Opinion: BioWare’s Biggest Mistake
(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.
“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.
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.
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?