Developer-Fan Interactions: What can go wrong?

Something I’ve been thinking about this week is how game developers and fans can now interact so freely, and what this means for games and the gaming community.

There are some situations where this ability is unambiguously good, and some studios who balance their interactions really well. Most notably, Valve. For example, when fans loved Left 4 Dead, but were upset that its content had run over the expected release time, Valve responded by producing a completely revamped sequel a year later.

And when a group of college students began making a puzzle game in 2007 based on Valve’s Source engine , Valve responded not by suing them but by hiring them, providing the students with resources so they could continue making their game. Considering this puzzle game became Portal, Valve’s method was the epitome of win-win situations.

One company in the middle ground of this issue is BioWare, and I’m focusing here on their support for Mass Effect 3. In terms of multiplayer their system worked quite nicely: BioWare would keep an eye out for any weapons and abilities that went unused due to bad synergy or being ineffective, as well as for weapons and abilities which users found overpowered or part of unsporting play. Every week or fortnight, Bioware would then perform a balance update where they would improve weapons found to be noticeably weak, reduce particular combinations of weapons and abilities that worked together unintentionally well, and even modify game maps to undo camping strategies.

This could easily have gone horribly wrong here, but BioWare stopped it being too invasive by listening to the forums . For example, if a mathematically minded player gave evidence that a patch had shifted a weapon out of balance too much, it would then be repaired in a subsequent balance update. Because these updates were frequent and transparently relied upon actual gameplay and players opinions, this system worked surprisingly well.

Something similar also happened involving the end of Mass Effect 3’s single -player campaign, which caused some controversy. The ending was problematic because most players believed the ending was not what they expected: considering that the end was intended to tie together a trilogy of massive involving games with literally thousands of possible decisions, it simply wasn’t enough.  BioWare responded by releasing a free DLC, Extended Cut, that changed the endings by providing more information for each final option and what was regarded as a more satisfying conclusion.

This is where the grey areas become visible. Yes, it was admirable that the developers listened to ,and did their best to respond to, the complaints they received in order to make customers happy. However, the idea that the writers’ creative vision was overrun and surrendered to the wishes of players is an odd one. It reminds me of the “death of the author” concept in literature, where the authors’ view of what their book meant is simply an opinion equal to any other.

It’s interesting that game stories have finally reached the point where this is possible. Yet its also worrying, because the potential affect on future games is unknown. Will this make other studios less likely to take risks in their narrative in case people riot for a new ending?

Finally, on to a negative side of developer/fan interaction. My game developer here is Insomniac, although publishers EA deserve roughly equal custody of the blame.

Last year, an xbox friend introduced out group to  a new co-op shooter demo.  We downloaded the demo, called FUSE, and enjoyed it enough  that many of us preordered the game. While FUSE wasn’t the best game ever, it was fun and competently built. It looked quite good, if slightly generic, and had some interesting weapons. It was probably a solid 7/10. However, when I was looking up information on the game the next day, all I could see was people absolutely slating it, and none of us could work out why.

Eventually, we discovered that FUSE had originally been designed as a different game,  Overstrike, until it was modified by EA.  So we looked up the Overstrike trailer… suddenly, all the hate for FUSE made slightly more sense.

FUSE is a semi-realistic cover-based shooter, with some funny one-liners but forgettable characters; one of many released last year. Overstrike looked like a visually original stylised shooter with irreverent humour and entertaining, stand-out characters, a 9/10 compared to FUSEs 7. Overstrike may have been able to stand up against Borderlands in the originality stakes and Team Fortress 2 in the character stakes. It also felt much more like other Insomniac games, like the Spryo series and the Ratchet and Clank series, rather than an EA game.

Compare here: the initial Overstrike trailer, vs the FUSE initial trailer.

The reasons behind these changes were almost entirely commercial: realism and violence  sell better in shooters than stylised graphics and clean deaths. Furthermore, the main reason for Overstrike losing its originality was to make it more like the games that known to be strong sellers. The characters were made more serious and less fun to fit the Alex Mason/ Marcus Fenix “anti-hero with a dark past” mould.

The game was changed from original to generic at least partly because fans can now directly talk to and challenge developers. Developers can still choose to take risks on originality, but they can also give in to what they know will sell, or what will avoid angering a hair-trigger fanbase. Yet the more developers choose to avoid risks, the more potentially brilliant games like Overstrike will be lost.

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