Combat Ready: The Meta Games of Mass Effect 3

Fireteam's Steve Gaffney breaks down BioWare's use of iOS and multiplayer to keep a console game relevant to today's audience

The third and final instalment of the Mass Effect trilogy is the biggest release of the year so far, has met with universally positive press reviews, and has a Metacritic rating of 93 per cent. Yet it provoked such a ferocious player reaction that BioWare general manager Ray Muzyka felt it necessary to come out and address the community feedback directly. This is a very passionate audience.

The reaction to Mass Effect 3 is a fascinating story in itself, but it's worth taking a step back and taking a good look at the game, and what BioWare have done with it. In order to increase the number of opportunities to keep more players engaged with the game over the long term, the developers have built a network-powered, connected experience on top of what previously has been as single-player and offline a game as could possibly be.

Mass Effect 3's connected meta-game will be as influential on next-gen AAA games as Call of Duty 4 was on multiplayer games of the current generation.

The core of this initiative is the Galaxy at War meta-game. Lead character Commander Shepherd's goal in the single-player campaign is to collect enough War Assets in order to build a galactic army to overcome the threat of the Reapers, but the campaign has multiple endings. The ending you get to experience is determined by your Effective Military Strength (EMS), calculated as your War Assets stat multiplied by Galactic Readiness. Your Galactic Readiness starts at 50 per cent, and can only be increased by getting involved in the multiplayer mode, or by playing with the iOS companion games, all linked together with EA's Origin accounts.

The first of the iOS games is the free Datapad app. With this you can check Shepherd's email, read up on the series lore in the codex, and also play a very simple, long cool-down resource gathering game that can contribute a couple of vital Galactic Readiness percentage points per day.


Then we have Mass Effect: Infiltrator. Built by the team that made the fantastic Dead Space iOS game, this is a very decent touch-screen interpretation of the console cover-shooter game. It's priced at a premium £4.99, and features a grind-or-buy micro-transaction store where players can earn credits through normal play, or buy credits with real money to unlock more powerful weapons and abilities. Mass Effect: Infiltrator's meta-game contribution comes from the intel that random downed enemies drop. These can either be exchanged for Credits to buy items, or for Galactic Readiness points.

The console game's multiplayer mode is the most ambitious addition to the series, and is the main contributor to the Galaxy at War meta-game. To combat revenue lost to second-hand sales, the multiplayer mode requires an Online Pass, which is included free with all new copies of Mass Effect 3 or available for purchase separately over PSN/Xbox Live.

This new multiplayer mode is a very well built Horde-mode co-op game. Four players work together to overcome 10 waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Players are rewarded with XP, which is spent on levelling up individual classes and unlocking new abilities.

As well as XP, players earn Credits, and these are altogether more interesting. Players use their credits to unlock new classes through the card-game mechanic EA pioneered with FIFA Ultimate Team. Rather than unlocking new abilities and classes on a rigid unlock tree through grind alone (as in Call of Duty), players spend their Credits on Packs. Packs contain five random unlocks, which could be any of one of 18 character classes and 36 weapons of varying rareness, along with weapon upgrades and consumable items like one-time use health and armour buffs and special ammo types. The Packs vary in price, with the more expensive containing the more powerful, rarer items.

For those with time but no money, they can play and earn Credits until they have enough to buy additional Packs. For those with money but no time (or patience), they can buy Credits directly through Xbox Live/PSN/Origin. BioWare has priced the packs from around 60p to £3.40, and grind-only players will be able to unlock a rare-item Pack every 30 minutes of play time or so. Basically, grind or buy, then gamble. It's a fair system because there's no significant in-game advantage to spending money on Packs, apart from saving time. You can't just go and buy the most expensive or most powerful items - the packs have the same rare-item drop rate whether they are bought or earned. Critically, there's no shortcut to levelling your new characters to max - that still requires putting in some serious effort. It's a radically different engagement scheme to most other multiplayer action games, and from a brief scan of the forums, it seems that players are responding pretty well to the concept.


A neat touch keeps you interested in rolling new characters: if you bring a character up to level 20 you can promote it to N7 rank, which adds to your available War Assets in the SP game, and every game you play adds a couple of percentage points to your Galactic Readiness (GR) rating. To keep you playing, GR decays so players are encouraged to come back to multiplayer or the iOS games regularly.

Cleverly devised and well executed, BioWare should be commended for pulling this off. It's hard enough summarising the full meta-game, so it must have been a very complicated design and implementation challenge. However, player reaction to the game as a whole has been somewhat mixed - with some concerned players who aren't interested in anything outside the core campaign complaining that the full best ending is only available if they play multiplayer and play the iOS games. In practice, this isn't true at all. Remember, the ending a player gets is dependent on the Effective Military Strength of the War Assets they bring to the end game. If you finish every side-quest in the game and don't touch multiplayer or any of the iOS games, you can definitely get to the "best" ending.

BioWare has been entirely fair to its players. They really could have gone Renegade and reserved the best ending for those few that maxed out all the related games, but it didn't. I think this negative perception exists because exactly how a player should improve your Galactic Readiness rating is neither well explained nor obvious. Play single-player only and the Galactic Readiness rating won't budge a digit, which is pretty unsatisfying. Combined with the dark storyline and the various endings sparking a surprisingly emotional campaign to have it changed, this seems to have unsettled the core RPG audience.

There's an in-game communication issue around exactly how to build Galactic Readiness, probably exacerbated by platform rules which restricted BioWare's ability to point players towards the iOS apps.

What could the dev team have done to counter this reaction? There's definitely an in-game communication issue around exactly how to build Galactic Readiness, probably exacerbated by platform rules which restricted BioWare's ability to point players towards the iOS apps (Microsoft and Sony won't really like their player-base being directed to the App Store). Maybe if there was a web-based game for those who didn't have access to the iOS games, they might not have felt excluded. Overall, this core meta-game mechanic could have been messaged better. The noise from the hardcore has detracted from what is a fantastic design achievement.

Using internet/web services to extend games is not a particularly new idea. Halo 2 on Xbox was an early pioneer of web stats, and Call of Duty Elite extends this to allowing player to customise their classes online. Such services are built to appeal to hardcore multiplayer gamers rather than the wider casual audience and often do not have a tangible profit and loss contribution. Rightly or wrongly, from a purely business perspective, this can make them difficult to justify.

Mass Effect 3 uses the same technology to make contextually interesting experiences that affect the outcome of the single player game in a genuinely meaningful way. These additional games are built to allow players to continue to interact with the game universe away from their console, and continue spending money if they are enjoying themselves.


As clever and interesting as this all is, the ultimate goal of developing the co-op mode and ancillary apps was to provide interesting experiences outside of the main campaign in order to extend the life and appeal of the game beyond its traditional audience to generate more revenue. It's going to be very difficult for anyone outside of EA to understand exactly how effective all this trailblazing work has been without seeing the project profit an loss, sales figures and DAU/MAU numbers across the various platforms and modes. The clearest indication of Mass Effect 3's success will be if any further EA games use the same model - I suspect they will.

The biggest lesson to take from Mass Effect 3 is that AAA games and consoles aren't going anywhere, but their position in players' lives is changing so the games we make need to change in response. Consoles now exist in players' lives as just another platform to play games on in an expanding ecosystem of internet-enabled devices. Free and social games are changing players' perception of value. To stay relevant, the traditional console game experience is going to have to spread itself across many devices and use multiple business models and monetisation methods, because players are not going to spend as much time in front of their console as they used to.

Mass Effect 3's connected meta-game will be as influential on next-gen AAA games as Call of Duty 4 was on multiplayer games of the current generation. On top of being one of the best narrative-led RPGs ever made, it's the first console game to deliver a truly connected experience, and provides a clear example for future console titles to follow - turn the game into a mini-platform. All games, even the most single-player of RPGs, will need to be cross-platform and network-powered to survive.

Stephen Gaffney is CEO of Fireteam, a provider of online services for games. He previously spent six years creating online games as Studio Director/EP at UK developer Splash Damage. You can follow him on Twitter: @sdgaffney

Latest comments (13)

Sam Brown Programmer, Cool Games Ltd.6 years ago
I count myself lucky I have an iPhone, so I could use the free Datapad app to keep my GR percentage high, as I loathe playing anything multiplayer because of the amount of idiots out there (it was never like this on QuakeWorld, etc...)

But I still have to use it twice a day to keep my percentage at 100%, which I have to to get the ending I want (I stress "use", because the actual "mini-game" is so trivial it can't be called "playing") Basically, it makes the ME3 experience as a whole more like work, and that can only be bad.

I felt the same way when Portal 2 had co-op-only story content. You really shouldn't put essential chunks of the game into a section that can't be easily accessed by all players.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 27th March 2012 12:13pm

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Paolo Giunti Localisation Project Manager, GlobaLoc GmbH6 years ago
Packs that unlock new equipment and, to a lesser extent, character leveling up, are the only features that actually can make the MP a bit addictive, but even that isn't gonna last long in keeping the interest alive with only one game mode and a handful of maps.
As soon as the interest wears off, trying to keep Galaxy Readiness at 100% will, as Sam perfectly pointed out, feel more like work than fun.

However, i need to point out that:
1) They have a feature (promoting classes) that can add a permanent boost to Galaxy Readiness, but to achieve a 100% that doesn't decay will require many many hours of grinding the MP, I doubt anyone would truly consider it worth the trouble.
2) Having Galaxy Readiness at 100% isn't exactly necessary to obtain the best ending. If you're very trough in searching and collecting war assets then you can do without playing any multiplayer or iOS at all. It'll just be a lot harder to get, not impossible.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paolo Giunti on 27th March 2012 12:40pm

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Frederic Eichinger Web Developer 6 years ago
Well, the thing here is, you get the choice of either grinding for War Assets in SP, or go for MP/apps.Ich könnte mir inzwischen sogar vorstellen, dass sie Shooter-Mechanics einbauen ... Immerhin haben wir ja jetzt voll funktionsfähige Schusswaffen auf Spielerseite...
Imho that's the wrong way to address this whole issue. Needless to say, BioWare had proven to be capable of quite astounding things with the variables they take from one game to another, the whole War Assets/GR thing seems kinda cheap.
When looking at it from the angle of "Either I'm forced to grind every single bit of SP content that grants points for the best ending (let's be honest, a 50% GR difference is quite much on the calculations) or play the multiplayer for a bunch of hours to keep my GR at an acceptable value granting me the same edge for my beloved ending", though, it's ... wrong. Plain wrong.
We force the players to go through either tedious work or forced multiplayer (for which Mass Effect (1)'s original audience is certainly not the right one). Putting MP ontop of a SP game which started as a story-based RPG, turned into a Shooter-Second-Act game in between and ended up as a mess of shooter, RPG and social game.
At that point it's taken too far, I'd say.
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Show all comments (13)
Andrew Clayton QA Weapons Tester, Electronic Arts6 years ago
The more games feel like work that I have to pay to do, the less loyal I feel. The more I need to make "microtransactions" to complete a game, the less I want to complete the game. EA should be careful, they're looking over the edge of a very, very steep cliff.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd6 years ago
I love the multiplayer, but only because it's fun to play with friends and offers a great variety of gameplay styles and addictive unlock system. The galactic readiness system is stupid.
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Tyler Moore Game Designer & Unity Developer 6 years ago
If you finish every side-quest in the game and don't touch multiplayer or any of the iOS games, you can definitely get to the "best" ending.
Not true, double-check that.

I did every side-quest and completed just about everything, and only got about 7000 asset points. You need 10,000 to get the best ending without playing multiplayer. I have yet to see anyone who got their rating that high.

You need to download DLC, play multiplayer, or the extra-platform games to get the best possible ending.
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John Donnelly Quality Assurance 6 years ago
On my first playthrough I had over 8K asset points and I know I missed a few quests during the playthrough.

I also saved Rex and the queen for that playthrough which helped along with saving all 11 of my crew in ME2 and a few other things.

I think I should have been able to 10K if I was more paitent and cautious with my first time through.
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Frederic Eichinger Web Developer 6 years ago
You are pretty much being forced to carefully choose what you do to get anywhere even remotely close to the best ending.
If you spend some time on the multiplayer, though, you hardly even need to care.

That's not how this should work.
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Pete Thompson Editor 6 years ago
Did this guy play ME3? Those IOS apps added very little extra percentage to the overall Galaxy at War contribution, As for saying that Mass Effect 3 needed the use of iOS and multiplayer to keep it relevant to today's audience is utter garbage.
I also think that most gamers (Including myself) who have followed the Mass Effect series from its Xbox 360 roots would have preferred the game to stay single player only and Bioware add more content to the game, such as not seeing the same NPC's in the exact same spot on the Citadel after leaving the Citadel, completing missions and returning some time later, or even adding different tracks to the playlist in the Purgatory nighclub, Multiplayer was more than likely only added to ME3 because EA seems to insist on sticking multiplayer on every game in its portfolio, and some games (Take Skyrim & Kingdoms of Amalur) for example that don't need an online component to make them good games!
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Sam Brown Programmer, Cool Games Ltd.6 years ago
@Pete Thompson:
Did this guy play ME3? Those IOS apps added very little extra percentage to the overall Galaxy at War contribution,
The iOS Datapad app gets you all the way to 100%, it took me about a week. But it was very dull. :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 27th March 2012 8:41pm

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Ian Brown IT Developer / IT Infrastructure 6 years ago
I felt pretty P****d off when i realized i was in the final mission/s in the game that my galactic readiness still sucked at 50%. All the way through i was thinking that picking who i want to live or die to make my army the strongest would also be affected by perhaps some sort of final speech or meeting with the alien races to get them "ready" for the last push. A giant debate or argument that if i said the wrong thing or killed the wrong people would make or break the alliance. No instead we get horde tacked onto a single player RPG with, as far as i'm aware no information stating that's the case. It's nice to have a bit of multiplayer on the game but being made to use it as a game mechanic is not the best idea. Now if it was an optional extra, such as when you start the game being asked if you wanted the Galactic readiness to be affected by co-op or not perhaps it wouldn't seem so bad.
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Private Industry 6 years ago
I never cared about the galactic readiness and finished the game with 50%. After that I started playing the MP and I actually do enjoy it. I`m not going to play it in 1-2 months but for the moment it`s enjoyable and the silver and gold difficulties are far from easy and boring.
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Alec-Ross` Bower Journalist 6 years ago
"Lead character Commander Shepherd's goal in the single-player campaign is to collect enough War Assets in order to build a galactic army to overcome the threat of the Reapers, but the campaign has multiple endings."

Multiple endings? Hmmmmm..
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