Recent NPD figures reveal that FromSoftware’s latest gruelling action-RPG, Elden Ring, is toppling literal titans as it outsells Call of Duty: Vanguard, challenges Cyberpunk 2077, and, as Forbes’ Paul Tassi highlights, has shipped up to “half the lifetime sales of the entire Dark Souls trilogy’’ while leaving its FromSoft siblings Bloodborne and Sekiro in the digital dust. With 13.4 million copies of Elden Ring now shipped, as per Bandai Namco’s most recent financial report, the Souls genre is a niche no more.
As has been said elsewhere, the most recent Call of Duty hasn’t exactly been a smash hit. The publisher has blamed the title’s setting as not being compelling enough, but a weak campaign and the intense allegations and public attention on Activision Blizzard’s workplace environment shouldn’t be ignored here. While it isn’t necessarily original to suggest that Call of Duty has mostly been spinning its wheels in the mud and offering largely the same experiences with each year’s entry, Elden Ring and the ascendancy of the Soulsborne genre is nothing short of incredible.
Even challenging the sales numbers of the complicated Cyberpunk 2077, a game which had unbelievable momentum behind it (which drove it to 13.7 million in its first few weeks alone before it all came crashing down), is something to behold considering the media frenzy that surrounded that title.
However, it’s not just the potential shortcomings of these huge games that make this situation so remarkable. A meager Call of Duty experience and the expected fall-off of Cyberpunk 2077 sales shouldn’t distract from the remarkable success of FromSoftware’s latest release. The Souls games, which Elden Ring is in everything but name, are a series that, honestly, has heretofore mostly been a niche micro-genre of incredibly difficult titles that appealed to a dedicated fanbase. They were predominantly the realm of those select few people willing to put up with a lot of frustration for the sake of getting through a game that makes little attempt to hold your hand through quests or navigation.
Any game could’ve filled the space left open by Call of Duty and Cyberpunk, so it begs the question: Why specifically Elden Ring? Perhaps Elden Ring arrived at a time when enough people outside of the usual fanbase had become curious enough to see what all the buzz around Souls games was about, if not before its release, then certainly after word had spread about this game. Kotaku’s own review not only praised it for its own accomplishments, but also considered where it sits in the legacy of Souls games; it also likely helped that George R.R. Martin was attached to the project, a name with a fantasy genre legacy that many associate with impressive worldbuilding and intriguing storylines. A legacy of well-loved games with a recognisable celebrity name can go a long way in building hype and interest.
There often seems to be a perpetual conversation in gaming spaces about the value of time and money in a video game. Word of mouth about this game doesn’t include suspicion that it may be wasting your time, nor that it wants to drain your wallet with a constantly shifting marketplace of microtransactions. It’s a vast, (mostly) single-player adventure–not a bad way to spend $US60 ($83). Perhaps in the end it might be too hard for some, but deciding a game isn’t for you is very different than feeling like a game is trying to take advantage of you.
Elden Ring also bucks the trends we see in so many open-world games that players may be growing tired of–the maps cluttered with waypoints and activities, the steady, predictable drip of new skills, new story content, new gear. Elden Ring has those things, to be sure, but they’re presented in a way that lets you feel like you’re actually discovering them for yourself, rather than like the game is bending over backwards to ensure that you’re aware of every last place you can go and thing you can do.
Where some games may now feel like hollow, frictionless busy work, Elden Ring is more than happy to challenge players with difficult-yet-masterable gameplay and many secrets to find.
And though the difficulty of Elden Ring is very real, the game offers a different approach than past Souls titles. Elden Ring’s gameplay loop meets an open world in a way that allows it to be more than just a punishing march through brutal enemy forces. You have the space and time to get used to the game in a way that you arguably didn’t in Dark Souls. So, while the game is hard, conversation around it has so often come with the caveat of: yes but you can explore a bit more and get used to it. If you hit a wall in one area, there are often others you can explore before coming back better prepared to face the challenges that previously stopped you. To go back to the topic of time and money, many might see incredible value in buying a full-priced video game that they can keep coming back to, exploring, experimenting with different character builds, and just generally trying to get better at.
Elden Ring has consistently remained in the top three of Steam’s best-selling games each week since February. Viral word of mouth, impressive feats from streamers looking to take the challenge to the next level–it’s all come together to keep Elden Ring central to any conversation about gaming right now, with sales figures showing proof of that in dollars and units shipped.