Part of my “Game Design Deep Dive” series is exploring the history of genres alongside the mechanics and design. For horror, there is a particular period where the market completely died out among AAA developers, and that was in relation to the fall of Resident Evil as a franchise. As we all sit here eagerly awaiting Resident Evil 8, I want to talk about how Capcom dropped the ball so low with the franchise in the past, and the mistakes I hope they do not fall back into.
The Action-Horror Trilogy
Resident Evil 4 marks both the highest point of the franchise and the moment that signaled its downfall. There is a lot to talk about the design and story of RE 4 that I covered in my book that would take up too much space here. The short version is by moving towards action-horror: focusing on combat as opposed to adventure design, RE 4 became the new standard of horror gameplay.
Following its success, survival horror fans noticed a trend that started to appear in future horror titles. Puzzle-solving and adventure gameplay were downplayed heavily. A greater focus on gunplay and combat also brought with it the use of upgrading your character—making them dramatically more powerful as the game went on.
Part of the reason why RE 4 held up to this day was that it still retained the slower pace of the originals, and acted as a transition period between the survival and action-horror gameplay. With Resident Evil 5 however, the series went all in. Starting with RE 5, all Resident Evil games had a focus on coop: either allowing two players to play at once, or just always having an AI partner. Having to worry about a second person also brought with it the added frustration of ordering the AI around if you could not play it with a friend.
RE 5 would up the body count and threw far more enemies at the players than any of the previous games, but that is nothing compared to 6 that I will talk about in a minute. The B-movie horror aesthetic of the older games was being phased out for more action movie design: as characters performed matrix styled dodging and Chris would punch a boulder out of the way.
All this culminated in the final main entry Resident Evil game we would get for five years with RE 6. Resident Evil 6 is by no means a bad game—the action is on point, the coop combat and puzzle-solving was great if you had a friend around, but it was a terrible game in the spirit of the franchise. This felt more like someone making a big-budget The House of the Dead game rather than a Resident Evil one. In the first chapter alone, I think I killed more enemies than the first three Resident Evil games combined. Fear of the undead was replaced by overwhelming firepower, and being able to suplex stunned zombies at will.
To the game’s credit, RE 6 was a fitting swan song for the story and lore built up by the previous six games. It tied up some of the loose ends, and was the biggest possible version of this kind of storytelling.
Even though RE 6 was the final main entry game, it was not the last game in the modern horror style.
During the 2010’s, Capcom tried different approaches to experimenting with Resident Evil‘s more action-focused design. This also meant handing the IP to different developers who each put their own spin on things. The Revelations series were designed around episodic storytelling and 1 and 2 could not be more different from each other; a topic I will be talking about in another piece.
Resident Evil Operation Racoon City was a military shooter taking place during the events of RE 2, while Umbrella Corps was a third person multiplayer-focused shooter. With exception to Resident Evil Revelations 2, the common theme of these games was a focus on combat, and being more along the lines of the military shooters that were dominating the field. This was by no means a mistake or oversight on Capcom’s part, as these quotes from the Resident Evil Revelations Director around 2012 would illustrate.
“Especially for the North American market, I think the series needs to head in that [action-oriented] direction,”
“Looking at the marketing data [for survival horror games] … the market is small, compared to the number of units Call of Duty and all those action games sell,”
“A ‘survival horror’ Resident Evil doesn’t seem like it’d be able to sell those kind of numbers.”
This sentiment was not just locked to Capcom, as Konami began to make the Silent Hill franchise more action-heavy, Dead Space would also mirror RE 6 with the third and last game of the series focusing on action and coop play.
This is a hard spot to be as a fan of horror. Horror in of itself is a niche genre, no matter how much you dress it up and throw money at it, there is still a finite fanbase who like to get scared. This is also why I feel Capcom has been trying to have their cake and eat it too with releasing multiplayer-focused games alongside Resident Evil 3 Remake and Resident Evil 8 much in the same way as Activision has different modes for different parts of their Call of Duty franchise.
The problem was that Capcom was not really catering to any specific fanbase. The old school horror fans felt left out, as even the better Resident Evil games were not really horror anymore. The fans of military shooters had Call of Duty and Battlefield to enjoy, and those titles were better supported over the long term.
What We've Learned
With the success of Resident Evil 7 and the buzz of Resident Evil 8, Capcom is certainly in a good position, but I hope that they will not repeat the mistakes they made a decade ago. Horror is not a military shooter, and trying to pigeonhole that in will just leave everyone disappointed. In today’s market, unless you go all-in on multiplayer to try and capture the live service audience, consumers are going to have more fleshed out choices for their games. Speaking of which, my big advice would be the following: NO MORE COMPETITIVE RE SHOOTERS. Looking at footage of RE:Verse and I have negative interest in wanting to play it.
There is already a market for it that is being catered to. Instead, they should revisit expanding cooperative design such as the outbreak style or the raid mode in the Revelations games.
I am not be done talking about horror, as I have several more topics planned to go along with the work on my book.
Game Design Deep Dive Horror will be out sometime late 2021/early 2022, and my third book Game Design Deep Dive Roguelikes is now available for preorder.
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