From Business Software To Bloodborne

When you hear the name From Software lately, you probably associate it with the Souls series. Starting in 2009 with the release of Demon’s Souls and continuing onward to Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and a spiritual successor in the upcoming Bloodborne, the series has driven the recent acclaim showered on the company in North America. But this Japanese studio has actually been around since 1986, developing over 60 games, acting as publisher on many others, and now boasts over 230 employees. Not bad for a company that has seen its fortunes rise and fall with a shotgun blast of various games over the course of its near 30-year history.

More Mechs
From Software’s love of mechs extends beyond Armored Core and Chromehounds. It’s also behind the A.C.E. (Another Century’s Episode) series, which features high-profile mechs and characters from popular anime selections such as Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Metal Armor Dragonar, and Aura Battler Dunbine.

The mechs don’t end there, at least not in Japan, where From released Mech Wolf Chaos in 2004. In the game players control a fictitious president of the United States as he blasts around in a powered armor suit and battles forces that have taken over the U.S. Yes, you get to battle the vice president and yes this game really happened.


  Though From Software is now specifically thought of as a game developer, the company began with a very different directive. “When the company was built, we were developing the business-application software instead of game software,” says From Software public relations representative Yasunori Oruga. “We started the game-software development when the first PlayStation was introduced. At that moment, only about 10 people were in charge of the game development.”

The studio’s first PlayStation project was King’s Field, a role-playing game that shipped in 1994. The pioneer game in the series was available only in Japan, and set the stage for From’s enchanting fantasy medieval role-playing backdrops, focusing on exploration and heavy atmospheric elements. While the game is first-person centric, it served as an obvious inspiration for Demon’s Souls, featuring dreary and foreboding elements, deliberately paced combat, little-to-no handholding or game-provided assistance, lack of storytelling via NPC interactions, and striking environments.

“The expression of the ‘real feeling’ in the game is very important for us,” Oruga says. “But it doesn’t simply mean to create something graphically ‘real,’ but to provide the feeling of the reality in the gaming world. A game can deliver different kind of joy. Most of our creations consist in the sense of achievement or pleasure while trying over and over again along with different emotions.”

The game proved to be successful enough to justify the company’s transition to game developer, and several sequels followed. King’s Field II and III launched in North America in 1995 and 1996, respectively, with the final main series title King’s Field IV launching in 2001 on the PlayStation 2. The King’s Field console prospects were ultimately done in by lukewarm critical reception, with some denouncing the slow and laborious gameplay. From continued to develop King’s Field games on mobile platforms through the mid 2000s.

From Mechs To Martial Arts
Dark fantasy may be From Software’s original setting of choice, but it embraced science fiction for its next major series. Armored Core kicked off in 1997 on the PlayStation, featuring third-person mech combat in a post-apocalyptic world. The formula proved successful in Japan, giving the series a long life and a deluge of titles leading up to the recent 15th installment, 2013’s Armored Core: Verdict Day. These games allow for heavy mech customization that gives players the chance to engineer a perfectly tuned battle machine.

While juggling several game projects in the early 2000s, From Software was approached by Activision to work on the popular Tenchu series, which helped popularize the stealth genre by placing players in the role of a deadly ninja. The series in feudal Japan tests players commitment to the ninja code the better you lurk in the shadows and execute stealth kills, the higher the score you receive at the end of each level. After developing several games for the franchise, the company bought the license outright from Activision in 2004.We haven’t seen a new game in the series since 2009 with Tenchu: Shadow Assassins for the Wii and PSP, but it’s easy to see how some of the core concepts that make Dark Souls so popular could be transferred to a ninja game.

From continued to hone its melee action gameplay with the well-received Otogi series. The Sega-published games garnered favorable reviews over the course of two entries on the Xbox, but ultimately couldn’t find enough financial success to justify the continuation of the series.

In 2006, From Software returned to its mech roots with Chromehounds, which launched on the Xbox 360. Customization was again at the forefront here, with many options to change the functionality of your Hound. While the Armored Core series focuses on sleek-looking battle robots that we commonly associate with mechs, Chromehounds fea-tures highly industrialized, militarized versions of popular armaments like the howitzer. The clan-focused online play featured persistent wars, which helped the game develop a small but devoted cult following. The servers shut down in 2010, killing this essential component of the game.

Finding Its Soul
For the next few years From Software continued to pump out Armored Core and King’s Field releases, but it also had a new project in development that would prove to be the beginning of a massive new chapter for the studio. Demon’s Souls may have hit at just the right time to catch the eyes of many gamers looking for a formidable experience that didn’t lean on heavy-handed tutorials or ensuring the player had a streamlined experience from start to finish. In 2009, the unforgiving nature of the game struck a chord with those spoiling for a challenge, as the vast majority of mainstream games had strayed away from high difficulty encounters or, at the very least, had various difficulty modes that could be selected. None of the Souls games allow players to dial down the difficulty.

“The Demon’s Souls’ development idea, which became the base of the Souls series, was to reproduce the classical RPG with the latest technology,” Ogura says. “We wanted to express the fun we felt in the games of the past such as the discovery, fun to think through, and achievement in the latest platform.”

Demon’s Souls only came to the PlayStation 3, but even with its limited marketing budget word of mouth spread. In a year where Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed II, and Batman: Arkham Asylum captured most of the buzz, some outlets gave their game of the year nod to this difficult throwback.

Emboldened, From Software found a new publishing partner and released the spiritual successor, Dark Souls, in 2011 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, giving a whole new audience the chance to delve into the dark fantasy for the first time. By the time Dark Souls II hit in 2014, the series had cultivated an ever-growing legion of acolytes across every major platform.

From Software’s constant iteration on the dark fantasy design has proven fruitful. Where its creative minds will take us beyond Bloodborne is anyone’s guess, but after seeing the scope of imagination and atmosphere spill out onto the carefully woven tapestries of the Souls series, it’s bound to be interesting.

The Shadow Of Souls
Another From Software series that introduced features now considered to be signature elements to the Souls series is the esoteric Shadow Tower franchise. Released on the PlayStation in 1998, it shared a lot in common with the King’s Field series a dark, action-oriented, roleplaying dungeon crawl with some-what inscrutable direction. Unlike many standard dungeon crawlers of the day, Shadow Tower features no auto-map, so a brilliant memory or some graph paper is a good idea to bring along. The sequel, Shadow Tower Abyss, was launched in Japan on the PlayStation 2 in 2003. Here you can see some of From’s earlier days of environmental experimentation at work, with castles, temples, forests, water-oriented zones, and other groundwork that would eventually be realized in far more dramatic form in the Souls games as technology advanced. Both games featured weapon deterioration and destruction, again something we would see echoes of in the Souls series.

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