Niche publisher Atlus USA is known for having a strict policy of printing very limited quantities of their games. This allows them to keep costs down, and it keeps their fanbase in a rabid state wherein they will scoop up any new releases right away, even if they have to wait a year to find time to play it, or have to give blood to afford it. But every so often, when the moon is full, Atlus decides to bless us with additional print runs. The last notable example of this was in 2008, when they did a quiet reissue of three Shin Megami Tensei games on PS2.
But this month saw the publisher jump to action with far greater speed, shipping an emergency second printing of their new PS3 RPG Demon’s Souls just two weeks after its release. This is a win win for everyone. Atlus gets to benefit from fulfilling the extra demand, and we gamers get a better chance at experience the game.
Meanwhile, the fact that the reprinting did not contain any new copies of the Deluxe Edition means that the publisher can keep its status as purveyors of stupid rare collector’s items. If I had to lay out one criticism, it would be that any newcomers will still miss out on the artbook and soundtrack that came as preorder bonuses. While this might be fair, it runs somewhat opposite of other Atlus releases from this year which packaged similar goodies right in the box. If you somehow manage to find a Deluxe Edition in the wild, remember that all you are getting for the extra ten bones is the fancy case and strategy guide (I learned this the hard way, though I do feel that the guide is worth it).
But the point of this post is not to bemoan the loss of treasures, but to celebrate the game’s greater than expected success. Marketing any game is a tricky business. You can say all the right things, and release all the right preview material, and still end up with microscopic sales numbers. Consider that Demon’s Souls is an RPG that every review describes as punishingly difficult, with fairly generic art direction, name and box art, published in the States by a company that does little marketing outside of its voluntary mailing list. Such a release would seemed doomed to obscurity.
At the same time, it is entirely deserving of success, considering that even the most mainstream review sites have had nothing but good things to say about it. In these situations, just about the only thing one can hope for is that word of mouth recommendations actually work toward spreading the good word, which does not always happen. In the case of Demon’s Souls, it very much did.
So what lesson can we take from this turn of events? Was there something that Demon’s Souls did that other hopefuls could strive for? I say yes. I think this is a strong sign that, contrary to conventional belief, gamers will not shy away from hard games, and they will promote and reward quality. The trick is to make the game right, and make it for the right people. There is a difference between being difficult and being cheap, and sometimes the best innovations are the small but powerful tweaks that add important changes to a classic genre, rather than eye catching gimmicks that do not play quite as differently as the back of the box would tell you. Demon’s Souls realizes this, and it was not lost upon its playerbase.
Furthermore, I would argue that this is an example of a game (and the companies behind it) having a solid grasp of how gaming demographics work. We spend a lot of time these days discussing the difference between “casual” and “core” gamers, which is proving to be a poor way to differentiate different tastes. The truth is that a person who has been gaming all their life, who enjoys lots of genres and is aware of even the most obscure releases is not a “core” gamer.
It isn’t that the label is misleading, or that these kinds of gamers are in any way more special. The problem is that I find “core” gamers to be the kind of folks who find casual games as an affront to their tastes, and feel the need to create some sort of label for themselves to establish some sense of superiority to people who subsist on Wii party games and iPhone downloads. These are the people whose purchasing habits do not match up with what they tell you they want out of the industry. This is why a release like Mirror’s Edge was considered a sales failure. EA spent millions to work on the game, believing that the “core” would embrace it, but when push came to shove they were not there.
This is all speculation, but I get the feeling that if they made the game with poorer visuals and a smaller budget, it probably would have sold just as well, because the people who did buy it understood the concept, and would not have minded such compromises.
Demon’s Souls avoids this issue. Since it was created by the fairly small developer From Software, it doesn’t have the most stunning graphics, or a perfect physics engine. None of this stops the game from delivering on its concept, and the people playing it do not mind such rough edges. From Software made their game in such a way that it did not need the same support from the “core” that something like Oblivion counted on, and as a result it can be viewed as a success for satisfying a much smaller segment of the market.
Of course, this is not going to stop juggernauts like EA from trying to shoot for the moon, but I do believe it shows that if other companies play towards the strengths of smaller markets, they will not have to spend themselves to death, and good games will continue to appear in all shapes and sizes.