A few months ago I was interviewed by the gaming website Waypoint about the development of the Dark Souls Mouse Fix (which later evolved into the Dark Souls Input Customizer). As with almost any interview, the answers were cut down to fit the style of the site and the intended flow of the author. I have no idea how many people read the original article or are even interested in this kind of thing, but for the few people who are, here are my complete answers to the questions I was given.
Be wary of wall of text
Can you talk to me a little bit about what you do in real-life, and what kinds of games you’re usually drawn to?
I recently received my master’s degree in computer science and am currently in the process of transitioning out of the lazy life of a student to something more, I guess, grown-up. What that will exactly look like I am not sure about at the moment. As a side job, I have been working as a tutor for a few years now and am currently teaching software development and software engineering at a university.
I am interested in a broad spectrum of games and there really are only a few genres I do not touch at all. But although I play almost anything from RPGs, strategy and adventure games to platformers or weird indie games, I am definitively most drawn to first-person shooters.
Dark Souls shipped with mouse support on PC, but obviously it wasn’t right for everyone. What didn’t work?
As probably most people know by now, the PC version of Dark Souls was a total mess at release and is to this day only properly playable thanks to the fantastic DSFix by Durante. Aside from many technical issues, people also quickly discovered that the mouse and keyboard controls were in a state one could, without exaggeration, only describe as unplayable. Not only showed the default layout of the keybindings a profound lack of understanding of how games are played with that control method, it was also basically impossible to properly control the camera. While there are other games out there which have sub-optimal mouse input, they usually only suffer from unwanted acceleration, sluggish movement or input lag. But the original mouse controls of Dark Souls have a very weird behavior, where the movement is choppy and controlling the camera feels like using a mouse that only updates once a second.
While the keybindings could easily be fixed in the ingame settings, the camera controls were basically broken. Another modder (whose name unfortunately escapes me), very early on came up with a solution that was the way to go when wanting to play the game with the mouse. What he did was writing a controller emulator that feeds the mouse input to the game as movement of the right analog stick, thereby circumventing the original mouse input of the game altogether. This was a good enough solution and made the game finally playable for people who do not have a controller or someone like me who just prefers to use mouse and keyboard.
Although it did a great job in helping many people (including myself) to enjoy the game over the years, it is not an optimal solution, because using an analog stick is very different on a technical level from mouse movement and therefore emulating it with a mouse does not feel like you would expect or want from a PC game. Aside from sluggish movement, the most prominent drawback of that solution is negative acceleration, meaning that the faster you move the mouse, the less camera movement is produced. This had bothered me and other people for years, but we just accepted it, because the only way of this getting fixed was for the game to be patched, which everybody knew would was not going to happen at that point.
It’s hard for me to even imagine playing Dark Souls with a mouse; a gamepad is ingrained into my mind. Is there an advantage to using a mouse, or just preference?
This is something that always comes up when talking about the Souls games. Some people even go so far and claim that those games are impossible to be played with mouse and keyboard. This is of course nonsense. All the games can be played fine with mouse and keyboard from start to finish. It is of course undeniably true that you lose a little control of the movement, because you are trading an analog stick for binary keyboard input, but in practice this actually makes very little difference. The two relevant movement speeds can be specified with a modifier key and using the eight rolling directions the keyboard offers work perfectly well to do anything you need in those games. On the other hand, you gain fine control of the camera with a mouse, which makes some things such as aiming with a bow easier. But I would be the first to admit that this also does not have a major impact to the overall gameplay, unless maybe you are playing a bow-only build.
So for most people it is not about getting an advantage, but rather personal preference. I personally cannot stand using a controller for any game in which I have direct control over a 3D camera. Even though precise input is not necessary from a gameplay stand point, I am just more comfortable with a mouse and keyboard. One of the beautiful aspects of PC Gaming is that everyone can use the control scheme he or she prefers, even though it may deemed to be inferior by other people.
What did you aim to fix with your mod, and what changed as you went about developing it?
The development was actually pretty straight forward, because it was a well defined problem, with which I as devout Dark Souls player was very familiar with. The goal was to iron out all the remaining issues the mouse and keyboard controls had, primarily by making the camera movement feel as you would expect from a proper PC game. Before I started to work on the Dark Souls fix, I had already developed a somewhat similar fix for Dead Space, which also suffers from bad mouse controls. Although these kind of fixes are custom tailored to a specific game and therefore few components can be reused, I was already familiar with the general approach of injecting the raw mouse input directly into a game’s camera functions. However, the Dark Souls fix turned out to be more challenging, because a lot more things had to be taken care of to make it work properly.
This mod goes far beyond swapping texture or importing a character model. I have to imagine this was complex. What was its development like?
Yes, even though it might not appear like it, because there are no changes to the visuals or the gameplay, fixes like this actually do take a lot of effort to make. The problem is that these kind of technical issues often cannot be fixed from outside of the game. When it comes to controls, there is only so much you can do by tinkering with configuration files or using external tools, such as AutoHotkey. If they are broken on a fundamental level, like they were with Dark Souls, you actually have to dive deep down into the guts of the game to figure out a way to solve the problem. This is why this approach should only be used as a last resort, when it is pretty clear that all other options have been exhausted and that there is no hope for an official patch to fix the problem.
To do something like this, you have to apply techniques that in computer science are referred to by the term reverse engineering. The same way you can break apart your toaster to find out how it works, you can take a look at the executable file of a piece of software to reveal its inner workings, without having access to the source code. Now, this is easier said than done, because a modern game is of course much more complex than a toaster and you are looking for very specific parts in a program that quite a few people spend years on to develop.
After having found what you were looking for, you are faced with the question of how solve the actual problem. This is a little different from conventional software development, because there are a lot of factors you do not have any control over and you have to find a way to make the game do what you want, all while being very careful not to break something. The whole process can be tedious and time-consuming, but it can also be a lot of fun because it is a challenging problem. It can also be very interesting so see how things are actually implemented in a particular game, which often provides some insight into why a game behaves in the way it does.
How long it will take to do a fix such as this is highly dependent on experience and intuition. People hacked into games forever, and of course I am far from the only person being able to do this. To be honest, I have very limited experience and skills in this kind of thing, especially compared to some other people out there, who in some cases have been doing nothing else for the past 20 years. Unfortunately, more often than not, those people usually end up developing cheats or cracks for games, instead of using their powers for good.
Was there a particular aspect of this mod that was challenging to put together? What took the most time and why?
The development of a fix such as this can broken down into two parts. First, you have the hacking part, in which you are trying to solve the actual problem by dissecting the executable and finding ways to make the game do what you want. Secondly, once you have actually achieved what you wanted, you have to think about how to make the fix usable by other people. Although the first part consumed more time overall, the second one consumed more time than I had anticipated.
What you have to keep in mind, is that you are trying to deploy something that is essentially a hack, to a game without any modding support whatsoever, for a lot of people with vastly different combinations of hardware, tools and other mods they are using with the game.
This is much harder than it may seem, because especially with Dark Souls you cannot assume that people are playing the same way you do. You have to ask yourself things such as: Is the fix easy enough to install or configure, so it can also be used by people who might not be tech-savvy? Are the instructions and the GUI design intuitively to understand? Can players configure the controls the ways they want?
Additionally, there is also the problem of compatibility. People are using all kinds of different mods and tools to customize the game, sometimes resulting in Frankenstanian amalgamations of different programs and DLLs that all interact with the game simultaneously, and you have to take care that at least the most popular ones are working with your fix. Although there was a fair amount of alpha testing before the fix was made public, there were a lot of issues like this that I had not seen coming.
At this point, Dark Souls is several years old, with most of the community having moved on to newer games like Dark Souls 3. Why keep working on Dark Souls?
Even though the sequels were generally well received, the first Dark Souls is already somewhat of a cult-classic and is by many people considered to be the best part in the series. The SteamSpy statistics seem to confirm this, with the first Dark Souls still being roughly on par with Dark Souls 2 in terms of concurrent players. Even Dark Souls 3 has only a little over twice as many, despite being a much younger game. So the first Dark Souls is far from dead and it is also a game many people hold dear and come back to for another playthrough a few years later.
Additionally, even though some games do not age well, great games generally do not suddenly become bad because they are a few years old. And I am of the opinion that good games deserve to be preserved.
How’d you originally discover Dark Souls, and what drew you to it?
As a PC-only gamer, I initially heard of Demons Souls and Dark Souls as one of the great examples of console games that are not available on the PC. And after reading about them I was kind of baffled by the decision, because from the description they struck me as the kind of games that would be very successful on a PC. I then participated in the petition to port the game to the PC, which must have been one of the very rare cases where a petition actually did have an impact on something, and then waited in anticipation for it to come out.
The thing I find most intriguing about Dark Souls is the world design and how it is connected to the gameplay. While other fantasy settings often present a peaceful world under attack by evil, the world of Dark Souls is a bleak place full of misery and despair, while at the same time being quite beautiful and appealing in its own way. The atmosphere the game creates with its art design and music immediately makes it clear that you should not expect any help to progress in the game and are supposed to figure things out on your own.
I think it is unfortunate that the Souls games are mostly known for their supposed difficulty, when a much better word to describe them would be tough. Although they are certainly not easy and may appear to be unfair at times, they are mostly about being thoughtful and observant of the environment, and will punish you if you are careless.
Do you have a history with modding, and do you tinker with things in real-life, too?
I am a long time PC gamer and came first into contact with the concept of modding around 1995, when building levels for the Star Wars game Dark Forces, together with my father and brother. Not only was it amazing to see how much work people put in custom campaigns, it was also an interesting experience to exchange levels online at a point in time where most people around you had not even heard about the internet.
While I was dabbling around with an editor to create a custom map for the original Counter Strike, I quickly realized that I lacked the creativity and dedication to contribute anything valuable for other people and I just kept enjoying modding as a player instead of a developer.
Some time ago I ran into a notorious problem in one of my all-time favorite shooters named F.E.A.R, which on many modern systems slows the performance of the game down to an unplayable degree and can only be fixed by a tedious workaround. I took a deeper look into the problem and was able to determine the cause and develop a fix for it. After I released it I was amazed by the reception and it made me realize that I could contribute to the PC community in ways that did not require any creative talent.
That is why I do not consider myself a modder in the traditional sense of the word. Up to this point, I did not create anything that changes the gameplay or visuals of a game, but rather help people to better utilize their hardware and to allow them to play a game in the way they like. There are many other great people doing stuff like this, such as Durante or the developers behind tools such as Flawless Widescreen.
Unfortunately, I have two left hands when it comes to fixing things in real-life that have nothing to do with computers. But I have an unspoken agreement with a long-time friend of mine, who works as a craftsman. I will fix any problems he has with his PC, and he will help me with any handiwork around my apartment. Which is also an idealized way I like to think about the PC gaming community as a whole.
When I saw this mod posted to reddit, the outcry of support was huge. People seemed to really appreciate it. What was that like?
It is always great to see that something you have created is helping people to enjoy a game more. Aside from the few expected naysayers claiming that the game should not even be played with mouse and keyboard in the first place, the reception was pretty good and I am very grateful for the acknowledgement I got. Although I was fully aware that the vast majority of players prefer to play the game with a controller, I did anticipate that there would be at least a few people who would be happy with a fix like this. What I did not see coming was the coverage the fix got on many, mostly PC-centric, gaming websites. This was a very pleasant surprise.
Another thing that took me by surprise was the interest in the fix by people who do not even want to play the game with mouse and keyboard. As it turned out, the changes to the mouse movement improve the camera controls with the Steam Controller, when mapping the mouse movement to one of the trackpads. This resulted in the experimental Steam Controller support, which was introduced to the Dark Souls Mouse Fix in version 1.3.
Any plans for future mods? What’s next for Methanhydrat?
I am definitely planning to continue working on something in the future. What that will be I am currently not sure about. The Dark Souls fix needs some additional work, as there are still some minor bugs to fix and also additional features that I would like to add. Aside from Dark Souls, I also have a few other games in mind that would benefit from some fixing. I am also always open for suggestions. I originally developed the fix to remove the mouse acceleration in Mass Effect for just one person. So if you have an idea, get in touch with me, make a good case for it, and we will see what will happen.
However, due to the ongoing changes in my work life, it is currently hard to say how much time there will be in the future for stuff like this.