I’m leaning toward yes… but I’m still on the fence. A “yes” implies that fans should have a say in what happens in video games, and that makes video game developers something like clients. It implies that video games should first and foremost be a commodity.
And let’s face it, most of the time, they are. They have to be. Companies need to make money to hire qualified staff to put out fantastic content, the type that makes us eager to play. And if we appreciate that content, we need to be willing to feed the cycle by paying for our games. I get that.
But I also like to think of some games as art — the type of art that the public can’t anticipate or create. Some of the best works of art are the ones that surprise us. Sometimes they’re the moving plays and books with tragic endings that I might never be bold enough to write. Had an optimistic fan been able to rewrite a tragedy, would he have given it a comedic ending that would have ruined it as art? So if games are art, where should the line be drawn when it comes to audience participation in game development?
BioWare’s Reaction to Mass Effect 3: So Video Games Are Art?
That is one of the problems with the controversial Mass Effect 3 ending. No matter what choices we made, after the long, arduous, often heart-wrenching campaign that spanned 3 games and several years, our Commander Shepards die. There’s no way around it (unless you squint really hard with your imagination and believe in that teaser breath, if you got it). Of course, it isn’t just dying, it’s why our Shepards die. I won’t get into that now, but you can read the best analysis of the ending ever on The Writer’s Block blog here.
In the midst of all the rage comments and hate mail, BioWare’s hard-working staff responded. They said so on the forums, and then they created the Extended Cut DLC. This added some closure to the ending of the game, appeasing fans who needed to understand how the ME universe was affected by their final decision.
Still, BioWare did not change the ending. As marketing manager Derek Larke explained on forums:
Though we remain committed and are proud of the artistic choices we made in the main game, we are aware that there are some fans who would like more closure to Mass Effect 3. The goal of the DLC is not to provide a new ending to the game, rather to offer fans additional context and answers to the end of Commander Shepard’s story.
So BioWare says its team had an artistic vision, and the Mass Effect 3 ending was part of it. There can be no alternative finale. Had BioWare completely rewritten the ME3 ending, fans would have triumphed, which would have been nice, in a way. It would have been comforting to know that BioWare listens to us and takes us seriously, that it can’t get away with insulting endings.
But if BioWare had done that, it would have effectively made an admission that it exists to please fans rather than to stay true to its artistic vision. To me, placating every disgruntled so-called fan is not what a video game company should be about. That’s why I applaud BioWare for sticking to its ending, regardless of my feelings about it.
Art Might Be Exactly What Fans Want
Cheap endings aside, some game series are just going downhill. Game companies that once produced fun, meaningful games now seem to push out bare content instead of quality. An example is Diablo III, which disappointed after the first two games blew many people away. You can read a (forum) letter to Blizzard here that details some problems with Diablo III and ends with what must be a plaintive sigh: “Blizzard, if you want players to stick around and enjoy your game, how about implementing changes that players actually want.”
The suggestions and complaints from fans are rarely about anything trivial (aside from a few quips about lame graphics, I suppose). Usually they’re about the meat of the games: uncustomizable characters, combat options, in-game decisions. Fans are smart, and we want our intelligence rewarded with quality. As we saw with the Mass Effect 3 ending, when a game gives us in-game decisions, we want to feel that they’re relevant. We want the ending to reflect what we put into the game. We want art.
Endless Space: A Community-Made Game?
What amazes me is that one company succeeded in making an astounding space sim based largely — and I mean very largely – on community input.
It’s called Endless Space, a streamlined 4X strategy game that lets players customize their characters from a database of hundreds of characteristics, which influence how you interact with the in-game universe.
But as I said, what’s most unique about the game is its development. The company that made the game, Amplitude Studios, published all of its development documents on the forums and invited suggestions. A beta community of 20,000 players tested the game and voted on polls during the development process. The result? A highly-customizable, gorgeous game that’s addictively fun to play.
Creative director Romain de Waubert explained to IGN that it’s important for a game company to show that they listen: “It’s not honest to say, ‘We’ll talk to you,’ but then nothing happens because we just do whatever we want.”
So Mass Effect 3 doesn’t fall into this category, because BioWare created its game in its studios and offices without public input. That’s one way to make a game. But Amplitude Studios aimed to do something vastly different from the very start, and it worked. The result of all of this community input was a streamlined game built to please its audience. And in a way, isn’t that what a game should be?
How Game Companies Are Addressing Complaints
BioWare also got a lot of flak for the disappointing Dragon Age 2, and its response has been to address its mistakes. At New York Comic Con last year, David Gaider and Mike Laidlaw revealed some of the improvements they’re making in Dragon Age 3, based largely on fans’ complaints about DA2, such as the lack of armor customization and in-game choices with consequences. Fans know when game companies are making shortcuts, and for a company to address such issues is heartening. (Of course, BioWare’s talk will only really mean something if DA3 truly succeeds in “fixing” some of DA2′s problems.)
Addressing complaints about Diablo III, Blizzard has also admitted mistakes. Community manager Bashiok has essentially stated that the gameplay and looting can become tedious after a while, saying that “there needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it’s not there right now.” But he also claims that Diablo is not World of Warcraft. It’s not meant to be.
It’s similar to BioWare’s reaction to the ME3 ending, I suppose. No real apologies, but an admission that there is potential for growth. There’s room for an extended cut. There’s a place for more relevant gameplay leading to an end-game with impact. There’s room for more customization and in-game choices that truly mean something.
But I Want to Be Surprised
Of course, those are all game elements that have been done right many times, and often in fresh ways. I’m sure every gamer can think of a video game that utterly surprised him with something new. I can think of dialogue from Final Fantasy XII, characters from Mass Effect, GLaDOS’s jokes from Portal, the artwork of Limbo, the wild landscapes of Skyrim… Those are all things that impressed me, and all the more so because they took me by surprise.
I guess that makes me a consumer. I’ll admit, it would be a dream come true to work for a video game company someday, penning quests and codex entries and characters. But as a video game fan, I also love being on this side of the industry: a blind but enthusiastic player who enjoys new content I never saw coming.
Sure, a dialogue with fans might help game companies improve sometimes. But I also trust that they’re staffed with professionals, and when it comes down to it, most companies should still make games on their own terms. It seems that’s the only way companies can impress us with what they’re capable of accomplishing. Because every once in a while, they gift us something so innovative and exciting, we never could have anticipated it.