Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Editorial: Pleasing the Fanbase

Something really interesting has been happening in the month of March.  For those of you who are not aware, Mass Effect 3 was one of the most anticipated video game releases for a long time.  The Mass Effect triology has grabbed the fans by the heart and led them along a winding path of decision-making and plot to create what I believe to be the defining science fiction epic of the last 100 years.  Mass Effect 3, the conclusion to the trilogy, however, has garnered much more ire from the fans of the game than both of the other games combined, and this disgruntled response is due to the ending of the game. 

I do need to add: I have not played the game yet, I have only played the demo and for various reasons that I will not go into now, I have not purchased Mass Effect 3 yet and so I'm only vaguely aware of what the ending of the game actually looks like.  What I do want to write about, however, is a response to this:
To Mass Effect 3 players, from Dr. Ray Muzyka, co-founder of BioWare

"I'm not mad... I'm just... disappointed."
Huh, so the co-founder of BioWare, one of the most beloved game companies out there right now, has come out to openly apologize and address the fans of Mass Effect.  I find this incredibly fascinating, as I'm fairly sure that the head of a video game company would address their fans en masse is a rare event in the video gaming community.  It's interesting to me that such negative responses by the fan base would garner such a reaction from an important person at a company, when the critics have been raving about the exact same game that the players complain about.

Why do I find this fascinating?  This is the first major incident in my memory where customer service has extended beyond the physical working of the product and has extended into the artistic vision.  The Mass Effect trilogy has built itself upon the emotional investment of the player, where they are not simply partaking of the artistic vision of the piece, but participating in it.  The folks at BioWare have created something that engages it's audience so much that they are angry about the ending.  Why?  Because they care!  If a player wasn't engaged so much in the story (not just the game), they wouldn't really care how it ended, right?  But this story is so engaging that fans are disappointed or angry that things didn't turn out the way they had wanted, or that their decisions didn't have much of a lasting impact in the end.  Truly, one could argue that this might be the point of the game, as a piece of art, but it's this emotional response that I find truly fascinating and familiar.  It's just like the emotional involvement seen in miniatures games.

I'm sure you were wondering how I was going to tie it in.  A while back I wrote this related piece on miniatures games being more than just a game, and this one on how you can be in an abusive relationship with a game company.  The first sign that someone is engaged or emotionally invested in something is anger or disappointment.  If I didn't care about my students, I wouldn't get so upset when they failed a chemistry test.  If you don't care about your miniatures game, you won't be phased when your particular models aren't as good anymore.  In some sense, the disappointment and occasional rage facing miniatures companies like Games Workshop are a good sign: it means that their fans are emotionally invested

She's just really emotionally invested

What's interesting about this case with BioWare, however, is that the fans aren't complaining about any physical defect about the game, but the artistic result, or the story itself.  The co-founder of BioWare has addressed the fans and assured them that he's working with the design team to come up with an amicable solution.  That's customer service that goes above and beyond and ensures that the fans will continue to support the company.  Am I suggesting that Games Workshop should do the same?  Not necessarily.  I think that Privateer Press has demonstrated that they listen to their player base to a certain extent, but would even they re-create rules and address the fan base if they were largely unhappy?  Perhaps.  They did perform a public playtest for Warmachine/Hordes Mk II.

BioWare is in a different industry than miniatures games, but to some extent they are still the same creative industry, relying on their fans to spend money to support a creative and artistic product that tells a story and engages its audience.  Perhaps miniatures companies should keep a watchful eye on how this turns out.  To my knowledge, BioWare is hardly losing millions of dollars because of their fans' outrage, but perhaps they recognize that an unsatisfied fanbase will be less likely to support them in the future, and it's important to them to keep their fans.  Do you think it's important for a miniatures company to keep their fans happy?  I certainly do.
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