No sooner had BioWare released Mass Effect 3 than the fast-selling video game was embroiled in controversy. Fans who had followed the adventures of Commander Shepard since the first Mass Effect in 2007 were outraged at the final minutes of the concluding chapter of the trilogy, which they felt disrespected — or at least disregarded — the years they had put into fighting the Reapers. So they did what anyone these days might: they banded together.
The fans started a Facebook group and aTwitter feed. They launched a petition drive, and has so far raised more than $50,000 for Child’s Play. Both sides of the issue got plenty of media attention. The game’s director came out as “unapologetic” about the ending. Finally, mainstream media outlets couldn’t ignore the story, and reported that BioWare is listening to the fans’ concerns. So fervent was the discussion on all sides, it could be difficult at times to remember that there was only one developer involved in the struggle.
Meanwhile, over at Kickstarter, Double Fine completed its not-so-quiet attempt to raise funds for a new point-and-click adventure game, earning more than $3.3 million on an original asking amount of $400,000. And inXile Entertainment fired up its bid for $900,000 to make a sequel to the landmark 1988 computer game Wasteland — a goal it surpassed in just a couple of days. (As of this writing, the project has amassed more than $1.2 million, and still has a month to go.)
Let’s review. In one instance, gamers are revolting because they didn’t get the game to which they felt they were entitled. On the other, thousands of gamers are putting up money — in some cases hundreds of dollars or more — to ensure that they’ll get exactly the game they want.
There can be no doubt about it: The gamers are now in control. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is far less certain.
In the case of Mass Effect 3, I’m particularly torn. I liked the game (but didn’t love it), although I don’t have the deep-running affection for the series that others do. For me, it’s always been “just another” collection of games that puts the focus on places I prefer to see it (player decisions, role-playing) rather than those I don’t (endless, mindless combat); fine, but nothing I’ve felt overwhelmingly emotionally connected to. When I reached the ending, I cocked my head for a few moments in a “That’s it?” way, but more because the uproar had led me to expect something truly offensive, not merely an odd (yet, in its way, effective) combination of violence and serenity. (I’m staying away from spoilers here, but they’re out there on the Web to be found if you’re curious.)
I understand what bothers people about it, but for me getting to the ending was, as it almost always is, more than half the fun — so I can’t get too worked up. For me, a couple of minutes at the end of the game seldom automatically negate the 15-20 hours that precede them (or more, if you count all the Mass Effect games together).
Then there’s the Kickstarter question. Although I appreciate the Double Fine and inXile model, I do have qualms about it. These cases are a bit different, because backers are contributing based on the creators’ past performance and have good reason to believe that the upcoming products will be to their liking. But doesn’t this set up an even more powerful ownership concern? What happens if the games are released and don’t match many backers’ expectations? Nearly 13,000 people pledged $100 or more on Double Fine Adventure (and, so far, more than 3,600 have done so for Wasteland 2) — considerably more than the average game costs. Sure, they understand what they’re in for, and they get other rewards for their contributions, but they’re invested in the final products in more ways than just through money. It’s not hard to see how disappointment within those ranks could dwarf what we’ve already seen from the “retake Mass Effect 3” crowd.
All this is establishing an exciting, but potentially dangerous, paradigm in which there is no longer such a thing as a passive consumer of content. The instant gratification of the Internet has made it possible for people all over the world to connect with programmers, designers, and other players immediately, and make their voices heard en masse. And because little gets people as riled up as their favorite form of entertainment — whether TV show, movie, book, play, or sport — this could lead to vituperative behavior that’s beyond what most of us can imagine. We’ve already seen it with the likes of the Star Wars movies and now Mass Effect 3… What’s next?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as the creators’ artistic wishes are maintained. Even when, or perhaps especially when, there’s blowback from the public, that’s crucial. In crafting a product — any product — the designers might misjudge their audience and turn it off, they might not and keep it engaged, or they might succeed so well that the ranks of their audience swell beyond what they imagined. But developers must feel they can tell the stories they want in the way they want, without fear of reprisal. Without that creative freedom, the entire exercise is meaningless — and, nine times out of ten, the ultimate output will be as well.
It boils down to this: As much as gamers may feel that they have some ownership of the final product, they really don’t. Their role today is the same it’s always been: to try it, like it or not like it, and then respond to it. Their attempting to force a company to change something they don’t like goes beyond “responding” and almost into “controlling.” If BioWare, or any company in its position, agrees, it’s essentially admitting that everything subsequent game it produces may be subject to the same pressures.
The creators’ bowing to groupthink at any point, rather than worrying about how they can best communicate their story and their vision to the public, is the surest way I know of to guarantee games that aren’t worth playing — or donating to. Once a game has been completed, it’s incumbent on the creators to let it go, and let the players take over. They dispense their feedback, the company learns from its successes or failures as described therein, and the next product is even better. Art is preserved and art is furthered.
We’re just at the threshold of this strange new world, and all of these early tests of the boundaries on all sides are important. Even so, there are plenty of challenges awaiting we can’t yet foresee. Game companies, big or small, will have to work extra hard to maintain their artistic integrity, even when it comes under attack. And players will need to discover the boundaries of what they can and cannot (and should and should not) do to voice their displeasure when they don’t get their way. It’s an opportunity that has never before existed on this scale throughout human history, and that could have enormous benefits and risks if it’s not managed properly. Both Mass Effect 3 and Double Fine Adventure are showing us the future of gaming. All that remains to be seen is what we make of it — and whether we like the way it ends.