What do game writers and designers think about BioWare changing the Mass Effect 3 ending?

Evan Lahti

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To address some fans' feedback about the game's ending, BioWare has said it's working on "a number of game content initiatives” for Mass Effect 3 in addition to existing DLC plans. The possibility of BioWare modifying the game's ending has stirred a conversation on Twitter, message boards, development blogs, and elsewhere: would changing a game's final moments based on feedback set a bad precedent for video games' creative integrity? Or is it actually a way of taking advantage of the unique ease with which games can be edited?

One voice I wanted to include in this dialogue was that of BioWare's fellow writers and designers throughout the industry. To find out what they thought, I talked to Chris Avellone, Gary Whitta, Greg Kasavin, Jesse Schell, Chuck Jordan, Paul Taylor, Steve Gaynor, Susan O'Connor, and Bobby Stein. They've worked on Fallout: New Vegas, Bastion, Far Cry 2, Frozen Synapse, BioShock, BioShock 2, and other games. I've presented their opinions here, which are only edited for clarity.

Looking to improve your ending? Check out our in-depth guide to Mass Effect 3's War Assets and Readiness before reloading your save.

I asked each person the following question: Do you object to the idea of developers changing a game's narrative based on player feedback after release? Or do games (especially games that promote player agency) present a unique opportunity for "story collaboration" between users and producers that designers should take advantage of?

Here are the responders and their responses.

Fallout: New Vegas

Chris Avellone

Avellone is Obsidian's Creative Director, Chief Creative Officer and a co-owner at the studio. His game credits include Fallout 2, Icewind Dale II, Star Wars: KOTOR II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, and F:NV's DLC.

"Games should take advantage of feedback and using it for DLC changes and sequel changes. I feel BioWare does this from game to game already, and it's the reason that some companions have achieved the prominence and romance options in the games that they do because the players strongly responded to those characters—and I'll be blunt, we as narrative designers have no idea how a character's going to be received, and “breakout” characters we envision may end up not being that at all once the game is released into the wild.

Most importantly, game development is an iterative process. Our goal is to entertain our players. No one knows more about what they consider “fun” than the player themselves. While you can't please everyone, there are iterations that make sense to do in DLC content and sequels. As a case study, the DLC process from Fallout: New Vegas allowed us to collate all the weapon feedback from FNV and adjust it, and it also allowed us to take a long look at what gameplay elements and mods people were making for New Vegas and incorporate that into the narrative and quest lines. The best example is we noticed that people were making a LOT of homebase mods. So, we designed a good chunk of Old World Blues to specifically revolve on you making a new homebase in New Vegas with all the improvements people were pointing out. Even better, we were able to make it part of the story and the characters. Everybody wins, and people seemed to really enjoy it based on the fan (and press) response—but the catch is, we never would have thought to do that without analyzing the fan response and taking that into account."


BioShock 2

Steve Gaynor

Gaynor was a Level Designer on BioShock 2, then Lead Designer and Writer of the Minerva's Den DLC. He worked on BioShock Infinite for a year before leaving Irrational to go indie.

"There's great value in thinking about the story of a game as a collaboration between the player and the developers. In the collision of fiction and game mechanics, my experience of a game is never exactly the same as yours; the more systemic and divergent the results of the player's contribution, the better. Much of the player's experience of Deus Ex or Skyrim is the story of how the player played that game, and how they shaped the gameworld to express themselves; the experience of Minecraft is entirely that. It's incredibly powerful.

But things like "cutscenes" and "endings" are completely authored by the developers, and the developers altering the authored content of a game after the fact has nothing to do with the systemic player-developer collaboration described above. It's no different than a movie or book being released and, upon fan outrage, being edited and re-released to pander to the most vocal dissenters in the audience. It's not unique to games; it is unique to a certain type of entertainment media that attracts fans who feel entitled to dictate exactly how the product should bend to their desires, instead of standing as a unique experience to be enjoyed, or not, on its own merits."


The Walking Dead

Gary Whitta

Whitta was Editor-in-Chief of PC Gamer for four years. He wrote the film Book of Eli. Whitta is currently a story consultant and writer for Telltale's The Walking Dead game, for which he'll write the fourth episode.

"I'll be interested to see how BioWare will respond to the fan reaction in terms of future content—clearly they intend to do something, but what remains to be seen. As much as it left me with many questions and ultimately feeling kind of uncomfortable, I really hope they don't attempt to retcon or in any way "undo" the ending they presented. I've always felt that games like Mass Effect are all about living with the consequences of your choices, no matter what they may be, and I think BioWare should do the same thing here and stick with their original choice, trust their original creative instinct, rather than allow the fan response to cause them to second-guess themselves. My gut feeling is that they will add new content to help clarify and resolve some of the questions that are out there while sticking to their original creative intentions and I while that's less bothersome than calling a complete do-over, as a storyteller it still bugs me.

I read an op-ed which argued that since videogames are a "malleable artform" that get altered and patched all the time people shouldn't be bothered by this. Well it bothers the hell out of me. Games usually get changed for technical reasons like bug fixes and multiplayer balancing. Altering one of a game's artistic cornerstones—story—merely to appease the malcontents is wrong. While I'm sure George Lucas would agree about the malleability of art, I think changing the ending of such a high-profile title would set a very disturbing precedent for games."


Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse

Chuck Jordan

Jordan is an independent game developer. He worked at LucasArts in the late '90s, wrote dialogue for Telltale's Sam & Max adventure games, and did game design and writing for Disney Imagineering, an interactive development arm of the company.

"Considering how much time people have spent trying to advance the idea that video games are works of art, it's disappointing to see so many people defending the idea that games are product. It's almost enough to make me think that writing thousands of words about the nature of artistic expression in interactive entertainment on my own low-traffic blog were a waste of time.

There's usually an outcry whenever a movie's obviously been focus-grouped into mediocrity, or when a pop star is clearly targeted at a particular demographic. And when a video game gets a console release with a UI tailored to controllers, we have to listen to incessant complaints that the game's been "dumbed down" just to appeal to a larger audience. Apparently the value of 'audience feedback' can fluctuate.

Products are made to the specifications of customers. Art is supposed to be an expression of creativity. If you're invalidating your team's 'vision' to appeal to the demands of players, then you've crossed the line from art to commerce. That's no different for interactive entertainment than it is for anything else.

It's frequently framed as 'empowering the player,' but pandering isn't empowerment. People seem to have forgotten that "give the people what they want" was always intended to be a pejorative expression. If the goal of a game is to provide the player with the tools to create her own story, then the developers need to actually give the player those tools. Not just a series of scripted events based on what the developers think their audience wants.

Essentially, BioWare created the problem for themselves by, to be blunt, promising more than they or any other developer could deliver. They've sold the Mass Effect series on the premise that the player can completely customize his character and his character's story—entire planets with complex storylines that some players will never even see! (And also sex with aliens). But even the largest team of writers and content creators won't be able to deliver an indefinite number of conclusions that all have the same level of impact, satisfying enough to conclude a multi-year, multi-game epic series. People have been spending years trying to come up with a way to create systems that generate compelling narratives, and no one's cracked the problem yet.

That's probably because it's not really a problem; developer-created narratives still have plenty of value in interactive entertainment. And they can be collaborative: the developer and the player work together to complete a story. The player's interaction with the system is what gives the story meaning. When I'm playing games, I prefer to be surprised, to be shown something I wouldn't have come up with on my own. And it's hardly a collaboration if one of the participants can always get his way just by complaining loudly enough."


Bastion

Greg Kasavin

Kasavin was Editor-in-Chief of GameSpot for a decade. He's currently Creative Director at Supergiant Games. Supergiant released Bastion last year. Kasavin mentions that he has played and completed Mass Effect 3 (and both previous games) and that he's “a longtime fan of BioWare, ever since Baldur's Gate. BioWare's classic games are a big inspiration to me.”

"I think developers are well within their right to make positive changes to games post-release, and in the vast majority of cases this is seen by players as a good thing if not an expected thing these days. For example, a high-quality multiplayer game needs to be nurtured and maintained over time by its developers as its player base grows more experienced and inevitably discovers exploits or other issues. I'm always willing to give developers I trust the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making changes post-release.

Making narrative changes post-release can be tricky because story is seen as canonical... history can't be rewritten, and so on. But I think it's important to note this type of thing does happen sometimes. Fallout shipped with a time-sensitive main quest that gave you a really bleak ending if you took too long to finish that quest. In the first patch, the developers eliminated the time limit, removing what could be seen as a major aspect of the ending. Years later, Fallout 3 got patched so that you could continue playing post-release. Many movies, including classics like Blade Runner, got director's cuts with major narrative changes said to reflect the true authorial intent.

Whether it's appropriate is a judgment call. I don't think these cases are just a matter of the creators of these works buckling to pressure. I think they wanted to do the right thing, for the sake of their work and their audience. Likewise, in the current case of Mass Effect 3, I fully expect BioWare will do whatever they think is best. I think BioWare has accomplished an incredible achievement with Mass Effect, and I'll be interested to see how it evolves from here."


Jesse Schell. Illustration by Trip Carroll, produced for Kill Screen. Click here to go to Carroll's website.

Jesse Schell

Schell is a Professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon, founder of Schell Games, and a former Creative Director at Disney. In 2010, Schell got a lot of attention for a speech he gave at DICE about gamification in the age of Facebook. He's currently working on the Kickstarter-funded Puzzle Clubhouse .

"It's an interesting question. My feeling is that it's their story, they can do what they want—there isn't much to object to. Now, the question is, will it make people happy? This is a much more difficult question. So, here are some facets:

1) If people really hate the original ending, maybe changing it will make people like the game more. If so, good idea—change it!

2) People want the world of Mass Effect to seem real and solid. When you change the world like that, it robs the world of its illusion of reality. Uh, oh, don't change it!

3) This could be an awesome publicity stunt, designed to get people to talk about and pay more attention to the game. In that case, create controversy, act like the old ending will be "replaced" but then change the game so that depending on your actions in the game, you get two different possible endings!

I predict number three..."


Guild Wars 2

Bobby Stein

Stein is ArenaNet's Lead Writer on Guild Wars 2. He formerly worked as a freelance writer and editor for developers including Microsoft Game Studios, Nintendo, and Tripwire Interactive.

"It all depends on the game. In Guild Wars 2, players have agency to push their personal stories in different directions, while also creating their own experiences by simply exploring the world and participating in dynamic events, dungeons and other activities. There's so much content that it's hard to say that there's really an ending to it, just discrete conclusions to many related stories.

We believe that the success of our game will come from our investment with the community. It's a respectful partnership. We're not simply releasing a game and then moving on to the next project. We'll support it for years to come. We already have ideas for future content, but we're constantly listening to our players to see what resonates with them. So, it's never wrong to listen to your community's feedback, but ultimately you have to take all those ideas and opinions and weigh them against what's best for the world you're evolving."


Tales of Monkey Island

Dave Grossman

Grossman is a LucasArts alum. He co-designed Day of the Tentacle with Tim Schafer. With Schafer and Ron Gilbert, he's considered one of the creators of the Monkey Island franchise. Grossman is Design Director at Telltale, at which he helped write and design Tales of Monkey Island and other games.

"As a writer in an interactive medium, I think the idea of collaboration with the audience is really interesting. We get a little taste of it at Telltale, where, because we work episodically, we can respond to fan feedback (usually in small ways) in the later episodes of a season. But the possibilities become more and more intriguing as the whole gaming world gets used to content that updates more or less constantly, and developers get more adept at reacting to audience feedback that comes back instantly. In theory (in theory, I said) you could get close to that conversational Dungeons and Dragons experience, where the game master and the players are sitting around a table spinning a tale together. The developer essentially trades, at least to some degree, the role of author for the role of...'curator' might be a good way to put it.

Of course, what I'm talking about there is a situation where collaboration with the audience is an aspect of the experience which is included by the developer on purpose. It's part of the plan from the get-go, presumably because the developer believes there is entertainment value (or some other value) in doing it that way. It's a bit different when collaboration was not part of the plan, and an author makes revisions to a finished work because some portion of the audience responded in a negative way. I have no hard-and-fast objection to that either, indeed, I wonder whether the idea of a “finished work” is even a concept that has much validity these days. I update my website all the time, why not my game or my story? What I would ask about is not Whether an author changes a narrative, but Why? Is it done in pursuit of quality? Of a better representation of the message of the original? Or just because people complained?

My brain now insists on traveling back to 1991, when my comrades and I released Monkey Island 2. That game had a fairly bizarre ending, for which I personally bear some responsibility, and about which a significant portion of the audience expressed displeasure. During development there was a lot of discussion over whether the ending was a good idea, and I have to say that in retrospect it's not my favorite, but I was into it at the time. If we made that game today it would be easy to revise the ending after release—but I still wouldn't. We had our reasons for including it, and I wouldn't change it, never have wanted to, and I suspect Ron and Tim would both say the same. Frankly, a great game with a contentious or unpopular ending is not necessarily a bad thing.

But I'm also moved to consider The Curse of Monkey Island, made by my friends Larry and Jonathan a few (okay, six) years later. Here again there were complaints about the ending, in this case because it was absurdly short. I happen to know that they had planned a much more elaborate end, but ran out of budget (a good example of how reality sometimes prevents you from doing the best thing). I'm pretty sure that, given the chance, they would revise that—but not just because the audience raised its voice, because it would be a genuine improvement on their vision for the game.

And in the end, I think that's where I land: Listening to the audience is important, but it's when you agree with them that you should make changes. If you're going to revise stuff, by all means go ahead, but be sure you're doing it because you want to, not because you think you should."


Frozen Synapse

Paul Taylor

Taylor is Joint Managing Director and one of the co-founders of Mode7. He wrote Frozen Synapse. Earlier this week, Taylor revised the ending to Frozen Synapse “as a stupid experiment,” he says. “The community requested 'more ponies and dinosaurs' so we gave our artist free reign to fulfill that brief. This ending should only be around for a couple of weeks before we revert back to the original ending and restore the integrity of our creative work! It was quite liberating to trash the end of the story completely, it definitely made me think about a few things.”

"I don't think you should revisit the ending of something after it's been released. I've not seen anything to suggest that BioWare were actively considering doing that though.

I'm all for taking player feedback on stories, especially with a branching narrative, because there the player definitely has some kind of ownership of what's happening. However, that should definitely be done during development. Once it's out, it's out: you're trivialising your own decisions by messing with them.

It seems to me that game developers are still battling with story in general: it's rarely executed in an elegant way. Even something like Dear Esther, which I love, has some severe limitations on what it's able to do with narrative. It does intrigue me that text-based interactive fiction has had this incredibly rich history of gameplay and narrative innovation (which continues with some of the stuff people are producing in that form today) but none of that as really crossed over into more mainstream gaming."


Far Cry 2

Susan O'Connor

O'Connor is a professional game writer. She's written for BioShock, BioShock 2, and Far Cry 2, among other games. She founded the Game Writers Conference, now part of GDC Austin. In 2008, she shared the GDC “Best Writing” award (for BioShock) with Ken Levine, Joe McDonagh, and Emily Ridgway.

"Whoever said 'Dying is easy, comedy is hard' never wrote for video games. I haven't played Mass Effect 3 yet, so I can't speak to that game specifically, except to say that my heart goes out to those guys on the team, who I am sure worked incredibly hard on that project. This whole experience has got to be a punch in the gut for them. Speaking more generally, this issue feels like one of player expectation. The takeaway, for me, is that if players are promised player agency, they're going to want to see that promise delivered all the way to the (bitter) end.

If players know from the get-go that they're playing an authored game—or if they're lulled into complacency with the illusion of agency—then they'll accept an authored ending, as we've seen with other successful games. The trick is to know up front which kind of game the team is making, so that they can set player expectation—AND TEAM expectation as well. If the creatives know up front that they're not the ones telling the story—that their job is to give players the tools to tell their own story, and then get out of the way—then they'll come at the work from a completely different place. And the end result will be dramatically different. Better? That I don't know. Only time will tell. (I'm a sucker for a good story, myself, so I'm a little biased.)"


Top-of-page Mass Effect 3 illustration by PATRYK OLEJNICZAK. See more Mass Effect illustrations on Patryk's blog. http://garrettartlair.blogspot.com/

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