The video game industry has been upended this year by the massive success of an open-world role playing game called Elden Ring. The game sold 12 million copies in its first two weeks, numbers Mark Serrels at CNET described as “ludicrous.” The sales are on pace with the bestselling games of all time, titles like Grand Theft Auto 5, Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption 2.
Elden Ring is not just hugely successful, but a huge creative departure from current game-industry norms. It’s the seventh game in a string of titles by developer From Software, all marked by their thoroughly unconventional gameplay and, especially, their experimental approach to storytelling. They’re obscure, challenging and extremely weird. Serrels puts it succinctly: Elden Ring’s success is “like a David Lynch movie somehow pulling in a billion dollars at the box office.”
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These earlier games, including the Dark Souls series, were often bashed by the broader gaming public for being “too hard.” The sometimes “toxic” community of Souls players met these critiques with disdain, insisting that players alienated by Souls games just needed to “git gud.” Previous Souls games sold respectable but niche numbers, with lifetime totals ranging from 2-6 million copies.
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But over the years, From Software refined the experience, making it slightly more accessible in ways that didn’t compromise the core vision. Now, the entire world is hailing them as geniuses. The success of Elden Ring seems poised to transform not just what kind of video games get made, but the entire philosophy of the video game industry.
Ringing any bells?
Yes, welcome to the most cringey of all op-eds: a labored comparison between the infinite complexity of reality and a piece of pop culture. In this case, between cryptocurrency and Elden Ring.
I'm ashamed to find myself mining such hoary tropes. But the parallels between crypto and the Souls games are hard to turn away from. The two epic projects even launched almost simultaneously, with Bitcoin’s genesis block mined in January of 2009, and the first Souls game, Demon’s Souls, released in Japan in February of 2009.
My main points, though, have to do with creativity, purity of vision, “accessibility” and community. The Souls games, like crypto, arrived and thrived over a period when the creative and ideological bankruptcy of the competition was becoming too obvious to ignore. Bitcoin had the 2008 financial crisis, and later rising anxiety about data harvesting by Web 2 operations, as useful examples of its enemies’ malicious intentions and failed ideas. The Souls games quietly stood athwart the trend towards hyper-slick and user-friendly but lifeless AAA games like Call of Duty and, particularly, mind-numbing and cookie-cutter “open world” games like Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series.
And Elden Ring’s hypersuccess came only after a long and sometimes lonely process of building and experimenting, made possible with the support of a small, dedicated fanbase, in the face of a horde of uncomprehending (dare I say maidenless) critics. And these weren’t people who simply disliked the games and weren’t interested in playing them. They were people who regarded the existence of these games as a threat. Their strangeness was a personal affront, an attack on an entire status-quo worldview.
Again – sound familiar?
In gaming as in crypto, of course, these critics were lashing out from a sense of vulnerability and fear. They sought to expunge what they couldn’t grasp. The clearest example of this is the endless whining from those who wanted the Souls games to add different difficulty modes. But as people have finally figured out with Elden Ring, the Souls games just handle that problem in a fundamentally different way – one that most critics think is a vast improvement over the norm.
This surfeit of fearful ignorance became most painfully obvious after Elden Ring’s success, when a few developers from competing studios took potshots at the game’s design. This included developers who had worked on some of the most creatively bankrupt games of all time – the equivalent of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon calling crypto “worthless” last year.
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That sort of pressure could have led a less self-assured creator than Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki to compromise their vision, perhaps giving us an Elden Ring with the same pointless collectibles and brain-dead tasks that riddle series like Fallout and The Division. Many, many crypto entities and companies are in fact bending to parallel pressures, compromising the core innovations of crypto in an effort to make products “easier to use” and attract huge user bases. In the process, many have made compromises that will ensure their fate as forgettable afterthoughts to the arc of history, rather than its authors.
But other projects, including but not limited to Bitcoin, have instead pursued their own clear vision. They’ve succeeded long-term not by giving the masses what they think they want, but by creating something nobody knew they needed until it appeared. They’ve stubbornly refused to listen to the sane, reasonable objections of people who don’t see the big picture.
That’s not how you create a gigantic hit right out of the gate. But it is how you build a legacy that outlasts your critics.