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Opinion:  Mass Effect 3 's promise of ownership is one it couldn't keep

Opinion: Mass Effect 3's promise of ownership is one it couldn't keep Exclusive

March 21, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 21, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

Gamers will complain loudly about virtually anything on the internet. In fact, the stereotype of the persnickety nerd is bigger than games and older than the internet, frequently reflected in popular media: Joyless and obsessive, lavishing upon the detailed rules of their fantasy worlds, absurd adults looking stoic in their Star Trek uniform reproductions.

Obviously these are satires of extreme behavior, not icons that accurately reflect every person who enjoys science fiction, fantasy, video games and roleplaying. The archetype is born not of an image or behavior necessarily, but from the fact that the juxtaposition of playful, escapist-invented universes with the unflinching and deeply serious attention to detail that fans of those universes pay can seem strange to those that don't participate in what we generally call "geek culture."

The fact internet mobs will rise up in unison to do things like ruin the Amazon ranking of a book whose author offhandedly criticized gaming, or to arrange a campaign of harassment against an employee of a studio who suggested she'd like to see some things about a beloved franchise change, makes it pretty hard to sympathize with most of the causes gamers get up in arms about.

At first blush, the latest stink made by Mass Effect fans over the ending of the third game seems like just the latest eyeroll-inducing advance from an overly-entitled, impossible-to-satisfy group of players.

BioWare has said it aimed to make the trilogy's conclusion memorable for everyone, and that it hoped to get audiences talking. It also wanted to use the ending to pave the way for further, new and different adventures in the franchise's universe, on their way via downloadable content. BioWare's games are beloved by fans who like the studio's approach to storytelling, which generally involves extremely detailed, lore-rich worlds, customizable characters and narratives driven by choices which place the player character somewhere on a moral spectrum.

But when it comes to Mass Effect 3, many in the audience seem to have suddenly run out their patience for BioWare's storytelling -- they would rather have agency. For a game that's about choice, they argue, Mass Effect 3's ending didn't offer them enough ownership.

The charity petition fans have taken up to express their protest and to insist BioWare update the game to offer a different ending uses strong, pained language -- and as it raised $40,000 in one day (and over $76,000 as of press time), it almost makes you wonder what kind of world we would live in if these people were as passionate about, say, positive social change as they are about their space role-playing video game.

And if you're a creator, someone who visualizes games as an authored medium, or a player who likes to experience the amazing universes that game developers can create, this new level of entitlement from BioWare fans becomes insulting. Nobody really liked the ending of The Sopranos, either, but it never crossed the mind of any well-adjusted person to ask for -- no, to claim they were owed -- a change. We generally think of these entertainment media as the expressions of their creators, where you can like them or not, and where it's in fact less interesting to "like" something as to be provoked by it, to thought or discussion.

In a statement, BioWare co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka promised the studio is listening to audience "feedback", and that even in defiance of the "first instinct" to defend its work, it will offer future content that should address fan problems with the ending.

But how the studio is handling the fan demands ultimately becomes a statement on what video games are for: Are they expressive works of art to be experienced and discussed, or are they interaction systems designed to salve and pleasure escapists and recuse the creators?

These questions on the nature of games, and all the further questions they imply (what, if anything, is a game creator's obligation to its audience?) aren't new; far from it, they're well-trod, with plenty favoring games-as-art and auteur theory while others view them as stimulation engines that have no inherent meaning aside from the player's entertainment, from whatever meaning the player's experience bestows. Still others understand games as somewhere in between, a call-and-response, a dialog between designer and player where each holds equal power.

What's new about the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle is an interesting reflection of our times and an important cautionary tale about the promises that big companies make to audiences. Publishers have been steadily aiming in recent years to take more and more of the games business online. The relationship between the player and the creator no longer ends at the retail shelf: Gamers can expect long-lived franchises, ever-living online play, steady feeds of DLC, even cross-platform tie-ins.

There are now tablet apps, social networks, content updates, stuff like that. The promise has advanced closer and closer to the implication that if you're ready to keep paying relatively tiny amounts of money on a regular basis, you never have to leave your game world if you don't want to.

When players balked at the possibility that publishers might just be trying to extend their relationships with our wallets, we were told that it's better for us. Online play gives publishers data that lets them customize our experience to be more of what we want; games as live operations instead of as boxed products ensure that someone is always listening, that the game world is an omnipresent concern to a publisher versus something they just need to get us to buy once.

It was BioWare parent Electronic Arts that pushed hard to be on the forefront of this digital revolution; for the past few years that pillar of its business has been a priority, if not the priority. And it was BioWare that has always led the choice-driven game, the customizable protagonist, prizing the lean-forward, player-engaged storytelling method. You could almost call its community management aggressive, so stridently did the studio want its audience to know it was listening.

In fact, perhaps more than any other modern console game Mass Effect led this movement toward ultimate player agency. This is your story, this is your Shepherd, players were told again and again. It's actually not, in fact, all that weird that people feel entitled to own it by now. You maybe can't blame BioWare fans for not really being interested, only just now, only at the series' end, in the studio's creative entitlement to finish "its" game how it wants.

One of my friends thought the name of the fan petition, "Retake Mass Effect," (a subversion of the game's own "Retake the Earth" marketing tagline) was particularly interesting -- "as if it ever belonged to them," he reflected. But if games really are the owned vision of a team of creators, then BioWare's first mistake was committing so fully to the fiction that it did.

If you promise your players agency and involvement, they are going to take it seriously. If you use every trick in your repertoire to immerse and engage, to create a sense of ownership, it seems you will need to consider the implications of those promises beyond how much downloadable content you can sell.

It's interesting to learn what kinds of enormous expectations an audience of fans developed in response to the marketing campaigns for Mass Effect and in answer to the meticulous relationship-building the brand undertook with them. Other publishers and brands should benefit from the lesson. Maybe it's less exciting to champion "player-owned" universes when situations like this make it clear how much it limits creators -- not to mention how impossible "player-owned" actually is in reality.

No one likes irrational, entitled audiences. But maybe in this case, it becomes clear how they get that way.

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