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Creative Freedom vs. Player Entitlement

Are players really entitled to tell a developer that they need to change their idea, after it has already been released?

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Creative Freedom vs. Player Entitlement

by on April 17, 2012

Community News Opinion PC PlayStation Xbox  Valve Mass Effect 3 Half Life 2: Episode 3 EA Bioware

*NOTICE – This article may contain minor spoilers for Mass Effect 3, so tread lightly.*

Recently, a little game called Mass Effect 3 came out and has rocked the world of gaming in good ways and bad. Despite being a wonderfully memorable journey, the Mass Effect series came to a vague, confusing end that left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. So much so that many fans have petitioned Bioware to add more varied endings to the game (some asking for the endings to be changed all together) in order for them to achieve the closure they envisioned for the trilogy.

2012 seems to be the year of fan activism, from Mass Effect petitions to a call to arms about better communication between fans and developers. You may recall, a few months ago, we published an article discussing a group known as Half Life: Call for Communication who has petitioned Valve to give fans an update on the current status of Half Life 2: Episode 3 (or Half Life 3 if you like to live dangerously). Since we last checked in on the group, it has risen to nearly 62,000 members and is currently working on a new event where members of the community will submit Half Life related photos that will make up a mosaic that will be delivered to Valve as a gift. As the group has grown, so has criticism of its message. Many have accused the group of being made up of a bunch of self entitled whiners. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This idea of player entitlement is very confusing and controversial. Just what exactly are gamers entitled to? Are they entitled better communication from the developers they have given their hard earned money to over the years? Do they have the right to request such a drastic change to a developer’s released product?

Technically, the player is entitled to absolutely nothing. There is no official contract between the customer and the developer that establishes who gets what. No one is required to give each other anything. The customer is not required to buy a product and the developer does not have to adhere to customer requests or feedback. However, if the developer does not listen to their base, then it could result in fiscal hari kari and if the fans don’t buy the product, they miss out on a truly fun adventure… or are being smart and saving $60 instead of buying a mediocre game, it depends on the situation. It’s a difficult idea to wrap your head around, really. Nothing is necessarily required from either party and yet nothing works out if both parties don’t work with each other. I’m not going to sit here and decide who deserves what like a divorce attorney, but the idea of whether or not an audience can petition a developer to alter their creative direction is an unfortunately prudent topic that must be discussed.

I say “unfortunately,” because I was under the impression that the answer was pretty obvious. Players have about as much right to ask Bioware to alter Mass Effect 3’s ending as Bioware does in saying that their game’s ending(s) make the slightest amount of sense. Gamers have every right to be disappointed, the endings didn’t take player choice into account as much as the previous installments had, especially Mass Effect 2. If EA had done a better job of advertising that players wouldn’t be getting such radically different endings, but more like somewhat subtle differences to the same ending, fans would probably still be upset. However, at least we would have known what we were getting into instead of being let down at literally the last minute. If you want to throw your hate around, throw it EA for leading you on; they certainly deserve it.

Thankfully, the most prominent group supporting the petition isn’t being hostile about it. In fact, they are making themselves noticed by having signers donate money to charity. Similarly, ‘Call for Communication’ is getting noticed through community activities and gifts to Valve, instead of spamming their inboxes. If anything good comes out of all this, it’s the knowledge that the people who organize these events at least have the ability to handle their petitions gracefully and respectfully. The only thing that can shed a positive or negative light is what they stand for. In the case of ‘Call for Communication,’ it’s about a simple yes or no answer to the question “Is a sequel to Half Life 2: Episode 2 currently in development?” It doesn’t inhibit the creative direction or development process of the project and doesn’t require hundreds of man hours and a portion of the studio to answer it. Does Valve have to answer this question? No, and the community acknowledges this. If anything, the group is helping to influence Valve and other developers to drop some sort of status update on an already announced project after several years of silence. Regardless of the outcome, no one gets hurt and the world keeps on spinning.

In the case of the petition for Mass Effect 3, they are asking the developer to change the view of their product to possibly satisfy a vocal minority’s desire for an ending they can feel comfortable with. Think about it, if you enjoy an artist’s paintings and then finally get to see their last piece of work, but there is one noticeable piece of it that you don’t like even though the rest of it is somewhat good. Do you go up to the artist and tell them to change it to satisfy your vision of their work? If your answer to that was yes, then think about this: You come up with an idea for a series of books and actually sit down and write them. At last, after spending the better part of a decade, you finish the final installment and release it. Almost as soon as your novel gets into the hands of your fans, a small but loud chunk of them tell you they didn’t like the ending and that they want you to change it. Your response would probably be along the lines of “Well if you didn’t like it, return it. I never said you had to buy it or like it, I just wrote something I enjoyed.” If you have little self control, I imagine you’d say something like, “F@#! off and write your own damn story!”

When publishers get involved with the creative direction of a developer’s game (which is quite possibly what happened in the case of Mass Effect 3), the media and the audience cry foul. Fans filling out a petition isn’t that much different, except that the publisher is the one that’s probably going to get their way. Regardless of your view on their “artistic vision,” it just isn’t right to tell someone to change their art. Even if Bioware offered completely new/altered endings, we’d still remember the bad ones. Besides, there’s no guarantee that the new endings would be good enough. Would the game ever be finished? If the petitioners got an ending (or multiple endings) they were satisfied with, there are certainly a handful of people (somewhere) who preferred the old endings and are now upset. It just isn’t possible to satisfy everyone, there’s always going to be someone who’s expectations will always be better than the product they actually get.

Considering how Mass Effect has involved player choice so much, it’s understandable how upset the fan base is. They invested around one hundred hours into a story that they felt was their own and got an ending that didn’t care so much about what they had chosen along the way. Nevertheless, it’s what the writers were comfortable with and there’s no ethical way to change the way they see it. This summer’s clarification is about as close as the fans are going to get. I believe a clarification is alright to ask. It doesn’t require the developer to change anything per se and is perfectly understandable. It may not fix the endings, but at least it will show what the writers really had in mind. The pain will never really subside, so it would be better to focus efforts from trying to force a developer’s hand, to making it known that this wasn’t okay in the fans’ eyes and that EA and Bioware should make sure that this doesn’t happen again for any game they develop, Mass Effect or not. That’s the way it’s always been between fans and developers and trying to take creative control of someone else’s idea just makes the rest of the gaming community look bad. It may be time to go ahead and just let this one go.

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