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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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