Difficulty in Demon’s Souls: what we can learn from… behavioural finance?!

This is part 3 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight



Here’s a thought experiment to chew on. In each case, the alternatives are mathematically identical:


Scenario A. You can win a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either winning $2 or winning nothing. Which do you choose?


Scenario B. You can lose a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either losing $2 or losing nothing. Which do you choose?


You would expect these answers to be consistent – someone who chooses the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario A should also choose the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario B. However, this isn’t the case. On average, people will choose the certain gain in Scenario A, but run the risk of the double-sized loss in Scenario B. Why? Because, according to behavioural finance researchers, a loss is felt more acutely than an equally-sized gain (a phenomenon known as loss aversion*), hence the willingness to take the chance of an even greater loss just to avoid the agony of the small one.


Extrapolated to video games, loss aversion could probably explain a lot of player behaviour – abusing save/reload, anyone? It surely must explain why we feel death penalties so keenly, and since death penalties are so inescapable a part of Demon’s Souls, it helps explain why the game’s difficulty is often exaggerated.


Yes, I said “exaggerated”. This does not mean it’s easy; far from it. Even playing an easy class, using a walkthrough, and looking at a map, I died twice in PVE today, while PVP invaders routinely slaughter me. It does mean that the death penalty, loss of unspent souls if you fail to pull off a corpse run, is nowhere near as fearsome as it sounds. Souls might be easily lost, but they’re also easily acquired – co-op is the safest and best way, but even for a low-level character, it is not that hard to farm them. However, loss aversion would exacerbate the harshness that players perceive.


In my case, while having to replay a level does frustrate me, I don’t especially mind the death penalty. While I am very careful on corpse runs, I can shrug off failing and losing my souls for good. Partly, this is because I know, and thus can control for, the game’s mind tricks. Partly, this is because I’ve never lost a truly whopping number of souls – I’m always careful to return to safety and spend my souls whenever I have enough saved up. Appropriately, there’s another technical term relevant to that


* If you’re interested, you can read more e.g. here and here.

Demon’s Souls: Progress, progress, progress

This is part 2 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight


In a game as unforgiving as Demon’s Souls, I have no pride. To me, there is no such thing as a “cheap” or a “cheesy” tactic in Demon’s Souls – either it works or it doesn’t. And in a game this unforgiving, there is no such thing as a “spoiler”. In search of advice, I will watch videos; read forums, walkthroughs, and wikis; gladly bypass trial and error.


It was those forum threads that led me to the Shrine of Storms, a ruined cliffside stronghold, in search of its fabled loot. I wasn’t too worried about the opposition – until then, I’d never met a trash mob I couldn’t handle with my starting spell, Soul Arrow. Sure, I’d be in trouble if tough foes survived the first couple of Soul Arrows and closed into melee range, but they were slow enough for that not to happen very often. The player character’s strength is his/her agility, and I was grateful for it.


The Shrine of Storms loaded up. I advanced. A skeleton sprang to its feet. I lobbed a Soul Arrow. And to my horror, the skeleton rolled at me – as nimbly as I could roll. “YOU HAVE DIED,” the game told me soon afterwards.


Bad enough that the skeletons were strong enough to survive a couple of Soul Arrows, and fast enough to close the distance. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) Bad enough that my rapier was about as effective as poking them with a cotton bud. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) The icing on the cake was that my reliance on magic meant I’d never properly learned the game’s melee combat system, and thus, I had a tendency to panic and button-mash when foes got too close. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says Dune, and in Demon’s Souls, that makes it a player-killer as well. As such, I soon grew used to the aggravation of watching the skeletons turn and swagger away* while “YOU HAVE DIED” burned on my screen.


But I was having too much fun to give up. I practiced my swordplay against the skeletons, ran the level again and again as a blue phantom, discovered to my joy that the Shrine of Storms is in fact a great place for newbies to farm souls. Once, as a blue phantom, I even made it as far as the boss room; the host and I took down 75% of the boss’s life bar, before I discovered the hard way that the boss could hit the ledge where I was standing.


I decided I’d clear out the boss later. I retrieved the sword for which I had originally come, then travelled to other levels. I killed the dragon who had previously tormented me, then took down another boss (via Soul Arrow, which turned the fight into a piece of cake; I understand that boss is a lot more difficult in melee…).


Beating that other boss restored me to body form and allowed me to bring in blue phantoms. And with that, I was ready to return to the Shrine of Storms.  Two blue phantoms and I overpowered the early skeletons, made short work of the level’s sub-boss, pressed on. About halfway through, I lost my first blue phantom to a booby trap; it was me who set off the pressure plate, but the resulting volley of arrows impaled him instead. There was a hairy moment after that, a point-blank fight on a dangerously narrow cliffside path, but with the help of my remaining blue phantom, I made it through. We fought our way to the boss room…


… and promptly died. After seeing how much health I lost to the boss’s first blow, I ran around like a headless chicken and ended up trapped in a corner. On my next two attempts to reach the boss, I didn’t even get that far – both times, I died right before the boss room. The first time, the boss’s “doorman” one-shotted me; the second time, I almost won the swordfight, but “almost” wasn’t good enough.


I think that is the game’s way of telling me I need to try another approach. A buff spell, one that significantly reduces physical damage taken, would be a huge help in the Shrine… and as it happens, I’ve fulfilled one of the two conditions to unlock that spell. I know which level I need to visit to meet the other condition (thanks, Demon’s Souls wiki!), so it’s probably farewell to the Shrine of Storms for now.  But I will return. And when I do, stronger and quicker and better prepared, the boss had better watch out.


* I’m sure it was just their usual walking animation, but at that moment, it felt like a gloating, troll-faced swagger.

Demon’s Souls: Misery loves company


This is part 1 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.


1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight


Last weekend, flush with victory over the first boss of Demon’s Souls, I cheerfully declared, “Much less difficult than I was expecting!” I suspected I’d have to eat those words sooner or later, but hey, they were true at the time.


This weekend, Demon’s Souls fulfilled my expectations. Over the course of a circa two-hour play session, I was repeatedly BBQed by a dragon; made it past the dragon only to be carved to bits by a waiting knight; poisoned; ambushed from behind; and blew most of my precious healing items. What kept this fun rather than frustrating was that for most of this time, I was playing co-op.


While every game is better in co-op, this is doubly so in Demon’s Souls. This is partly due to the usual “many hands make light work” effect, partly because of what a relief it is to see friendly faces, but also partly because the game’s penalty for dying doesn’t always apply in co-op. For background, in Demon’s Souls, you can exist either in “body” or “soul” form. Dying in body form will send you into soul form, and dying in either form will make you drop all your accumulated souls, the game’s titular substitute for currency/EXP. If you die again before retrieving your souls via a corpse run, they’re gone forever.


Co-op works when a “soul” player leaves a marker indicating his/her availability to be summoned by a host, “body” player. The visiting soul will then drop into the host’s world as a blue phantom – and the beauty of playing a blue phantom is that in this form, you don’t lose souls from PvE deaths, making this a great, lower-stress way to explore a new level while building up a nest egg. If you die as a blue phantom, or the host dies (which results in all blue phantoms being booted), no problem – just lay down your marker again and wait for another player in body form to wander past. (I wasn’t the only one to do this, as I ran into the same blue phantom twice.)


I largely played my first few hours (single-player) cautiously, methodically, keeping an eye out for sudden death, and as such, they felt like hours. In contrast, those two hours of co-op flew past, laden as they were with memorable moments.


There were moments of endearing etiquette, when blue phantoms or the host would bow upon arrival.


There were moments bordering on farce, as three “mighty” warriors huddled together, cowering just out of reach of the dragon’s flame, before sprinting for their lives. (As such, this is the most realistic dragon encounter simulator I have played. You can in fact kill the dragon with enough patience, but evidently none of us had a bow with sufficient arrows.)


There were moments of wordless teamwork. Once, our way was blocked by a row of boulder-flinging monsters. The warrior next to me hesitated. And I realised this was a job for my spellcaster: I stepped forward, raised my silver catalyst, and began blasting away to clear our path – just as the third player present emerged from behind the boulder-tossers and caught them between hammer and anvil. This worked both ways – as a weedy spellslinging princeling, I loved having beefy, armoured knights around who could wade into melee and draw fire from me.


There were  moments of high adventure: the host player and I made it past the boulder-throwers and eventually came across the level’s boss, a giant, flame-lobbing spider who blocked the far end of a tunnel. (We lost the other blue phantom somewhere along the way – did he lose sight of us and disconnect in frustration? Did an unseen demon do him in? Did he fall to his death?) It was wonderful to watch the host player at work, shooting arrow after arrow at the boss, rolling left and right to avoid fireballs, taking the odd hit but always managing to heal in time. (As far as I could tell, the host was the one doing the dangerous part of the work – my contribution was limited to lobbing Soul Arrows from the back of the tunnel and hiding whenever a fireball came near me.)


And there was a moment of triumph, when the giant spider finally fell. “THE DEMON WAS DESTROYED” took over my screen, and souls flooded into my possession. I gave the other player the highest possible rating (I hope he/she reciprocated!), and back in my own world, took great pleasure in spending my newly acquired souls on a shield and some skill points. I didn’t push my luck after that in single-player – with that, I logged off for the night.


All in all, I had a great time playing Demon’s Souls co-op. And my advice to anyone scared by the thought of visiting the Kingdom of Boletaria: try it with a group! Safety in numbers might be a relative term in this game, but you’ll also enjoy camaraderie and the spectacle of seeing other brave souls in action. See you on the other side of the fog!

First impressions: Demon’s Souls, Bastion, Half-Minute Hero

Here are some of the games I started recently in lieu of pressing on with The Witcher 2


Demon’s Souls (PS3) – The infamously difficult action-RPG. As at the end of the first level, it’s actually much less difficult than I was expecting – it’s certainly less  frustrating than the opening sections of God Hand or The Witcher 2. It helps that I’m using a walkthrough and playing as the easiest starting class, whose ranged magic attack can OHKO most of the first level’s enemies. This doesn’t mean it’s easy. My magic takes time to lock on and cast, which leaves me vulnerable to being swarmed in close quarters; if you let attacks get past your shield or fail to dodge, you can die in a few solid hits; and if that happens, there’s the loss of time from having to replay swathes of a stage*. The one boss fight that I did was actually really cool: I ran from cover to cover taking pot shots, realised my approach wasn’t working, then pulled my sword and CHARGED! – what a thrill that was.  The online aspects of the game are also nifty – you can see ghostly outlines of other players, which once alerted me to an ambush (the ghost ran past a corner, then raised its sword to attack a foe I hadn’t seen), and touching bloodstains will let you see others’ last moments. I’m not sure how much more time I can spare for this game, but the first few hours were worth it.


* You can unlock shortcuts that allow you to bypass chunks of a level if you have to restart; however, there will still be some need to clear out respawned foes.


Bastion (PC) – Indie isometric action-RPG. I estimate I’m around halfway through, and so far, I’d consider this good but unspectacular. The game’s world is imaginative, colourfully drawn and fleshed out by omnipresent narration. Each stage feels distinct, both from an art and a gameplay perspective – some will involve a fairly long Macguffin hunt, in some you’ll find your Macguffin early but then have to flee a gauntlet of foes, and others steadily ramp up to boss battles. The combat feels fluid, as you alternate use of your shield, your various weapons, and manoeuvre. The difficulty level feels right – the mandatory stages start out reasonably easy (you can up the difficulty if you choose – I haven’t done so) while the optional stages are geared towards players who want a challenge. Yet, and this is very subjective, nothing so far has stood out enough for to consider the game “great”. I’m probably going to reserve this for when I’m too tired to play more involved titles.


Half-Minute Hero (PSP) – Now this is a clever concept. The flagship gameplay mode, “Hero 30”, is an 8-bit RPG boiled down into 30-second stages – level up, shop for better gear, recruit NPC allies, and then head for the boss’s lair! In practice, you’ll need more time than that, which is where one of the game’s key mechanics, paying the Goddess of Time to reset the clock, comes into play. As such, the challenge in each stage revolves around finding the right balance (on the fly!) between grinding, tackling the stage-specific challenges, allocating money between the Goddess, equipment, or other NPCs, and leaving enough time to reach the boss. A few hours in, I like its fast pace, I like its sense of humour, and just as with Recettear and Frozen Synapse, I like its original premise, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel (coming to Europe in October).


Take to the skies with these upcoming indie games: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online

Sometimes, sequels and remakes are exactly what the doctor ordered. In recent weeks, two upcoming air combat-themed indie games have caught my attention: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online.




The further advanced of the two is Carbon GamesAirMech. This is basically a modern remake of one of my childhood favourites, Herzog Zwei:



Never played Herzog Zwei or Brutal Legend, another game it inspired? AirMech is an action/RTS hybrid where you fly about in your plane, purchase units and then transport them to the front, and drop down into robot mode to engage enemies on the ground. But watch out for surface-to-air missiles! Up to four humans or AIs can play at a time, and victory goes to the player whose army can destroy the others’ starting strongholds.


I’ve spent about an hour with various alpha builds of the game, and from a presentation standpoint, it’s already impressively polished. I particularly like its bright, colourful and slightly stylised art – this is how an updated Herzog should  look! The gameplay and interface are still being tweaked – the latest build plays very differently to the one I tried just a couple of weeks ago – but based on what the developers have achieved so far, I’m optimistic that the game can reach its potential. This just cries out for a Stompers of Comps multiplayer AAR, so stay tuned post-release…


Guns of Icarus Online


The other title to catch my eye is Muse Games’ Guns of Icarus Online, a steampunk airship MMO shooter. No actual gameplay in the following trailer, but it does look cool:



Critics were unimpressed with the original Guns of Icarus (which I never played), but the developers have acknowledged that “our ambition outstripped our schedule” for the original game; for the sequel, Muse is apparently better resourced and has benefited from its experience developing other games. While there will be PVP, I’m more interested in the “exploration” promised for the cooperative mode. At this stage there isn’t enough information to judge whether the developers can execute on this vision, but if they can, this could just turn out to be the steampunk airship Pirates! that I’ve been calling for. Worth keeping an eye on.

Could my dream of an open-world science fiction game finally come true? Prey 2

For years, I’ve wanted a really good, Ghost in the Shell-esque game that would let me wander around a futuristic city, gathering clues, wielding gadgets and hunting down evildoers. Now, it seems my wish may be granted: check out Gameshark’s E3 impressions of Prey 2 (published by Bethesda, developed by Human Head), described as a “science fiction, first person Assassin’s Creed” casting you as a bounty hunter in an alien city*. You can view a gameplay video below:



And here is a cinematic trailer:



The gameplay video mostly shows off taking cover and shooting, so I’ll be interested to see how other aspects of the game play out. Will the dialogue be well-written? Will the world be imaginatively designed and interesting to explore? (It doesn’t have to be Fallout 3, but I do expect at least some handcrafted little details.) How will investigation work?


We’ll find out in 2012, when Prey 2 ships.


* I understand this has little in common with the first Prey (a game which I never played, but which doesn’t seem to have left much of a mark) beyond the name.

Section 8: Prejudice – First impressions

Over the weekend, I had the chance to spend a few hours playing Section 8: Prejudice (see here for my “looking forward to…” post in which I mentioned the game), and so far I like it quite a bit. Here are some specific thoughts:


  • The game’s pacing feels about right. It plays quickly enough to have a joyous, madcap feel, and it doesn’t take long to get into the action. Power-armoured soldiers blaze across the map only to be cut down by in a volley from entrenched defenders, while respawning players take a mere 6-7 seconds to drop down from the sky. That said, the game is also just slow enough for me to keep up.


  • I really like how well the game accommodates players like me, who are terrible at the actual running and gunning in shooters. There are plenty of fun things I can do instead – I can indulge my specialty in video games, fortification, by patrolling the base, throwing down turrets in key locations, and repairing defences when necessary. I can equip myself to take out enemy turrets or outposts (which are easier prey than other players…), I can repair teammates’ vehicles, and so on.


  • And on that note, one area where I do seem to have an edge on random online players is teamwork and tactics. In one match, I thought I was the only guy who had ever heard the words “repair”, “fortify”, or “convoy”, and it’s a pain when other players capture an objective and charge off to the next one, only for the enemy to waltz back in and recapture the undefended objective. None of this is surprising, but still…


  • I also like the ability to call down vehicles as a match progresses. Not only are the vehicles themselves – a hover bike, a mech, and the holy of holies, a tank – pretty cool, but saving up for vehicles gives me something to look forward to.


So far, so good…

The joy of playing with other people in Worms Reloaded

While I have been in no great hurry to play single-player Worms Reloaded, the recently-released (August) entry in Team 17’s long-running series,  multiplayer is a different story. Anyone living with me should be able to tell when I’m playing multiplayer Worms, simply by listening to how much delighted laughter rings out from the room. Of course, any game is better in multiplayer (for example, adding other humans turns diplomacy into a key element of the gameplay experience – and Worms is no exception), but there are a couple of factors in particular which stand out for Worms.


First is the slapstick tone of the action in a multiplayer game, as  each player’s worms open up on their foes with bazookas, grenades, and more exotic weapons such as Holy Hand Grenades and flying explosive sheep. Half the fun is when worms blow themselves up with explosive weapons, or conversely pull off utterly implausible shots across the length of the map. Here I think the turn-based nature of the game helps, because it builds up tension – oh no, what could that guy be up to on his turn? He’s lining up a shot… Can he hit? Will he hit? Will he hii— The length of each turn is just right (a minute, give or take). The bloodless but grotesquely exaggerated, Looney Tunes-esque violence is just right: explosive-but-inaccurate weapons have far more potential for comic misuse than precise ones. The colour palette is vivid and cheery (see this screenshot on Giant Bomb). But the humour is conditioned on knowing that there is an actual human being behind every one of those moves. Against the computer player, the tension might still be there, but the game now becomes a straightforward man-against-machine test of skill. Bad AI is when a computer-controlled worm blows itself up; laughter is when another human player’s worm blows itself up.


Second is the way in which multiplayer Worms Reloaded allows players to showcase their imaginations. Players can customise the worms on their team in a variety of ways: names, hats, tombstones, voices. So in a multiplayer match, one of my little pleasures is seeing the theme that everyone has come up with. My worms are named Julius, Brutus, Scipio, and SPQR; wear Hollywood Roman helmets; and proclaim things such as, “Am I not merciful?” (when they miss a shot), “I would rather be first in a village than second in the empire!”, and, when I dawdle too long in taking my turn, “You procrastinate like the Senate!” I’ve seen teams of worms modelled on robots, varieties of cheese, even German generals, with voices to match. And I am eager to see what players could do with some of the other Worms voice sets, such as the cod-Shakespearian (“A donkey, a donkey, my kingdom for a donkey!”).


Now, neither factor is unique to Worms. There are other over-the-top, goofy games out there – that said, while I am sure ones oriented towards multiplayer exist, offhand I can’t think of any. And there are other games that allow players to show off their creativity – I’m thinking of the ability to share families and lots in The Sims 3, plus character customisation in MMOGs.  But combining those two features into something approximating the simple joy of childhood play, plus good nuts-and-bolts gameplay (beyond the scope of this article, but check out the reviews for more details), worked very well for Team 17.


Hmm, maybe I should set aside some time this weekend for some multiplayer Worms…