The fiasco surrounding the wrathful reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending from fans continues to grow. What started out as a simple set of endings that didn’t set well with fans expectations (I didn’t care for the endings myself), has exploded into a huge debacle that could redefine the relationship between game developers and those who play their games.
The reactions from many gamers started out as just harmless criticism, citing the endings’ lack of closure, disappointing outcomes, etc. Before long, it escalated into an online petition to change the endings, all the way to FTC complaints being filed against BioWare for “False Advertisement,” stating that the endings for Mass Effect 3 “did not live up to any of those promises” made through their “campaign and PR interviews.” ME3 executive producer Casey Hudson offered a statement to the outcry, saying that the fans feedback is very important to the company and that they will be listening. Though nothing has been decided yet, BioWare has stated that they are taking changing the ending of the game into consideration. This may have pleased many fans who where disappointed, but is this truly a step in the right direction, or could this prove detrimental to game development in the future if they give in to fan backlash?
The debate between games being art is a very popular topic among gamers with many on both sides. In any case, many can agree that video games contain elements of both artistic expression and that of a consumer product. I won’t get into how I believe them to be art, but it is obvious how they rank as a product for consumers; they are developed and published by a company or companies and then sold at various retailers to consumers (This is a very watered-down explanation, but alas, I’m a writer, not an economist). But where is the line drawn concerning the phrase “the customer is always right”? If games are truly art, then shouldn’t the developers have free reign with their creation? And if games are a consumer product, then shouldn’t the developers listen to their customers and adjust and fix their products accordingly? The answer, sadly, is yes…and yes.
It is always important for game developers to listen to what gamers have to say about games. BioWare has made it clear that they do, as have other companies. For instance, if fans dislike a certain aspect or mechanic of a game, it is the duty of the developers to tweak and tinker with those mechanics to make them even better for the next game in a series. Similarly, if gamers are upset about a certain glitch or bug in a game, then it is up to the developers to listen and figure out ways to fix the bug or make it function more properly. This is apparent to all those who play games as well as all those who make games.
So where does artistic expression come into play? A developer cannot merely be chained to the whims of every gamer out there, nor should they. Gameplay, mechanics, playability…these are all categories that can be made better by listening to fans and examining their feedback. However, the path of the game itself is something that I think should be crafted by the developer. At the end of the day, it’s their product, their creation, and their story. Therefore it is their decision, not ours, for which direction it goes and, eventually, how it will come to an end.
Ken Levine, founder of Irrational Games, made his stance clear on this crisis in a recent panel discussion at the opening of the Smithsonian’s The Art of Video Games exhibit. He, like me and probably many other developers, believes this decision to be “an important moment” in the industry and believes the decision of how to craft a game’s story should rest with the developers themselves. As he put it, “if those people got what they wanted and [BioWare] wrote their ending they would be very disappointed in the emotional feeling they got because…they didn’t really create it.” This makes sense if you think about. Despite what decisions were made in the Mass Effect series, BioWare crafted where the story would go in the end, no matter the path it took. How could fans truly be happy with an ending that BioWare themselves didn’t create? Ken Levine went a bit further by stating that if BioWare gives in to fans, “I don’t think anyone would get what they wanted.”
If developers start giving into the cries of gamers screaming for “better” resolutions and more closure from the game’s story, then where will that end? When will developers ever be able to craft something from their own thought process without having to give in to whatever changes the gamer wishes them to make? If developers like BioWare start to cave to the demands of the unhappy gamer for something as open to interpretation as an ending to a series, then we may see a slow decline in the amount of artistic expression put into video games. Is that really what we want? Is seeing Sheperd stop the Reapers exactly the way you wanted him to worth all that?
I think not.