Electronic Arts (video game publishing superpower) is a pretty scummy company—voted “Worst Company in America” 2 years running!—but in the quest to milk every single dollar out of an increasingly alienated and cynical fanbase, they occasionally do something not completely horrible. (Or at least something marginally useful for the purposes of researching one of my infamously inflammatory blog posts.)
Last week, for example, they gave away “free” access to several of the titles on their aging backlist, in the hopes of enticing those few gamers who hadn’t either heard of or played the titles to plunk down good money for mediocre games (or at the very least, some overpriced DLC). One of the mediocre games included was BioWare’s much reviled computer RPG, Mass Effect 3.
How to explain ME3 to people who’ve never heard of it, or at the very least just don’t care? Let’s start this way:
Remember, if you can, the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Star Wars to Return of the Jedi, Death Star, Skywalker, and all. Now imagine that, after 6 hours of awesome Space Opera and just ten minutes before the end of The Return of the Jedi, this abruptly happens: Vader is about to pick up the emperor and throw him into a pit when the movie smash cuts to Tatooine. There’s been an explosion—Luke tampered with the landspeeder’s engine and it done blewed up—and is bleeding to death from a severe head injury. The last three movies have been nothing more than a hallucination Luke experienced as he slowly died.
There was never a Death Star. Never a Princess Leia. Never a Han Solo. Darth Vader? Figment of Luke’s imagination.
In fact, there isn’t even a Galactic Empire: Palpatine is just a milquetoast Senator desperately trying to stave off the internal collapse of the generations-old Galactic Republic. The heroes weren’t heroes. The villains weren’t villains. And rebelling against the “Evil Galactic Empire” was never heroic, but instead was an act of monumental stupidity that only hastened the end of peace and order in the galaxy.
In other words, everything that Luke experienced—everything that we, as an audience, experienced—was a lie. It never happened. It was just the hallucinations of one dying farmboy, who’s overly obsessed with adventure stories.
Close up of Luke’s bloody face as he gasps his final breaths. His eyes close, forever. He dies alone. Fade to black. Thirty seconds of absolute silence over absolute black. Roll credits.
If Lucas had done that, audiences would have rioted. They’d be burning theaters to the ground, and hanging Lucas in effigy. A mob would have spontaneously formed, marched on Skywalker Ranch, and did to LucasFilm what Rome did to Carthage. Salting the very ground, my dudes, salting the very ground.
Mass Effect 3 was pretty much that. Only, instead of wasting six hours of their lives on what turned out to be a pretentious pile of garbage of a trilogy, gamers wasted two hundred hours. (That’s TWELVE SEASONS of an hour-long drama.) Fans were… a little peeved.
EA was their typical scummy selves—taking out adds that touted the fans’ passionate response to the monumentally crappy ending, as if its ability to spark absolute seething hatred among the series’ most devoted fans was a good thing—but you’d expect that. Scummy EA is scummy. It’s BioWare’s response that was interesting.
It’s our choices that define us. Most of the time they’re inconsequential, but every now and then there’s a choice so critical, it defines the rest of our life. For BioWare, their reaction to Mass Effect 3 was that choice.
Fans were (virtually) rioting. The BioWare forums were awash with (exceedingly polite) fan backlash. Fans were organizing petitions, donating to charities to show they were serious, even sending cupcakes (which gently mocked the absurdly terrible ending) to the developer. BioWare’s response?
“This is art. We ain’t changing nothing. You’re awful people we’d be happier not having as customers.”
In exactly the same circumstances—widespread fan backlash against the ending of a game—both Bethesda (with Fallout 3) and CD Projekt Red (with The Witcher 2) humbled themselves and listened. Both released expansions which corrected the problems, and even expanded the games a bit. After, Bethesda went on to make Skyrim and Fallout 4, both of which made absolute gobs of dough. CD Projekt Red’s next game—The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt—became one of the best selling and most lauded RPG’s ever. Humility and heeding fan feedback worked for both companies.
BioWare’s “screw you and the console you play on” approach? Not so much.
The two founders of BioWare built the company from the ground up, forging it into one of the foremost game design studios in the world. Yet just one month after the ME3 fiasco, one of BioWare’s founders decided to flee the company he created, and both ended up leaving within six months. Project lead Casey Hudson also unceremoniously departed (much to the consternation of nobody at all).
BioWare itself went on to release two widely reviled games, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda. Made under the direction of the chief writer of Mass Effect 3, Andromeda so damaged the brand, EA shuttered the franchise because even they could see no way to milk it for more money (even with crappy little free-to-play mobile apps), except for making the previous, good games in the series free for a limited time, hoping somebody out there would actually buy the over five years old games.
Sure, BioWare is promising a great new series—Anthem, their attempt to steal Destiny’s crown—and even brought back the writer of Mass Effect 1 & 2, Drew Karpyshyn, to pen the game’s “story”, but given their recent track record, only a fool would uncritically accept their word that—This time for sure!—they’ll make a really great game, honest.
Look, EA is a pretty terrible company. But they at least pretend to care what their fans think. (Witness the launch of Star Wars: Battlefront 2, whose subtitle may as well have been “We totally listened and got it right this time! We promise!”) In the face of fan backlash against the totally terrible ending of Mass Effect 3, BioWare couldn’t be bothered to even pretend to care, preferring to cater to their own vanity and conceit at the expense of their most passionate fans.
Choices have consequences. And the consequences of choosing the path of pride, self-importance, and pretentiousness is artistic stagnation and intellectual rot. BioWare is far down that path, and shows no signs of turning aside, much less reversing course.