Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mass Effect, multiplayer, and sequels

So in case you hadn't heard, Mass Effect 3 will have co-op multiplayer, but I'm not going to discuss that. I could suggest that it just sounds like a less polished version of Gears of War's Horde mode but that sounds far more dismissive and negative than I'd like. I quite enjoy horde mode. I'd like to think there's some good potential for where they could take the idea - but I guess this multiplayer is a feeler to gauge potential interest in the idea, and I'm fine with that. Heck, I encourage it... but I digress.

What I really want to focus on is a line from Casey Hudson near the opening of the video: "If you haven't played a game in the Mass Effect series before, Mass Effect 3 is really a great place to start." Yes, it's one line, and it was potentially given to him by their marketing director David Silverman (who makes me cringe every time he says something about a BioWare game... that's another story/post), but this is pretty much exactly the opposite of what I want to hear from Executive Producer of the series. I'm going to be upfront here and point out that, yes, I'm taking way too much from this one line in order to create this post, but the overall message I'm going to convey here is one that I think is important.

Our sequel will be awesome because it will have twice as many "lasers".

Someone in charge of the production of the game is telling people that it's designed for new players. This is meant to be a trilogy, where decisions in the previous games have flow on effects for subsequent titles. Suggesting that new players are going to get the best possible experience is not what dedicated fans of the series want to hear. They want to hear that the Mass Effect team has the same guts as the team working on Lord Of The Rings did when they made the great effort to produce that movie trilogy. The second and third movie had absolutely no hand-holding when it came to the story. With virtually no explanation of events in the previous movie, or the characters or setting, they simply expected viewers to know what was going on.

Admittedly, the Lord of the Rings movies had so much associated publicity and a large fanbase that there was no way that anyone who was watching subsequent movies had missed the first. That said, Mass Effect 2 was a huge game with a massive audience and a very large number of people who have played it. While Mass Effect 1 might feel a little long in the tooth for some players now, it should be a reasonable expectation that anyone who is going to pick up the third copy in a trilogy should know or understand what has gone on before.

The funny thing is that exactly the same thing was said in the lead up to Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 2 was "a great entry point into the series" in a lot of the promotional material. I'm not trying to paint myself into a corner and proclaim doom and gloom and that Mass Effect 3 won't feel like a true sequel merely because it's trying to offer the potential for new players. Technically, it's possible to enjoy Mass Effect 2 without having played the first, although if you think about all the things that aren't explained in detail, it can be seen that there is some expectation that players will have played the first game.

 If you didn't play the first game, you won't care about meeting Garrus "again".

From a marketing and business perspective, having a product that new players won't feel is accessible unless they've played the previous titles is a double-edged sword. It's likely to engender some "brand loyalty" and encourage people to buy a previous game to get "the full experience" (just as some people jumped on the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter bandwagon part way through), there's also the potential to turn off people because of that same reason: "You mean I have to play the old game first?"

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill with this statement? Sure. The real issue demonstrated here is that game companies do not feel confident enough with their products that they are willing to say "you can't come in part way through a series." It seems that games remain apart from other story-telling mediums in this respect. People don't expect to be able to pick up a book trilogy at the third book and have everything make sense, nor join a tv series towards the tail end and understand the ramifications of events or the intricacies of the characters and their respective personalities.

Why can't we respect storytelling in games as much as we do in these?

When I first heard Mass Effect was going be an ongoing trilogy with decisions that would affect each game and the long term outcome of the trilogy itself, I expected the same kind of continuity as I would get from a novel or television series. You missed out the first game? Tough. You'd better go back and play it, because otherwise the sequels aren't going to make sense. I know that the likelihood of any company taking a risk like that, particularly with what was billed as a AAA title from the beginning, is effectively 0%. It's not going to happen. That's not going to stop me from wanting it, because I want to see games that have that kind of story continuity. At this point, people could almost argue that Mass Effect is being outdone in that regard by Assassin's Creed, which is far less about the story than it is the gameplay if you compare both series.

I want to see games that tell players "we have a fantastic story to tell and some great gameplay to go with it, and if you want to enjoy that properly, you're going to have to come along for the whole ride." Maybe that's something that's better delivered as "episodic content" rather than sequels if business concerns are fully considered, but if companies are going to create sequels, don't players deserve to be given "real" sequels? For the most part, gamers get franchises, games loosely connected to one another with flimsy plot devices and some common game mechanics. If games are becoming a story-telling medium, let them tell epic stories spanning multiple titles. If the only addition to a game's title is a number on the end, then that number should mean something.

Unfortunately, the drawcard of a name like "Halo" or "Call of Duty" mean that this practice is not going to die any time soon, because those two franchise names sell games to the tune of millions of copies before the game even hits the shelves. This isn't necessarily to say they are bad games, or don't deserve to sell millions of copies, but the fact is that they do sell inordinate amounts of pre-orders and day 1 copies based on the name and nothing more. If gamers don't demand more of sequels, then we will end up with Final Fantasy 25 and Call of Duty 16. I think both developers and players deserve better than that.

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