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.