Pete Davison, DLC, and Mass Effect 3

I really, really liked this piece by Pete Davison about DLC, Mass Effect, and how it is pushing him away from the game.

It’s interesting how the conversation has moved on. Nobody’s really arguing about whether or not Mass Effect 3 is an RPG. That’s because it isn’t. No, stop, sorry, you don’t get to be an RPG just for having a plot; that’s just not how it works. Unless the reviews are seriously misleading, ME3 is no more of an RPG than Modern Warfare or God of War are. But it doesn’t feel like anybody’s really talking about that.

No, what they’re talking about is, well, this:

Then Mass Effect 3 shows up and it emerges that it features day-one DLC that is both exclusive to the more expensive Collector’s Edition of the game and extremely relevant to the overarching lore of the Mass Effect universe — though I’ll grant that most people are yet to play this DLC (and those who have are likely gagged by an embargo) and as such commenting on its “importance” may be premature. However, in my own personal opinion, this does not excuse the excising of content from the main game for separate release on the game’s launch date.

It’s at this point that people normally chime in and say that said DLC was probably developed by a different team, given its own budget and wasn’t ready when the main game was submitted for the various certification processes that come with releasing a game on console. And to that I say “fine, but why not wait a bit?” Because buying a new game and being informed on the same day that you’ve spent over £40 on it that there’s a bit of extra story you don’t have on your disc is, to me, unforgivable. I have zero respect for publishers who butcher a creative work (because that’s what a story like Mass Effect is) in order to turn it into a product, and I have no wish to support it. It’s like buying a book and having a chapter or two missing from the middle, or buying a DVD and some scenes from the movie are missing. I wouldn’t stand for it there — and thankfully no-one has tried it — and I see no reason to stand for it here…

…You can’t write a good story that has a beginning, 90% of its middle and an end. You can’t write a good story that has a beginning, middle and an end and then a bit after the end and then a bit after that. (Well, you can. But it’s called a “sequel” or an “expansion pack”, the latter of which seems to have all but ceased to exist except in a couple of isolated instances.)

I don’t see it either, and it’s clear that a lot of other people don’t. The reviews are all of the game WITHOUT the DLC, so we can’t really know whether or not there’s any sort of drastic impact, especially not if we’re trying to avoid getting spoiled as to the plot of the game. But I’m with Davison; optional fun “extras” for DLC are fine, and things like map packs are fine, but when they start having a serious impact on the story and setting, you’ve got serious problems.

This sort of thing shows that there’s a weird dichotomy in mainstream gaming: games are better, but gaming’s never been worse. The games ARE well made. They’re polished to a fine sheen—unless you aren’t playing the 360 version of a multiplatform game, but nevermind that—and designers are getting better as storytellers. Graphics are nicer, music is nicer, and the core gameplay loops are intuitive and compelling.

But, Lordy, Lordy, the drawbacks. Every single issue that pushes me away from mainstream gaming appears to be present in ME3:

  • Questionable ports from the Xbox 360 that either don’t use a platform’s input methods well (PC) or drop you through the floor of the world (PS3);
  • DLC that means that a story isn’t really over until you’ve ponied up a hundred bucks or more;
  • Practically mandatory multiplayer that requires you to buy an “online pass” if you didn’t buy the console version new;
  • Being tied to the publishers’ distribution platform on the PC, with god-knows-what DRM baked into the thing, where you can get banned from your games for writing a mean forum post;
  • What amounts to a yet-more-cover-shooting title, including a game mode that converts the remaining “RPG” bits into just that;
  • And all that at a premium cost, despite DLC’s existence as a license to print money by reworking existing assets.

Honestly, if I were a straight console gamer, I’d have probably thrown up my hands by now and bailed out of the hobby entirely. Fortunately, I don’t have to: the indie scene on PC (and, yes, on mobile) is so vital that it just makes this look pathetic in comparison. I mean, hell, you can find a near-infinite amount of gameplay on both platforms without paying much at all, thanks to the various free, advertiser-driven, or “freemium” games on both platforms. There’s real innovation and really exciting design going on there, and yet THIS is what the mainstream console publishers are bringing out?

The worst thing for me, though, is that this feels like a broken contract. We all knew what we were in for when Mass Effect 1 came out. ME1 was always marketed as the first part of a three-part story. That was fine! That was great! And, ironically enough, that’s what they’ve apparently delivered on, judging by the reviews!

But what they didn’t tell us back when ME1 was out was all the shenanigans they were going to get up to in the sequels. They didn’t say they were going to radically change the gameplay and strip out anything remotely resembling an RPG, turning it into this odd hybrid of a standard third-person cover shooter with a dialogue-driven adventure game bolted onto it. They didn’t say that the ultra-optional DLC of the first game was going to become a torrent of $10 story chunks that would be required to understand the context going forward. They didn’t say that multiplayer (multiplayer!) was going to be near-required to get the best ending to the trilogy. And they didn’t breathe a word about how they were going to use online functionality to push around both PC and console players, albeit in different ways.

The Mass Effect that we ended up with was NOT the Mass Effect that was sold to gamers five years ago. That’s what bothers me. I can understand why it happened. I sympathize with the developers’ challenges. And I obviously can’t speak to Mass Effect 3 with any kind of real authority until I get the opportunity to try it for myself. I have no idea when or if that will happen.

Even so, I’m going to caution people to be really, really, really skeptical about buying into this sort of project in the future.

Edit: And just to tie it all back to my whole Elder Scrolls playthrough thing: I notice that neither Daggerfall nor Skyrim had to resort to this kind of thing. Well, except for the stability issues. But it’s Bethesda.

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2 thoughts on “Pete Davison, DLC, and Mass Effect 3

  1. Pete Davison says:

    Marvellous post. I’ve pointed out several times that EA doesn’t need to do all this for ME3 to be successful or profitable — defenders of all these shenanigans seem to think that poor little EA won’t break even or will lay off all of BioWare if it doesn’t make enough money — because there are plenty of other titles out there which manage to break a profit without being dicks about it.

    Two notable examples: Skyrim and Call of Duty. Neither could have been cheap to make, but neither resort to business tactics designed to extract as much money out of the player immediately after they’ve paid their $60. Sure, both are likely to have plenty of DLC down the road (particularly in CoD’s case) but the important thing is that you’re not missing out on anything from the core experience from day one, and they’re both designed to be modular in nature. Neither have an Online Pass, either, but that’s a whole other discussion.

    The fact that no reviews have even mentioned the day-1 DLC issue is a worrying trend to me. Several reviewers got back to me on Twitter earlier noting that they hadn’t had access to the content with their review code. Fair enough, but I would have thought that given the amount of controversy over the issue, outlets who purport to provide a service to gamers and not to publishers’ PR departments would want to either delay their reviews until they could comment on this issue, or post follow-up articles. (To be fair, it’s early days — hopefully we’ll see some commentary shortly. There’s already one piece over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun.)

    So yeah. Balls to ME3. I feel a bit cheated out of the end of the trilogy, but then I remember there’s a ton of other stuff on my backlog to play, so I won’t miss it that much, in all honesty.

    Thanks for the linkage and the shout-outs! 🙂

  2. craigbamford says:

    No problem. Just wish the initial “quote” post hadn’t been such a mess. Still getting used to WP and its foibles.

    As for the reviews…well, yeah, I’ve been disappointed too. They really, really feel like the Dragon Age 2 reviews, where such a hue and cry was raised over the storytelling advances, that discussions of the game seems to be de-emphasized. It’s a bit baffling, since the whole “what you did before affects what happens now” element has been around since ME1, and several of the comments I’ve read from non-press players have suggested that the choices in the previous games are less dramatic than you would have previously believed.

    The part that really bugs me is the platform issue, though. If it weren’t for that random IGN review, I wouldn’t have seen anybody address the apparent PS3 issues. Sure, the bugs may not be any more prevalent, but if the player-character is literally falling through the floor, that’s a major issue that should be front-and-center in the review.

    The PS3 audience for Skyrim was BADLY burned by this sort of thing. They bought it based on positive reviews of the comparatively-stable 360 version, and it turned out that they had had a tremendous disservice done to them. Tremendous To turn around and do the same thing again to ME3 players, with nothing but—as we saw with Gies’ Verge review—an utterly insupportable claim that there were “no egregious technical issues” based on nothing more than a cursory glance? You gotta be kidding me.

    I know I’m not a pro. And maybe I’m naive. But I do think that if you’re going to be evaluating software for a platform, you need to be interacting with it on that platform. Skyrim proved that. If they need to pony up for PS3, 360, and PC reviewers, let ’em do it. Vox Media et al. can afford it, and multiple perspectives are always worthwhile.

    Hell, from several accounts, Origin isn’t even working right now.

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