Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lots of speculation for everyone!

If you don't live under a rock and are remotely interested in gaming you should already know everything about Mass Effect 3 ending's controversy. I've finished the game last week and there's very little to add to all the articles, blog entries and forum discussions that have covered the argument in one way or the other. So, let me just say one thing: the fans are right!

ME3's ending sucks... it definitely does: it does not make a lot of sense, it has not a lot to do with the themes that the trilogy has developed up until that point and overall looks very cheap and rushed. It's even a failure on a gaming level, since it completely miss the opportunity to acknowledge in a significant way all the choices and the "work" that the player has done during the entire trilogy. It's really painful since the game is damn good before the ending. If you take out that sequence, Mass Effect 3 is truly a brilliant videogame and a worthy closure to the best trilogy we have ever experienced in the media. And the sheer goodness of most content that we experienced playing that series, is clearly the main reason for the reaction of the disheartened fans who are requesting Bioware to scrap what they have done and release a new ending.

Now, let's try to look more closely at all that mess since nothing is that black and white. If we think at most fiction out there, it's really hard to find a good and satisfying ending. In the case of videogames, the situation is even worst: we should admit that most endings in the media suck badly. And very few ending in genre's fiction could survive the kind of in depth scrutiny that ME3's fans have expressed in the last weeks. I mean, how many Lost do we get for the few Lord of the Rings? In that sense, even ME3's ending could have been at least average if Bioware had used the proper storytelling tools to mask the nonsensical nature of the final passage of the trilogy. The real problem is just of lack of good storytelling and clever design. Smoke and mirrors, my friends: the difference between a good ending and a bad ending has a lot to do with the illusion of sense, choice and value and not so much with the reality of them. 

I cannot believe that a company who is known in the industry for the quality of his writing and storytelling would make such a mistake without taking notice. If Ray Muzyka felt the need to spend his precious time doing public relations to apologize with the angry fans, it means that Bioware knows that the final moments of the game are not that good and do not live up to the quality you would expect from such a game. So, why ME3 ending suck? The answer is quite sad: it's the money, stupid! And the time, off course. Bioware has not put the proper amount of resources on the ending. The reason is simple and it's a common trend: the endings to most videogames get done in a rush in the very last phases of development, when the team is in a crunch to meet the release date and most of the money has already been spent (even for fancy stuff like multyplayer and kinect controls...).

When you look at things from a business point of view, it does make sense. Only a tiny segment of players finish the games they begin. It's really sad but there are many researches that show how only 10/20% of gamers actually finish the videogames they buy. In this case, we have the luxury to know the stats directly from Bioware: only 50% of the players who have begun Mass Effect 2 have actually finished it and reasonably the numbers will be similar for ME3. Why invest a lot of resources on a feature that in a best case scenario will be experienced only by half of your customer base? That's why most games show a drop in quality near the end. The money is gone, the time is short and for the developer and the publisher it ain't really worth the trouble. For a business like EA and Bioware, is smarter to release the ending as good as it can possibly be with the available resources. Then, there's always the possibility to publish an optional ending DLC for the few hardcore fans who are still interested. We have already seen ending DLCs and we will probably see more of them in the next years. Stop with the "game as art" crap, please. We know that it's always about the money. Our money.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Bioware has done a shitty ending on purpose. I'm not saying that EA wanted the fans to anger and organize in protest. The situation has clearly slipped out of their hands. They were not expecting such a loud, creative and stubborn reaction. But if Bioware will indeed publish an alternative ending DLC in the coming months you will know that I'm right. Why? Because everything in the gaming business is planned months and even years ahead release. If we will see an ending DLC in 2012, it means that Bioware have started to work on it in 2011 at the very least.

I know, it all seems like a tragedy... or a comedy of sort if you're a cynic like me. But there's something positive and not necessarily bad that the gaming community as a whole can learn from the ME3's ending debacle. First: gamers need to be treated with more respect. The ending of the story should be a priority in the development schedule and not an afterthought. Second: players should learn to finish their games if they want to be respected. It's really important to fight the "hype machine" and tell our fellow gamers that they have to finish what they start. Gamers should not to act like brainless consumerist monkeys who skips from one big thing to the next only because of adds. Third: if you design games on metrics and think too much about marketing plans, you will likely destroy the relation of trust between players and developers. And in the age of social networks and instant communication, things can snowball in no time.

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