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An open letter to the #occupybioware and #retakemasseffect movements

March 21, 2012 17 comments

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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We need to talk about DLC

March 15, 2012 14 comments

Personal opinions follow. Feel free to loudly disagree with them.

A recent comment (cheers to Liam Brokas) on this post has really got me thinking about my relationship with DLC, which in turn saw it change from ‘largely indifferent’ to ‘annoyed enough to write a post about it’. What with the recent furore around Mass Effect 3‘s day one scandal, this seems as good a time as any to weigh into the whole debate will some ill-considered opinions. So here they are.

Personally, I’m yet to see much DLC that I think credibly fills the gap left behind by the expansion packs that it usurped. Leaving aside for one second the numerous examples of DLC that appears to have actively been designed as either a cheap money grab (horse armour), or an expensive, high gloss money grab (From Ashes), I’m not convinced that small, episodic chunks of additional content are how I want to spend my cash, or play my games. Don’t get me wrong, the current DLC situation is still better than the ‘micro-transactions’ alternative that funds a lot of free to play games, but lets face it, as soon as you can look at your revenue model for a game and aptly describe it with, “hey, at least its not as sleazy as Zynga’s” you need to own up to the fact that the games market is no longer based on the quid-pro-quo relationship it once was.

Mass Effect 3

Few alien-human universe saving teams have been so loved, or so reviled, based on the distribution method of their adventures.

DLC has very effectively supplanted the expansion pack of old – there are still some examples of it, but they’ve largely gone the way of other beloved childhood treasures that died too soon. As the name suggests, they used to be all about expanding the game experience. There have been some examples of disappointing exceptions, but by and large you were getting something that had been cohesively designed to add to the game world in multiple ways, be it new characters, new maps, new monsters etc. Importantly, they were generally large and involved enough to be worth the investment, because in order to justify the $50 asking price, and – more importantly, lure people back to the game months after most people had finished it – the developers had to do something of significance. Diablo 2’s Lord of Destruction added a whole new world area with its own quests, bosses, monsters and importantly, story (such as it was). Expansions over the years to the Dawn of War franchise added new single player campaigns and new playable races. Even Red Dead Redemptions Zombie Nightmare (despite not understanding what made the first game great), and Dead Island’s Ryder White (ditto) attempted to add an experience that changed the dynamic of the original games, expanded the lore, and gave new goals to be achieved.

That last part on goals is especially important, and its why I think the cycle between release and DLC is getting shorter. Personally, once I’ve played through a game, finished it and moved on, I’m not going to be lured back by the promise of one or two more missions that don’t really relate to the story, a few new weapons/cars/npc’s to play with, or 90 odd minutes of extra ‘content’. The more people who are still embroiled in the hype of your game’s release when the DLC drops, the more people will buy it, meaning if you do it early enough it doesn’t need to be large and standalone – it doesn’t really need to be anything more than a few missions and a character swept off the main game’s cutting room floor, with the addition of a price tag.

To get fans to re-engage with your game in spite of the ever-more-crammed schedule of AAA releases each year is difficult and risky. You need something that expands the original game, rather than just extending it. However fun it might be to play, a lot of DLC falls into this ‘extension’ camp. Personally, I think you could make compelling arguments against the Mass Effect Series, Dragon Age series and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with many more waiting in the wings for a more diligent researcher to discover.

On the subject of timing, as a general rule I’m not wild about DLC arriving while I’m still playing the game for the first time. Cleverer people than me have kicked Mass Effect 3‘s day one DLC from one end of the internet to the other already so I won’t rehash it here, except to say that DLC that I’m hearing about before I even have the game gives me the same feeling I got once or twice as a kid at Christmas. The one when you got something you’re really excited about and have been looking forward to, and then your friends started telling you about how much cooler it would be if it had all the latest accessories, upgrades etc. Suddenly this thing you loved a moment ago has been cheapened by the promise of how much better it could be, if you only spent a little more money. (Full disclosure: I did buy From Ashes, the scandal causing minute-one DLC that I’m currently complaining about. My angst about DLC and related reliving of traumatic childhood memories is likely at least partially motivated by this fact.)

Which is not to say that there isn’t any true expansion content out there. Some of Fallout 3’s DLC basically qualifies as expansion packs, especially the stellar Point Lookout. Whatever my expressed feelings about Alan Wake’s American Nightmare were, I’m glad they didn’t opt instead for the safe route and just tape a bunch of additional ‘quests’ onto the existing Alan Wake, and I wouldn’t have bought and played it if they had.

American Nightmare

Pictured: Six times more expensive than horse armour, and not very good. Still at least six times better an idea than horse armour was.

I did have a DLC ‘strategy’ for a while, where I would fastidiously ignore any DLC that came out, play and enjoy the game, and then months later when I was ready to replay with fresh eyes (or it was a slow month for releases), I’d pick up all the DLC together. I was quite convinced for a while this would provide the truly expansive, adventure continuing experience I was looking for. The theory was that if you bolted enough disjointed pieces of extra content together, they’d form an unholy-yet-awesome frankensteinien expansion, every bit as good as the proper ones of old. (Protip: they don’t). They’re pitched as single, play-hour extending pieces of content. To pick on Mass Effect again, while its DLC mission is a great one, in the context of the entire game, what does it really add? Does what it added to the story stand alone and universe stand alone, or is it forgotten in amongst the slew of similar, later quests? A friend of mine recently noted ‘I didn’t realise it was the DLC until after I’d completed it.’ In this context, is it expanding the game, or just extending it?

This all leads me back to my original point – from what I’ve seen so far, DLC isn’t an adequate replacement for proper expansion packs, even if you wait until enough of them come along to get the equivalent number of hours entertainment. At the end of the day, what you get with an expansion pack is (usually) a cohesive, multi-faceted add-on that is often capable of standing alone as a representative of the game or series it belongs to. However fun they might be in the short term, From Ashes and its ilk don’t fit that mould. Even without its wallet-eroding, face-slapping arrival on the same day as the ‘full’ game (although I’m not sure I can credibly use that term any more), its not an encouraging sign of the future direction of DLC.

I realise this post has an element of whiny #firstworldproblems about it, but honestly, I don’t think DLC is living up to its potential. For those of you who’ve been on the DLC wagon since the beginning, how do you feel about it? Do you long for a return to the good old days of $50 expansion packs that you looked forward to almost as much as the game itself, or do you think smaller, more frequent parcels of new content are a better bet?

Choose your own adventure

March 9, 2012 13 comments

I’m really looking forward to picking up Mass Effect 3 on the weekend (fashionably late, I know), saving earth, getting to know crew members new and old, and generally soaking up every detail of the universe.

In anticipation (and also as a procrastination technique while I’m ostensibly studying) I’ve been thinking that in amongst all the horror and shameful antics of the Jennifer Hepler backlash fiasco*, the interesting piece of news about the multiple game ‘modes’ in ME3 went largely undiscussed. Regardless of whether you intend to play either the ‘story only’ or ‘action only’ version of ME3 (I do not), its unarguably an intriguing idea from Bioware. Personally, I feel that both the gameplay and the story of the Mass Effect series are brilliant and I wouldn’t miss a minute of either, but the concept is worth investigating, and I think its something I’d be interested to see other developers experiment with.

Mass Effect 3

Femshep, seen here advancing the story.

Remember, of course, that the fact that the option is there in no way detracts from your game experience if you choose not to take it (we’ll have no fanboy vitriol about people who only want to play the story, or intellectual sneering at those who prefer action here, thank you). Thats the best part of this approach of allowing people to choose the option – there’s no ‘dumbing down’ of the core experience to make it accessible to those who don’t like complex mechanics, nor are they ditching the quality story of the universe to appeal to a wider range of action focused gamers. Bioware is offering a choice of experience, and you get to pick the one that suits you best.

Now, these are some polarising choices, I’ll grant you, but what if other developers started thinking the same way and made the overall experience of their games available in different ways? What if I could get say, the story and character building of Final Fantasy X, without thirty interminable hours of ‘random encounters’ with the same three monsters every time I walk ten feet through the world?

Alternatively, what if I could have the story experience of Heavy Rain without losing my favourite characters to these awful one-hundred-button-combination quicktime events?

Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any games in which I’d happily sacrifice the story elements for more of the action, but thats probably because I tend to play more RPG’s than anything else these days, and is purely a personal preference – I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who’d do the reverse.

Of course, this doesn’t need to be limited to the story or action choice that Mass Effect 3 offers. My last post about Amnesia got me thinking about the possibility of value in ‘less scary’ versions of the game, easily achieved by giving the player character a small amount of power to wield. Would it still be a worthwhile experience if before you started, you could either select to play the original version, or a game mode with slightly more monsters, but also some basic, Penumbra style combat? What if you could collect scarce, flimsy weapons by exploring, and have the ability to fight back against some of the monsters? Granted, you’re making it a totally different game by doing that, but does that make it valueless?

In this case (somewhere in Sweden, Thomas Grip has felt a disturbance in the force) you’d need to really restrict the number of weapons in the game so it retained the ‘survival horror’ feel, and probably also make it risky by forcing the player to use precious lamp oil and tinderboxes to explore the darkest areas where a weapon might be found, but I think it would be an interesting experiment.

From a pure business case point of view, Frictional might opt for this version out of a desire to make the game appeal to a wider audience (and therefore rake in cash to fund more of their awesome games) without wanting to dilute what they feel is the ‘true’ experience they set out to create. Looking at it from the player’s perspective, it would allow more people to share in an amazing experience, even if they don’t like being scared out of their wits for hours at a time.

I really only raise this to debate the issue – I’m not suggesting every game could (or should) do this, or even that its a good idea in the case of Amnesia. There are however, a number of series that over time have alienated their core fanbase by shooting for wider appeal, and I think this provides a reasonable answer to the question ‘how can we convince a wider range of people to buy our series, without pissing off the current fans?’

Given that we know units sold will (almost) always win a fight against preserving the integrity of an existing IP, I think its an option worth exploring further.

Who’s with me?

*Which I won’t dignify by linking to – as a community, we should be ashamed of ourselves. Also, ‘backlash fiasco’ is yet another great name for a band.

Game trailers – friend or foe?

February 21, 2012 10 comments

It seems like you can’t call yourself a AAA title these days (you know what? I’m not even sure what that means, although I think we can safely rule out ‘three times as good as an ‘A’ title) unless you’ve got a massive-budget, zero-gameplay trailer to go along with it.

Like this one.

There was a lot of controversy after Dead Island’s stunning, voyeuristic look at a family’s last moments in the zombie apocalypse sent expectations of the final game skyrocketing in the wrong direction. The problem was it all focused on the failings of the game itself, with side notes questioning how such an epic mismatch in marketing tone could even have occurred. What was missing was the debate about whether or not the trailer itself, as a marketing tool, was a good (or even necessary) thing.

It was by no means the first, but its been followed by a number of high profile visual successes (notably Skyrim, SWTOR, Far Cry 3, and Mass Effect 3) – none of which gave any useful information about the games they represented. Gorgeous as they are, do they actually result in anything beyond a few minutes of excitement, some inflated expectations, and a correspondingly increased risk of disappointment and disillusionment with the finished product?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much enjoying watching them – as stand alone entertainment pieces they’re awesome – and if you’ve not seen any of the ones linked above, I’d advise you to check them out post-haste. Its just that a part of me is starting to wonder if I should be suspicious when people spend this much time and effort trying to sell me something, (and another, deeply buried part of me remembers how much another glossy trailer once resulted in sky-high expectations and subsequent heartbreak) so I’m forced to ask the question, do we need them?

Did you buy any of the above games simply because the trailer convinced you it would be awesome? I didn’t. Those I’ve bought, I would have bought without a trailer of any kind, on the merits of the game (or series, or developer) alone, whereas for those I didn’t want, no amount of well choreographed CG fighting could have tipped my hand.

More importantly, have we come to expect this kind of fan service (assuming, most generously, that that is what this is) as an integral part of the experience in the lead up to a massive blockbuster, or is it simply a necessary investment as part of creating a profitable product in an overcrowded marketplace?

Relatedly, how many of these games lived up to the expectations their clever marketeers created? I’ve got some thoughts on those I’ve played coming in a future post, but in the meantime, lets get a nice healthy flamewar happening in the comments.

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