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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

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Steve Gaffney