrate the task or provide much opportunity to practice.

In addition to using developer messages to tell the player what buttons to press, FROM Soft could have gone one step further and used character phantoms to actually demonstrate the action. Activating the parry tip, for instance, could show an animation of a character phantom parrying an enemy phantom. By the time of Bloodborne and Dark Souls III, FROM had added the ability to attach a gesture to a message, so it's definitely feasible for them to have attached other animations as well.

In fact, the very first game in the series, Demon's Souls may have done something along these lines. During the tutorial stage, you can see white phantoms walking around the stage and fighting the Vanguard boss. I initially assumed these phantoms were other players playing the tutorial at the same time. But when playing the game in OFFLINE mode, they are still present! This means that they were likely placed there by the developers -- perhaps to help guide the players through the level, and maybe even to provide subtle hints as to how to confront the Vanguard bosses. They don't do anything as useful as demonstrate parry or dodge timings, but they are there. It's a shame that FROM didn't expound on this concept in its future games.

White phantoms guide the player through Demon's Souls' tutorial, even when playing OFFLINE.

Phantoms aren't the only way to provide such demonstrations. The developers could also have perhaps staged the tutorial sequence during part of a large scale battle from which the player is segmented. NPCs and enemies in the background could then be scripted to perform the action(s) being tutorialized in order to give the player an idea what the respective outcome should look like.

But demonstrating the technique isn't necessarily sufficient. The player also needs an opportunity to practice the technique until they can get it right. Often, the Souls tutorials will "tutorialize" a new attack, and then only provide a single, easy-to-kill enemy to practice on. If you fail to execute the move, or if you kill the enemy without having actually attempted the technique, then the player is just out of luck.

Dark Souls III: the Ringed City - Gael's hints
Tutorial messages could have included animated "gestures" demonstrating the task.

It would be nice if the player had a way to respawn the enemies in the tutorial in order to practice a given move. So, for example, if the player fails to parry the undead spearman next to the 2nd floor east gate in the Undead Asylum, and accidentally kills the spearman, then the player should have a way to respawn that enemy in order to try again.

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Left-handed controls

Now, I'm not left-handed, so I probably wouldn't have taken advantage of this particular suggestion. But the whole time I was playing the Souls-Borne games, I just couldn't help but think about how weird it seems that the game doesn't allow for a character to be left-handed. Controls are nearly symmetrical, so it seemed like it wouldn't have been that hard to simply invert the left and right shoulder buttons so that the primary weapon is held in the left hand and a shield is held in the right hand. You can actually do this with a character if you want to, but it would alter the moveset to a point that the character build probably wouldn't be viable.

Dark Souls II - dual wielding
Dark Souls II has a robust dual-wielding system, but still doesn't allow for genuinely left-handed characters.

Dark Souls II introduced a fairly robust dual-wielding system that allowed the character to effectively be ambidextrous, but the player still can't chose to make a genuinely left-handed character.

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Multiplayer and matchmaking

Another thing that I've consistently found frustrating with the Souls games is that they've never quite gotten PvP and multiplayer right. I had proposed the idea back before Dark Souls II that equipment levels should be factored into the PvP matchmaking formula. That was finally implemented in Dark Souls III, but still didn't solve the problem of skill mismatches. While stat and equipment-based formulas can ensure that characters are evenly-matched, no level-matching formula is every going to be able to take player skill into account and eliminate (or even reduce) twinking.

Concede to a PvP matchmaking Ladder

I had, admittedly, already dismissed the idea of a PvP ladder system in Dark Souls II. However, since Dark Souls III did implement the solution that I had proposed, and it didn't work, I'm out of alternative ideas. I still believe that widening the PvP user base by making the PvP mechanics and covenants more accessible is a good place to start, as it would mean there'd be more players with a wider range of skill participating in PvP, which gives everyone more opportunity to practice against players closer to their skill level. But as for ideas on how to make any individual invasion more fair and competitive, I'm pretty much out of ideas.

So pretty much the only solution left would be to just do what every other competitive multiplayer game does, and introduce a competitive ladder system. If it works for StarCraft, DotA, Hearthstone, Madden, Call of Duty, Overwatch, etc., then it should also work in Souls games. Instead of basing PvP matchmaking off of character level, the game should use the player's success rate to determine his or her skill level. All of a player's characters across a given account (PSN, XBoxLive, Steam, etc.) would count towards that player's PvP stats. Winning a certain number of matches within your current ladder would push you up a level on the ladder, and losing too many matches can push a player back down the ladder.

Virtually every other competitive online MP game (from StarCraft to Overwatch) has matchmaking ladders.

So when looking for a PvP competitor, the game should first look at other possible players within your current ladder rank. If none are found, it can then broaden the search to adjacent ladders, and so forth. Character and equipment levels can then be used as a secondary tool for narrowing the list of possible opponents, but with a skill-based ladder system, character level-matching would probably only need to be loosely-enforced (if at all). The ladder restrictions could also possibly be waived in arena combat (i.e. Battle of Stoicism or Hollow Arena). There can maybe even be items similar to the Dried Finger that could allow you to waive your current ladder ranking and allow any player to invade your world if you want the extra risk, challenge, and maybe even a greater reward.

Maintaining the Password Matching ability of Bloodborne and Dark Souls III would also allow friends to be able to play with or against each other (regardless of respective ladder ranking) if they feel so inclined. But, in order to prevent cheating, matches won or lost with Password Matching enabled would probably have to ignored for the purposes of calculating ladder rank.

Bloodborne - Password Matching
Password Matching can be retained so that friends can still do multiplayer with each other.

I think that this system is probably the best possible system. No system will be perfect, and a ladder system would still be vulnerable to people simply creating new user accounts in order to start at the bottom of the ladder if they really want to twink n00bs. But this system has the advantage of prioritizing PvP matches against players who are likely to be at similar skill levels (regardless of their character level or progress in the game). New players and low-skill players will have an opportunity to practice against other new or low-skill players. Elite players will be more likely to be challenged with matches against other high-skill or elite players.

Perhaps there can even be unique equipment or other rewards that can be unlocked by ascending the competitive ladders.

A widening field of cooperators

For co-op, I think the current level-based match-making is fine. A poor player would only be further punished if they were forced to summon only other similarly-unskilled players. However, I think that the game should start by attempting to summon someone at a level closer to your own character. If that fails, then the game should progressively widen the search until a co-op partner is found.

Hypothetically, this could allow for a level 10 player to eventually be matched up with a level 100 NG+ ally if the servers are particularly empty at the time they're both playing. In this case, the game could just scale down the level of the phantom, which is what it currently does for password-matched sessions anyway. At least it means that players who desperately need the help, and who are maybe already drastically over-leveled (or under-leveled) for a particular area would still have a good shot at finding a co-op partner without having to jump through too many hoops.

Dark Souls - if only I had some friends
If there are no co-op partners near your level, the game should progressively widen the search.

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