By Ethan Gach
If you were to walk into the bathroom in my apartment right now, you’d see a bottle of soap by the sink. The brand is Dial, it’s antibacterial, and the smell reminds me of washing my hands in elementary school. The bottle also has “25% more!” soap than before, at least according to Dial’s label. That extra quarter of hand soap? That’s free soap. A “bonus” if you will. Am I entitled to it? No. After all, the company has presumably bestowed this bounty upon I, the consumer, out of a gesture of goodwill, a desire to build the brand’s image, increase consumer loyalty, and generally increase sales.
The 25% additional soap is by definition something that I’m not entitled to. The company promised me a certain amount of soap, with certain hygienic properties, at a certain agreed upon price. And then they gave me even more (presumably)!
Now, if you were to walk into my living room and over to the coffee table, you’d see the Xbox 360 case for Mass Effect 3. Unlike my tincture of antibacterial Dial, however, Mass Effect 3’s case doesn’t say “25% more!” anywhere. But it also doesn’t say “25% less!” When I originally purchased the game, I (presumably) received the entirety of what was promised, though in this case the “bonus” would be sold separately as the “From Ashes” day one DLC; not quite the same as Dial’s “25% more!” but then video game content is also a bit more expensive than hand soap.
But the question that haunts any vigilant consumer still remains: did I get everything that was promised to me? Is the Mass Effect 3 sitting before me encased in translucent green plastic really the “entire” Mass Effect 3 experience, the one I had come to expect after weeks, months, even years of marketing and PR campaigns?
Because a funny thing happened on the way to the Citadel. Many fans didn’t like what they saw when they got there, and a whole lot more felt like they had missed something–or that it had intentionally been kept from them–along the way.
While much of the controversy surrounding BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 was part of a slow burn, something building in recent years, and perhaps ever since the company’s initial sale to EA, it’s only been in the last month that discontent reached its fever pitch.
Much of the unease over the trilogy’s finale started with EA’s decision to release day one DLC, “From Ashes,” in which players can add a Prothean to their squad, embark on its character specific mission, and learn more about the ancient, once thought extinct, species. While some thought this bit of leaked news a spoiler, it was easy for many, myself included, to write it off as a well employed teaser. What was not easy was discerning how integral to the story this piece of DLC would be, or how pure EA’s intentions were in releasing it separately, on day one of the game’s release, rather than including it with the original game–or at the very least, with every pre-order (rather than just the Collector’s Edition).
Whether or not consumers were purchasing the game in its entirety hinged completely on answers to the above question. Of course, these things could never be known with certainty. Some critics claimed that the information discovered in the DLC would only be deemed necessary by “fanatics.” Casey Hudson, Mass Effect 3’s executive producer, further called “From Ashes” “sugar on top, the extra,” to help reinforce the notion that nothing had been stripped from Mass Effect 3, but had rather been added as optional content available for $10.
And when allegations from multiple sources surfaced that the game had shipped with “From Ashes” already on the disc, EA was quick to respond, noting in an official statement that, “As stated previously, in order to seamlessly integrate Javik into the core campaign, certain framework elements and character models needed to be put on disc. We did something similar with Zaeed and Kasumi in Mass Effect 2.”
What seems clear out of all of this though is that “From Ashes” had been conceived of early on, even if it was not completed until after the game was. Furthermore, even if BioWare worked on the day one DLC primarily after the “core” game had been sent for bug-fixing, certification, and shipment, that doesn’t change the fact that in addition to being conceived of along with the rest of the story and gameplay, the material was complete in time for BioWare to offer it free as a day one patch, or via redeemable codes given along with the game at the time of purchase if they chose to. BioWare even defended the day one DLC on the grounds that they wanted willing consumers to be able to experience the “extra” content alongside the main story and quests, rather than only afterward.
And despite statements from BioWare that the game was complete right out of the box, and that “From Ashes” was more of a narrative afterthought than anything else, others have argued that the information and gameplay made available in it are indeed integral to how one understands the Mass Effect universe and the events taking place in it.
This is exactly how Game Informer’s Joe Juba described “From Ashes”:
“It’s a shame that most gamers (or at least those who didn’t buy the Collector’s Edition) have to pay for this content, because Javik illuminates a previously dark corner in the Mass Effect mythology. After talking to him, my perception of the Protheans completely changed… I don’t like the idea of making fans pay for story content that is so crucial to understanding a game’s universe, as I believe From Ashes is. If you don’t pay the $10 for this content, you’ll be missing out …”
And this is the all-important backdrop against which recent consumer protests of Mass Effect 3’s ending have occurred. Even more dramatic than reactions to “From Ashes,” consumers upset and dissatisfied with Mass Effect 3’s ending set up petitions for BioWare to create an alternative one. For weeks leading up to its release, those who worked on Mass Effect 3 defended its DLC by claiming, among other things, that it made “bonus” content available to interested consumers, explored interesting Mass Effect lore that players would not otherwise get to experience, and had been worked “extra hard” to get it done by the release date, and as a direct result of how much people enjoyed the Mass Effect 2 DLC.
Now, many people who had purchased the game and completed it felt “kick[ed] in the teeth” by the game’s ending; certainly, this is how Forbes’ David Thier explained it, because despite how integral “choice” was to the Mass Effect franchise, “choices don’t seem to matter much in the end.” Of the petitions asking BioWare for an alternative ending, one even succeeded in raising tens of thousands of dollars for a children’s charity. The reason for this altruism was, “to dispel the perception that we are angry or entitled,” as many in the gaming media and public had referred to those demanding a new ending from BioWare.
Because in perhaps the most bizarre development regarding the uneasy relationship between those who bought Mass Effect 3, and those who produced it: several prominent voices in the enthusiast gaming press belittled and dismissed everyone who was dissatisfied with Mass Effect 3’s ending and wanted BioWare to amend it.
I don’t know what is more peculiar: the gusto and fervor with which much of the gaming media rejected the validity of consumer complaints, or the accusations that frustrated “gamers” were acting ridiculously “entitled.” But while the first phenomenon will remain puzzling for establishment outsiders, the second one is more easily explained.
It is highly unusual for professional writers to misuse words. But even if we consider this instance an exception, it is a highly insightful one. Because it demonstrates to what degree a particularly destructive view of human relations has perverted our language.
To be “entitled” is to have a right to something. I might be entitled to vote, and thus have a legal right to take part in my county’s elections. Or I might be entitled to hate someone who has done something particularly mean or spiteful to me, as when things like, “you have every right to hate me,” are uttered in everyday speech. Voting may be a political or legal right, but hating or never speaking to someone who has done me harm is a social or cultural right. It is not enforced by the police or the courts, but rather by community standards of decency and what we owe one another as human beings.
What all of these uses of “entitled” have in common though is their positive connotation. In none of these contexts would we think of the person who is “entitled” as spoiled, and yet that is the new way in which the phrase is being used to punish uppity consumers. At bottom, entitlement is about what one deserves and what they are owed. In the case of “entitlement reform,” those who use that euphemism to describe cutting Social Security and Medicare do so because they believe that older people should not expect to be taken care of medically and financially in their old age.
In the context of Mass Effect 3, calling consumers “entitled” for demanding an alternative ending is to argue that they do not deserve one, and should not expect it. At one point in time I might have agreed. But certainly not now, and especially not with regard to Mass Effect 3. And perhaps no one else explains more clearly why this is so than the game’s own executive producer.
Prior to the game’s release, Hudson was of the opinion that, “people are going to get what they want out of Mass Effect 3.” Indeed, fans he noted would, “get all the things they’re looking for out of the experience.” But the prescient Hudson went even further, as if he knew the very depths of his customer’s souls, “Fans want to make sure that they see things resolved, they want to get some closure, a great ending. I think they’re going to get that.”
What about the player’s role with regard to Mass Effect 3’s ending? Hudson had a response to this as well (emphasis mine), “Mass Effect 3 is all about answering all the biggest questions in the lore, learning about the mysteries and the Protheans and the Reapers, being able to decide for yourself how all of these things come to an end.”
But just in case some people are still unsure as to how seriously BioWare takes players reactions and ultimate experience with their product, Hudson went on, “There are lots of fans who are super excited, and understandably, they’re really worried about whether they’re going to get the full experience that they want and the ending that they want. And so we just need people to get to March 6 and be able to play it. Then they’ll realize that we’ve put our hearts and souls into making this game everything that the fans want it to be.”
But no, seriously, says Hudson, BioWare loves its fans and, “want[s] to make sure that they get what they want out of [Mass Effect 3].” In fact, the company relies so much on consumer feedback that it considers its fans “co-creators.”
All of this is reinforced by Hudson’s remarks post-release, in which, though he was unapologetic about the game’s ending, he reiterated that, “we pay very close attention to [fan reactions]. It’s very important to us and we will always listen to feedback, interpret it and try and do the right thing by our fans.”
As a result, it’s extremely difficult to maintain that consumers demanding a different ending to their co-created franchise are being at all unreasonable. Perhaps there is actually nothing wrong with the ending. Maybe when all is said and done, it will turn out to be more popular than not. But in either case it should remain evident that no one is being unusually unreasonable or “entitled” to simply lobby for an alternative ending; an optional one. The very arguments defending “From Ashes” demonstrate this.
To the degree that anyone subscribes to the “pernicious myth of the entitled gamer,” they should blame it not on the consumers who buy video games with certain expectations in mind, but the developers and publishers who created them.
The reality of digital distribution, consumer interactivity, and new media marketing is that most media have changed from discrete products into indefinite services. Video games are no different and are in fact leading the charge. Sales models predicated on DLC, micro-transactions, and free-to-play are only partly responsible for the new games-as-service mentality. Viral marketing campaigns, community forums, and interaction on Twitter and Facebook also contribute to it.
In the end, the new video game environment might seem like an evolution of traditional merchandizing techniques, rather than a fundamental transformation, but the message to consumers is clear either way: your relationship to the publisher and developer extends far beyond the short financial transaction that occurs over the counter or with the click of a button.
To my mind, to disparagingly call those consumers who are petitioning BioWare for a new ending “entitled” is not only extreme, but misguided. It fundamentally misunderstands the business relationship that gaming companies have actively sought to foster with their customers. Companies like EA expect consumers to spend extra money for content that is arguably part of the “core” gameplay experience. Why shouldn’t consumers seek to shape the kinds of DLC that are released in response? For while some are arguing that frustrated consumers are asking BioWare to sacrifice its creative vision and authorial integrity, the truth is that most video games already did that a long time ago, and of their own accord.
The auteur video game developer, if he or she ever existed, is all but dead. When it comes to AAA titles, especially outside of Japan, sales data and consumer feedback might not be the foundation upon which these games are built, but they are the laws that govern their construction. After all, how could a unified creative vision exist when consumers are “co-producers” and player choice constrains narrative, let alone survive the rigorous focus-grouping and market testing that come with development budgets in the hundreds of millions? The answer is: it can’t. And people looking for that kind of purity should take solace in the burgeoning indie scene and success of titles like Braid and Bastion. Because Mass Effect 3 isn’t Journey and it never could have been. The so-called “entitled” consumers realize this. It’s about time the rest of us did as well.