The “Mass Affect” of Mass Effect

Today we’re going to be discussing emotion within a gaming franchise and why fan reaction to games is actually a great sign for the gaming industry. Recently, I’ve heard all the hullaballoo and hoopla about Mass Effect 3 and it’s uproarious fan-base seeking vengeance upon the lowly EA for denouncing their faith to the franchise and ultimately seeking retribution on Bioware and EA for a disappointing ending to a what [I’m assuming based off reactions…] is a worthwhile franchise.

Now, I can only hold a slight sense of ambiguity here, considering I am a PS3 owner and haven’t really started playing any of the Mass Effect franchise. This, however, I feel allows me to discuss why in the world this uproarious fan base deserves praise and why Bioware and EA should actually be proud of their accomplishments.

No, I’m not saying that they should be proud that they pissed off millions of adoring fans that worship Commander Shepard like he’s a pseudo-psychological father figure. We should be making games for the user, not the development teams. They should be proud that they’ve managed to design a game that evokes so much passion and love behind the fan base. I had a friend recently send me a video from the Escapist covering this same topic, and he asked me my opinion on this whole thing as merely a third party observer.  Well folks it’s time to crack the knuckles and get down to the nitty-gritty of this whole debacle.

So, first there was that whole issue with the “Day One DLC” comment. I can see why that would miff fans, but most graciously stepped aside and waited for the games release. Now mass amounts of fans bombarded stores to gather up Mass Effect 3, the last in the saga of Commander Shepard and his crew, and low and behold – the ending fell short [apparently way short] of expectations. Now why does this even matter? – As a designer, I’m more concerned about how this affects the industry and the players as a whole, rather than individual experience. Games should be fun, engaging, and meaningful experiences for the user and I think Mass Effect is clearly one of those games. I don’t see a hoard of angry players, instead I take this as a positive point for games and I think EA and Bioware should too.

Here’s why:

Look, I realize that with every game that comes out there’s always going to be a small hoard of naysayers denouncing the game like it was some Exorcist baby or something.  That’s going to happen. The law of averages says so, but the idea here is that Mass Effect has done something now that I don’t think we would have seen in past generations. Games are now creating franchises that have become deep, meaningful, emotional experiences and when games fall flat on their face now people are vocal about it. We’re in a technological era where the use of Facebook. Twitter, Flickr, Youtube, etc. all of these social media hubs are at our fingertips for us to voice our opinions on [often times] superfluous crap, but other times, the message has meaning.

In the case of Mass Effect 3 we see gamers becoming so vocal that they begin writing petitions for a game’s ending to be changed to something more fitting – and by who’s standards is it more fitting? The gamers. It’s because there are plenty of gamers out there who pour themselves into the hearts, minds, mythos, and culture of these gaming environments. They feel as though they are the soul experts upon this material, and when you slap a shiny bumper sticker of an ending onto the end of a game that reads, “Hope you had fun, because this is all you get.” Players grow exponentially more upset.  I’ll give examples too based off of one of my favorite franchises that disappointed me – but not to this point:

Why when I look at this image does Muse's "Uprising" play in my head?

I’ll take a huge PS3 smash hit, much like Mass Effect has been to most 360 owners, and Nathan Drake from the Uncharted Series is basically our version of Commander Shepard. There are fan bases all over the web who love this franchise and given that it gets near perfect scores for every review base it’s covered in you’d be hard pressed to assume I’d personally have anything bad to say about it. Well, even as a fan of Naughty Dog, I practically job-shadow their work from everything from Jak and Daxter to The Last of Us, the last installment in the franchise left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.  Now I know that probably goes against the normal consensus, but please hear me out on this.

Nathan Drake, for me, is a hero that people grow to love and much like I grew a love for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones instantly, I grew attached to this cocky, smart ass hero who’d be willing to throw himself into vast amounts of danger for an heirloom ring or trinket. The last installment, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, capped off my wild ride with Nathan with a rather stagnant ending to say the least. I won’t spoil the ending for folks who haven’t played it, because I hate doing that, but what I will say is that Naughty Dog dropped the ball a bit.

I went from this...

... to this, yeah definite improvement...

... to... spiders in the walls? So confused.

Was it a nice closure to this portion of the story – yeah, sure – but was it what I was expecting? Not by a long shot.  The final boss fight felt lackluster, and while it was exciting, there was some sort of allure and intrigue that Uncharted and Uncharted 2 built up in their lore along the way. The lore and mysticism of Uncharted 3 fell short for me, and thus when the final boss battle came, the villain that I was posed against was sadly not to my expectations.

See? So I feel your pain Mass Effect fans! I really do, because it sucks when you invest so much energy into a game and you invest your heart into a series and you get slapped in the face with something unexpected, or something lackluster to what fans standards for the franchise are. This is a great era for games though, and thus why I’ll try and get back on topic. In this generation we’re starting to see a trend of ‘franchise’ game building, something that I thought for a time would be a lost art form.

The next-gen consoles have given developers the means of creating believable, heartwarming, intriguing characters which we immediately attach to like a five year old kindergartener with a crush on a recess sweetheart. We lunge ourselves hips deep into the lore and wade through it like it’s some hot, steamy jacuzzi of relaxation and enjoyment.  We grow wikis and forums dedicated to this lore and we cosplay because we can!

Seriously - this is what you call fan devotion right here...

I grew up wanting to write games and design games, strictly for this purpose – to evoke emotional responses in gamers and to give them fun, immersive experiences that they can take away from the gameplay and cherish forever. I’m hoping that when I do start developing games that the games and topics I choose to work on evoke that meaningful lore and grasp players in the same way that the Mass Effect cast has grasped the emotions of every player within it’s core.

I don’t want to design games strictly for myself, because I think they’re ‘artsy and neat’ but rather because I want to have millions of people experience something – anything – from my games. I want them to become memorable – and hey – even a bad memory is a memory none the less, at least your game’s not completely forgotten.

Games today are evoking emotional chords with us that I don’t think they did years ago. Games have storylines now, characters who we identify with, who we care for, and who we ultimately want to succeed [ and or fail depending ] and when those ideals we have as fans don’t pan out it saddens us greatly.  As an industry we need to look at this bigger picture here before we go and think that gamers are just out to slight us and make us feel like the work we put in means nothing to them. It means a great amount to them, and so Bioware and EA, you should be proud!

You’ve effectively proven that games now affect human emotions and that they’re not just some childish pastime. You’ve broken the inevitable boundaries of the medium and proven [ through your apparent mistake ] that games have VALUE to people’s lives. They matter to players and that games are important to households. These characters are becoming just as prevalent as household television or movie icons. I’ll close by saying this:

In the next couple of years, as video games become even more immersive, interconnected, and visceral experiences within our every day lives – this scenario will happen again and again and again. In fact, it happens quite regularly, but the only reason Mass Effect 3 is getting so much play is because of the fan base. Mass Effect, through the reaction this has caused, has effectively become the Star Wars or Star Trek of video games.

This means that franchises MEAN something to the player more than ever in game history. I’m pretty sure if Nintendo screwed up Mario tomorrow on some epic new next-gen game, that you’d have petitions up the next day with lines outside doors of retail stores mocking Nintendo for disgracing their title character. This is why this issue is so important, so be proud Bioware, through your choices many franchises will learn and, hopefully, that means better more FAN supported games!

Much love and happy gaming to you all!

Oh, and one last piece of advice:

Bioware and EA, I see you’re planning on writing a new ending as DLC. Do the fans a service and please allow the DLC to be a FREE download. If they’ve clearly vocalized that they hate the ending enough to cause this much disruption, do you really think it’s wise to ask them to pay more for something they feel you’ve done in error? – Just saying. It may help you to be fan-friendly here rather than fight them.

9 responses to “The “Mass Affect” of Mass Effect

  1. I liken the problem of ME3’s ending to that of the Harry Potter franchise. When we consider the value of the narrative and its impact on the reader/player, many people wish for a great deal more than they can ever get from the ending. The fact that it -is- an ending is something that, when all is said and done, many people will feel unhappy about even if they enjoyed the games thoroughly and emerged from the entire experience satisfied. I know I certainly feel a trifle sad that the story is over, and that Shepard is to be consigned to the archives of gaming.

    Mass Effect wasn’t (entirely) about Commander Shepard being the Ultimate Space Emperor Hero-Man/Woman; really, that narrative was more the vehicle for the questions that the game made you ask. Tangents on the value of life, the ethics and justification of your actions, and really, the question of any creature or species ‘intrinsic’ right to exist were primary themes, but were by far not the only ones. This is a video game that has engendered genuine -philosophical debate-.

    From a design standpoint? Unless you are simply using them in a somewhat positive/negatives/neutral-non-applicable scale, measuring the many, many decisions over the three games and blending them into something that resembles an ending scene gets very messy. Even if you use that scale, players may not get what they think they deserved, because they may have played the games differently on each successive run. Playing through all 3 games to get your ‘optimal’ ending would be a nightmare. Instead, Bioware gave the players a way to still make a choice, in the standard of the Commander doing what the Commander does; victory for humanity, and peace for the Galaxy. What this costs, and the end result, are still determined by the player.

    As to the content of the endings themselves? Without spoilers, it solves the question of the Reapers, and their terrible harvest of sentient life, without going into too zany or ridiculously drawn explanations of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Commander Shepard saves the galaxy. As to what the galaxy is after that moment… we are left in mystery, perhaps quite correctly so, as that is no longer Shepard’s tale. While I (and apparently the raging internet) are left with a million questions as to what happened after you ‘win’, I find it quite appropriate that I still have those questions. I let my imagination wander, and think on the what might still be, undeterred as yet by rigid limitation of established lore.

    • Barakka,

      I actually appreciate your points a lot. Thank you very much. You make an incredibly valid point that I think needs to be addressed to: The value of imagination after a game has finished. If a developer/novelist/director etc. addressed EVERY concern, and EVERY piece of lore that their fan-base desired, it would be a never-ending quest.

      I actually really appreciate the Harry Potter reference too. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and while that portion of my fan life is over now with the ending of the books and movies – I find myself constantly thirsting for the “what if” questions – and I think that’s a good thing when it comes to any medium. If your game/movie/novel can get someone talking or asking questions it means more than them not talking about you at all. I think that’s my point:

      ME3’s ending may not have been what fans wanted or expected, but it got people talking about the game and at the end of the day it means that people cared enough about the series that they couldn’t possibly go on without the game being changed to a more explainable conclusion. Thanks man for bringing these points up! I appreciate it!

  2. Good post, man. I’m one of the disappointed fans, for sure. It’s a shame, because the game overall was actually great. Lots of emotional moments, fun action set pieces, and plenty of great interaction between characters we’ve spent five years getting to know.

    Any ending is going to be a bittersweet one, because this is the end of an arc we’ve invested more than 90 hours into. But to have so many unanswered questions, so many characters with fates unknown, and a universe that is essentially facing obliteration by starvation — well, that just sucks.

    I’d love to see some sort of closure in the form of DLC, but you can bet it won’t be free. BioWare has made it abundantly clear that they are a business (except for when that doesn’t suit their verbage — in which case, they’re artists). So we’ll be handing over another crisp $10 to see the real ending to the game we bought.

    • Capitalism has taken over a once artistic market. Granted I realize we’re in a recession and everybody has to make money off games [ or advertisements/premium content if they’re ‘free to play’ games ] but it’s an unfortunate circumstance when a fan base has to shell out more to get closure that they want and deserve.

      I feel your pain man. The DLC will be coming, but yeah I’m sure the hounds over at EA and Bioware will dangle an empty sack like the Sheriff of Nottingham as they jack money from our pockets – yet again. I can only hope that whatever plans they have for DA III don’t go over as messed up as this media rampage…

      • Too bad DA II was crap. I hold no hope for DA III.

        You know, I honestly think we’re on a road to another gaming market crash. The big companies will tank, and the smaller, indie companies will rise from the ashes.

        The market needs a change, that’s for sure.

  3. Hey there folks, so I was scoping around the ol’ WordPress and I found a blogger Emi Presents, and she has a very interesting opinion on all of this – one which [ after reading her article ] – I actually see her point – I want to know what you folks think. Do you think that all of this rambling about ME3 is going to be a bad thing for games? Do you think it makes our consumer market a spoiled group of gamer babies? Check out her article and let me know:

    http://emipresents.com/2012/03/29/we-are-spoiled-gamers/

      • You’re welcome Emi.

        Always glad to share views of fellow gamers on here. It’s what this sites built on. I wouldn’t want to get into game design if I didn’t want to know the opinions of fellow gamers on a deeper level. I appreciate multiple views on game subjects and I feel it helps me understand what gamers really appreciate and look for when choosing games. So thank you for writing a wonderful article and helping to provide a broader view on this whole controversy.

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