Elden Ring
Image: FromSoftware

Elden Ring is a triumphant success. It’s also a lightning rod for controversy.

Protocol Entertainment

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re discussing the polarizing and pervasive success of Elden Ring and how it’s tearing apart critic, developer and player circles alike, as well as walking you through what to read, watch and play this weekend.

Unpacking Elden Ring’s game industry takeover

Over the past two weeks, I’ve poured more than two full days’ worth of my free time into Elden Ring, the new open-world action RPG from Dark Souls developer FromSoftware. By some estimates, I’m about halfway done.

When I’m not playing Elden Ring, I’m thinking about playing Elden Ring. I’m reading about the game, poring over wiki entries on secret swords and tucked-away side quests. I’m watching snippets of the game on Instagram and TikTok and discussing it with friends in Discord and Slack. I’m planning my social life around play sessions, to the point of mild concern. I’ve not been enthralled by a video game like this in years.

Elden Ring is a triumphant success. I’m far from alone in my obsession. In fact, Elden Ring is proving that the right combination of forward-thinking game design and tried-and-true mechanics can push what many considered a niche genre of ultra-difficult action games into the industry limelight.

  • The game ranks in the top five most-played games on Steam by concurrent players, and it’s the only single-player game among the group. (Elden Ring has multiplayer, but only in short, opt-in bursts.) It also ranks as the 31st best-reviewed game in the history of Metacritic.
  • While sales numbers aren’t out yet, early data from U.K. retail trackers indicates Elden Ring is the fastest-selling FromSoftware game by a mile. Data from Steam tracker SteamSpy also suggests the game has sold north of 10 million copies on PC alone.
  • Part of the appeal is not just that everyone is talking about the game, but also that it’s one of the most inviting FromSoftware games in recent years. That’s thanks to its open-world design that lets you explore at your leisure and easily scurry out of harm’s way on horseback if you, say, get ambushed by a dragon.

Elden Ring feels both familiar and new. Despite the breathless coverage and unadulterated praise, Elden Ring is not actually all that drastic of a departure for developer FromSoftware. Playing the game is very much like playing any of the studio's other titles, in that you're largely collecting items and gear and slaying horrific foes in a fantasy setting.

  • Some of FromSoftware’s games, like Sekiro and Bloodborne, are in fact more noticeable deviations from the formula. But Elden Ring’s success lies in everything it doesn’t do.
  • The game’s version of an open world is a radical reorientation of everything we’ve been taught by mainstream, big-budget blockbusters like the formulaic Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series and even widely celebrated narrative hits like Horizon Zero Dawn.
  • The game, unlike so many of its contemporaries, also arrived fully formed, devoid of game-breaking bugs and filled with nearly 100 hours of content at a time when most developers are designing games around service-like drip feeds of content to keep players hooked for months or even years.
  • Elden Ring features unprecedented levels of mystery, and its creators are unafraid to toss players into the deep end of the game’s vast landscape from the get-go. What it does best is reward curiosity, by littering caves and mountaintops and elaborate dungeons with weapons and armor, cryptic sidequests and missable moments.

Elden Ring’s success has spawned uncomfortable debates. The game’s takeover of the zeitgeist has dug up some of the thorniest debates in the game industry, primarily around accessibility and whether Elden Ring should be considered an alternative to, rather than a replacement for, traditional open-world games.

  • Every FromSoftware game inspires accessibility debates, primarily because of each game’s excruciating difficulty and lack of options for making the game easier.
  • Though Elden Ring has been lauded for improved accessibility compared with past titles, many critics and players alike appear to be divided on whether we should accept that some games aren’t designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and that, inevitably, some people will never get to experience Elden Ring.
  • Elden Ring’s opaque design and sparse user interface, combined with its lack of quest log or mini-map or any in-game tips, has inspired a rather fierce argument about how much hand-holding is too much in modern open-world games.
  • Compared with Horizon Forbidden West or recent Ubisoft titles, Elden Ring is downright confounding at times, but in many ways by design and in a way that does legitimately inspire awe when you figure out the right path or stumble onto something unexpected. One rather unfair meme went viral by imploring people to imagine what Elden Ring would look like if Ubisoft designed it.
  • Inevitably, some developers who’ve worked on competing open-world games were caught in toxic online crossfire after criticizing the game’s interface, performance and quest design. Fans reacted so negatively and with such vitriol that the developers in question locked their Twitter accounts.

Our current obsession with Elden Ring will be felt for years to come. It’s hard to recall another game as universally praised, while at the same time so divisive, as this one. The only games that come remotely close to this level of overwhelming ubiquity, discounting battle royale and sandbox games like Fortnite and Minecraft, are the genre-defining and boundary-pushing modern classics of the last five years, games like Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2.

What the industry learns from this will depend on whether mainstream developers feel like Elden Ring’s success is a unique byproduct of years of careful refinements, or whether it can be replicated by a studio other than FromSoftware. Scores of games have drawn on the developer’s catalog, some so successful that they now populate a growing subgenre called “Soulslike.” And Elden Ring is far from perfect; so much of its crude design could indeed be improved while preserving the game’s sense of wonder and freedom.

We can only hope the rest of the game industry is taking notes. Because the next Elden Ring doesn’t have to be made by FromSoftware, or Nintendo or Rockstar for that matter. It just has to be bold enough to question why certain games are designed the way they are, and if there might be another, better way of creating virtual worlds for us to explore.

— Nick Statt

A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP

If you’re a CEO these days, odds are that your CIO understands something you may not: Your company’s cybersecurity strategy is fundamentally flawed, and has been ever since your organization began using cloud-based services.

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TGIF: How to spend your weekend

“Lucas builds the future” — YouTube. I’ve long been a fan of Lucas Rizzotto, a kind of high-tech mad scientist who uses AI, AR, VR and everything in between for far-out projects on that accident-prone intersection of art and technology. For his latest video, titled “I gave my microwave a soul with AI and it tried to kill me,” Rizzotto outdid himself, giving his Alexa-powered microwave a brain transplant and then training it with an elaborate backstory that happens to be very personal. It’s extremely entertaining, and well worth watching the entire 35 minutes, if only to make sure that Rizzotto keeps on making more of these.

“Turning Red” — Disney+. Disney is releasing its latest Pixar movie exclusively on Disney+ this weekend, and I can’t wait to immerse myself in the story of Mei Lee, a 13-year-old girl who happens to turn into a giant red panda whenever she gets too worked up.

“Sounds of Survival” — Bandcamp. There have been a lot of fundraisers for the victims of the war in Ukraine, including a number headed by musicians and other artists. Notably absent from this have been Ukrainian artists themselves, which is why it is so refreshing to see this compilation of electronic music curated by Kyiv-based electronic music producer Serge Dubrovsky, aka Dubmasta. Money raised through sales of the album goes directly to the artists involved and their families, and buyers are also encouraged to donate to NGOs providing help on the ground.

The Ugly Truth of How Movie Scores Are Made — Vanity Fair. Streaming is disrupting the business of film music, and shining light on some of the industry’s best-kept secrets. A fascinating read.

Eleven Table Tennis — Meta Quest. “So what should I try?” A few days ago, a friend of mine finally got himself a Quest 2. After playing through a few demos and falling in love with Beat Saber, he asked for additional game and app suggestions. Going down my mental list and mentioning some obvious candidates (everyone has to try Tilt Brush at least once), I realized that Eleven is a great game for VR beginners looking for a social experience that doesn’t require too much of a time commitment. You can easily jump into a game with a stranger, or invite friends, and the gameplay feels remarkably realistic.

— Janko Roettgers

A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP

As a business leader, you need to understand that zero-trust is not just another buzzword. It’s a fundamentally different mindset that you will need to embrace — and the sooner you do so, the better.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to entertainment@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you on Tuesday.

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