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An open letter to the #occupybioware and #retakemasseffect movements

This post contains no spoilers of any kind.

Ok, something needs to be said about #occupybioware, #retakemasseffect and the related backlash movements against the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Let me firmly state for the record, this is not a defence or discussion of said ending, Mass Effect, or Bioware in general. What this is, is an appeal to reason amidst the frothing angst, wailing and gnashing of teeth that has become the gaming community’s de facto response to any and all disappointments, perceived slights or difference of opinion.

The entitled hysteria needs to stop, because its happening with such regularity that the actions of the vocal minority threaten to tar the entire group and eradicate any credibility games as an industry, and gamers as a community may have established, even amongst ourselves. More importantly, it makes it much more difficult for gamers to have an ongoing, reasoned and constructive discussion with the people who create the games that we love.

Let me be clear – your complaints, your points of view, and your right to voice them as loudly and as regularly as you want are both valid and valuable. The point I’m trying to make is that constructive, useful feedback is very easily lost amongst the shouting and table pounding which is currently dominating this discussion. Worse yet, in your anger you’re rushing to set a precedent that may have very undesirable consequences in future – not just for you, but for all of us. For clarity, I want to separate the useful points of your message from the troubling one:

I hated Mass Effect 3’s ending! Great, lets hear your reasons – its probable there are a lot of people who agree with them, and they should be heard.

I’m not buying any more Bioware games! Ok. If you feel strongly enough about it, articulate a reasoned argument somewhere online, or send it to Bioware, in hopes that future efforts are more in line with what interests you as a gamer. Personally, I don’t believe a creative difference about how a story should have ended warrants such a reaction, but to each their own.

We’re entitled to the ending that we built up in our heads, and we believe we have the right to make and enforce decisions on your creative output – we demand that you change the story you wrote, so it is exactly the same as we would have written it! Unless you do as we say, we will hold your company to (financial) ransom.

Please.

There are a number of reasons why this last approach is both obnoxious and ultimately destructive. Here are a few of them.

1. You are misunderstanding your relationship to Bioware’s intellectual property (and the nature of sales transactions).

When you purchase a product, what you are entitled to is full and unfettered access to the experience of that product. There is no guarantee that you will enjoy that experience, nor are you entitled to one.

Of course, should you be disappointed, you are entitled to react to that disappointment any way you wish. Complain loudly, tell your friends not to buy it, boycott the company or suggest your changes – all reasonable reactions. Reasonable, as long as you understand that the company is in no way obligated to make those changes. Thats one of two key issues here – that you feel that the company owes you, somehow, and that they can legitimately be forced to change their game to meet your every need. The other is the way that this feeling is expressed as screeching rage about ‘betrayal’ of fans, as if the ending was consciously, maliciously designed to shatter everyone’s dreams while Bioware twirls its collective moustache and cackles like a cartoon villain.

Funnily enough, in situations where fans might be entitled to demand changes from the developer (if it doesn’t work properly – like the buggy mess of Fallout: New Vegas, or the massive performance issues of Skyrim on PS3), we don’t see this kind of reaction. There’s some complaining and bad press, some embarrassed apologies from those responsible, and then we all get on with enjoying the games for the awesome experiences that they are.

The paranoia that characterises this latest backlash, seeing persecution of loyal consumers where in fact there is only (at worst) an ambiguous or less than stellar conclusion to an otherwise brilliant series, makes us all look like crazy, spoiled children. You know what? Sometimes great things have disappointing elements. The ending of Return of the King is one of the least interesting and most unnecessary parts of the entire series (except for the fiasco that is Tom Bombadil, and everything he touches). Are we chanting in the streets and petitioning the Tolkein estate to have the bad parts re-written? No. Are we all maintaining that the entire trilogy is ruined by an imperfect conclusion? No.

If you absolutely must find an outlet for the energy created by your enormous overreaction, the accepted thing to do in these circumstances is relentlessly howl your derision into the internet, mocking the culprits for their lack of perfection, until their once legendary creative vision becomes an industry joke (like Star Wars fans did with George Lucas). It might not get the results you want – if it did, Jar Jar Binks would have been retconned out of existence years ago – but at least it shows you understand your relationship to other people’s intellectual property.

We understand that what we as consumers want is extremely important to game developers, and that these wants should (and do) have an enormous influence on the story and mechanics of games when they are conceived, and as they are developed. This influence however does not equate to being able to arrogantly demand that the finished, released product be changed to meet your exact specifications, even assuming everyone universally agrees on what those are (and they don’t).

2. Be careful what you wish for…

What exactly do you expect to come out of this movement? Is it a reasonable discourse with a company resulting in better products and a better relationship in future? Or is it Bioware caving to your demands, and the subsequent ‘victory’ that comes with asserting creative control over something you have no rights to?

So Bioware have said they will keep working on ‘additional content’, recognising that some of their more passionate fans ‘needed closure’. Not that its likely, but what do you think will happen if this content involves changing the original ending? My guess is there may be an immediate backlash against the change by an equal number of people who, even if they didn’t like the original, are even more concerned about the idea of outspoken internet groups holding game development to ransom in this way. Alternatively, some other group will be furious that your proposed ending got used and theirs didn’t, prompting another campaign to change the game yet again. The best case scenario is months of petty squabbling over which ending is canonical. At the end of all this, how much time do you want Bioware to spend managing their PR, creating explanation videos and gently indulging your this behaviour, and how much time do you want them to spend actually making games?

Most importantly, the most powerful message a retconned ending (as opposed to some DLC that ties up loose ends, which is far more likely) would send is that its open season on everything. That the vocal minority somehow deserve ultimate control over the creative output of the industry, and that any gameplay mechanic, story element or character that doesn’t meet with their approval grants them the right to demand a change.

Once we start down this path, and send the message to developers that every significant part of their game needs to be pre-emptively approved by the internet in order avoid a boycott on release, it will be very, very difficult to come back from. Is that really the direction we want the industry to travel? Do you really think that crowd-sourcing the development of complex game trilogies is a great idea? (If you do, consider how many people out there think Farmville is amazing, then ask yourself how excited you’d be about private terminal messages saying ‘Admiral Hackett needs your help planting his corn!).

Cooperative writing projects on the internet aren’t a new concept, but I’m yet to see the output garner many prestigious awards for quality. Cast your minds back to the last time an entertainment project actively allowed internet fans to suggest direct changes during production. Is that what you want Bioware’s next project to look like? I don’t. Consider that the power you’ve incorrectly assumed is yours by right, granted by Bioware, actually extends to the entire community. If changes to future games are going to be made because people demand it, the changes that get made may not be the ones that you asked for. Relatedly…

3. You don’t speak for everyone

As of March 10, Mass Effect 3 had sold more than 1.6 million copies. The Occupy Mass Effect petition, large though it may be, has not amassed 2% of that figure. This discrepancy makes the distinction between passionate arguments and aggressive demands all the more important. You don’t speak for everyone (certainly not for me) so please stop with the pointless, childish behaviour, committed in the name of the wider gaming community.

Ultimately, if you don’t like a game, by all means complain. Stop buying products from Bioware, EA, or anyone else creating things you don’t enjoy, as is your right to do. All I ask is that you stop before you get to the entitled, hysterical demands – you are not entitled to have story changes delivered, and behaving like you are isn’t good for you, the games, or the industry in general. Situations like this are why we have the term ‘pyrrhic victory’.

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  1. tgchen
    March 21, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    I guess we can look at it two ways. One as above (which I totally agree with) and two… Previously this kind of attachment and poorley perceived sense of ownership of the ‘things I like’ really existed is a big way in the realms of Film and TV. Robust discussions and debate on numerous characters and storylines fill the web, and well we remember outrages about the endings of iconic tv shows like X Files and Lost. The fact that this group has moved across to the gaming world means that it’s now, or festering on the edge. Of being the primary vehicle for exploring themes around topics and characters. And that excites me.

    • March 21, 2012 at 7:59 pm

      Don’t get me wrong here – I’m all for being on that edge and contributing to the discussion around topics, themes and the ongoing relevance of a beloved series or character. Providing an instant forum to allow that kind of community communication is one of the things that makes the internet so awesome. I just worry that we’re confusing the fact that we have the ABILITY to pull stunts like this with the NEED or VALUE of doing so – and again, my issue isn’t with expressing discontent (as you know), its with this idea that ‘You have to do what we say, or else…’ is a valid way of having a dialogue with a company, and especially one that you loved and respected up until 2 weeks ago when this ending came along.

      There’s a related subject which might tie in to what you’ve said above, but that I haven’t yet seen a lot of discussion of, which is ‘What are our responsibilities as fans, that we take on in exchange for getting to be part of the conversation, and helping to shape these games?’. There’s a lot of talk about how its not like it was in the old days, when game companies made games for the fans, and for the love of it. I wonder how much of that may be due to the booming used game industry, and these kind of activities whenever an unpopular decision is made. (probably not much, to be honest – I’m sure its pure business, but it bears thinking about).

  2. March 21, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Since I will continue to ignore most of the internet until I get to play ME3, I can’t speak to the outrage concerning the ending. However, your argument is sound and I also agree. There’s absolutely no way for game developers to please *everyone, and in these times of social networking it’s easier than ever for people to come together in a forum to voice their opinions. In this age of “consumer curation,” if you will, regular folks feel entitled to participate in the creation of media because they want what they want, nothing less.

    You make a good point about gamers putting up with performance issues, and those are way worse than bad storylines. Sure, I had my problems with, say, the Fable series, but I’m not going to storm into Mr, Molyneux’s house and give him an earful. I had my issues with the game, but I never felt personally offended that the games didn’t do x, y, and z. Maybe I don’t get as personally invested in games as much as others. And maybe I’ll sing a different tune after playing ME3.

    It is interesting that the ME3 ending is getting so much mainstream media attention. That’s probably not so good for Bioware, but it’s great for video games and gamers. Sure, some folks will continue to mock us and the industry, but the reality is that we are economic and social forces to be reckoned with.

  3. March 22, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Speaking as someone firmly in the Retake Mass Effect movement, let me see if I can clarify this for you. All most of us are saying is that we did not get what we paid for. Bioware made specific, public promises about how they would wrap the game, promises they did not keep. Now if you bought a car that the manufacturer claimed got 50MPG and found out, after you bought it, that it only got 8MPG, people would be tossing around words like “fraud” and calling their lawyers. For the most part, that’s not what’s happening here. Most fans are simply asking Bioware to make good on their promises, something they are able to do because of the medium involved. (And not, as some have said, an unprecedented act either.)

    For myself, I’ve made two very public statements to Bioware. First, they made a horrible mistake with the ending of ME3. While you are correct that the number of people complaining is relatively small compared to the number of games sold, you also need to remember that the largest block of players are going to be casual players, and most of them are just getting to the ending about now. (It’s a long game, after all.) So, those number will most likely shift even more as time goes on.

    Secondly, I’ve declared that Bioware has lost my trust. They were one of the only companies whose games I would pre-buy. Their reputation for quality made them a safe bet. From now on, however, I will not buy any game they produce until I’ve heard from the people playing it as to whether they’ve pulled a “mass effect.”

    This, quite frankly, is the reason Bioware should be listening.

    Do I have a right to demand they change their game? Sure I do, I paid $60 for the right to complain. Do they have to listen to me? Absolutely not. Will there be negative consequences to their bottom line if they don’t listen to me (and the thousands of others like me)? You bet there will.

    You can have all the discussions about art and creators rights you want, and that stuff is all well and good, but in the end, Bioware produces a product for sale. If no one buys their products, they go out of business, so it’s in their best interest to keep their customers happy. Which is something they most assuredly did not do with Mass Effect 3.

    • March 22, 2012 at 1:02 am

      @cary – I agree with your initial point, there’s no pleasing everyone – so we need to think very carefully about changing things because a percentage of people demand it – there is a reasonable risk that we either end up in constant squabbling about which movement wants the changes more aggressively, or alternatively, that game development gets dominated by the same vocal 10% every time, under the logic that if they’re more passionate about it, they should get what they want, and damn everyone else.

      @W.Daniel Willis – I do agree that Bioware may have oversold the amount of choice in how this would end up, but I’m not convinced thats boycott material (if it were, Peter Molyneux would be taking out people’s trash right now, rather than orbiting the gaming world as one of its major celebrities).

      From what you’ve argued below, I don’t think we actually disagree here – my argument was that you shouldn’t demand this changes like you’re entitled to them (which you’ve agreed with below), but that you should complain about them if you feel aggrieved, and boycott Bioware games if you feel its warranted (which you’ve also noted.

      So should Bioware be listening? Absolutely – they should and likely have been, and will most certainly do so more closely in future as a result of the ME3 furore. If people choose not to buy future games, and that makes them take notice, so much the better. I just think the cost of forcing in a system where we as gamers get to force changes on stories that are already written is ultimately a bad thing, and once you start that with Mass Effect, you can’t necessarily stop if someone else wants to do it to Dragon Age (or Skyrim, or Crysis, or Max Payne – the games industry is a business – if you make it more economically viable to kowtow to every expression of disappointment that turns up on the internet, thats what they’ll do. I don’t think it will be very long before we’re all complaining that every game is exactly the same, and that loud internet trolls are controlling the development of every game. I might be wrong. We’ll see, I guess).

      • March 22, 2012 at 2:37 am

        Haha, that is pretty much the first thing I thought of when this whole FTC thing started. “Damn, if this works, Molyneaux is SCREWED”.

        Great work as usual on the post marathon.

  4. March 22, 2012 at 6:20 am

    Well said. I haven’t played ME3 yet, so I feel as though my opinion is automatically invalidated, but I’m with you on this one. The obvious disappointment on the part of many players is understandable, but it’s the entitled “We are OWED something more” attitude that’s just obnoxious.

    Cheers!

  5. ozbugsy
    March 22, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    I firmly believe that a lot of the problem with the ending is that it does not match up to the high quality of writing & story telling that we have come to expect from Bioware (which they themselves showed they were capable with with 99% of this game, and the two preceeding games). It is well within thier rights to deliver a bleak “bittersweet” ending if that’s what they want to do – it’s their game after all.

    I do however have an issue with the number of people who claim that because the 50,000+ people who form part of the #retakemasseffect movement is only a small percentage of those who have bought the game (1.6 million) therefore they are in the minority. Anyone in market research will tell you that to obtain a feel for public opinion, you poll a small subset of the public and extrapolate the overall figures from there. From my reading, it appears that of the people that have responded to the variety of polls that have been done concerning the ending, the vast majority (over 90%) either want the ending changed, or at the very least dislike it. I do realise that conversely that more often than not, it’s only the disgruntled customer who complains so the numbers do get skewed, especially when there is no real randomness to the sample used.

    That being said, I do believe that the fact that the vast majority of those responding to such polls are in agreement about the ending, then Bioware does need to do some serious thinking about making some changes. One of the other telling facts, is that those complaining are not simply saying “The product sucks” (as rabid anti-Bioware people are prone to do), rather most are saying “We love your product – except for this one tiny bit”. Also, lets not forget that Bioware has already shown it is willing to change a product that the consumers feel is not in keeping with the Universe they have created (Deception), which is the problem that many of us have with the ending in its current form, so changing a product is hardly unprecedented for either Bioware or the ME Universe itself.

    I do believe that contacting the FTC is a bit over the top – especially as it was done before Bioware had been given a chance to respond to the complaint directly. While I do believe that bodies such as the FTC, BBB etc have their place, one’s first point of call should always be the company with whom you have the complaint.

    I did write a list of the issues I had with the ending, but in the interest of keeping the discussion spoiler free I have removed them, it’s enough to say that I don’t need a “happy ending” just one that doesn’t seem to contradict the framework of the Mass Effect Universe, and the character I developed within that framework.

  6. MatteMattMatt
    March 22, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    I applaud yet another fine post, on a subject of much interest to me. You’ve summed up exactly how I feel about this subject more eloquently than I ever could. Take a bow, sir.

    There’s been a lot of talk about the community’s response to the ending(s). There will be more for weeks to come now that Bioware has made a move in response to the angry mobs, to soothe the angry mobs.

    What I’m curious about right now is the other side of the story: Bioware, their reaction to the hysteria and what the community thinks about that. Did they do right or wrong? I know which way I’m leaning right now but I’ll hold judgement until I see (and experience) precisely what it is they are doing….

  7. Dara
    March 23, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    A much-appreciated post. I have yet to play the third game in the series, but I’m looking forward to experiencing this ending that’s caused so much controversy.

  8. March 23, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    @Snowfoxbar – actually, I don’t think not having played it does in validate your opinion. The issue I’m arguing here is whether or not forced sanctions (via organised boycott) is a reasonable reaction to a disappointing story conclusion. I’m arguing that its not – in my view, it doesn’t actually matter whether the ending was the best thing ever, a bit of a letdown, or the most horrendous use of any entertainment medium since the dawn of time – what matters is that the ‘do what we say, or else’ reaction crosses several lines.

    What really concerns me is the very ‘instant gratification’ nature of this thinking, and the lack of concern for the precedent being set here, and what it means for the future of game development.

    I understand that from the view of most of the people protesting, they see this as ‘influencing’ the developers in the right direction, and simply voicing their opinions, but I’m of the opinion that thats not what this is.

    In a recent communication (which you can read here: http://clancop.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/hold-the-line-childs-play-under-attack/) one of the founders of the Retake Mass Effect movement ends by saying “Retake Mass Effect is not over by any means; Dr. Myzuka’s statement was welcome, but did not directly address our concerns. You have been heard. Now it is time to make sure they get the details right :)”

    That indicates to me that this is not about influence – this is about control. Statements like the above suggest that the boycotting and shouting is going to go on until Bioware makes the ending exactly the way they’re told to.

    Does anyone actually believe for a second that this movement, or any others like it are going to draw the line at Mass Effect? I don’t.

  9. March 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    @ozbugsy – first up, appreciate you keeping this discussion spoiler free for those who haven’t finished – cheers for that.

    You do have a point about the numbers. I’ll admit that 50,000+ people this angry about it suggests there are probably much larger numbers who didn’t like it either, but don’t feel strongly enough about it to protest.

    That distinction is important though – you could argue that many of those people were disappointed, but who’s to say they’d be impressed by the alternate endings being proposed by Retake Mass Effect or Occupy Bioware? That was the intention behind my third point in the post – its totally legitimate to complain about the ending of the game, and I’ll even call complaining about it in the name of all gamers (or the ‘vast majority’, which is what they’re doing) a grey area. The line being crossed is then assuming that that vast majority of gamers would prefer the ending they’re suggesting instead. Even if I weren’t concerned about what I see as bullying behaviour (making a large charitable donation is a net positive effect on the world and a good thing, but it doesn’t alter the other actions they’re taking in parallel), or concerned about how this will effect the development of future games, there’s no guarantee that the proposed new ending will be universally received any better than the original, regardless of the perception that its more aligned to the mass effect universe (which is going to be a subjective argument anyway).

    I agree with you that the FTC thing is going too far, although I disagree that the FTC has any place in this argument, whether he’d contacted Bioware first or not.

  10. March 23, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    @MatteMattMatt – Bioware’s reaction will indeed be (and has been so far) very interesting. Now that they’ve started talking concessions, the main question as far as Mass Effect 3 is concerned (for me) is exactly how much of the change is going to be retconning the existing ending, and how much will be DLC that further explores and ‘gives closure’ in context of the original endings.

    Further on, this is definitely going to change the way they approach game development, especially as it relates to community relationship. If I had to speculate, I would imagine that at the very least this will have to result in releasing MUCH more information about games in development than they currently do, to gauge reaction and avoid another post release incident like this.

    As I’ve said before here, I’m starting to feel that knowing everything about a game before I play hurts my enjoyment of the story and the world thats been created, so I don’t think that will be a good thing. Knowing everything about a game spoils it for me – thats why I don’t buy the strategy guides and read them cover to cover before I even put the disc in the drive.

    From the sounds of things though, there are a lot of people who disagree.

  11. March 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    @Westen – honestly, there’s got to be a subsection of people in these groups who also played the Fable series. If I don’t see an ‘occupymolyneux’ movement spring up very soon, I’m calling hypocrisy on all of them.

  12. March 24, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Terrific post. It’s a shame that people need to nit pick and take their hatred towards something online, but I guess that’s the way things are headed.
    The problem I have with it is if they hate the endings so much, why don’t they go out there and make their own game with their own ending? That’s right, they can’t. They should be thankful for what they get and that their are companies out there who bust their balls coming up with the best games possible for these “fans”.
    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Mass Effect and I’m thankful there are games like these out there. It’s a shame others can’t see past their arrogance and selfishness to see this more often.

  13. thecryingman
    March 24, 2012 at 1:44 am

    This is exactly what I feel like with all this ME3 debuckle going on. You can just articulate it alot better than I can.

  14. March 24, 2012 at 9:53 am

    @MatteMattMatt – not exactly Bioware’s perspective, but PC Gamer rounded up some other game devs and asked them for their thoughts. Some interesting perspectives in here (on both sides, it seems)

    http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/03/23/mass-effect-3-ending-what-do-game-writers-think/

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