On the Mass Effect 3 Ending Change

So Bioware are going to distribute some DLC for Mass Effect 3 that will alter the ending.

According to the link, Bioware are not “changing” the ending, which presumably means that Shepard will still have a confusing fate, but rather that we will get a sweet montage that shows the conditions of party members, notable characters, and the galaxy at large post-ending choice. That sounds fine to me; it will be a Fallout-esque info dump, but it will make people feel better about their video game. That’s fine.

The controversy about this ending is going to go two ways: some people will say it is good that Bioware listened to their fans; some people will say that it is bad, kills art, etc. We have seen call and response boil up over and over again since the game came out, and as I have remarked on Twitter, I am just Mass Effect-ed out. I am fatigued, and I could really care less about the ending and the controversy and whatnot.

But it is a train wreck, and I am the ever-rubberneck, so I have to comment here. I saw this tweet as soon as the announcement was made:

And I think this is the opinion on both sides, and like Bennett says, this can be a good and bad thing; that’s where the factions come into play. I’m not in a faction. I think that this is merely an instance of capitalism doing what it does best: adapting.

Lets take a step back. How is this any different than the way that games and other media work already? Media made for public purchase is put through the ringer in order to make it as desirable as possible to the largest number of people. The reason that video game narratives so often reflect film tropes is because the average consumer already has knowledge about the subject; heroes and villains are easier to read and understand. Companies that make things that people are going to buy do a little bit of vetting when it comes to content. The ending that was massively panned by fans made it through a number of vetting channels; people, all of which are consumers and players of games, thought “Yes, this is good, I would buy this game.”

In the near-past, Bioware would have listened to the rage, slowly counted all the massive bank they made, and then slightly changed their design plans on their next massive AAA trilogy. “Well, don’t do that again,” some exec would say, and that would be that. Remember that Bioware has nothing to lose by shipping a game with an unpopular ending–a similar fan reaction to the gameplay and story of Dragon Age 2 didn’t even make a dent in the profitability of Bioware as a company.

Instead, Bioware have fueled the controversy by putting out press release after press release that hinted at possible changes before finally announcing that, yes, changes will be made. What have we learned from this? Two things.

1. Bioware are giving “gamers” the illusion of power.

There was no real pressure for them to change the ending, not even after the “Worst Company” fiasco from the last couple days. Bioware’s long track record of top-selling games is not going to be toppled by 100,000 angry fans, especially when most of the players of Mass Effect 3 aren’t even aware that there is a controversy. No, it is merely a ploy to appease some people and, more importantly, make the angry gamer feel like her internet rage actually had an effect. My criticism here is in the same vein as the critique of rights discourse; as soon as you feel like you are a whole, participating member of a body you forget how disempowered you really are. The illusion of market power and focus on the ending have allowed Bioware to functionally ignore all other possible criticism about their galaxy-building and formulaic gameplay.

2. This is publishing-as-usual, only faster.

Like I said above, the testing and vetting process for game design and writing is extensive. Normally, we would see these issues corrected in a sequel or in another game. The history of games is one of looking forward, not of fixing past mistakes. But the creation of massively accessible digital download technology has allowed for the editing of game materials at a moment’s notice. Whenever you sign into Live or turn on your PS3 or load up Steam you could be inundated with updates that alter your game experience–the warning for “No Russian” in MW2 was added on launch day this way.

Virilio wrote about speed and politics and how technology allows action to happen at the speed of a vector, which is instantly. I can’t help but think of that here. Game alteration has reached the speed of a vector; the market can now appease you immediately, efficiently, and without interruption to your daily life.

Let me be clear: this is not a change in the way that games work, or the way that art works, or even in the publishing habits of major companies. This is logical development of the technology we use to play games.

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2 Responses to On the Mass Effect 3 Ending Change

  1. Dan Cox says:

    What happens next time? That’s the question that I’m interested in while looking at players getting the (illusion) of changing ending of games.

    The next time this type of situation rolls around, is the next company going to, if even a little, buckle under the pressure? Will they change bits for those who complain the loudest?

    Even scarier, at least as a creator myself, is the Kickstarted projects. What happens when people are unhappy with those projects? Will they get changed too? Is it games as works or games as products, as services? Is this iteration (towards what is needed) or catering to what is wanted?

    What happens to those who play these games /after/ the changes? Is it a different game, a slightly different experience or something totally different? And, more importantly, does that matter?

    • kunzelman says:

      Those are all interesting questions, and I have to tell you that I don’t know. On some level, it is unpredictable. Sure, the experience of playing the game will be different for the new people, but will it really matter? I am reminded of the case of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, which is a book that has undergone several large changes and edits over the years. Does it change the overall experience? No. The people who are reading it for the first time are getting a brand new experience that is, at least on the affective level, much the same as the readers of the original book.

      As for Kickstarter, I think that those projects are actually opportunities for even more creative control. Bioware is invested in making a product that lots and lots of people will purchase. Kickstarter is already paid for. That means you can have a more cavalier attitude toward the player–“you got what you paid for,” if you will. In the same way that people like Amanda Palmer have crowd funded projects for very small audiences, Kickstarter already has its audience selected, and part of the Kickstarter social contract is that the player trusts the developer’s project. Why would you buy in if you didn’t think the Kickstarter had something for you?

      I’m don’t see the difference between iteration toward the needed and catering to the wanted. These are all desires foisted on the developer by the market–we’ve never had a problem with this in the past, right? The former is done through patches, the latter through DLC.

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