If you’re a person, and you like the vidya games, and you’re active on the Internet (as I presume you must be to be reading this) then you’ve probably heard about a little game called Mass Effect 3. Perhaps you’ve played it? I’m not really going to attempt to review the game because smarter, funnier, and better writers than myself have done that ad nauseum since the games release on March 6th.
So, this isn’t a review. This isn’t a spoiler filled screed railing against the ending like a lot of the posts about the game have become. For the record, I didn’t LOVE the ending, but I liked it enough and felt that the complaints about it being incomprehensible are a little misguided. No, this is about Bioware themselves, about how this wonderful Canadian company that has brought so many awesome gaming hours to my living room has handled criticism of this series so poorly over the last five years.
From the beginning, the Mass Effect series has been fraught with some of the worst “fans”. And for their part, Bioware has been extremely pliable in regards to listening to some of these people’s demands. People played Mass Effect and didn’t “get” that it was an RPG. As a game appearing exclusively on the Xbox 360 (at the time, it has since been ported to the PC) the complaints always seemed to boil down to “it looks like a shooter, but when I pull the trigger guys don’t always die.” As a semi-followup to Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect was firmly entrenched in the RPG genre but as people began to complain about the hidden dice-rolls deciding whether or not that evil robot you were shooting at died, Bioware decided to change the essential format of the series going forward.
Other things were complained about as well, like the horrendous inventory system, the long load times hidden by elevator rides, the terrible controls of the Mako tank, and the boring–often repetitive nature of the side quests. I can’t argue with these last points. Mass Effect was a spectacular achievement in storytelling and one hell of a game, but the issues it had went much deeper than hidden dice-rolls.
When it was time for Mass Effect 2 to release I was eager to import my custom Commander Shepard and continue the fight I began in the original game. I’d stayed mostly dark on the game (I’m a bit of a spoiler-phobe) so I didn’t know who was returning or how the game would play. Imagine my surprise when I booted the game up and realized that Mass Effect 2 wasn’t even the same genre as Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 2 was solidly a third person shooter with very few RPG trappings (you could “level up” and put points into attributes, but leveling was basically tied with completing missions and felt very arbitrary).
Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved Mass Effect 2. But, I was very disappointed that Bioware ceded to the vocal minority and changed the entire genre of the series. I just wanted to play an RPG, not some shooter-hybrid. I liked that the first game was wholly an RPG. Now, we can spend hours parsing out just what makes an RPG. I’ve had this debate with friends who insist that the dialogue trees in the Mass Effect series (that, thankfully, have barely changed since the beginning) plant the games in the RPG genre–regardless of the actual gameplay mechanics. I call bullshit. Mass Effect ceased to be an RPG with ME2.
Again, it was still a very good game–one of the best within this current generation of consoles. But, it’s not the series I bought into, and I can’t help but think that some players might not want to playing into a different genre. I’ll play just about any genre of game, but there has to be someone out there who only plays RPGs and couldn’t finish Mass Effect 2, right? Hell, I have a friend who finished ME1 on insanity difficulty but is rubbish at shooters and has had to play ME2/3 on casual. Bioware intended this series to be a trilogy from the start, but because of some players outcries they completely changed their design aspirations. It’s a troubling trend that would become part and parcel of the Mass Effect teams response to fans over the next four years.
How did Bioware handle the myriad (actual) issues from Mass Effect 1 that I mentioned above? By cutting every. damn. one. out. Not fixing those underlying problems. Bioware just gutted anything that anyone might have complained about.
Inventory system issues? No problem–Inventory gone! Long load times in elevators (which included actual dialogue from your squad while you waited)? According to Bioware’s Casey Hudson, Mass Effect 2 would utilize “a completely new [load time] system” that would be “part of the game experience.” Bioware’s actual fix? Load screens. No color commentary from your team, just a damn load screen. Bad Mako controls? No vehicle sequences (they would add a new vehicle in DLC later, however). Boring side quests? No exploring planets unless a quest dictated it.
It seemed that everything that someone complained about, Bioware’s best solution was to simply excise rather than fix.
Mass Effect 2 was a spectacular game, with fantastic storytelling and characterization. But it’s not the game I wanted after I completed Mass Effect 1.
Bioware’s criticism cutting would continue into Mass Effect 3. People complained (rightly) about the boring planet scanning mini-game in Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 3 Bioware cut the “game” out of the planet scanning and made it so simple, perfunctory, and rote that it might as well not exist. People complained about the hacking mini-games for certain doors or wall safes, in Mass Effect 3 they no longer exist at all.
And now the loudest folks on the internet who don’t like or understand Mass Effect 3′s ending (people who are mounting a “retake ME3″ campaign, somehow believing that they can “retake” a property that wasn’t really theirs in the first place) are pushing Bioware to change the ending or explain it. Some of these people have complained to the FTC, arguing that Bioware and EA lied about the endings. You literally cannot discuss Mass Effect online right now without someone spoiling the ending or screaming about how they hated the ending. It’s juvenile and obnoxious and judging by Bioware’s response to previous complaints I don’t doubt that they will kowtow to the complainers and give them what they want.
In fact, Bioware co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka stated in a message posted to the Bioware blog that the Mass Effect team is actively looking at the fans complaints and that “the team [is] hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey.” In effect, he’s saying that like every other time someone complains loudly enough about this property Bioware will fix it. There’s being fan-friendly and then there’s being fan-subservient. By bowing down to these complainers Bioware is taking a dark step for all game developers–hell, all creators who have an internet presence–that says “our artistic vision isn’t set in stone if you yell loud enough.”
Bioware’s long tradition of listening to the minority and correcting things in the most extreme manner doesn’t make me excited about what they’ve got up their sleeves regarding the Mass Effect 3 ending. I only hope that for once, the company takes this criticism and uses a scalpel instead of a machete for their alterations, but their history doesn’t make me feel very positive.