BioWare’s Decision: The Relationship Between Developers and Their Audience

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?

Image: Penny Arcade

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.

Readers Comments (14)

  1. As a writer, I can understand how Bioware wouldn’t want to change the ending. However, as a consumer that has had his fair share of crappy game endings in his life, I can see why fans would want it to change. It’s a hard job to make a product that pleases everyone.

  2. Yup… they should not change it… it was their story, game, art… like it or not. That is how it is made and that it is how it should be accepted. But I have to admit to myself… It really is a bad ending, all three of it, in any angles or points of view or whatever. It is disappointing and the sad part is there’s nothing I can really do about it… all those years of playing and the anticipation for the final part of the final game… boom (all three colors of it)

  3. Your distillation of people who are unhappy with the endings (as well as that Penny Arcade carton) as “people who want Shepard to fart rainbows and Krogan unicorns to defeat the Reapers” is disingenuous at best.

    Personally, I’m getting really tired of the “had to sacrifice himself to save X” ending. It’s a cheap gimmick to attempt to evoke emotion. It’s done almost as much as the “happy ending” thing, so any defense based on “trying to do something different” is thrown right out the window.

    The endings do not provide any closure, no matter what.
    The endings create more plot holes, no matter what.
    The endings are not significantly different, no matter what.
    The endings do not even have INTERNAL consistency (team members who were on Earth stepping off the Normandy after the crash), no matter what.

    One hour before the end of the game, I turned to my wife and declared the ME franchise the greatest I’ve played. Then the deus ex machina ending with a trinary choice (ironically stolen whole from the original Deus Ex game), unaffected by any of the plot points in three games, came along and ruined all replayability.

    To call “artistic expression” in its defense would be like saying that, had DaVinci chosen to draw a Dirty Sanchez on the Mona Lisa at the end in actual feces, that we should have applauded that decision. Sure, he COULD have… and it would have ruined it.

    They don’t have to change the ending (and people aren’t forced to download a new ending DLC should it be made). They’re free to do what they want. And we’re free to think they suck if they believe that ending was in any way appropriate. It’s the invisible hand Adam Smith spoke of. And they’re free to express themselves artistically in any way they choose… am I supposed to feel sorry for them if they lose money because of their shitty artistic vision? Since when are artists due financial compensation regardless of the public’s perception of their work? This is no new shit, been going on as long as art has. People like it, you get paid. If they don’t, you don’t.

    • The picture is a funny outlook on the situation. It isn’t really making fun of anyone specific. And if it was, it would be making fun of me too since I didn’t care for the ending myself (which I stated).

      As far as not providing closure, creating plot holes, and not having internal consistency, I would agree with you to an extent, but that doesn’t mean you are fully correct. Several game journalist who have played it would disagree and see the endings as giving plenty of closure and so on, making people have to think for themselves about what happened next.

      ME3 has NO REPLAYABILITY? Myself (who didn’t like the endings) as well as several others would HIGHLY disagree with you since we will be/are playing it again…because the game was fantastic.

      The same as a dirty sanchez….no…it wouldn’t at all be the same. Intentionally defacing a piece of art is vandalism. What BioWare did was put in the ending they though was right and not to be dicks, like DaVinci would have been in your example.

      For your final paragraph…you’re right and I never said anything to the contrary. People have opinions and they are welcome to have them. If you don’t like BioWare’s work, then don’t buy their stuff. Simple. That’s the way it has always worked. However, if you don’t like the way they did something in their story, deal with it, like you would if you didn’t like a movie, get over it. Don’t try to force them to change their work, which is exactly what fans are trying to do.

      • Sorry Tyler but i have to agree with bill on this one. bioware went on record telling gamers that their choices in the game would affect the outcome of the game which it didn’t and if you look at the ending you would see that they are the same with minor differences to each one. it doesn’t offer any closure to gamers who have been playing this game since the very first one.

        If bioware couldn’t keep their promise they made to gamers,then they shouldn’t have made it or been forthcoming with the outcome of the ending.then gamers wouldn’t have been up in arms or wouldn’t have wasted their money on the game. but I’m sure bioware knew that which is a reason they have misled gamers and now this is the outcome from gamers.

        I wanted to also touch on a part of your comment to bill.”Several game journalist who have played it would disagree and see the endings as giving plenty of closure and so on” ahhh…..NO. journalist get AD dollar,free games,exclusive interviews and previews. so why wouldn’t their opinion be bias to the developers and publishers. i mean we seen what happened to the last guy who reviewed a game with a low score (guy from gamespot)and the site was given preview and interviews. he was fired. so please tell me another journalist that would S*%T the money bed?

        also not everyone is complaining about the ending. a lot are complaining about the day one DLC that’s already on the disk and bioware is trying to milk out extra money to unlock this content on disc. but again what journalist or gaming site has mention this also? none.

        this whole “enough with the complaining” articles is only telling dev’s that it’s ok to put out a garbage product and it’s ok cause no one should ever have an opinion on it. even though the dev’s ask for gamers input into the game and again i feel bioware gave their fanbase a DIRTY SANCHEZ not only with the ending but also with the DLC that’s already on the disk that they are trying to con me out of.

  4. To Bioware and those defending the ending, keep it. Argue your art and creative freedom points to death.
    I will not be purchasing Bioware games ever again.

  5. 1. We got the ending we got because it was cheap.It wasn’t ‘artistic,” it wasn’t “visionary,” it was financially cheap like a $2 whore.

    2. As for Levine he is free to have his opinion, but after hearing that remark of his you better be damn sure the only way I’m playing that game of his is if it is stolen, pirated, or borrowed. He won’t get a dime from me, the one that pays him.

    3. Bioware and EA can do as much delaying tactics as they want, I’m not buying anything else from them again. Rape me once, never again after.

    4. This event also showed us that on a whole, the main stream gaming press are nothing but prostitutes for sale. I’ll never trust or respect the game media again after this debacle, cause they went right along with it.

  6. So long time you make art is your business . . . nobody can have any right to dictate anything to you. But the second you expect that I pay you for your art then then the sole purpose of the existence of that art is so that I would consider it wordy of my money, my time and my emotional investment.

    At the en of Mass Effect 1 I just stayed in the front of the monitor and thought about what a good game it was. Next days I was still dreaming about the game and i could not wait for the next one. It did not fulfill all my whims and pettiness. But it touched me.

    Then the next game evolved all the game industry in my opinion giving your choices meaning. You are no longer a spectator of the show: you are more, you are a part of it. And you have a word to say about what you do. From now on I decided that this is what I want from a game. If I want only to watch and have no say in the events then I will watch a movie or read a book. I have no interest to invest effort in doing some stuff like some machine, those child kind of play don’t fit me anymore.

    And then come the Mass Effect 3, where the writing was lazy at best. On one way you must get some allies and unite the known galaxy on the other hand you have “this thing wonder weapon what happen to be discovered when we need and does what we want and we can produce it too”. That I could have forgiven but the ending is worse than a specific looking curly little hair what you find in the last spoon of your meal. It betrays the lore of the previous games and in truth not only that makes the events of the previous games deeply illogical not only that makes the ending senseless not only that for the most part the ending is believable only for a kid of 5 years but also the ending throws out the window the most important part of the series. Your choices have no meaning, indifferently what you would have done you would end in the same place. If you would have done nothing it would be the same.

    I could have swallowed some mystical stuff about the destiny or the cold reality of a drop of water versus the big ocean. But the game series made a point that you reshaped the galaxy after your will, that you pull out of the hat stuff that reshape the fate of everybody. At least if it would have been some soul touching ending, something to think about but all that you get is confusion. So what actually happened?

    The insult to injury is that the same company has brought closure to a similar kind of game(Dragon Age: Origins) with only few rows of text.

    After the game I did not staid and thought: that sucks but WOW. Nor did I thought OMG this is mindblowing. Nor did I thought: there I had it my choices reshaped the fate of everybody.

    And most important I had not dreamed and burned for the next DLC.

    I felt betrayed and confused and cheated, I felt that Bioware should pay me for the time wasted.

    Yes Bioware can make all the art they want . . . but they will never see any 0,0001€ from me

  7. Bill Man brings up a good point. In the old days artist would get backing from someone of wealth to make there art. If it wasn’t up to snuff, if they crossed hew line they were cut off. So what is the difference here? If they are artist, they fall under the same rules. Better ending, or be cut off.

    • What you described there is censorship, which I guess is cool?

      • Pulling funding from an art project when it’s not what you thought you were supporting is now classed as “censorship”?

        Bet you scored double digits on your SATs with that kind of grasp of vocabulary.

        So, artists should be financially supported no matter how bad their work sucks? Awesome. We’re on the long road to mediocrity, that’ll get us there MUCH faster.

  8. We aren’t really talking art here though. We are talking phoned in. We aren’t even talking phoned in. We are talking phoned their butlers to phone it in for them. I won’t buy change the ending dlc myself. I won’t stop buying things from Bioware. However I will no longer give them the benefit of a doubt. It will take a lot for me to buy a game from them and even then, it’ll probably be used if not wait a year to get it cheap. With that said, the ending was about the fifth thing wrong with this game. The entire script throughout the game felt and read like a script writing for dummies mad lib. Mass Effect 3 wasn’t artists making their art. It wasn’t directors/writers/actors making the best possible game/movie/t.v. show/etc they could. It was producers making the most successful product they could. Story was clearly second when it came to this game. Which is a shame considering how much I did love the gameplay. Even though the rolling/melee/climbing/etc all seemed rather pointless.

  9. I’m sorry. I forgot that games are only art when people like it or are 100% pleased with it. If not, then it’s a consumer product and are entitled to what THEY want and EVERYTHING they want.

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