Category Archives: Mass Effect

Davison and the Venomous Mass Effect Defences

(This is a repost of a comment I made on Pete Davison’s excellent blog, where he touches on the Mass Effect ending controversy, and especially on the notion forwarded by people like Rob Fahey that the fans requesting that the ending is changed are demonstrating delusional levels of “entitlement”. Davison makes the point that social media made developers more accessible than ever. My take’s different, and I’m reproducing it below.)

(I hate this issue. No. Really. Despise it. I want to talk about gaming and game design. I want to get back to Daggerfall and Skyrim and SW:TOR and the World of Warcraft: Mists of Panderia demo I just got into. It’s stupid that this is happening. But it’s getting so bad, so….bilious….that it’s wiping everything else aside. Anyway, response follows now.)

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Wow, I didn’t realize he called them “sociopaths”. Pots and kettles come to mind here, considering how he seems to argue from the POV that critical fans are a subhuman rabble.

I kind of agree with where you’re coming from here, but can’t completely. The idea that stories are not “finished” when first released, and outcries over bad creator decisions, are pretty damned old. People have (legitimately) brought up the reaction to the death of Sherlock Holmes, and even Great Expectations got a pretty big change made to it after-the-fact. One good example that I fixed on just a little while ago was the theatrical release of Bladerunner, which was frankly crap thanks to the half-assed narration; it was made clear by both fans and critics that the film was better off without it, and the combination of its removal and a fleshed out ending(!) in the Director’s Cut edit turned it from a curiosity into a classic. Game writers who are treating games as Finished Works Never To Be Touched Again are demonstrating that they’re not only out-of-touch with modern game design (which emphasizes iteration), but out of touch with pretty much every narrative medium in human history.

(Yes, all of them. You don’t seriously think that people in oral cultures didn’t change stories to suit them? The only reason we can’t do that sort of thing NOW is IP laws. If it weren’t illegal, somebody would have already hacked together a version of Mass Effect with a better ending.)

I also don’t believe that this has much to do with social media. There have been outcries over crappy games on the Internet since there WAS an Internet. This wasn’t the first time something like this has happened; the cryptic, unsatisfying endings of FFVII and FFVIII provoked a lot of anger and disgust, just as the ending to BSG and Lost did later. The particular venue changed from Usenet to Web forums to Social Media, but it was pretty much the same thing. If anything, Usenet was WORSE.

No, what it comes down to is the simple fact that it’s routine for games to change after release now. Mass Effect 2 is a different game when you add on the DLC. The narrative’s different, and the experience is different. Dragon Age is different. Assassin’s Creed 2 is different. (The DLC adds context that wasn’t there before.) Batman: Arkham City is different. Both Fallout 3 and that stand-alone Prince of Persia actually had their endings change. How on earth is it the fault of either social media or this toxic notion of fan “entitlement”, when the notion of changing, iterated narrative games is commonplace now? THAT is what the industry did.

Yes, this whole controversy says a lot about gaming, and none of it good. But the message isn’t about either game designers or gaming fans. It’s about writers, reviewers, journalists and critics. I’ve been disappointed before with some of the arguments or attitudes; the used gaming controversy has revealed far too many economic illiterates calling people “pirates” for trying to save a bit of money. The DLC thing has been an issue too, where the only bank accounts given any real consideration belong to EA or Activision or Ubisoft, instead of gamers.

But this…I’ve never seen it as bad as this. I’ve never seen such acidic bile spit about gaming’s biggest boosters. I’ve never seen the word “fan” used as such a vicious expletive. I’ve never felt so…nauseated…by the people who are supposed to be advocates for consumers and fans. I’d never, ever thought I’d see the word “sociopath” thrown around.

Were it about the whole anti-gay thing, or about the treatment of women, I could see it. But that isn’t what’s happening here. This bile is being spat out for asking developers to do what they are already doing to begin with. This is far bigger than one game. It raises the question of who the hell is going to advocate for game consumers. Maybe the Mass Effect thing is proving they’ll have to do it on their own.

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Star Wars: The Old Republic Impressions

(Yes, yes, I’d promised more on Daggerfall and how cheating makes it better.  I’ll get to that.)

So I got one of those “try our game free for seven days!” things from EA/Bioware for Star Wars: The Old Republic. (“SWTOR” to its friends.)  Immediately interested by that. Unlike pretty much every massive-multi game under the sun these days, there’s no option to play SWTOR for free. World of Warcraft and Rift are both free up to 20, and pretty much everybody else is completely free-to-play. Not SWTOR. This was as “free” as it was going to get.

Okay, yes. It’s restricted. But the restrictions are interesting: you can only go to the first few areas, you can only go up to level 15, and you can apparently roll as many characters as you see fit.  Put those together, and you have a demo encouraging you to see a good broad cross-section of the early game. Not a bad idea. In a modern MMO, that’s often the best bit.

So after ensuring I had enough space and download data free for that groaningly huge client,  I downloaded it, fired it up, and selected my first class: in this case, a female Republic Soldier. Had to be that: I found out that that character’s voiced by Jennifer “Femshep” Hale, and I’m always up for hearing her growl at people.

Then I set out to recreate my Shep, and that’s when I found out the first thing about SWTOR, which is that playing other Bioware games is not a good indicator for SWTOR’s graphics. Yes, they’re better than WoW, but I was expecting something on the same level as your Dragon Ages or Mass Effects. This wasn’t even in the same ballpark. I’m pretty sure the faces in DCUO were more detailed, and that one was a console port!

Doesn’t matter, though. Minor detail. And after making a “good enough Shep”, I started up the game proper, and discovered three things:

  1. It’s a Bioware Game;
  2. It’s an Everquest/WoW-style MMO; and
  3. Those two things are really weird together.

Not “bad”, mind you. But weird. The game is the oddest hybrid. You do some classic Bioware conversation stuff, and then go do some WoW-style exploration and combat, and then go back to turn in the quest and do MORE Bioware-ing, and it’s seriously a bit jarring after a while. It feels like I’m playing two different games that kinda-sorta have something to do with each other, but not quite.

The conversation bits are definitely the high point. They really do flesh out your character and make you feel special, and the idea of having  “locked off” areas that are focused on telling the particular classes’ stories was an excellent notion that other companies should definitely emulate. You’re invested in the story from the get-go.  The Republic Soldier story felt a little generic, but still decent.

After playing with her for a while, I rolled an Imperial. Two, actually:  A Sith Inquisitor, which seems to be a popular class, and an Imperial Agent, which is getting rave responses. WOW.  I now understand why there’s a huge faction imbalance. The Republic soldier story was fine, but is simply outclassed by the Imperials. The Imperial stories started off engaging pretty much from the get-go and have just been getting better. THAT’S the Bioware that I remember and used to love.

The MMO bits, though…just not quite sold yet. Yes, it’s early. MMO combat is notoriously simplistic at low levels.  Maybe it gets a lot better. But it’s still the old “go here, kill a thing, collect another thing, bring it back, enjoy your loot” experience that everybody’s familiar with. It’s odd, too, because Blizzard has been working really, really hard to get away from that sort of thing. Ever since Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard’s been using their “vehicle” mechanics and environmental phasing and a whole lot of other tricks to try to mix things up a bit.  Other companies have been trying to mix it up, too, with the standout being Trion with their various dynamic gameplay elements in Rift. Not Bioware. They’re bringing circa-2007 gameplay to the table in 2012. That’s surprising. They know things have changed.

So, yeah, odd hybrid. Neat storytelling (though the morality system’s kind of suspect) married to the sort of traditional theme-park MMOing that we all kinda got sick of at least three years ago. It’s not obnoxious, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.

I doubt I’ll buy the game, but I am appreciating the experience. I’m going to make a point of rolling every class, if only to see how they all start out. I won’t necessarily finish the first “planet” on each, but I do want to see what they’re about.

Then it’s back to Daggerfall and Skyrim.

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Bioware’s Bans and the Public’s “Pirate” Perception

I was reading a good piece on the whole “From Ashes” controversy on Gamasutra, and ran across a bit that I hadn’t really known about that I wanted to take a look at. Apparently, you’re all pirates. You just didn’t know it.

Read the text to get the info

"Wait...THIS is 'Piracy' now"?

In case you didn’t click through,EA/Bioware was apparently banning people from their forums for posting the .ini tweaks to open up the extra “From Ashes” character.  Last I checked, those bans were still complete bans, too: if you get banned from the site, you’re banned from your games. Yes, even the single-player ones.

That’s pretty bad.

What’s worse, though, is that we aren’t talking about any sort of real “crack” or “hack”. Tweaking a configuration file isn’t cracking or hacking a damned thing. Go read any given PC gaming site, and they’ll routinely give you instructions on how to tweak this, that, or the other thing in order to improve your performance or customize your experience.  Skyrim has loads of little tweaks that you can do to it, and nobody’s going to give you grief for it, or ban you from Steam for doing so. Heck, you can even patch the Skyrim executable if you want.

This little guy? He's a hack too. Just an official one.

So to call this “piracy” is just odious. Plain and simple. ODIOUS. I still like Bioware, somehow, and I understand why this would be a tough position to be in. But to call users “pirates” because they’re accessing material on disc that they have paid money for? Material that you have told them isn’t the “real” DLC? Material that can be accessed through a simple configuration tweak, the same kind that happens every hour, of every day, on practically every PC gamer’s computer? What’s next, labeling them “pirates” for reading multiplayer strategies on some Wikia? Condemning them for watching somebody’s “Let’s Play” on Vimeo?  Maybe you should go after people who look over somebody else’s shoulder…they haven’t paid to see that content! PIRATES!

“Worse” as that is, though, that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is that this sort of labeling only serves to make people believe that piracy is legitimate. If you’re labeling perfectly normal activity as “piracy”, then what are you going to do with the real ones? “Super-pirates”? “Ultrapirates?” No. You’ll call them “pirates” too. And when the harmless people see you lumping them in with the actual pirates, their reaction is going to be a combination of “well, screw you buddy!” and “fine, if I’m a pirate, then I’m a pirate. Off to the torrent sites, I have some downloading to do”.  Then you’ve lost them, probably for good.

That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. Ultimately, the fight against piracy has to be a moral and ethical one. You have to convince people that copyright infringement is wrong—not just because it’s illegal, but that it’s wrong, full stop. That isn’t the only way to get people to get stuff legitimately—Gabe Newell’s made nearly two billion dollars proving that convenience is a factor as well—but there still needs to be a certain basic level of empathy for your position.

That empathy is eroding. I’m seeing it every day. I’m seeing it in the harsh reaction to DRM, to DLC, and to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. I’m seeing it in the rise of “pirate parties” across Europe, and of public officials willing to give them time and perception. I’m seeing it in the hardening of Internet opinions against publishers. I’m seeing it in the changing views of game critics like Jim Sterling, who went from being a savage critic of pirates to practically throwing up his hands and saying “go ahead”. And, honestly, I’m seeing it everywhere else as well. So can you, if you look around and pay attention to what people are saying when they don’t think they’ll get banned by some site administrator.

The pirates even have snazzy logos now

The producers do deserve that empathy. Our society and culture really do benefit from giving them their fair shot at making a decent return on the time and money they’ve risked on the enterprise. Even if their rights should never completely trump consumers’ rights, they DO have rights. That trend towards legitimizing piracy should be arrested. But the rise of the “Pirate Parties” shows that “arrests” won’t do it. If the law conflicts with peoples’ sense of morality, then it is the law may end up being changed.

That’s what Bioware’s risking here. That all-important goodwill and empathy towards producers is being shredded by their behavior. Arbitrary bans from single-player content, exploitative DLC, abusive labeling of ordinary behavior as “piracy” and what would appear to be outright lies about your DLC plans are not going to help producers convince the public that their copyrights are worth protecting.

Instead, it’ll help convince the public that there’s enough free stuff on the Internet that society doesn’t really need to protect and support companies like Bioware. Sure, it’ll suck not having things like SWTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or the rest; but if the public decides that that’s a small enough price to pay, it’ll be near-impossible to convince them otherwise.

The masses will be flying their digital Jolly Rogers, and all the lawsuits in all the world won’t change their mind otherwise.

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Was the Mass Effect 3 DLC Pre-Planned or After-the-Fact? (It Doesn’t Matter)

So there’s a great hue and cry about the (alleged) proof that Mass Effect 3′s “From Ashes” DLC wasn’t conceived and developed finished after the rest of the game, as alleged, but that it was intended all the time. EA’s contention has been that the work was only done after the rest of the game was over; that it was developed in the “gap” between the game going gold and getting certified by the console manufacturers.

I’ll embed the video that shows what we DO know about the DLC character. Warning, slight spoilers. (And these spoilers are as far as I’m willing to go; I still haven’t played ME3 yet.)

So let’s go over some early thoughts about what this proves and doesn’t prove.

  • It DOES prove that the decision and planning to include this character in the game happened before the game went gold. They went to the extent of adding in hooks so that the character would be playable.
  • It DOESN’T prove that the campaign and content is the sort of notorious “on-disc DLC” that people dislike. You do download something when you download “From Ashes”. Nobody seems to have proven what it is, though.
  • It also DOESN’T prove that the character’s playable in the full game. All we saw in that video was that the character was selectable. We don’t know if his dialogue or influences on the rest of the game are in as well. We can’t assume one way or the other on that one; we simply don’t know.
  • It DOES prove, though, that it’s possible that the character could have been cut for purposes of monetization instead of time. That’s the key argument here. EA has insisted, and continues to insist, that From Ashes was made after the full game was over. Sadly, we don’t know whether or not we can believe them. If the character had been “patched in” completely after release, then that would have been a solid indicator that what they said is true. Instead, we have a strong indicator that the critics’ charges MAY have been true.

It’s that latter bit that I think we need to focus on. Whether or not the DLC was made in that interstitial period between gold and release is far less important than why it was made during that period. If it was because they simply couldn’t get the content done in time and it was facing the chopping block, then that’s one thing. If it was conceived and planned FROM THE VERY BEGINNING to be DLC, then that’s something else entirely. That was a DECISION, and they could have just as easily decided to put the character in as part of the base game.

So let’s look at their defence as posted on Game Informer.

“From Ashes is a 600 MB+ download with all new content, including the mission on Eden Prime, new dialogue options and conversations with Javik, new cinematics, the Prothean weapon, and new appearances for all squad members. All of the above content was completed while the main game was in certification and are not available on the disc.

“As stated previously, in order to seamlessly integrate Javik into the core campaign, certain framework elements and character models needed to be put on disc. We did something similar with Zaeed and Kasumi in Mass Effect 2.”

This doesn’t say “content that we added in later when we could”, like with Shale in Dragon Age. No, this says “we planned out our DLC releases very carefully at a very early point”. It says “we were planning on monetizing this character and his plotline and made a point of building that monetization into the game”.

And, yes, “monetizing” is the right word. What nobody is talking about is the simple fact that THEY DIDN’T NEED TO CHARGE MONEY FOR FROM ASHES. So what if it was finished between gold and release? That’s just a kind of QA arbitrage, taking advantage of the fact  that console QA standards for DLC are less rigorous.  They could have patched it in as a reward for people buying it new, just like with Shale or Zaeed. That’s the standard they set and subsequently broke.

Heck, they could have patched it in for everybody. Even if Microsoft doesn’t like free DLC, they could have just made it free on other platforms and charged some cursory amount of cash on Live. There would be outrage, but they could just point it at MS for their ludicrous DLC policies. They’d look like the heroes, instead of the villains.

That’s not what happened here, though. What happened, I think, is that every moment of this whole thing was intricately planned out. From Ashes was planned as an attempt to get money out of people who cared about the setting, just as Zaeed was planned as a way of encouraging people to buy ME2 new, and Shadow Broker was planned as a way of answering the hanging questions about Liara.

If the DLC was developed afterwards, it’s because they planned to do that. From the very beginning, they planned to hold off on Javik. They planned to give additional plot-relevant content to those willing to pay a significantly higher price. They planned to make people wonder whether they’ve missed something important. They planned to make extra money playing these QA arbitrage games.

Making you pay extra for this content was their decision. It’s all on them. If people are dissatisfied with that decision, with those plans, then they have every right to complain, and yell, and vent, and rage, and post angry letters and videos and all the rest.

If they don’t like it? Well, they shoulda planned for that.

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So Peter Davison namedropped me in his most recent post. He was referring to the discussion between Peter Skerritt and myself on Twitter whether DLC’s useful. One of his commentators, Jeff Grubb made the point that the backlash is probably going to have more long-term instead of short-term consequences. I agreed, and thought I’d reproduce my comment here with a wee bit extra about Skyrim.

(Bit from comment follows)

That was roughly what I was getting at with Peter. Peter’s right about the near-term. There’s no way that they’re going to change their current ME3 DLC strategy based on the outcry. How could they? Giving “From Ashes” to everybody would be really, really unfair to those who ponied up the dough for a collector’s edition or for the DLC pack itself.

What the backlash will do is make them rethink this with future games. They might still have DLC, but the “From Ashes” experiment of day-one paid DLC might not be repeated. It’s a bit like Bethesda and the controversy over Oblivion’s horse armor; they didn’t suddenly make the horse armor free, but it probably had a lot to do with the lack of silly DLC nonsense in Skyrim. Even if the entire industry isn’t going to react, individual publishers clearly do.

(Credit where credit is due: Peter did acknowledge that in our discussion yesterday.)

So, yeah, feel free to rage. Sure, it may seem a bit silly, and you have to do it for the right reasons. But, yeah, in the long run I think you’re right. I do think it works.

(Now the new bit)

Bethesda has said that Skyrim’s eventual DLC is going to be real, expansion-pack-level content. That’s exactly what we DO want. Bethesda’s done a LOT of things right with Skyrim. Sure, it has been plagued by serious QA problems. So do a lot of modern console games prior to patching. It’s still got expansive, compelling modding tools, unobtrusive copy protection, and no ham-fisted multiplayer or sketchy DLC, It’s also tremendous value for money. TREMENDOUS.

Heck, if you look at the PC release, it’s one of the better triple-A PC releases. The UI is terrible for PC, but the deep modding support can let you fix that, and add a million different things besides. And, yes, it’s a Steamworks game, which means no resale, but Bethesda has allowed Valve to put the game up for deep discounts. Between a Christmas coupon and a weekend sale, I was able to purchase Skyrim on Steam for around thirty bucks. That’s madness. That’s far lower than the price I’d be able to get for resale, even if I wanted to sell it. I doubt I ever would.

Mass Effect 3 has DLC and is a big seller, but the DLC’s controversial and the fans feel betrayed. Skyrim is ALSO a big seller, and the QA issues still aren’t fully addressed, but the fans all recognize that they’re getting good value for money.

Which do you think other companies are going to emulate going forward? The profitable one where you’re getting burned in effigy, or the possibly-more-profitable one where you’re being lionized by even the crankiest of critics?

Answer seems pretty clear to me.

Davison, Mass Effect 3, and Skyrim’s Lack of DLC

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