Editorial: The Power of Limitations, Part 2

The multiplayer introduced in Dead Space 2.

Last time I touched on this subject I discussed how technological limitations on games could have a positive effect on the product. The gist of the article was that while developers had less wiggle room regarding RAM and less powerful technology to work with, these limitations helped to motivate some to be creative in making their game the best it could possibly be. But I only addressed how this related purely to system limitations and that once broken free from these limitations a developers focus tends to become much less focused and the product much more forgettable. The other kind of limitation is the limit on expectation. Little else in life, in most cases, proves more testing of conviction than success. The expectation of success can be like a flame to a beautiful ice sculpture—a hot and sudden event meant to attract more attention as it melts away the foundations of its success. In a time where few seem to care about the long term success and sustainability of anything, this problem with success has been like a plague on the industry.

Many game franchises, sadly many of them some of my favorites, have fallen victim to their own success. And it was in their infancy when they were crafted from a singular idea and vision for what the game was meant to be. I mentioned Resident Evil in the previous Power of Limitations article and how the technological limits of the day meant the game creators had to get creative and lean more on atmosphere, a form of showing rather than telling, to convey their game’s fear factor. The Resident Evil franchise had always been a rather popular series, but never more so until it opened up the gates to a wider audience with Resident Evil 4. Once Capcom got a taste of that level of commercial success they must have felt they found a new direction for the series and wanted that most dangerous of things when faced with (especially sudden) success: more. Not content with leaving Resident Evil 4‘s game design alone, they felt they needed to ramp up the action. After all, it was the direction that got the series all the extra attention in the first place. More of the same should only produce like results, no? Well, sort of. As I mentioned on the previous article’s page as well, Resident Evil 5 went on to be the best selling game in the series. Then, of course, came Resident Evil 6, and that moment where Capcom realized they had over stepped. When never more certain of their success they made a game that, in attempting to widen its appeal so much, in practice appealed to a smaller number of people.

Looking back at the Resident Evil‘s early beginnings, I see a game that was unafraid to be something that made it different and something niche. When looking at the newest entry I see something that wants every dollar from every gamer that might have a passing interest. The honesty in the development process got lost in the face of a gigantic financial success, and the same tale the Resident Evil series took nearly fifteen years to tell, EA’s Dead Space series managed to repeat in just five. What Dead Space started out as was something very simple and very focused. It even was unafraid to use a silent protagonist, that old gaming vehicle for immersion, which helped to keep the game’s overall tone very quiet. And this quality lent itself well to the survival horror type game EA set out to make. Flash forward to 2013’s Dead Space 3 and not only is the protagonist now fully voiced, but he has a companion buddy with his own story and reason for blabbing on and on as he presents himself in the game as little more than a thinly veiled excuse for online co-op. Voice acting, co-op, microtransations, a cover system, large outdoor environments, these were all expensive add-ons thrown into a game the developers knew was a hot ticket. The Dead Space name had gotten purchase in the minds of the gaming public and by the third iteration it became clear the engines powering the development of the game had been set to “capitalize”.

Announcer voice: Resident….Evil….

Along the way, as if I need to point it out, Dead Space 3 dropped many parts of itself that made it a known quantity in the first place: the claustrophobic environments, the solitude, the overall quiet of the game that could then be effectively broken up by the slightest noise. The essence of what made the game valuable had now become a burden to spend time on or craft anew. And the truly unfortunate part is that this line of thinking seems to have skipped into the realm of hardware as well. Game consoles are pushing now more than ever to be more like PCs, offering a continued layering of obtrusive “features” that surely focus tested well amongst a group of bored dolts looking to get paid for agreeing with the people who offered them a free lunch. I do not play my consoles as much as I used to and I am finding few reasons to justify why I might need to jump on board with the PS4 or Xbone. And I find that some of this apprehension comes from consoles pulling away from what makes them different to PCs and that they are instead trying to compete in areas that PCs can and do best them handily. Online functionality is fine, but do I need social networks plugged into every aspect of my games? While I understand the reasons for some of the choices Sony and MS are making for their consoles, the end result is that there is little logical reason to have a gaming console and a gaming PC beyond the few exclusives (in an era of waning exclusivity) and I already justified my purchase of the Wii U on almost that principle alone. The reasons I get a PS4 in the future will likely be flimsier than I would probably care to admit. But not too long ago, consoles knew they held certain distinctions over PC gaming and the difference was part of what made them a huge success. And in looking to offer what everyone wants I just hope consoles have not left behind what it is that they need.

Readers, give me some other examples of games that may have gotten caught up in their own success. Might I posit Final Fantasy? It was a game, by its very name, thought to be a final effort by a development team on life support. And now look at it: we need quality assurance committees just to make sure the dev team does not sit on their own balls. And what about the state of consoles? Is their increasing similarity to PCs more worrisome than it is beneficial? Do tell, do tell!


  1. I believe that what set consoles apart from the PC in the era of Resident Evil can be boiled down to one real difference: Japan. In the days before the 00s struck, western developers were far sparser on the console scene, and the heavy hitters we know today were primarily developing titles on the PC (not all, but I’m making a generalization there). Japan was the driving force of the console market, and they were very adept and working with limited resources to make something that made the most of those restrictions. When gaming consoles adopted more and more PC-like framework, it invited in the PC market who saw the chance to appeal to an untapped market. What we have today is the result of that shift, for better or for worse.

  2. There’s certainly a different business outlook between the Eastern and Western devs, and you rightly point out that this shift has played a large role in this industry.

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