Opinion: BioWare’s Biggest Mistake

With the angry fall-out over Mass Effect 3′s ending still raging, Mark Butler suggests that BioWare’s greatest error was to break a key promise to fans – damaging a certain degree of trust between developer and gamer in the process.

(Warning: Some spoilers below)

It’s fair to say that BioWare’s relationship with its passionate fanbase has never been more strained. First came the tepid and occasionally downright hostile reaction to Dragon Age II last year, and now the outrage over Mass Effect 3′s ending has taken things to a whole new level.

A great-many fans feel disappointed at the way BioWare wrapped things up (or, as some have argued, failed to wrap things up), and the sheer fury with which some Mass Effect afecionados have been voicing their disapproval makes the storm over the day one ‘From Ashes’ DLC – itself a major bone of contention in recent weeks – seem tame by comparison.

There are many criticisms that can be legitimately made of the way in which BioWare chose to conclude their epic sci-fi saga, and these have been widely discussed at length in recent days.

However, BioWare’s most grievous error was to make a powerful, crucial promise to fans – and then clumsily break it at the last second.

As recently as January, in an interview with Game Informer, director Casey Hudson was loudly and clearly proclaiming that Mass Effect 3 would have varied and diverse endings, which would largely depend upon the player’s decisions and approach:

“We have the ability to build the endings in a way that we don’t have to worry about eventually tying them back together,” he said. “This story arc is coming to an end with this game, and 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 more like there are some really obvious things that are different and then lots and lots of smaller things, lots of things about who lives and who dies, civilizations that rose and fell, all the way down to individual characters.

BioWare's Casey Hudson - Any resemblance to Sylar is purely coincidental

“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.”

As we have seen, however, ending A, B or C was exactly what we did get – and these endings themselves were neither dependent on the player’s actions up until the final decision, nor particularly distinctive  depending on that decision itself. When disgruntled fans joke that it comes down to ‘picking which colour explosion you want’, they really aren’t exaggerating that much.

It seems clear to me that BioWare’s biggest mistake was to make promises and committments to their fanbase that they could not keep – and mislead players as to the impact that their own choices and actions would have on the ultimate conclusion.

Even now, the game’s website invites you to experience an “emotional story unlike any other, where the decisions you make completely shape your…outcome.” Oh, the irony.

For the vast majority of Mass Effect 3, and the series as a whole, the impact of player choice is implemented brilliantly – not least the way in which key characters, and even entire species, can live or die according to a player’s actions. But at the very end, when it most matters, all of this is thrown out of the window for the sake of convenience.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. After all, Dave McConkey’s oddly prescient musings on this very site predicted a disappointing end-game in terms of narrative, and maybe we all got far too carried away by all the hype and PR guff for our own good.

However, fan anger around the endings is – in my opinion – perfectly understandable. After all, if you make player choice a central cornerstone of your series, and loudly and proudly proclaim how players’ actions will directly affect and alter the ultimate direction of their journey, the last thing you should do is craft an ending where the ultimate outcome is almost completely identical for every gamer, no matter what choices they have made, or what approach they have taken along the way.

Regardless of the kind of person 'your' Shepard is, and what he or she has chosen to do along the way, the game's ending is pretty much the same

Speaking personally, I can safely say that I did indeed feel let down by Mass Effect 3′s finale. I thought the game was truly exceptional all the way until the final ten minutes, when it became nonsensical and full of plot-holes. But it was the eventual coda that left me feeling most hollow.

The true realization of how underwhelming the ending was actually only hit me when I rang a friend immediately afterwards, interested in comparing notes between mine and his ending. I swiftly learned – with a sense of indignant horror – that despite having made very different choices both throughout the series and at the very end, there was almost no difference between our respective endings at all. We had each poured well over 100 hours into the series, agonizing over our decisions and priorities along the way and confident that they would have a significant bearing on the ultimate outcome and yet, when all was said and done, it apparently counted for nothing.

Mulling over the gap between my expectations, and the reality of the situation, I have reached the conclusion that it is this aspect of the debacle that most rankles, and I know that many other Mass Effect fans feel the same way.

It would be tempting to say that none of this really makes a difference to BioWare. After all, their title has already shifted millions of copies and been widely critically-acclaimed. If this counts as a mis-step for the kings of action-RPGs I’m sure they’d love a few more mis-steps down the line, and you might well argue that once all this blows over it’ll be business as usual.

'What the hell do we do now?'

But there’s an aggravating factor here – and it’s one that any developer ignores at their peril. Of all the errors that BioWare stand accused of in formulating their end-game, the decision to actually break an open, long-held promise is undoubtedly the most damaging. Making repeated, confident statements about what fans can expect, only to fail spectacularly to deliver what has been pledged, does not just damage fan-enjoyment of a game: it also has an extremely detrimental impact on the level of trust between a developer and its fanbase.

To some extent, fans can forgive clumsy writing. They may even forgive being charged $10 for a day-one DLC that should have been included in the full game. But to renege on a central premise of an experience – one that your whole series has seemingly been built-upon – is a sure-fire way of alienating people who have paid good money for the privilege. And when all is said and done, how can those people then trust anything you say in the future at all?

 

 



Comments
15 Responses to “Opinion: BioWare’s Biggest Mistake”
  1. Al Fifino says:

    I heartfully agree with you. I guess everyone who bought the game imagined that now, with the final chapter of the series, all the choices we have made on our journey would matter one way or the other. And alas, they have: If I got all crew members through the suicide mission in ME2, I was able to see them again, just to give one of the numerous examples.

    But the ending – although logical to some parts – destroyed the trust I had in Bioware to this point. They promised me that my choices would affect the endings; that there would be “wildly different endings”, too. Endings, mind you! I know that the journey to the ultimate goal can be very, very different depending on what you did or did not do in Mass Effect 1 & 2. But the journeys do not really matter when the point they end at always is exactly the same.

    They gave us three endings: A, B and C. I probably wouldn’t have cared with any other game; but Mass Effect isn’t just another game. It hooked me up. It gave me a world in which I decided what to do, which I helped shaping. It had choice. And those choices had meaning. And they ripped them from us in the last 10 minutes of the game.

    I just cannot express how disappointed I am. I may be a nerd to some degrees, and a whiny crybaby. But, hey, I’m not alone, not by far. And with so many people sharing the same issues I have, isn’t it alltogether possible that BioWare (and especially EA – I do not want to believe that it’s BWs fault) just screw up big?

    Meh. F*** it all.

  2. Janus382 says:

    Thank you for looking at this debacle in an objective and educated manner, and for not painting the outcry as “a bunch of whiny entitled brats”.

    The fact is these ending(s) are not at all what we were promised, or anything like what we were led to believe to happen over 3 games and 100+ hours. They’re an incoherent mess that feels totally out of place, and for a lot of us, completely robs us of the motivation to play and the enjoyment of the entire series.

    We want our choices to matter, we want sense, and we want an epilogue of sorts.

    I sincerely hope they make it up to their fans.

  3. Jason says:

    Thank you for summing up my feelings at the end of the game perfectly!

  4. Merovign says:

    It is absolutely Bioware’s choice how they choose to end this series, and that choice has consequences.

    Which is ironic, considering the circumstances.

    Bioware will no doubt stay in business whichever way they go, but they may have forced themselves onto a path that ends in abandoning the genre they’re famous for – the story-driven role-playing game. Which is sad, because it’s an underserved genre.

    I don’t *know* what the team’s plan was here – did they really think this ending was deep and consistent? Is it a publicity ploy gone awry? A clumsy rebellion against what they see as cloying convention?

    This conversation isn’t over yet. But it really hasn’t been a pleasant one. A little extra time up front could have avoided a lot of screaming in the aftermath, even absent a “happy ending.” Much of the frustration is in *not knowing*.

    I don’t know where we’re going to end up, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll look back on it fondly, however trivial a video game may seem in the light of other issues, it apparently matters to a lot of people. A lot of unhappy customers, as it turns out.

    I remember when people thought that was a bad thing… good times.

  5. TroyUAL says:

    Very well written article and I couldn’t agree more. I think I just sat there when the credits came up feeling like WTF? That’s it? My first thought was, can I return or sell this game to someone right now at like 1am?

    Not to mention I fell for Bio-ware’s pre-order several months ago, and wouldn’t you know I didn’t get the game for like 6 days after it was released – bad customer service.

    Thanks for your comments – hope it makes a difference

    Might be the worst ending in my over 30 years of my gaming. what a shame that the game would fizzle out at the end.

  6. Mark Butler says:

    Many thanks for your comments guys. The recently-released ‘Final Days’ app appears to confirm that the ending was a slightly rushed after-thought, and I certainly find that staggering considering how well-executed almost every other aspect of the game, and wider series, has been.

    Some people say it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. And they’re right to an extent. But for me, and many others, the destination was actually a huge part of the appeal going into this final game. We wanted to see how our actions would affect and shape the outcome, and fate of the wider galaxy – and this was a significant source of excitement and anticipation going into the experience.

  7. cristi says:

    This article is good.

    I don’t want anything more to do with the Meh Effect franchise.

  8. jon says:

    Thankyou for not painting all the fans as whinging children or a ‘vocal minority’. Its nice to see some actual objectivity in games jouralism.

  9. SeanoftheThomas says:

    An excellent article that brilliantly conveys the thoughts and feelings of a disheartened fanbase – thank you.

  10. William Cribley says:

    Dear Casey Hudson,
    You promised 16 endings- I got 2.2 (deep breath doesn’t count as a seperate ending) with my choice of color
    You promised the best ending (deep breath) without the need to multiplayer- Lies. I don’t think my ending should be partially determined by random people Ive never met.
    You allowed me to patch the galactic civilizations together- but, for what reason?
    You promised choice- I get to pick one of three flavors of death
    You promised conclusion- I get a kid asking to hear another story about the Shepard.
    You promised finality- I get a digial plaque the reads “Shepards a legend in the galaxy, stay tuned for DLCs!”

    You and your crew managed to negate 100′s of hours of game play and character development in roughly 3 1/2 minutes.

    You messed up. STOP trying to explain it away, and deliver what was promised that entised those like myself to ranout and preorder.

    Sadly, I am beginning to buy into the notion that all this was done on purpose to get us to “buy” the proper ending. And sadly, I will. But when 4 comes out, Im not buying it.

    Mass Effect is dead, and you killed it.

  11. Carbonfunk says:

    Totally agree with this article! The ending just felt completely rushed, no closure and very limited if no answers at all. To me it felt like the final LOST episode, a whole load of WTF?! Maybe Casey Hudson has taken a leaf out of JJ Abrams book and said “**** it that will do!” God knows but either way its amazes me how they can create a fantastic game franchise, (albeit with limited support) compelling story and destroy it with a soulless ending.

    And personally I don’t think it wold be such a bad thing to have a happy ending for a change? Universe united and all that, ready to fight another day?! ME4 Bioware? you could make a few more millions if you hadn’t of screwed yourselves over.

  12. Adam says:

    Couldn’t agree more,

  13. usrev2 says:

    their biggest mistake like ME1 and 2 was not enough content. the game isn’t worth the money. why buy ME3 when you can beat it and do all the good stuff in 2 days? a good story is nothing if its over in 2 days.
    if all the DLC for ME3 was free it would be different, but its not bioware will continue to ride off nothing but a story and hopefully people will wake up and refuse to buy games that can be finished in less then a week.

    • Mark Butler says:

      I have to say I really don’t see where you’re coming from there. The Mass Effect games are actually pretty vast in terms of content, especially if you take into account all the various side quests away from the main storyline. I did complete Mass Effect 3 in three days – but it was a truly intense three days comprising 30 hours of gaming in total: a pretty good deal compared to most single-player experiences if you ask me. All told, I’d say lack of content is not a criticism I would ever aim at the Mass Effect series.

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