The Effect of the Masses: A Video Game, A Herd of Nerds, Hard Choices and the Changing Face of Customer Interaction

I got a Playstation in sixth grade because I made good on my pledge to get high grades for the first semester of school. Come Christmas, I had that 32-bit polygonal goodness hooked up to the family TV in the living room. But there was a problem: the hook-up cables used for the Playstation weren’t compatible with any of the TVs in our home. This didn’t sit well with my mother, a good-hearted woman who wasn’t afraid of writing a sternly-worded letter on her official letterhead.

Sony got an earful. And they responded to my mom with a pretty simple form letter that explained their position and they gave her an olive branch - I could choose from one of four video games and they would send it to us for free. This was my first experience with customer relations. It had a big impact on me.

In a Galaxy Not That Far Away...

Skip ahead fourteen years or so. I’m still a big-time video game guy (much to the chagrin of my fiancée), and one of my favorite game series just debuted its third and final chapter. Mass Effect 3, from Bioware and Electronic Arts, came out last month and the die-hard fans of the series - myself included - were excited to find out what would happen to Commander Shepard and his faithful crew.

Now, the Mass Effect series is special for a few reasons. For one, it’s one of the most beautifully designed and well-written games ever made, hands down. The creators of the series take players into a fantastic future where human-kind mingles with various species across the vast reaches of our galaxy. Each species has their own hang-ups and ideas of how the universe should work. They war with each other. They carry centuries-old conflicts with them that threaten to engulf the galaxy at any moment. There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between their societies and ours.

In Mass Effect 3, all the species of the galaxy must ally, each with the other, to defeat a foreign threat from a forgotten age - a species of super-machines known as “The Reapers”. Think of the Death Star from Star Wars, but with legs. And a brain. And picture five-thousand of them, tearing the galaxy apart. Disturbing, right?

Another reason Mass Effect is such a great series is that it gives the player the ability to make decisions and take different approaches to different situations. You can choose to be a “Paragon”, a character that does right in all situations and defies orders in the interest of their own ideals, OR a “Renegade”, a character that talks tough, makes sacrifices and stops at nothing to get the job done. You can order him (or her - yes, you can choose whether your Commander Shepard is a male or a female) to do things you’d do, or things you’d never do. The choice is yours.

The people at BioWare and EA stressed to fans that all the decisions you made in episodes one and two of the series would have a profound impact on the kind of game you played in episode three. Some characters from the first two games would live through those games and some would die and you would have no more interaction with them. If you saved someone’s life in game one, they might be the person saving yours in game three.

I, like so many fans of the series, was interested to play game three and see what my actions and choices did to the game play. I was stunned at what I discovered. I don’t have any problem telling you, there were parts of the game that left me overcome with emotion. You start feeling like you know these characters, like their lives and deaths are affecting you on a deeper level. It seems silly, but imagine your favorite, most heart-wrenching movie and imagine how you’d react if you had some control over your favorite character from that film.

So, after nearly twenty-five hours of playing time (seemscrazy, right?), I reached the game’s conclusion. And when I did...I was sorely disappointed.

Spoiler Alert

Not to give away too much, but there comes another set of choices and, no matter which choice you make, you end up losing Commander Shepard and destroying vast swaths of the galaxy in the process. Bummer. 

I called a friend of mine who is a fellow fan and we lamented and groaned and complained to one another. What the heck was THAT all about?! That rendered every other decision we’ve made meaningless! He and I weren’t the only ones that felt that way.

After the diehard fans of the series completed the third game, they began to express their displeasure in online forums, through YouTubevideos, and directlytoBioWare...incupcakeform. The outpouring of disappointment and anger upset the creators of the Mass Effect trilogy - they believed their ending was appropriate and that it was the right choice to make artistically.

Fans wouldn’t have it. Not only had this ending failed to answer crucial questions, it ended the universe in one swift stroke. Now, there’d never be another adventure for Commander Shepard. It’s like killing off James Bond - why destroy a favorite character and leave so much potential entertainment on the table? 

Then, something remarkable happened. BioWarereleasedastatement that promised new, free, downloadable endings for the game and new supporting materials to explain what happened to the characters. The fans won.

The fans won.

Have your game and beat it, too

Now, I know there are more impressive examples of this (Bank Transfer Day leaps to mind), but does anyone else see the pattern that’s emerging here? A loud enough fan base makes the media turn its head and what was once just a bunch of grumbling nerds becomes a sea of voices crying out, demanding satisfaction. One of the most creative and prolific game design companies of the decade did an about-face and got to work on an ending that would make sense and satisfy the disappointed many. Whatever artistic integrity they believed they were upholding vanished to quiet the mob.

Here’s the $64,000 question:Were they right to do so?

From one perspective, this had to be done. You see, modern-day video games don’t come equipped with the whole story and all the fancy add-ons. Players earn points and spend money to download expansion packs for their games. The game you’re playing when you first open the box isn’t necessarily the one you’ll be playing months later. If BioWare and EA wanted players to download more content and add on to their game experience, they had to be sure the game was worth the time it took to re-play and, as I mentioned above, the typical play-through time is in the twenty hour range. I don’t know about you, but I’m less likely to re-watch a movie with a bad ending, even if it does come with a lot of extra feel-good fluff in the middle.

On the other side (the “Renegade” side, if you will), you have to wonder where this kind of response stops. A new set of endings for a video game will take months to produce, perfect, and distribute. Thousands and thousands of dollars will go into making this happen - not that BioWare and EA haven’t made a pretty penny on the game (first month sales were 1.3 million units, and at $60 a unit, thats $78 million).

But if you truly believe you’re doing the right thing, making the right decision about your passion project, your masterpiece...why relent? Why give in to public pressure, no matter how loud and vitriolic?

How would you react?

Player Two has entered the game

Let’s say you’ve come up with a product that you researched and developed over a series of months. The testing crowd loved it, it’s true to your vision, the marketing team did a crackerjack job of getting your members (or customers, or clients) interested. Then, let’s say this product went to market and people started complaining that it wasn’t what they thought it would be and that you should fix it. Are you obliged? Do you have the budget to get it done? Will they be happy with the compromise you offer, or will their expectations never be met?

I suppose it’s tough to tell. But I hope this example illustrates a few important points:

  1. How your loyal, die hard fans can make or break a given project
  2. How important the idea of “replay value” is in creating a product
  3. The hard part of creating something you think is of great value and how there’s always room to improve
  4. The importance of the right kind of post-release research and listening

I’ve spoken with a few credit unions recently on the topics of social media and private communities. The number one concern? “What if someone says something awful about us?”

Well, what if they do? It’s your job to know where and how they’re spreading their message, what they’re saying, and whether or not it’s justified. Value judgements have to be made. Bioware and EA could’ve waved off the negative feedback...but that might mean costing themselves sales in the future of that franchise and others.

What negative feedback are you ignoring? How are you mending fences when someone feels hurt by your decisions?

How long until this becomes the norm for businesses everywhere and consumers are trained to know that this is how to get results? Because that’s happening right now.

Don’t say you didn’t have a choice in all this.

Jimmy

Jimmy Marks is the Creative Media Director of DigitalMailer, as well as a Level 60 Biotic Adept with a +20 Power Cooling bonus.

Posted on April 20, 2012 and filed under Author: Jimmy Marks.