While Darks Souls and the “Soulsborne” genre have long been a staple of the video game world, they never reached the heights we’re seeing from the Elden Ring, which hit 12 million sales in less than a month from its release.
Numbers like this are almost never seen in the video game industry outside of established giants like Call of Duty or much-hyped games like Cyberpunk 2077. But Elden Ring has not only sold as much, it is also rated better than all the others that. Hype and high expectations + actual delivery of a brand new IP.
What I’m wondering now is how the mainstream success of Elden Ring might impact the entire gaming landscape in future projects and what lessons great developers might learn from it. I think there are a few important takeaways.
Exploration for its own sake – This is probably the biggest key of all, the idea that players are not fooled, taken through the main story or side quests, and are free to explore on their own. One could argue that Breath of the Wild or even Skyrim might have done so first, but Elden Ring takes things to a whole other level with a map almost entirely devoid of the Ubisoft-esque icons that have come to be known over the years infected so many open world games.
The key here is to constantly reward players for exploring, not through collectibles, but through unique experiences. Everyone has their own story of how they accidentally wandered into a dungeon in Elden Ring and discovered a terrifying boss that 100 other players might have missed. The loot rewards are there, too, but crafting those unique, surprise encounters is the real reward, leaving players crawling over every inch of the map rather than having a desire to 100% clear a zone by depriving it of symbols and objectives freed .
Don’t be afraid of difficulties – This is related to the map and exploration issue, but evolves beyond that. One reason for all the icons and quest objective lists is that developers might think their average player is weak enough not to figure things out on their own and get frustrated and quit. But Elden Ring proves that you shouldn’t be afraid to challenge players, both in terms of letting them dictate their own course through your play and in terms of the difficulty of the game itself.
While the difficulty debate is sometimes about accessibility, which I still think is important, too often we see games that are afraid of presenting a real challenge to the players. Elden Ring…doesn’t matter. And as such, it’s reminiscent of epic video game moments in the past, when you mastered something particularly challenging and got the accompanying adrenaline rush. I’m having trouble remembering a challenge in a sprawling AAA game not in this genre that did the same. Maybe the Valkyrie Queen in God of War, but she’s few and far between. But Elden Ring is fully of fights that players will remember forever, and they will remember them mostly because they had to die and learn from their mistakes dozens of times before they got it right. But all within a system that never feels explicitly cheap or unfair (though you might yell that to the screen a few times in your deepest moments).
Again, Elden Ring isn’t the first game to tick many of these boxes, and obviously not the first FromSoft game. But Elden Ring is the first game to experience this level of explosive success right from the start, and I have to believe other developers will look up and take notice. These are the lessons I hope you will learn and implement for yourself.
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