When it was announced that Hidetaka Miyazaki -- director of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls -- would be stepping down as director for the new Dark Souls II, his successor, Tomohiro Shibuya, expressed an interest in making Dark Souls II "more straightforward and understandable." With news of a new director who said he wanted to make the sequel more accessible for gamers inexperienced with the series, fans immediately began to speculate that the difficulty of Dark Souls II might be "dumbed-down" in order to appeal to a wider audience.
The argument, as these fans proposed, goes that the challenging difficulty is one of the core, fundamental elements that made those games great, and that making the difficulty easier would ruin the experience of Dark Souls. This brouhaha got me thinking: would the inclusion of an "easy mode," or having a more accessible start to the game actually ruin the Souls experience? After some consideration, I don't think it would be such a big deal, and I think a lot of people are just overreacting.
For starters, the Souls games really aren't that difficult -- the people who relentlessly tout the difficulty are just trying to show off how "hardcore" they are as gamers, and the people who complain about them being too hard just have deplorable gaming skills in general. As long you progress carefully, take the time to study your surroundings, and bother to think about what you're doing, the games can be pretty "straightforward and understandable" as is. So before we get any further into this discussion of nerfing the difficulty in Dark Souls II, let's not fool ourselves into thinking these games are any more challenging than they really are.
As far as I'm concerned, the Souls games (and Demon's Souls in particular) exemplify a normal, ideal standard of challenge -- nothing more or less. They're not super hardcore games that take a lot of practice and effort to get through, but they're not casual games, either. These games are satisfying because they don't hold your hand, and there are consequences for failure. In the first level of Demon's Souls, for example, you come across a smoldering field riddled with loot and two dragons lurking nearby. The game doesn't explicitly tell you that this is a dangerous area and that you will die if you try to get the loot -- you're expected to infer for yourself that it might be dangerous and weigh the potential risks and rewards. Not a lot of games these days are willing to make you think for yourself, or to punish you for mistakes.
The dragon field from the Boletarian Palace, 1-1.
The combat itself isn't that challenging either, except in the sense that going in blindly, trying to hack n' slash your way through every enemy with the same strategy will only get you killed, because enemy tactics and environmental situations are different every time. The combat system has enough depth and versatility by design, because it expects you to adapt to each new encounter, learning and discovering new tactics through trial-and-error. It's not about the games being hard, it's about not being coddled through the game. The sense of accomplishment comes from meeting a tough new foe and figuring out a way to get past it, because you did it on your own -- not because you mastered the impossible. Let's be honest; neither Souls game demands as much manual precision and rote mastery as classic Nintendo games.
From my own experience, I don't think the games are too tough for anyone to even consider needing an easy mode, but I don't see how including one would somehow ruin the game. From Software can design the game with a default difficulty in mind that would provide "the true Demon's Souls experience," and then scale things back after the fact. Enemies might take fewer hits to kill and deal less damage, they might not parry/riposte, enemy attacks that can go through shields might get removed, enemies might drop more souls or stat increases might cost fewer souls, and so on. As long as they don't force these tweaks on everyone, you should (in theory) be able to play the game in the normal, default difficulty and not have your own game experience affected in any way.
The only problem this might introduce would be with balancing online play. Should it be possible for people playing in easy mode to interact with people playing normal (or hard) mode? Having an easy mode would be great for experienced PVPers who like to play with builds, since it probably wouldn't take as long to level up a hundred levels, but the same system could be easily abused to obtain an unfair advantage in PVP. Of course, we might argue that inexperienced, casual players might also benefit from that kind of edge when playing against experienced players. They could split the difficulties so that you can only interact with players of the same difficulty, but that would split the playerbase and make it harder to find people online, and it would be incredibly simple for griefers to troll the easy difficulty. Managing the online component is the only thing I would be remotely concerned about.
Then you've also got to consider, if they put an easy mode into the game, couldn't they also put in a hard mode as well? If you're concerned about the presence of an easy mode taking away from the challenge and ruining the core essence of the game, wouldn't a hard mode be even better for bragging rights? I'd think it would be more satisfying to beat the game on the hardest difficulty knowing that it would be an accomplishment few others would achieve. But of course we can argue that players who want to play in "hard mode" can already do so by maintaining a low soul level. It might also be argued that the mere presence of multiple difficulty settings would dilute the finely-tuned game experience, and take away from your own accomplishments knowing that there are other difficulties.
All of this speculation is, of course, moot since Shibuya wasn't specifically talking about adding new game modes, but instead was talking about making the tutorial and introductory areas easier while making game mechanics (like the covenants) easier to understand. The idea, according to his vision, is to ease newcomers into the Dark Souls experience and then gradually build the difficulty up to typical Souls level of expectation. This idea could work out, but it might not be doing any favors to more casual audiences if they start playing the game and get through a significant portion only to find that it eventually becomes too difficult for them, while making the beginning areas slow and boring for veterans.