Most of you probably already know by now that the ending of Mass Effect 3 had fans in an uproar. I’ve already discussed all the controversy surrounding the ending itself, and the announcement that Bioware plans to change- or expand upon- the ending that many fans found to be lacking in virtually every department that counts. I already talked about the narrative difference between games and other forms of media. Today, I’m going to examine what Bioware’s decision could mean for the company- and the rest of the industry, and what may well happen if they mess this up.
Turns out that while Bioware is directly meeting the wishes of many of their fans by reworking their story, there’s quite a few folks who still aren’t happy. I’ve heard a lot of buzz about how changing the ending damages the artistic integrity of the product, how “the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be given a boob job just because fans demanded it!
The problem with these arguments is that they approach gaming in the same fashion as one might approach more traditional media such as television, painting, or literature. We can’t do that- it’s like looking at a cat and deciding it’s the same as a dog simply because they both have four legs and a tail- it simply doesn’t work.
As Stephen Totilo of Kotaku notes, video games are a whole new ball game- they aren’t manuscripts handed down to consumers like books from authors. They aren’t static modes of entertainment, like television. They’re far more mercurial and malleable- they can be changed. Many developers have-rightly so- characterized games as a conversation between creator and consumer. As you well know, conversations don’t work so well if the other party sticks their fingers in their ears and stops listening.
A lot of developers are starting to understand that- and are responding to their fans in kind. They’re listening to what the people who love their titles have to say, and adjusting their strategies accordingly. That isn’t foolishness, it’s intelligent marketing- and I’d argue that this is exactly what Bioware’s doing with Mass Effect 3.
The Slippery Slope Argument
Another argument I’ve heard from those railing against the change is that it sets a dangerous precedent. What’s to stop entitled, whiny brats from shoehorning other developers into doing exactly what they want with a title? What’s to stop artistic integrity from being completely drained out of the games industry simply because those who complain the loudest don’t like the way something’s being done?
How about the fact that developers have minds of their own?
Bioware’s ending change isn’t setting any sort of precedent that hasn’t already been a long time coming. To loop back around to the ‘games as conversation’ analogy, it used to be that developers would adjust their titles between releases. They’d release a game, listen to fan input, and adjust the next game in the franchise according to that input. Now, however, with the dawn of the Internet age, their titles can be adjusted in realtime. Does a champion in League of Legends need to be nerfed? Release a patch. Is a mission or quest broken or unenjoyable? Tweak it. Are there new weapons that the fans are clamoring for? DLC.
Not only that, Bioware is actively seeking fan input for the design of Dragon Age 3. They’re going out of their way to demonstrate that, when their customers talk, they listen. So what, exactly, is dangerous about this precedent? Why are people in an uproar? Why, exactly, is everyone so worried?
Ultimately, it’s a question of where to draw the line- When can a developer rightly tell their fans they won’t change something? This is something that needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis- we can’t simply set a benchmark for it and say “this is how it’ll always be.” The developers themselves need to decide when their fans should be catered to, and when their demands should be considered unreasonable.
At the end of the day, all that matters is that they listen, as Bioware has- that’s the precedent they’re setting here, and it’s by no means a negative one.
I won’t disagree that Bioware’s treading a very dangerous path right now- though I don’t believe this for the same reason that others do. Bioware ultimately has one chance to get this right. All eyes are on them at this moment. If they manage to pull it off, and release an expanded ending that everyone’s happy with, the faith of fans all around will be restored. Bioware’s reputation as a great developer will be intact. If, however, they bork things up…
I think a lot of people may well just give up on them, and a lot of the folks who are currently trying to make a case for the sort of consumer-developer relationship Bioware seems to have with its fans, well…they’re going to get caught in the ensuing chaos. They’ll end up jaded; less likely to listen to their own consumers because of what happened with Bioware’s ending.
All we can do is put our faith in Bioware, and pray that they do this right. Because if they don’t, well…they may end up damaging more than just their reputation.