Stories of 2012: Mass Effect 3, BioWare, and the new age of entitlement
A month ago, Casey Hudson, executive producer of the Mass Effect series, asked the following of his 33,000 Twitter followers: “Parsing through your thoughts on the next #ME game. Would you be more interested in a game that takes place before the trilogy, or after?” It’s an innocent enough query asked on a casual enough platform, but is it one that should be being asked at all? What I want from BioWare in the next Mass Effect is fairly straightforward. I want their passion, excitement and enthusiasm. I want the game they want to make.
This year repeatedly raised the issue of to what extent studios are beholden to fan expectations. Hitman Absolution is a pretty good action-stealth title, but it’s one that betrays the principles that made the first Hitman games great. Dead Space 3, meanwhile, is currently terrifying fans with the possibility it might not be terrifying – a shift to co-op seemingly necessitating more action to go with it. But no incident underscores that at times fraught relationship between videogame creators and their audience than the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, a bitter interregnum that saw the fans themselves become creators by proxy, campaigning against the studio until the game’s closing act was thoroughly updated and revised. When BioWare’s co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk announced their departure from both the studio and, it seems, from gaming, many speculated that alongside the the disappointing performance of The Old Republic, the recriminations and petitions had taken their toll.
So, what was actually wrong the ending to Mass Effect 3? As a final act, it was flawed in two distinct ways. Firstly, it was bad in the conventional way that endings are often bad: it was abrupt, plot-holed, and dramatically unsatisfying. The kind of badness you might expect from a suddenly cancelled TV show that had a season’s worth of plot arcs to tidy up and 42 minutes of screen time with which to do it. Secondly, Mass Effect 3′s ending was bad in a way unique to the series: it didn’t offer players a sense of meaningful choice, or the feeling decisions made over three game’s worth of galactic adventuring had actually mattered, in direct contradiction to what Hudson and other members of the team had promised. If BioWare had avoided one of these issues, they probably could have gotten away with the other. They didn’t of course, and inside the slow-cooker forum threads bubbling with resentment, the Retake Mass Effect campaign took shape.
Technically, Retake Mass Effect was just of many grassroots responses, but it was by far the most successful, encouraging fans to donate to Penny Arcade’s charity Child’s Play in the name of having Mass Effect’s ending revised. Over $80,000 worth of charitable donation is one of the best to things to have come out of the whole debacle, but using sick children at best as a publicity tool and at worst as emotional blackmail was exactly the kind of loss of perspective that saw EA voted the worst company in America in Consumerist’s annual poll, ahead of the banks and mortgage lenders the legacy of whose recklessness can still be felt today. Penny Arcade itself seemed uncomfortable, and publicly distanced Child’s Play from the campaign.
On April 5th, roughly one month after the release of the game, BioWare made an unprecedented announcement. They would be digitally releasing a free update to Mass Effect 3′s ending, offering “additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes,” to “add further clarity to the ending of Mass Effect 3.” The playerbase, it seemed, had won.