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Opinion: A requiem for  Mass Effect: Andromeda
Opinion: A requiem for Mass Effect: Andromeda
July 10, 2017 | By Katherine Cross

July 10, 2017 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Design



The recent news that there's no single-player DLC in the works for Mass Effect: Andromeda has all but sealed the fate of the franchise for now. In the drip-drip of bad news for the venerable sci-fi series, we were first told that the saga had been “shelved,” and no resources were being put towards developing a sequel at this time.

Now, even the game that’s already been released, which could badly use some of the embellishment that DLCs provide, won’t even be expanded upon in the slightest. It’s an ignominious end to something that began with so much promise.

The non-BioWare developers I know who currently work for large studios have confided in me that they look at the ragestorm around Andromeda and think “there but for the grace of God go I.” One described the atmosphere following ME:A’s launch, “Our team has been passing [a scathing review of ME:A] around, nervously, like we're waiting our turn to get eviscerated.”

They added, “If Bioware can be skewered by critics, we aren't necessarily safer.” The speed with which the narrative around Andromeda spiraled out of control was stunning. It began with a pre-release preview for EA Access users that allowed countless ordinary players to get their hands on the game ahead of launch, and within hours gifs of the game’s wonky, sometimes unsettling animations were practically making themselves.

I myself got in on the fun -- there were plenty of creative jokes and memes being made about the animation, much of it in the spirit of good humor. Then the hilarity came to an abrupt end: that segment of the game community which revenges itself upon anyone who is even perceived to have slighted them, developed a conspiracy about Andromeda’s animations and, of course, found a woman to blame. Harassment, threats, abuse, and all the usual scapegoating followed.

In the midst of all of this, what should’ve been a joyous launch day, the culmination of years of work, occurred under a cloud. The game was tarnished and tainted in a way it wouldn’t recover from. It didn’t help that, in addition to strangely inhuman animations, the game was frontloaded with poorly written, poorly delivered dialogue. The ten-hour preview given to the public was where the bulk of the game’s weakest material was and it hardly made for a good first impression.

My own assessment was that, independent of the controversy, the game suffered from a great deal of unevenness. Video games of this size are, of course, authored by many hands. But it is the skill of producers and creative directors to fuse the joins such that everything, from the art to the story to the controls, evince the consistency of a single vision.

ME:A lacked that. In some places its writing and characterization shone, in others it was amateurish. In some places the animation had a stunning verisimilitude, in others it could only be seen as a bad joke. A patch fixed most of the animation problems, saving countless NPCs from the doldrums of uncanny valley, but the damage was done.

"Clearly, in the light of hindsight, pre-releasing a game in such an unfinished state to a large segment of your audience was a terrible idea."

Three months after the game’s launch, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier confirmed what many of us had suspected: the game had a deeply troubled development cycle. According to Schreier’s sources, most of ME:A was developed over the space of a mere 18 panicked, crunchy months.

And contrary to the conspiracies of the angriest, most reactionary players, politics had nothing to do with it (among the more extraordinary theories was the notion that BioWare deliberately made Andromeda’s women “ugly” in deference to the sensibilities of “SJWs.” As a lesbian feminist myself, I never quite understood how that was supposed to work).

The larger issue seemed to be the fact that teething problems with the game’s animation engine, which had already been changed unusually late in the development process, never went away and even got worse as production went on. With everything condensed into this frenetic 18-month window, everything was in flux, and that’s damaging in a development process where some things need to be locked down at certain points well before launch.

Clearly, in the light of hindsight, pre-releasing a game in such an unfinished state to a large segment of your audience was a terrible idea. Andromeda would have benefited from at least another year in production to smooth out the kinks and develop a consistent tone.

But we got what we got, and what we got wasn’t actually as wretched as all that. For all the glitches and the cringey early dialogue, the game that unfolded was one that was actually fun, funny, and not a little addictive. It was a game that, I felt, had stumbled across the finish line and just barely made it to a point where it could stand on its own and tee up a sequel. Instead, the entirety of Mass Effect’s future has been thrown into doubt and Andromeda has been abandoned.

***

There was always something to be said for the idea that the original Mass Effect trilogy told a complete story that needn’t be improved upon or extended. The fact that Andromeda took place in its titular distant galaxy is a testament to how far BioWare had to reach to find a hook for a new ME game. ME:A was also ribbed for attempting to, sometimes hamfistedly, recapture the formula of the original games, right down to the identities and trope-y roles of your crew. Did we really need another Mass Effect 1? To be sure, even the wildly alien setting of a whole new galaxy offered precious little novelty.

"The fact that Andromeda took place in its titular distant galaxy is a testament to how far BioWare had to reach to find a hook for a new ME game."

And yet there’s the magic that always saves a BioWare game: the characters. I loved them, sometimes in spite of them, and this was a game that, for its faults, was alive with fascinating stories great and small. Like all of Mass Effect, it was a rollicking pulp adventure, silly in the best ways, with characters you wanted to see get out of just one more overly contrived jam on their way to becoming Big Galactic Heroes. It’s a comic book, and a pretty decent one at that. The ending of Andromeda teases us with the fate of the other arks, and with the hint of some threat deeper in the galaxy; you want to find out what happens next. Now, we may never know.

As the BioWare Montreal team move away from the divisive title, it’s worth asking, too, what kind of community game developers have fostered around their games where they look at an incident like ME:A’s launch and wonder “am I next on the chopping block?” Morose metaphors abound; there’s real fear of the video game community’s unchecked, omnidirectional rage -- a rage so great that they seek to be capable of killing the very things they claim to love, hurting the very people who create them along the way. 

Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek argues that this comes from the very love that players have for the franchise, a love so deep that it becomes distorted into malevolence when reality inevitably fails to live up to the image of perfection one so adores. That’s certainly part of it -- we in the press have played our role in fostering that -- and studios have a responsibility to ask themselves whether the price of cultivating a fervent fandom is to train the next hate mob who threatens your devs’ families.

Perhaps companies could stand to be more proactive and do something beyond posting a weak-kneed reminder to their fans that “attacking individuals, regardless of their involvement in the project, is never acceptable” after the latest abusive episode. But it’s hard to say, especially from this far on the outside, where to go from here.

The people who worked on ME:A were hard done by both their company and their fans. Thus a perfectly good series that should’ve had a long life ahead of it now lies fallow. Is the point of creating a passionate community the fostering of a fan-base who will buy your games and help you make them better? Or to create a group that can stop those games from being made altogether?

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a video game critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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