Why Bioware is Hated, and How They can Redeem Themselves
Suffice it to say, I have played a good number of video games in my time. Some of them are great. Others... leeeesss...
I've asked myself why that is. How hard can it really be to make a great game? I mean, games, at their core, are structured play. All you do, then, is create a form of play, give it some structure, make whatever assets you need, make sure it all runs smoothly, and bam. Good game.
So how is it, then, that we end up getting games like Dragon Age II?
First, what I said above is missing a lot of crucial detail. Okay, sure, you have to make the assets consistent, you have to make sure that the game is best suited to the genre it's in, have a good story or music if applicable, and stuff like that, but none of that is particularly hard to do. Hire good writers, composers, designers, and artists. Make sure that the team leadership is strong, and keep communication problems down to a minimum. Don't leave people over- or under-worked.
But... even then, even if you get all of this right, you can still end up with a bad game. Something must have happened early on in the game's development, some root problem. Why do people love Skyrim, which is buggy and has, by many accounts, a fairly boring story with uninteresting characters? Why do people complain so heavily about Diablo III? Why the love for the bitchingly-hard Dark Souls, which features the almost-unplayable Blighttown, or the complaints about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which is a major first-party Nintendo game?
I think it all boils down to respect.
Asking anyone to spend $60+ on a product is a pricey gamble--and it's because this gamble doesn't always pay off that so many studios have fallen by the wayside this generation. On top of that, developers are asking people to spend their time playing these games. If someone spends $60 on a game, then the game had better be worth it.
So... what happens when people get a game that treats them as though they're mentally deficient? What happens when the game gives you an option, but then says "oh, no, you can't choose that." Dragon Age 2 did that a lot, and it really frustrated me, particularly considering that Dragon Age: Origins, my most-played video game on Steam, seemed to offer me a lot of respect.
So, recently, I took to Twitter to ask the guy in charge of Dragon Age 3, and former lead designer of Dragon Age 2, Mike Laidlaw, if Dragon Age 3 would be anything like Origins. He replied, asking me what I meant, so I replied back with this, which I originally posted in Pastebin:
When I said "DAO-like," what I meant was a game that seemed to value its players. Lots of really successful games (GTA, Skyrim, Diablo, etc) do this, through story choices, extensive customization, or what have you. In DAO's case, you could customize not only yourself extensively (through various origins and even your name), but your party members. You could make some pretty far-reaching story choices as well, such as upsetting party members to the point where you would have to fight them to the death. One thing I loved about DAO was that I didn't experience all it had to offer in one playthrough, so I kept coming back for more. It's one of my most-played games of all time because of this.
DAO seemed to say "Hi! Welcome! Let's have a fun time together, alright?" When I made choices, DAO listened. It respected me.
You might have heard Cliff Bleszinski talk about the best games being the ones where players could share their experiences. DAO was definitely one of those games. There was so much for players to talk about! I could say "hey, I did..." and another could be all "Really? Well, I..." We each had our own unique anecdotes about the game to share, and that was the root of its success. While the forum fandoms may talk about the memorable characters and stories, the game's real success was always in the way it treated the character. You can have memorable characters and stories, but players interact with games, so they expect that interaction to have some form of meaning. Without meaning in interaction, people get upset.
Not being like this was the root of many the complaints about Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3. In DA2, for instance, when I took a mirror-fixing item from the elf girl (sorry, but I don't remember her name), she fixed the mirror anyways. When I said "screw you guys, this wizard/knight debate is something I don't want to be involved in," I was told "you can't do that! now choose!" and I was returned to the same dialog menu, sans "I'm out" option. Leliana was dead, regardless of whether I had killed her or not in DAO. Nothing I did mattered, and as such, I had a hard time accepting that I was supposed to be some great big hero like the game told me, because I didn't really have to do anything to be a hero. I was a hero regardless of what I did.
To put it bluntly: DA2 didn't seem to respect me at all.
So: will Dragon Age 3 be DAO-like? Will it respect me as a player? Because I'll buy that on day one, and, just like DAO, I'll encourage every single one of my friends to pick it up. I can't say I'm interested in another DA2 or ME3.
Remember the big Mass Effect 3 brouhaha?
What were people mad about?
Well, I was mad about how slowly you had to walk through the last level. Deus Ex: Human Revolution let you choose between three buttons that were right next to each other. Mass Effect 3 had you limping! LIMPING!
Most people, however, were mad about something else. Mass Effect, you see, had originally been advertised as this game that would be heavily impacted by player choice. It was, after all, a role-playing game, and being able to make choices that affect the world around you is one of the defining elements of an RPG. If you can't do that, then your game isn't an RPG. It's such a simple thing: to be a role-playing game, players must be able to role-play. That's all there is to it. Let them improvise, being the character they want to be. Role-playing game. Bam.
...but Bioware couldn't leave well-enough alone. They had to go ahead and force players into some specific ending. They had to limit players. They had to tell the players that, no, their choices, their time, and their money didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was what Bioware wanted.
Rightfully, that upset people. Bioware displayed an incredibly irresponsible disregard for their fans and customers. In one stroke, they decided that the people who had supported them for years simply weren't relevant to the franchise.
Bioware could be great, but they've chosen not to be. Instead, they've chosen to listen to their sycophantic and downright creepy slash fic fandom. They've decided that they want to tackle the Call of Duty market.
Bioware has a shot at redemption, here. Mike Laidlaw responded to my tweet. Since the game's still not officially announced or anything, he had to be guarded, but he did offer this one tidbit:
Player Agency is one of my top 3 things we're taking a long, hard look at, so likely, yes.
Devs, respect your customers. Your game can be anything you want it to be, but if you don't respect the people who gave you money for your product, to quote author Warren Ellis, "you aren't worth two tugs of a dead dog's cock."
The best games are the ones that respect their players--that welcome into the gameplay experience. Dark Souls and STALKER assume you are good at video games. Skyrim reveres your ability to explore. Halo not only provides choices, but a massive sandbox of weapons, tools, and enemy types to make each gameplay experience a new one. Max Payne 1 and 2 took only a few seconds of control away from the player.
When you treat players like toddlers byreexplaining how to do everything in minute detail, you fail to respect your audience. When you make cutscenes out of things that should be gameplay, you say "hey, gamers, 'scuse me while I kiss the awesome," you prove yourself inconsiderate. When you take control of cameras and say "hey, stop playing and let me show you something," you move into straight-up disrespectful territory. When you decide to ignore the choices they've made in the story, you destroy all confidence they have in you.
Respect the player. That is the most important part of any video game.