The Unlikely Journey of China's Souls-Inspired 'Pascal's Wager'

How one designer went from believing making video games wasn't a real job to ending up on the stage of an Apple press conference.
A screen shot from the video game Pascal's Wager
Screen shot courtesy of TipsWorks

FromSoftware may have helped invent its own subgenre with Demon's Souls, but in the years since, you don't have to go very far to find a game deeply inspired by it. Pascal's Wager is one of them, the kind of game that takes all of a few seconds to realize "oh, these developers really liked Dark Souls" to know what it's up to. The difference with Pascal's Wager is that it first arrived on the iPhone, and only recently made it way onto the PC.


Pascal's Wager debuted at an event for the iPhone 11 in 2019, a way for Apple to demonstrate advancements in its mobile graphics tech. Apple has frequently shown what its phones and tablets are newly capable of by showing console-style games at its events, despite most popular games on those devices rarely leveraging the tech that way. (Even most of the games on Apple's own gaming service, Apple Arcade, are simplistic by comparison.)

The game was also notable, both then and now, because of where it was developed: China, which has become increasingly influential as a development and creative hub. One of 2020's most popular games, Genshin Impact, was made in China. Pascal's Wager proved ahead of the curve. 

Its development also straddles the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has absolutely devastated parts of high-profile game development. A rapid shift to working from home has resulted in lengthy delays for a number of games. Warner Bros. was, at one point, going to release both Hogwarts Legacy and Gotham Knights in 2021. Now, they're both scheduled for 2022, and the expectation is that many more games will be delayed throughout the year.

Pascal's Wager itself was obviously made ahead of COVID-19, but some of its new content was made during quarantine conditions, and the PC version that arrived on Steam a few weeks ago was developed after its developer, TipsWorks, returned to working in an office.


An office? Normalcy? Hmm.

I had a chance to ask TipsWorks founder Yang Yang a few questions over email about the surprising way he got into game development, what game development was like during COVID-19 in China, and why the Souls games were such an influence on Pascal's Wager.

Waypoint: What made you interested in making video games in the first place? Why are they important to you?
Yang Yang: I’d say it’s almost natural for anyone to be addicted to video games as a kid. Back in the 80s, very few Chinese families had the means to get a real game console (that would be the Famicom/NES at the time). Fortunately a relative of mine happened to run a console rental store, so I got play after they closed for the day, pulling all nighters one after another. 

But back then I didn’t think “making video games” would be a job, a profession. It almost felt like that games were meant to be there. I think at the time nobody in China thought making games is a thing either. My first dream job was actually film visual effects, from watching all the Hollywood blockbusters. It was something that I can understand as a “real job.” And the whole thing about “creating dreams” has always been on my mind through my life.

I graduated from college in 2001. Industry giant Konami had just opened their Shanghai office, I applied with my self-taught knowledge and got in, and worked there for a decade. I worked on multiple world-class projects including Contra, Castlevania, Silent Hill and Pro Evolution Soccer. I became a real game developer.


Can you tell me about the studio’s origins? How was TipsWorks formed?
By 2011, the surge of smart phones had propelled Chinese games industry into something mature, that small individuals can get into making games. After working for big companies for a long time, I had this strong desire of making something my own. I left Konami that year and formed a small studio with a couple former colleagues, making mobile games. 

But free to play has been the dominating model in the sector, and it was not easy for my small team that was previously grown in a traditional, Japanese style development environment. We barely hung on with something we weren’t really comfortable with. In 2016, we decided to give it everything we had, formed a new studio with all of our savings, to make something traditional and premium. We named it “TipsWorks” in the essence of [being] small, nimble and full of inspiration.

What has it been like developing this port of the game during COVID-19? What challenges have you had to overcome? 
I still vividly remember those times. That was right during traditional Chinese New Year holidays, after we launched on iOS. We originally planned to start development on the expansion The Tides of Oblivion, but we could not return to our office complex due to the epidemic. On the other hand, we have more and more players who started to try new genres of games like ours due to stay-at-home conditions, so a lot of players finished the game and asked for more.


We discussed over online meetings, and made the decision to go back to the office and grab our equipment to resume work remotely. Our complex was under very strict quarantine protocols, we had to go back separately to move our computers back home, then spent half a day every day in meetings, discussing our plans. Under these conditions we added a lot of replayability features to the game like NG+, the Dark Mist exploration/grind mode, a casual mode for beginners, and finally the story expansion.

I don’t miss the work at home times. The extra cost in communication wasn’t pleasant.

A lot of comparisons have been made to games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. What do you like about those games? 
Our initial idea was to make something in the true Soulsborne style on mobile. Players have their definition on what this genre means, like a heavy, dark fantasy setting, deep lore, formidable bosses, intertwining level design and a total absence of “guidance”. These are all the things we want to present in our game. 

We also drew inspirations from other excellent titles like God of War, For Honor and Horizon: Zero Dawn. We loved those games as well and learned a lot from them.

Pascal’s Wager launched on mobile first. What did you learn from that experience? What was different about the mobile audience?
We were a very small team, so we had to pick a direction for our product carefully. Mobile has a huge install base, but a game of our caliber and quality is almost nowhere to be found, especially under the premium model, so we think it would be a great fit for us.


Then the player reactions exceeded our wildest dreams. They want something like this on their phones, and we received kind words in many languages all over the world. This gave us the opportunity to listen to them. We will attempt to make something truly next gen in the future, with the experience developing on mobile gave us.

“I didn’t think ‘making video games’ would be a job, a profession. It almost felt like that games were meant to be there. I think at the time nobody in China thought making games is a thing either.”

What’s a tiny detail about Pascal’s Wager that you’re proud of, that probably nobody has noticed?
We hid plenty of easter eggs and small details for those with sharp eyes and took the time to explore every nook and cranny. 

There is this old lady in act one that asks for help from the protagonist to find her missing son. She later learns that her son has been killed. Having lost all hope, she gives the item that protected her from the darkness to the player. If you return to this place later, you would find that the old lady is gone, a darkness abomination took her place. It took players a while to realize this abomination was indeed, the old lady herself. And this might remind the player that everything they killed in this small village, was probably someone with a life and their own stories. We want to demonstrate the cruelty of this world, and secrets like this scatter through the entire game.


We were very often surprised and proud at all the posts that showed how players discovered these hints and eventually pieced the picture together.

Most of my audience is probably unfamiliar with China or hasn’t visited. Tell me about something interesting about the China you know.
I want to talk about our players. Chinese players aren’t really that different from gamers everywhere else. We almost share the same view on the global hits. We had our own debacle about The Last of Us: Part II, for example. 

Chinese players are also highly inclusive with games from everywhere having a following, be it Japanese, American, Korean and our own. There IS this one thing however, that voiceover is very important. A Japanese game like Final Fantasy VII Remake? Japanese dub is the way to go. Rise of the Tomb Raider? Original English VO even if it has a native Chinese dub. For our game, something made in China in a western style though, the support for Chinese VO vs English is basically half in half.

Also it might be hard to imagine how popular and gigantic game development is in China. We have a strong feeling right now that Shanghai is probably the most highly paid place for game developers in the world. We now have a ton of foreign developer colleagues from Japan, US and way more if the pandemic wasn’t a thing. But as I said, just a little over a decade ago, it wasn’t even considered a “real job”!

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