The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past.
So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.
"Are video games art?"
It's a terrible question. Of course they are.
They're good art, bad art, weird art, boring art, experimental art, offensive art, enlightening art, edifying art, disappointing art, and every other kind of art it is possible to be.
But like a lot of other art, they're also a product. And the needs of art are often different from the needs of a product. Art just has to exist, or to express something, to spark a thought, to elicit a reaction, perhaps to gesture vaguely at an emotion... Art has no real criteria it needs to fill.
But products have to sell. And as much as the games industry has grown in the past half century, it's always been far more comfortable with games as products than games as art. Between the deeply collaborative nature of AAA game development, growing team sizes, escalating budgets, advanced analytics and the importance of community management as a marketing tool, AAA developers are conditioned to treat their work as a product first and artistic expression second (if at all). As a result, when the slightest friction comes up between the artistic goals and commercial needs of a project, it often resolves itself to the benefit of the latter.
We saw a very clear example of that a decade ago, when BioWare released the much-anticipated Mass Effect 3, the finale to a trilogy of sci-fi role-playing games that spanned the Xbox 360-PS3 generation.
The critical reception to the game was overwhelmingly positive, but the response from players would be far less enthusiastic.
As people got their hands on the game and played through it, those who raced to the end began to send word back of a rather disappointing conclusion to the saga. There were technically three endings depending on the player's choices up to that point, and while the implications of each were different, most of what the player saw and heard was the same, with largely cosmetic differences like the color of various explosion effects.
For fans who spent 100 hours or more playing through the series on the promise that the ending would reflect their particular story and choices throughout the games, it was understandably disappointing. Doubly so considering BioWare has been promoting the quality of the saga's ending and promising players it would reflect their choices and not simply be them picking between ending A, B, or C.
For fans who spent 100 hours or more playing through the series on the promise that the ending would reflect their particular story and choices throughout the games, it was understandably disappointing
Naturally, many players were vocal about their disappointment. But for some of them, it wasn't enough to critique the work itself. They wanted it changed.
A group of fans started the "Retake Mass Effect" movement, raising money for the Child's Play charity as a way to pressure BioWare to change the game's ending. It raised $80,000 before Child's Play asked that it be shut down due to confusion over what the money was going for, a large number of people asking for their donations back, and concerns about unaffiliated groups hitching their causes to the charity without asking first.
Undeterred, the organizers set up another fundraiser, this time pooling $1,000 to have an Edmonton bakery deliver 400 cupcakes to BioWare's offices. The fundraisers said the cupcakes would have green, blue, or red frosting, but they would all have the same vanilla taste as "a way for the gamers to express their dissatisfaction with the deceptive ending of the ME3 game, but in a sweet way to show that they still loved the games and were true fans and supporters."
It's an admittedly tasty veneer to put on an intimidation campaign, but if I've got the entire internet yelling at me, I don't know if I would be in the best mood to also receive a prank call's worth of baked goods also yelling at me.
As BioWare systems programmer Mark Jaskiewicz told People Make Games in a retrospective on the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy last year, "There's also an aspect of the cupcake thing where it's now real world... Up until that point, you just try to stay just one of the nameless few that has a credit on the game and you don't stick your head up, right? But now you've got people sending something to the place where you go to work every day."
Put that real world element in the context of a studio dealing with a deluge of harassment and death threats over the game's ending, and regardless of the intent it still winds up amplifying the anxiety caused by the harassment and furthering the harassers' agenda.
Mass Effect fans literally made a federal case out of it, with some players filing complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau in the US, and the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK.
BioWare may have created Mass Effect, but the fans owned it
The name of the campaign, Retake Mass Effect, speaks to the perception the players held. They wanted to take Mass Effect back, because it was rightfully theirs. They had paid $50 for each game and were entitled to satisfaction. (That word has been a sore spot for a certain segment of the gamer population for a very long time, but there really isn't a better way to describe it.)
BioWare may have created Mass Effect, but the fans owned it.
And you can see where they would get that impression, having been told repeatedly for years that they are of primary importance, that everything is done for them, cannot be done without them, that the developers are passionate first and foremost about eagerly listening to what the customers want and delivering on that. It's a significant part of how companies like BioWare created their rabid fanbases in the first place, and an equally significant part of how those fanbases turn toxic.
Unfortunately, BioWare agreed with its fans when it came to the question of creative ownership. Two weeks after Mass Effect 3 launched, BioWare co-founder Ray Muzyka addressed the controversy on the studio's website. He paid lip service to supporting "the artistic choices made by the team" and not compromising artistic integrity, just as he referenced the harassment the team had faced, saying "much as we will not tolerate individual attacks on our team members, we will not support or respond to destructive commentary."
But in the end, the harassers would get what they want and the team would change the ending to calm the rabble, as Muzyka also announced that the studio would be working on "a number of new content initiatives" to answer complaints about the ending. (And, according to that People Make Games piece above, go right back into crunch frying the staff and destroying morale at the studio.)
BioWare detailed that initiative, the free Extended Cut DLC, that April. That was the same month Muzyka decided to retire from the games industry. Fellow BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk made the same decision around the same time, as he later explained to Polygon. They announced their retirement together in September, six months after the launch of Mass Effect 3.
But even stepping away from the entire industry wasn't enough to curb the sense of ownership that had been cultivated in the fanbase over the games, the studio, and the people.
"[The fans] are kind of mad at us for leaving because they think we owe them more games"Greg Zeschuk, in 2013
"One of the few things I find kind of funny is the responses of the fans, because they sort of respond that they are kind of mad at us for leaving because they think we owe them more games," Zeschuk told Polygon in a feature about his new pursuit, craft beer.
Like I said, the fan entitlement and "the customer is always right" mentality run deep in gaming. But the years leading up to this Mass Effect 3 moment had provided evidence that gaming could have artistic ambitions, that it could be thought of as creative expression first and commercial product second, or at least on a closer par than it had been.
Even as the Retake Mass Effect push was gaining momentum, the Smithsonian was exploring "a prevalent and increasingly expressive medium within modern society" with the opening of its The Art of Video Games exhibit, which was perhaps ironically organized with the support of Zeschuk and Muzyka. The Supreme Court was less than a year removed from affirming in a 7-2 decision that games were worthy of the same protections on free expression as any other media. The indie and AAA scenes alike had been producing games inviting articulate criticism like never before.
BioWare caving on the ending of Mass Effect 3 was a rebuke to the idea that AAA games could consider art before commerce, because it affirmed ownership of the creative element of video games lay not with the artist, but with the consumer.
Given the industry's shift to games-as-a-service, that affirmation was likely coming either way. But it's one thing to see faceless industry forces reshape the industry without specific malice or explicit intent. It was another thing -- and considerably more disappointing -- to see a studio renowned for the quality of its stories and world building decide its role was less that of an artist than a service provider.
Good Call, Bad Call
GOOD CALL: Ken Levine, at the height of the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, in a panel at the Smithsonian to mark the opening of The Art of Video Games exhibit, called it "an important moment" for the medium, saying, "I think if those people got what they wanted and (BioWare) wrote their ending they would be very disappointed in the emotional feeling they got because... they didn't really create it. I think this whole thing is making me a little bit sad because I don't think anyone would get what they wanted if that happened."
GOOD CALL: Will Wright gave us a rare counter to one of our most common Bad Calls, saying that consoles were not, in fact, doomed.
"I don't think they're doomed. I think they're not going to become the mainstay of the market like they had been. I think there'll probably still be dedicated game machines going forwards, sitting on a shelf next to your HDTV."
ENTERTAINING CALL: More than four years after firing Jeff Gerstmann for giving a 6 out of 10 to the heavily advertised Kane & Lynch, GameSpot acquired Giant Bomb, the site Gerstmann and a handful of ex-GameSpotters had gone on to create after his firing.
EVEN MORE ENTERTAINING CALL: As part of the deal, Gerstmann made the site waive his original non-disclosure agreement so he could confirm that yes, he was fired for giving the game a low score.
(Maybe this was just entertaining to me, a GameSpot employee during that era who had to deal with the reputational fallout of Gerstmann's firing for years afterward. But I assure you, it was entertaining.)
SURPRISINGLY BAD CALL: Zynga's Mark Pincus said that the social gaming company and actual gambling were a natural fit, saying, "philosophically, the part people haven't noticed yet, real money gaming is perfect with virtual goods and social games." Certainly, one would expect a business focused on maximizing compulsive play patterns to have a natural affinity for gambling, particularly considering the success it was enjoying with products like Zynga Poker and Zynga Bingo that only simulated actual gambling.
And Zynga would indeed move toward real-money gambling, applying for a gambling license in Nevada in December of 2012 and launching real-money gambling titles ZyngaPlusPoker and ZyngaPlusCasino in the UK in April of 2013.
GOOD CALL: Real-money gambling might not have worked out for Zynga, but the company investing in San Francisco real estate turned out to be a much better bet. Zynga bought its headquarters building in 2012 for $228 million, and would sell it in 2019 for $600 million.
BAD CALL: After Sony reported 1.2 million PlayStation Vitas sold at launch, it predicted a bright future for the handheld, saying, "Customer satisfaction rates are very high and momentum will continue as gamers get their hands on a deep lineup of blockbuster titles that take advantage of PS Vita's unique features, including cross-platform play with the PlayStation 3."
The momentum did not continue, and we were writing editorials with headlines like "It's not too late to rescue Vita" by May.
CONSISTENT CALL: In a GDC panel on independent game development, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said in light of the then-recent wave of clone controversies in mobile and social gaming, the answer was to make games that were somehow clone-proof.
"We came to the decision early on to make games that a Zynga couldn't clone," Sweeney said. "We've always tried to find that special sauce."
If nothing else, it certainly makes sense that the majority shareholder of a massive company that fast-followed surprise hits like PUBG and Among Us would put the onus on the cloned developer rather than on the competitor stealing someone else's work.