If gamers are not necessarily famed for their eloquence, then the rest of the world certainly recognises the terrifying, earth-shattering passion gamers have for their art. In press releases and interviews developers will speak reverently of the “fans” or of the “community,” but often in hushed tones that betray a mixture of fear and gratitude towards the fanbase. For while it is the furious dedication of gamers that makes the success of a game possible, gamers are notoriously difficult to please, as the recent uproar about Mass Effect 3’s ending neatly illustrated.
It’s hard to think of a better example of the tortured relationship a game developer can have with the people who play – and ostensibly love and champion – their games. Since its debut in 2007, the Mass Effect franchise has achieved the rare feat of balancing critical acclaim with fan popularity, and online message boards have been filled with pantheons of praise to the trilogy’s strong writing, exciting gameplay and ambitious player-choice mechanics. But Mass Effect 3’s ending so disappointed the series’ party faithful that they mounted an epic (and unexpectedly philanthropic) campaign to get the ending altered.
Visual metaphor theatre: the unrelenting hordes of Mass Effect “fans.”
Incensed Mass Effect fans from across the world bombarded Bioware with vitriol, demanding that the ending be changed. One enterprising individual even filed a false advertising claim with the FTC, claiming that Mass Effect 3’s conclusion did not live up to the promises made by Bioware that choices made by the player would intricately determine one of a number of possible endings for the series. It would be easier to take the complainant’s points seriously, however, if he didn’t announce the action through his Bioware forum avatar El_Spiko. I believe that’s Spanish for “The Spike,” though my translation is rough at best. Either way, I’m not sure that’s his real name. Of course, this kind of fanboy invective is nothing new: angry Star Wars fans have been spraying George Lucas with bile since 1999, and the recent howling over Michael Bay’s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film shows how quickly cries of “childhood rape” come when popular franchises don’t deliver what people want.
But in the instance of the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle, the masses (sort-of) won: Bioware caved, and some closure-providing DLC will arrive in the summer to tie up any loose ends. Whether or not you agree with these disenfranchised fans, the fact remains that they used their collective might to get what they wanted. A quick perusal of the previous link, however, will show that Bioware aren’t going to change the ending, per se, just provide some additional context to the ending already in place. So there’s always the possibility that we could be due a Second Round of Rage (please someone make a game out of that title) if the DLC also disappoints. But the fans protested and Bioware acted to placate them, which I suppose makes the Mass Effect 3 ending story the equivalent of the storming of the Bastille for gamer culture.
Yes, this is exactly what it was like.
I don’t want to imbue the whole episode with a revolutionary significance it doesn’t have; I’m not saying that gamers have overthrown the powers that be or that it’s any kind of victory of the humble everyman over the greedy publishers that routinely swindle and scorn their customers. EA may be the worst company in America, but they’re not that bad. Nonetheless there seems to be a subtle paradigm-shift taking place between the people who make games and the people who play them. In the good old days, if you didn’t like something about the game, you just had to suck it, or complain about it on the internet. Now, though, fans are being openly invited to contribute to the creation of a game, not just with cold, hard cash, but also with ideas and suggestions.
The recent flood of indie developers to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter has been well-documented, and it seems like you can’t go a couple of days without another retro franchise smashing its funding target courtesy of support from fans. Kickstarter is really proving to be a major cash-well for smaller developers looking to deliver more idiosyncratic or niche game experiences, and this is where we see the more benevolent side of fervent fanlove. People have been staggeringly generous in the sums of money they’ve contributed to help realize projects like point-and-click titan Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure, and developers are actively seeking input from the public throughout the development process. On the Kickstarter page of adventure game veteran Jane Jensen, three different concepts for a game are detailed, with contributors asked to let Jensen know which one they would prefer to play. Similarly, beardyman game designer/viking Markus “Notch” Persson (of Minecraft fame) recently announced his next project: an Elite-style galaxy-exploration game set 200 bajillion years in the future (I’m not joking) called 0x10c. Like Minecraft, Notch has said that the development of 0x10c will be an iterative process – early builds of the game will be brought out so the wider online community can have a play around and pitch in ideas to make it better.
Suggestion: not enough cowboy hats in Wastleand 2 yet.
It’s difficult to say whether this kind of collaborative-process-in-miniature is a prototype for a more democratic game-making culture. The idea that the public can help shape a game as it is being developed may sound loaded with utopian promise, but then again, there’s a reason why the people who make games are game developers and why the people who play games are not. Sometimes we must defer to the expertise, skill and judgment of those whose profession it is to makes videogames, even if we may not agree with their decisions. There is a danger that too much fan-appeasement will start to compromise the integrity of games-as-art, that too much pandering to the whims of the audience will ruin the vision of the game’s creators. Bioware may have essentially won the battle against their vision and the vision of the fans, seeing as they aren’t going to actually change the ending, but it may have been a pyrrhic victory. The floodgates might be open with this one: Bioware fans may now feel like they’re entitled to question any creative decision the developer makes in future games, which when you’re trying to make art is a pretty compromising position to be in. Say what you will about George Lucas, but he is yet to contravene his…unique vision of the Star Wars universe for the sake of the fans. That’s a true artist, right there.