Would you believe it if I told you I was spending a lot of time thinking about Mass Effect Andromeda?
I wouldn’t believe it either. But when I was contemplating an article to write about for my usual weekly post, my mind kept drifting back to Mass Effect Andromeda. I’ve written about the game extensively in news posts, namely about the various animation issues (some of which have presumably been fixed, but you don’t really hear about that kind of thing – no matter how many patches they release, the reputation will remain), the fix to the transgender character (SJW’s were offended she was too forthcoming with the fact she was born a man… personally I don’t care either way but it was good to see Bioware was receptive to criticism), and most recently, the rumor-turned-fact that Mass Effect Andromeda wouldn’t be getting any single-player DLC.
Not that any had been canceled. But let’s face it: there is a 100 percent chance that single-player DLC was being worked on, and it was 100 percent canceled well before that announcement was made public. Mass Effect has always had single-player DLC, and in most gaming studios these days, they begin working on DLC the moment the game goes gold: it’s a far more efficient use of the artists and programmers you’re paying tons of money to than having them sit on their butt and play ping-pong all day.
The fact this DLC was canceled, when it was possibly months in the making, spells out something that most Mass Effect fans feared but were probably too afraid to say: Mass Effect is not Sonic the Hedgehog. It cannot survive one bad game. The series, as it is, has effectively been canceled. EA claims it could come back, but now that Bioware has started working on a new Sci-Fi epic (which looks terribly generic) called Anthem, if it does return it'll be a long ways in the future.
A part of me wonders, looking back, if this was a long time coming. Mass Effect was always a sort of weird series in that inspired both undying love and unrelenting hatred in all of its fans. The two emotions, normally polar opposites, were synergized perfectly: they loved the characters and the story and even the gameplay sometimes, but they were also the most vocal critics against things like forced multiplayer, day-one DLC, and of course, buggy animations. The whole enterprise was always headline news, but maybe not so important to EA to make them willing to deal with the drama in order to rake in the moderate success of the series. Not all costs are monetary, and there’s probably a reason they won the “worst company in America” award not soon after the launch of Mass Effect 3 and the whole “ending” bull-plop.
It’s enough to make me wonder. If the fans knew their games weren’t unsinkable, would they have gone out of their way to poke holes in the hull? Would they have been more gracious and forgiving if they had realized that their actions could lead to the series being abandoned entirely? And, more to the point, even if they were the direct cause for the game being canceled, should they have done it anyway?
Of course, they should have, first of all. We should never excuse a game’s poor quality just because we want to love it (see: Orcs Must Die: Unchained), and games deciding to avoid criticism by claiming bad press will lead to the death of the series is a slippery slope that developers are in no way above resorting too. Ubisoft’s “we’ll make Beyond Good & Evil 2 if you support X game” might seem like setting a new low bar, but trust me, it can get way, way worse. Imagine Nintendo saying they’d stop making Zelda games if no one bought the latest Tingle spin-off. It would fly off the shelves, and probably into trash bins, but their over-zealous fan-base would do it. They might complain and raise a fuss, but lord knows they would do it. Which I suppose answers the first question: I do actually think fans would have avoided critiquing the game if they had known it would lead to the end of the Mass Effect games. I mean, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad, if you ask literally anyone but EA, and pretending that the Mass Effect IP is ruined forever only lends credence to my theory that EA was just looking for an excuse to get rid of it. Regardless, if they had wished to exploit it, they could have. I genuinely believe that.
It's a weird little situation when you think about it. Many developers probably just aren’t aware of how much power they actually have over their consumers… but only because the consumer volunteers that power.
Regardless, Mass Effect’s “death” – and I use the term loosely – has some interesting implications, almost all of them bad. First, I should qualify that I don’t genuinely believe Mass Effect is gone forever: it’ll survive as a book series and an expanded universe, and will one day come back as a game (maybe an RTS? I wouldn’t complain) but it’ll take a while, and EA might not be the force behind it.
But looking at it as it is right now, an apparent death, yeah, there are some real messed up issues at play here. First of all, it shows the pure short-sightedness of publishers like EA, who would sacrifice a good IP because of a slight misfire. Last I heard, the game actually did make it’s money back: not a ton of revenue, but EA didn’t lose anything except a bit of time in the effort. But with games quickly becoming an “all-or-nothing” affair (if it’s not #1, why bother making it at all), this is the latest and perhaps worst example of overreaction from a publisher.
But more troubling is when you combine this idea of “quitting at second” with the long-resisted but slowly-growing notion of “games as a service”. If you think about it, we’ve been exceptionally lucky that EA’s willingness to give up so quickly hasn’t seeped into other games who have far more reliance on developer support. Certain games, like MMO’s, games with heavy multiplayer components, games where connectivity is necessary, they live and die on the developer’s willingness to pay for servers and dish out new content on the regular. And the great thing is, even for most of these ‘failed’ games, that don’t make the kind of massive revenue the publisher or developer is hoping for, they continue to serve the customers who bought into the service. Orcs Must Die: Unchained is far, far, far from the most popular game on Steam, but damn, they still release new content for it from time to time.
When, really, if you think about it, they don’t really need too. If you think about it in pure market terms, if everyone in the games industry agreed to collectively screw the user out of their money, any developer could just drop a game with no warning and no compensation, and not worry about players defecting because it’s become the new norm. Which might seem like a nightmare dystopian situation, but the games industry is capable of great subtle changes over time that people resist but slowly come to accept. DRM, DLC, Microtransactions, friggin’ Loot Boxes… the only steps ‘forward’ that have really been successfully pushed back was the ‘always online’ requirement that Microsoft tried, but even then, it was just a matter of timing, as more games than ever are requiring connections online to play, and people are finding it more and more palatable.
But even if it never gets that bad, where a MMORPG is just dropped 6 months into launch because it’s not hitting 10 million players, it could still get close to that bad, in a much more realistic sense. Remember, a lot of games companies have made a habit of intentionally breaking up their games into chunks, and selling the individual pieces later as DLC. Making the vanilla game more of a “skeleton” than a fully-fleshed game.
Imagine a game like that, say, Destiny, where the skeleton is never fully fleshed-out the way they planned, because people just didn’t buy it or complained about it a bunch. Anyone who did make the unfortunate decision to buy this skeleton would find that the game would never truly be complete. They paid 60 bucks (or something like 400 in Destiny’s case) for a half-finished game. Like if a Kickstarted game never released anything but the demo.
But look. This is all just fearful exaggeration. We’re not there yet, and at least EA stuck around with Mass Effect long enough to fix some of its bugs before they dropped it entirely. And that’s not to forget the fact they’re still supporting the multiplayer no one asked for. But as I said, these changes are gradual, and if you were looking for the first sign that this could become a thing, well, then consider this the horse armor of developer and publisher apathy.
Let’s hope it doesn’t get worse.