Time For Another Gaming Revolution

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Note: This was technically written as an essay in March 2012 for The New Yorker Class. However, given that it is intended to be in the New Yorker style, I have categorized it as an Article.

Time For Another Gaming Revolution:

Mass Effect 3 publisher BioWare sets a new precedent

“The machinery of gaming has run amok. Instead of serving creative vision, it suppresses it. Instead of encouraging innovation, it represses it. Instead of taking its cue from our most imaginative minds, it takes its cue from the latest month’s PC Data list. Instead of rewarding those who succeed, it penalizes them with development budgets so high and royalties so low that there can be no reward for creators. Instead of ascribing credit to those who deserve it, it seeks to associate success with the corporate machine. It is time for revolution.” –Designer X

“Designer X” is the voice of the Scratchware Manifesto, a statement of purpose written by a small group of video game developers in 2000. The Scratchware Manifesto calls out the gaming industry, “An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet [that] has become a morass of drudgery and imitation.” In the twelve years since, not only has the “machinery of gaming,” the large publishers and marketing schemes that encourage conformity and profit, become even more virulent, but a new enemy to the artistic vision of game designers stands on the horizon. Who? Why, the video game players, of course. In response to a very loud fan reaction to the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, Ray Muzyka— co-founder of the game’s developer BioWare— promised that BioWare will provide “a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey” (Myzuka). BioWare’s decision to provide alternative, optional or additional ending content in response to community dissent sets a new precedent for the gaming industry and gaming fans, but is that good or bad?

Mass Effect 3 was released March 6, 2012, and sold a million copies in the first week. It has clearly become a hugely popular franchise since the first Mass Effect was released in 2007. In the past five years, the science fiction epic developed around the idea of a player-oriented story. Player characters and choices are carried over from one game to the next, which has a way of making players more attached to the stories they are shaping. It adds an extra participatory layer to what is already an intensely immersive medium, which is a possible explanation for the the contention following Mass Effect 3’s release.

Video games, movies, books and any other form of storytelling have all had their share of bad endings. Why did a small group of gamers get in such an uproar they started the Retake Mass Effect 3 movement? Moreover, how were they successful? The movement is relatively large and, in its attempt to gain BioWare’s attention, raised over $76,000 for the Child’s Play charity as of Wednesday, March 21st. (“Retake Mass Effect”). Their petition claims that they are unsatisfied with the ending because it does not provide “the wide range of possible outcomes that we have come to expect from a Mass Effect game…a sense of succeeding against impossible odds…a sense of closure with regard to the universe and characters we have become attached to…[and does] not provide an explanation of events up to the ending which maintains consistency with the overall story” (“Retake Mass Effect”). Another disgruntled fan of the Mass Effect series, known as “El_Spiko” on BioWare forums, even went so far as to file a false advertising report on the game with the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau (“Mass Effect Campaign…”).

Many of the complaints of fans are warranted. At the end of the game (no major spoilers ahead), the player’s character is presented with three options to deal with the Reapers, an aptly-named force that is in a position to destroy all organic life. Those three options, coupled with how much preparation the player did before the final mission, add up to 18 branching decision trees that lead to one of seven different ending sequences, all of which are exceedingly similar (“Endings”). Of those eighteen possible circumstances, Shepard (the main character’s name) only survives in two. Shepard’s crew and Earth are also hanging perilously on your decision. The game then has an epilogue set what could be anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of years later in which Shepard has become a legend, but there is no conclusion for the rest of the universe in the time immediately after the climax. The player gets no indication as to the state of the intergalactic community or if space exploration can even continue to exist after the ending.

The most severe criticism may be the most fair, and show BioWare’s biggest mistake. El_Spiko’s accusation of false advertising, as well as the movement’s grievance that Mass Effect 3 did not provide the large range of outcomes players were used to from prior versions, are arguably valid. The legal definition of false advertising is, “Any advertising or promotion that misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities or geographic origin of goods, services or commercial activities” (15 USC § 1125). There was definitely misrepresentation as to the nature of the story’s conclusion. In a Q&A with the UK’s 360 Magazine, Mass Effect 3’s producer Mike Gamble dug himself into a hole saying, “There are many different endings. We wouldn’t do it any other way. How could you go through all three campaigns playing as your Shepard and then be forced into a bespoke ending that everyone gets?” When Casey Hudson talked to Official Xbox Magazine in January, he dug the hole deeper: “This story arc is coming to an end with this game. That means the endings can be a lot more different. At this point we’re taking into account so many decisions that you’ve made as a player and reflecting a lot of that stuff. It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.”

BioWare most definitely promised a degree of variability in the conclusion that was not provided. As annoyed as it may make some emotionally-attached player’s upset, though, the promises can not be proved as false advertising. This is largely because their misrepresentation can probably not be proven to cause injury (15 USC § 1125). Still, it is understandable why fans are upset. Should the idea of changing the narrative to accommodate the user’s vision really be entertained, though?

Mass Effect 3’s executive producer Casey Hudson defended the endings when he first responded to the controversy on the BioWare community blogs, “We always intended that the scale of the conflict and the underlying theme of sacrifice would lead to a bittersweet ending—to do otherwise would betray the agonizing decisions Shepard had to make along the way. Still, we wanted to give players the chance to experience an inspiring and uplifting ending; in a story where you face a hopeless struggle for basic survival, we see the final moments and imagery as offering victory and hope in the context of sacrifice and reflection.” No one asked J.J. Abrams, creator of television show Lost, to release another last episode because the first was unsatisfactory. George Lucas did not change the first episode of Star Wars when fans were aghast. Staying consistent with creative vision is the response one would expect from one of the creative minds behind a piece of contentious art.

What is the fundamental difference between Mass Effect, Lost and Star Wars then? The experience is not just presented and viewed as it is with television or movies, the user is participating in the narrative. As is stated in a Retake Mass Effect 3 blog post, “We would like to dispel the perception that we are angry or entitled. We simply wish to express our hope that there could be a different direction for a series we have all grown to love” (“Retake Mass Effect”). This sentiment is echoed in many comments on the site. The movement consists of ardent fans of the Mass Effect series who were attached to their characters after investing, for most, 50-150 hours shaping a story over the course of three games. Everything you know falling apart, even in a game, is less acceptable when it happens to those who you care about.

Ray Muzyka acknowledged the balance between artistic expression and community feedback in the post in which he announced upcoming “game content initiatives.” It’s important to note the distinction that these initiatives are entirely new, not a part of the pre-existing plan for post-release downloadable content. Muzyka wrote, “I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team” (Muzyka).

Balancing the creative expression and fan service is a nice thought, but when BioWare caved into community pressure to change the fiction of the game they stopped treating the game like a form of art. At least, they stopped treating it as people have come to expect an artist to treat their art. The company chose to provide fan service over respecting their designer’s creative vision. Mass Effect 3 became little more than an entertainment product produced by a company. This, as it turns out, is exactly what Designer X was warning the gaming community about in the Scratchware Manifesto: the company takes control of game development away from the artists. By creating a large “machinery” responsible for creating games, the industry muddled down the process of game development and made it a multi-million dollar endeavor. It created an environment where “it must take years from project start to completion. It must involve so many talents, and so much labor, that no single creative vision can survive” (“The Scratchware Manifesto”). When creative expression was marred the Scratchware Manifesto urged designers to become independent. It is an unfortunate truth, but it could be inevitable that the industry not produce art. This does not remove video games’ potential to be art, but perhaps not when produced within the “machinery.” Many contemporary movies are not artistic but still entertaining, commonly referred to as “popcorn flicks,” and the video game industry does take a number of cues from the movie industry (Dillon). Perhaps there is no single creative vision to be saved in Mass Effect 3.

In addition, the community did share some part in influencing the amalgam creative vision. Casey Hudson was responding to a question about the influence of fan reaction throughout the series when he said, “Some of the characters in the Mass Effect series were never intended originally to be potential love interests — characters like Garrus or Tali who are quite alien. From the outset, we didn’t envision them as characters that people would want to have a romance with. And yet they were successful as characters, and so popular amongst a lot of people that people really wanted to develop a relationship with them, so we integrated that from Mass Effect 2 and it’s become a big part of the series” (Gaudiosi). When considering the influence of the movie industry, which will occasionally run test screenings and then change the ending of a movie before full release, and the unique relationship the Mass Effect developers have with fans, BioWare’s decision makes more sense. However, it is hard to still consider the final product of Mass Effect 3 a good example of artistic expression after being churned by both the video game industry and fans.

When the public wields so much power to alter artistic endeavors, can game developers be secure in creating original and ambitious fiction? Publishers like EA, who publishes Mass Effect, already limit expression within the industry by forcing developers to conform to making games that are safe; games that are reliably able to make profit. If game designers must now also worry that polar or unsatisfactory conclusions can warrant a significant, negative community response that influences artistic design, what is the incentive for video game developers to make anything new? How will the industry create a product that is considered ambitious art? What will happen to the games of fans that liked Mass Effect 3’s ending? How BioWare will implement its change is still a mystery, but its decision to change the ending sets a dangerous precedent that could harm game designers in the long run— particularly those with a smaller budget and reputation than BioWare. Perhaps Designer X was right: “It is time for a revolution…Death to the gaming industry! Long live games.”