Broadly speaking, games today are becoming easier to play. New formats, such as mobile and downloadable titles, are making games more affordable and more accessible. But at least one veteran Japanese game designer doesn’t care to follow the trend.
Hidetaka Miyazaki wants his games to be imposing. He wants players to struggle. He counts on it — relishes it, even. Sure, he wants players to win, but not before they curse him out.
“That’s not to say I don’t want to create a product for the masses, but I want something that will be appreciated by the core,” he says, referring to the most die-hard of gamers.
His approach is elegantly old school but modernly (some may say maddeningly) unconventional.
During a recent interview, the dapper and bespectacled game director arrived in a suit and discussed the joy of making games that celebrate playfulness at its most difficult. Right now, he’s putting the finishing touches on “Bloodborne,” a PlayStation 4 title due to launch in March and one that has a similar brooding spirit to his past games, such as “Demon’s Souls” and “Dark Souls.”
The titles here act as spoilers, and “Bloodborne” is set in a meticulously detailed Victorian world. Shadows give way to cracked, rain-soaked bricks that butt against Gothic buildings with spires that twist into the clouds. It’s a grim, storybook world and one where demonic mutations can descend upon the player in a moment’s notice. In a short 30-minute play session in December, I’m pretty sure I killed off my character every 30 seconds or so.
The struggle to make it through Miyazaki’s “Dark Souls” games is well known, and online death-counters track player casualties. But there’s more at play than brutal obstacles. Sean Velasco, a designer on the independent hit “Shovel Knight,” notes that Miyazaki’s “ability to make every element of the ‘Souls’ games contribute to the themes of challenge and despair is remarkable.”
“Miyazaki drops the players into the game world with little explanation and allows them to explore and make their own mistakes,” Velasco says. “Miyazaki also masterfully shatters the player’s sense of confidence by surprising them constantly with new enemies or twists on what had been previously seen.”
Just as Miyazaki’s games are demanding, so is Miyazaki. He jokes that he’s a perfectionist and that his staff at From Software will likely quit on him in a few years. The pursuit of creating a faultless interactive challenge is not one he takes lightly, and if players don’t consider the action-fantasy epic “Bloodborne” to be downright punishing, he’ll consider it a disappointment.
Crafting a cinema-like experience or a tightly wound linear story isn’t Miyazaki’s goal. They’re not his strengths, he admits through a translator, but neither is delegating the task to someone else. Characters and story are simply “pillars,” just pieces of the architecture that ultimately form a tightly wound gaming structure.
So what, exactly, in his own words, does Miyazaki want to achieve?
“The maximum level of an awesome game experience,” he says, leaning in so his elbows are resting on his knees.
And why, at the age of 40, is this still what drives him?
“I think it’s safe to say that, for all the games I work on, the core common denominator of the DNA hasn’t changed. What I want is for our core users to really get the sense of accomplishment and achievement that comes with overcoming the hardest challenges a game can present. That level of challenge will vary depending on who you’re talking to, but it’s that exhilaration moment. ‘You did it! You overcome a hurdle!’ If they can feel that, I’m happy.”
Or, as Velasco noted, the “Dark Souls” games were flexible enough to remember a player’s decision, even a crucial mistake. The end result? “The player’s despair is his own, but so are his victories, making them all the sweeter.”
Games without Miyazaki’s mix of discovery and adversity simply feel “empty,” adds another developer. “If you haven’t earned the experience, it doesn’t feel special,” says James Silva, currently developing the fantasy action title “Salt and Sanctuary” for the PlayStation 4.
Miyazaki says “Bloodborne” doesn’t represent one specific goal he’s had. Instead, it’s a culmination of all the best parts of past ideas that were left on the cutting room floor, either because of time or technological limitations. He notes that, as he’s getting older, his dream of making games that require multiple years and large teams are a rarity, as the industry is increasingly split between name-brand big-budget titles and small, download-only indies.
“The challenge I have for myself is that I’m 40 right now, and I don’t know how many more types of games that I can work on — games that I can fully develop and release,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about how I can perfect one game. Right now, the question is how many more of these can I actually make with the laundry list of things I wanted to do in our previous games. It’s a challenge for me to figure out what to do in the remaining years I have in my career.”
But for someone who refers to himself repeatedly as a perfectionist, perhaps it’s time to think smaller, to go with more manageable teams that explore different facets of his game design philosophies?
“That’s a really good point,” he says. “I still dream of my dream scenario, which is to have a budget of the highest maximum pinnacle. I think those kinds of opportunities either come once in your lifetime or not at all.
“On the other hand, I see advantages to having a smaller team, a smaller, more conceptual project. Why do I say that? I get down to the details when it comes to direction — the story, the art and everything. I’m a pretty anal person. I tinker with every little thing. In five or 10 years, my guys aren’t going to want to work with me. At that point, maybe it will be smarter for me to work on my own little idea.”
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