Mass Effect is a brilliant video game saga. It’s one of the more recent entries in science fiction that I always run back to. For as long as I can remember, science fiction has been a cornerstone of my life. However, over time, corporations, the film industry, and video game companies changed their focus away from creating worthwhile stories. The priority now is profit. Companies fix things that sometimes aren’t broken. They create strict deadlines in order to avoid frustrating the fan base. Fundamentally changing the course to not give consumers what they want is disheartening and fundamentally flawed. Gaming companies don’t have to touch everything with their profit motive hands. A franchise like Battlefield and Call of Duty are easy money makers for companies like EA/Dice and Activision. The storyline/single player isn’t the focus of those games, it’s the multiplayer dynamic that brings people and the profit in. Even if games are multiplayer focused, the profit narrative can poison games; EA’s Star Wars Battlefront, for example, experiences a constant lambasting by fans.
What companies like Electronic Arts (EA) are guilty of is implementing that profit motive with story-driven games like Mass Effect. It frustrates and creates distrust for gamers such as myself who view story-based games like Dragon Age as necessary escapism. Some of these games are on par with the modern bestselling books of today. How? Because they have the ability to ignite our imaginations and take us on adventures that we never would’ve dreamed of. Mass Effect is a saga, a space opera, a quintessential story of good fighting evil against all odds. Stories like these don’t deserve corporations to dilute their stories into something less. Stories shouldn’t continue to be created so haphazardly to satiate consumers insatiable hunger for more. When it comes to something like Mass Effect, Electronic Arts fundamentally tarnished a brilliant saga.
“Truly Wonderful The Mind Of A Child Is.” – Yoda
When I was around 4, I always wanted to watch the Star Wars trilogy with my eldest brother, but I never got the chance because it was always on so late. I only got to see moments of The Battle of Hoth and maybe Yoda‘s initial teachings to Luke on Dagobah. It wasn’t till years later that I got to watch the entire “Special Edition” trilogy on my own. My 2nd cousin was sweet to give me his family’s VHS box set when I was visiting them in California. I was so happy. It was cool to see the added scenes that Lucas added from the cutting room floor. Star Wars was my main conduit of science fiction well into 1999 when the prequels arrived. By this time, all of the Star Trek shows of the 90’s (Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space 9) were over. Eventually, I boldly went into the final frontier with Captain Picard, and since then I rewatch every series at least once a year.
By 2003, I cried at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis because Data died. He was my favorite character after all. It was one of the first moments when the death of a character really affected me. Those feels are what we all experience when we watch our favorite fandoms. Sure, these fandoms like any other had virtues and vices. Bad episodes, lackluster prequels and continuations (Star Wars Episodes I-III and VII, VIII) are some examples. Nevertheless, I still loved them in their own ways. Roddenberry, Lucas, and others who sat in the director’s chair do what they can to enrich our imaginations. Science fiction ignites the imaginations of generations to come and makes humanity’s future brighter.
“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. – Ray Bradbury
These two iconic fandoms, Star Wars/Trek became the foundations of me becoming a nerd. That nerdiness within me kicks into overdrive once I was introduced to the science fiction stories video games were offering. First came Halo, and the LAN parties I got to experience with my high school friends. Halo’s story was brilliant; You played John 117, a Spartan-IV super soldier in the 26th century. Saving humanity and the galaxy at large from the religious zealotry of the Covenant and the parasitic infestation known as The Flood became your priority. Halo made me daydream about superstructures like Halo. Could they exist in our Milky Way? Has humanity have yet to discover them due to our 21st-century technology? Halo, like the science fiction shows I watched before it, helped me escape. I experienced a plethora of feelings about each character and what they fought for. With Halo, it was always the relationship between Master Chief (John 117) and Cortana. I and millions of other fans were fortunate enough to get a trilogy of games. Halo 3 (released in 2007) concluded one part of John’s journey. 2007 was a year that brought another iconic science fiction story to the doorstep of my imagination. This game captivated millions of gamers and sci-fi lovers like me over the years. That game is known as Mass Effect.
“If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”
– Jane Espenson
Developed by Canadian based company Bioware, Mass Effect is a Western action-RPG science fiction game set near the end of the 22nd century. When the game debuted, I already loved Bioware’s storytelling abilities with the release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 2003. Along with all the Star Wars: New Jedi Order books I read in high school, RPG’s (roleplaying games) were my escapism from life when I was younger. My first taste of them was with unforgettable games like Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG back in the 90’s. All of these games took me on an adventure. Bioware, however, solidified a place in my heart in creating a massive universe filled with diverse and unique aliens and technology with famous voice/television and movie actors/actresses behind those faces. You play as Commander Shepard, a member of the Alliance (similar to Starfleet in Star Trek) who uncovers a threat to the entire galaxy. Like KOTOR (Knights of the Old Republic), the player has actual decisions to make. Those important decisions either came up in dialogue or it was an immediate action itself against an NPC (non-playable characters). You could be an altruistic character and follow the Paragon route. Or much like the “dark side”, one could embrace a more Renegade viewpoint and shape the galaxy in darker tones. Bioware’s Mass Effect let you save or doom the galaxy with Shepard and his diverse crew however you wanted. What made this more of a unique experience was that my play through in game would be different from someone else’s.
EA Acquires Bioware and the Reapers Strike Back in Mass Effect 2
2007 saw a significant change within Bioware. Electronic Arts acquired Bioware, a month before Mass Effect’s initial release on November 20th, 2007. Between 2007 and 2010 the co-founders of Bioware Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk became group general manager and group operations officer respectively. Bioware also gained three additional studios across North America, located respectively in Austin, Quebec, and Virginia. Expanding Bioware was done to help with existing games and eventual ones like the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic and the fantasy roleplaying saga that became known as Dragon Age. This corporate acquisition didn’t change anything for the average player at that time. Mass Effect itself became a worldwide success. Dragon Age would become another hit, spawning out an eventual sequel (Dragon Age II) and its more recent iteration, Dragon Age: Inquisition. It wasn’t until 2010 that Mass Effect fans got their sequel with Mass Effect 2. Gamers would notice the change in the intro when the game loaded. Gone was the Microsoft Studios logo, signifying the publisher change, EA’s infamous corporate logo taking its place. Thankfully, Mass Effect 2 had yet to have EA’s corporate machinations infect its development.
“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction — its essence — has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”
– Isaac Asimov
On its own, Mass Effect 2 garnered over 60 gaming awards. For most fans, ME2 was the Empire Strikes back of the saga. It consisted of an epic mini-cliffhanger at the beginning, and a new darker threat that targets humanity. Players met new faces, had to ally with the pro-human organization known as Cerberus, and recruit people from across the galaxy to face a new threat. What became unique about Mass Effect was the fact that players who completed the first game could import their saves to the second game. Our actions in the first games had consequences in the second iteration. Friends and allies may trust or distrust you more depending on your actions in the past. This same mechanic would apply when Mass Effect 3 came out. When it came to the voice cast, it seemed to quadruple in size. For example, you had Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan, alumni from one of the best sci-fi dramas of the 21st century, Battlestar Galactica. Michael Dorn (Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Martin Sheen (The West Wing) who is brilliant as The Illusive Man provided their talent and voices as well. These are a few of the 20+ actors that contributed to this epic saga. Mass Effect 2 was nothing short of epic. There was a deep story, new characters to love or hate, unique planets to explore, etc. I honestly envy any new player who jumps into Mass Effect and gets to experience the brilliance of ME2 (Mass Effect 2).
Something Wicked This Way Comes: Mass Effect 3, Andromeda, and the Unknown
Bioware itself released three games within a span of a year. Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dragon Age II, and Mass Effect 3; the latter releasing in March of 2012. Mass Effect 3 was overall a great game. Out of all three, it probably is the one that made me experience the most feels and tears. The trilogy spanning journey across the Milky Way was at an end. Reviews across the board were positive. Mass Effect 3 was crowned game of the year by Game Informer, and it was Number 1 on IGN’s top 25 games on the Xbox 360. As of last January, over six million copies of Mass Effect 3 had been sold.
Unfortunately, Mass Effect 3 faced significant backlash from fans like me. What spurned such anguish? It was the now infamous copy-pasted three-colored ending that everyone received. Despite all the “blood, sweat, and tears” fans contributed, Shepard (you) were presented three choices. No matter what choice you made, the endings were the same. In addition, there was no significant boss battle to speak of. One devoted fan took his frustration to the Federal Trade Commission. The Better Business Bureau’s view on the controversy was concurrent to the fan, concluding their argument by stating:
“The game’s outcome is not ‘wholly’ determined by one’s choices. The lesson to be learned here is companies should give careful consideration to how they word their advertisements. Otherwise, there could be detrimental effects, especially in the era of social media and online forums.”
We as players were promised a personally unique experience based on the choices we made throughout all three games. In the end, it was nothing more than color-coded disappointment. By April 5th, 2012, Bioware released a statement that an “Extended Cut” DLC was in the works. By that summer, it was free for all gamers. The Extended Cut fleshed out the ending. Even though the color choices still remain, each one now has a different cinematic. 2012 itself was a bittersweet year for Bioware. It also changed the relationship between gamers and the companies that made them. The controversy that surrounded Mass Effect 3’s ending was the catalyst for future conflicts between gamers and the gaming industry. 2012 was also the heyday of DLC’s (downloadable content). Since then, gamers are vocal about paying for extra content that can easily be put into a game before its launch.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – Dorothy
While one can easily blame Bioware for this stumble, it is the parent company who deserves most of the blame. Narvin Seegoolam at Nerd Rector believed back in 2012 that EA had purposeful intent in giving players the infamous lackluster ending. It all had to deal with DLC content and the ever-present profit motive:
“I honestly think that EA had a hand in chopping the ending to dish it out at a later date as DLC so they can make more money off of it. If this is the case, then there is a logical explanation for the DLC “fix” that Bioware promises in April; there was already a plan in place to release that content. Ever since the backlash started, Bioware has stated that they are “listening to fans” and are working on an “explanation” to what everyone saw at the end of ME3. In my opinion, the DLC to be released is the actual ending of the game that not only explains the on-disc “ending,” but also brings closure that everyone wants. They aren’t working on a new ending or a fix, they’re just buying a bit of time to do final preparations on releasing the “closure DLC.'”
Despite the Extended Cut DLC, fans still had the bad aftertaste in their mouths. For us, quality content trumped the corporate need to seek profit. As for Mass Effect, fans would not see that universe again till 2017 with the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Millions of other fans like me were excited but cautiously optimistic to explore another galaxy in the Mass Effect “universe”. Andromeda was in development for 5 years, so what could go wrong? Mass Effect: Andromeda never came close to the success of its predecessors. According to Metacritic, it averaged the low to high 70’s/100 across all consoles. Reviewers across the gaming industry panned the game as disappointing and made reviewers like Game Informer’s Joe Juba dream of what the game could have been while dealing with the plethora of in-game “inconveniences” along the way. Combat was probably the best thing that came out of ME: Andromeda, but it wasn’t enough to quell the technical glitches, the abhorrent facial animations, or the uninspired story. IGN concluded in their review that the repeated trope from the previous trilogy was present in Andromeda. Another long-dead civilization leaving its mark on a galaxy. This time, instead of the Protheans in the Milky Way, it’s the Remnant in Andromeda.
As for me, I have yet to finish Andromeda. The last time I played I made it to the 2nd, maybe third planet in the game. The planet consisted of a disillusioned faction of humanity that took the plunge with The Andromeda Initiative in finding a new home. Oddly enough, the combat was the thing spearheading my desire to play more. It was more fluid than the trilogy and I felt like a badass. Deep down, I also wanted to know the endgame, but the drive within me wasn’t there. How would Ryder and his/her diverse crew save the Andromeda galaxy and find a proper home for humanity, Salarians, Asari, etc? The premise dives into the unknown, but the execution of this game is mired in what seems to be a half-hearted attempt to recreate what we loved in Shepard’s story. Erik Kain at Forbes highlighted some of the galactic spanning mess that was Andromeda:
“Several of the game’s lead developers left the game while it was in the middle of production, including senior development director Chris Wynn and lead writer Chris Schlerf, who left BioWare to work on Destiny over at Bungie. Executive producer Casey Hudson, the director of the original trilogy, left BioWare in 2014. Then, too, BioWare Montreal has never developed a full Mass Effect game before, instead of assisting develop games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 3. So maybe the March 21st release date was premature. EA likely wanted to launch the game prior to the end of its fourth fiscal quarter on March 31st, which you can hardly blame them for. This isn’t the same as Dragon Age 2, which was notoriously rushed to launch. Five years, three studios and 200 employees later and you’ve got a very expensive project on your hands.
Add to this other challenges, like creating all the game’s assets from scratch thanks to the adoption of DICE’s Frostbite 3 engine, or developing a huge and expensive open world, and you can see how Andromeda was both costly and daunting. Still, at some point, a game has to launch. The glitches and bizarre facial animation aren’t the only problems Andromeda suffers from, of course, but they’re the kind of problems that feel avoidable. They’re certainly the kind of problems that can be patched into oblivion, which is the good news. (The uneven writing…not so much.) AAA game development is hugely challenging, time-consuming and expensive, and it’s never easy to follow up a beloved trilogy with a brand new game. Certainly, the pressure on BioWare Montreal was very high, and publisher EA was likely not willing to extend the game’s development indefinitely. Nor should they. Simply extending a game’s development time doesn’t ensure a quality end result. Sometimes patching later makes more sense from a business perspective.”
“Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.” – J.M. Barrie
As Mr. Kain stated, lead developers, brilliant writers like Drew Karpshyn and even the executive producer left after Mass Effect 3. That clearly doesn’t bode well for the continuation of a successful saga. The responsibility to develop Andromeda went to a studio that had relatively little experience with Mass Effect. Where I don’t agree with Mr. Kain is his notion to justify EA’s desire to release the game prematurely. Coinciding right when their fiscal quarter ended is a clear indication that profit motive was key. Yes, this game took 5 years to make. But with all this mismanagement and the significant departures, maybe it needed more time and love. Time gives Andromeda to work out its kinks. All the glitches get patches, edit the bad writing, and the clear and present passion that needs to be put into every game would shine brightly. More time into it would’ve given us a game that receives 10/10 scores from critics who only give such honor to beloved games like The Legend of Zelda, God Of War, or Super Mario Odyssey. Maybe a patch(es) could have remedied much of what Andromeda suffered from. While Bioware made the announcement, it sucks that EA believed that Andromeda only needed ONE patch after the controversy and nothing more. I believe putting worthwhile time and love into a game does ensure quality, in the end, Mr. Kain. Just ask Shigeru Miyamoto.
Today, Electronic Arts ranks 5th out of the 25 most hated companies of 2018 by USA Today. Star Wars: Battlefront II’s 1st year is a testament to why they deserve that position. Despite that, Disney has yet to revoke EA’s license of making Star Wars games with another Star Wars game on the horizon. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is slated for a Holiday 2019 release, while EA is banking on the success of Anthem, a highly anticipated game created by our beloved Bioware that’s to be released on February 22nd, 2019. As for Mass Effect, Casey Hudson returned as general manager of Bioware. In an interview with Game Informer’s Joe Juba, Hudson showed a genuine love for Mass Effect, stating: “It’s my baby. I helped start Mass Effect from the beginning. Of course, we intend to get back to it at some point.” For now, Mass Effect fans like myself will have to dive into nostalgia territory and replay the trilogy, read the books, comics, etc., and maybe satiate our general love of science fiction with whatever Anthem provides. All we can do is hope that lessons will be learned from Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda. EA and Bioware definitely need a wake-up call fast. Otherwise, this highly regarded franchise will be a martyr to the ever-present god that is profit.