Tuesday, March 13, 2012

From Ashes and the On-Disc Dilemma

To what degree do customers have ownership over a game's content?  This is the fundamental question that has made its way to the surface after the recent controversy surrounding the day-one downloadable content, "From Ashes", present in EA and BioWare's Mass Effect 3.  Featuring a Prothean squadmate and a separate in-game mission, players who don't buy the Collector's Edition will have to pay $10 to experience what many consider is a fundamental part of the game universe, and one that some players posit was intended for the final product from the start, and later removed.

Although day-one DLC discussion is definitely not a new thing, and not even to BioWare's own games (it goes as far back as Dragon Age: Origins), the anger surrounding Mass Effect 3's is made more significant by the context and content of the DLC.  In this article, I'll be taking a look at both sides of the discussion - and while I feel consensus on the matter is impossible (and, perhaps, futile), I think it's an important issue that draws attention to some very important questions about public relations and player authorship.

Who Owns My Story?

At the center of the controversy is this question - who owns my story?  Mass Effect, from the first game forward, made its mark by giving players a cinematic, film-like experience regardless of the decisions made in the story.  Although offering less choice and consequence than many other games, Mass Effect made up for it in style, by featuring characters and a world which reacted to the player's tone and methods.  Choice is at the core of Mass Effect, both in its marketing and in its game mechanics, right down to its multiple character classes, weapon types, and its morality system that defines many of the game's interactions and outcomes.

Rightly so, players feel that they should be in control of the game's story - if not its overall direction, then the tone it takes and the individual details.  Questions of whether the ends justify the means are common, and this moral grey makes Mass Effect both interesting and personal to players.  "Did I save the colonists of a planet, or kill them knowing that their sacrifice could enable the success of a larger cause?"or "Is revenge or atonement the more important virtue?" are the sorts of problems that make Mass Effect leave its mark on players, and vice versa.

Mass Effect encourages authorship of players over game experience to a degree not seen in most modern games.
Bringing DLC into this equation raises all sorts of additional questions about ownership, and creates more problems on a technical side for designers as well.  Players expect the DLC of a Mass Effect game to be narratively charged, and important to the main quest, but for ease of development, these story excerpts have to be self-contained at the same time.  This has worked to reasonable degrees of success - Mass Effect 2's "Lair of the Shadow Broker" add-on continued the story past the second game in a believable way, but Mass Effect's "Pinnacle Station" met a cold reception as it was effectively a set of arena fights without any meaningful place in the story (or much story on its own for that matter).  Reconciling the discrepancy this introduces can be difficult, because players have a different game experience and may have different degrees of understanding about the game universe - not only does this mean more exposition is needed, but in the case of consequences to decisions, it also means additional work is necessary to create follow-ups that make sense for players who have played the DLC and those who haven't.  In other words, it's a mess.

Mass Effect 3's "From Ashes" DLC is different, though.  It's tied more into the game's story than any prior DLC, and players who miss out on it don't just feel like they're missing out on some gameplay, they feel like they're losing a key piece of the narrative integral to understanding the situation.  Given that the new Prothean companion is a character whose very presence is a huge deal to the game's story and universe, many fans perceived this DLC as damaging not just in terms of value, but in terms of their personal stories being told as well.  This is the fundamental disconnect that EA have with their fans, and the major source of the conflict - whereas EA see it as simply another commodity to be bought and sold, fans interpret "From Ashes" as a sucker-punch because of the dozens of hours of gameplay and emotions they have invested with the Mass Effect franchise.

Truth & Lies

This actually isn't the biggest problem with "From Ashes", however.  Although day-one DLC is something many players object to, it's a reality in the gaming world for major releases, and after both Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 featured it, players certainly can't be surprised at it being offered in Mass Effect 3.  Where the real issue comes in is in EA's and BioWare's handling of the situation, which I suspect has not only hurt Mass Effect's brand image as a whole, it's also turned some players away from BioWare games entirely.

The first signs of controversy came when the Mass Effect 3 demo's files were found to contain dialogue and other assets related to, what fans correctly surmised was, a Prothean squadmate.  Further confirmation came in the form of leaked pictures from the official art book shipping with the Collector's Edition of the game.  Shortly after news of a "From Dust" DLC pack on Xbox LIVE came out, the "From Ashes" DLC was announced.  Fans very quickly put the pieces together and determined that the Prothean companion had been intended for the full game from the start, and had been later removed both as incentive for the higher-priced Collector's Edition and to be added as DLC.

BioWare's response was swift and to the point - first, producer Michael Gamble posted on BioWare's forums that the DLC was "developed by a separate team (after the core game was finished) and not completed until well after the main game went into certification", and afterwards, creative director Casey Hudson tweeted about how the "From Ashes" DLC went into development after the core game experience.  At least for now, it seemed clear - the DLC was not on-disc and it was not part of the core Mass Effect 3 experience, nor was it even in production during the same time period, although the statements carefully avoid saying whether the content was DLC from the beginning.

Whether or not it was originally intended as DLC, the marketing was kicked into effect well before the game's launch.
However, shortly after the game's release, fans went looking through the game's files, without the DLC having been installed, and discovered that, through a simple INI tweak, the Prothean squadmate could be unlocked for use in the game, complete with portions of dialogue and his full power set.  While this tweak did not open up the possibility of using the character in plot-oriented situations, nor did it station him aboard the player's ship like the rest of the game's characters, it did show that at least some of the core game assets related to the DLC were included on-disc.  Fans who did download "From Ashes" also realized that the Prothean character was far more integrated into the story, cutscenes and dialogue sequences than they expected, especially next to the downloadable Mass Effect 2 characters from a couple of years back.  In short, not only was this compelling evidence that the DLC was at least in part on-disc, it also caught EA and BioWare in what many perceived as a bold-faced lie.

EA and BioWare were forced to amend their original statements in light of this.  An official statement was made explaining that, in order to "seamlessly integrate Javik into the core campaign, certain framework elements and character models needed to be put on disc."  The statement also reinforced that the DLC was a sizeable download in itself and that much of the content, from the DLC's exclusive mission to dialogue and cutscenes, were not part of the game files.  To what extent this "framework" and other assets were, or whether content was designed as DLC or stripped out of the core experience, remains unclear, but it's fair to say that "From Ashes" is not "on-disc DLC" in the traditional sense - otherwise a simple unlock code, a few bytes in size, would be enough to unlock it.

What this revealed, and what did most of the damage with fans, was that BioWare were not completely up-front about "From Ashes" from the start.  Due to the vagueness of the original statements, as well as the incriminating evidence produced by fans in the form of the INI tweak, BioWare's amended statement unintentionally revealed that their first words on the matter had been inaccurate, and, in the eyes of fans, that was enough to make BioWare look deceptive.  For players whose relationship with BioWare and Mass Effect has been years long, however, the message is a tough one to hear, as realistic as it is - that BioWare care more about making money than they do about ensuring players receive their complete game and story experience.

The On-Disc Dilemma

This isn't the first time that players have been up in arms about day-one DLC.  BioShock 2's "Sinclair Solutions" DLC pack came under fire two years ago after it was discovered by fans that the DLC itself was only 24 KB - effectively proving that the game content was included on the disc all along, and other games, from Soulcalibur IV to Burnout Paradise have also been criticized.  The reasons for this often come down to multiplayer compatibility, but either way the message sent to fans is that what you see is not always what you get.

On-disc DLC is actually quite defensible from a developer's standpoint.  Since game content is produced in a haphazard manner, with game assets coming online at unpredictable stages of development, and, much like with traditional art, often no clear line when something is actually "done", directly pointing at a piece of content and saying it should be part of the core experience or not is not so cut-and-dried a question as "is it on the disc?"  Much like in the "From Ashes" case, maybe the ideas existed in advance but were taken out for one reason or another, or perhaps there just wasn't enough time to finish up some of the content - game discs are often stuffed full of cut content, so where do you draw the line?
BioWare did not help their situation by insisting accessing on-disc content via INI tweaks was equivalent to piracy.
The fans' perspective is certainly a different one.  Development is largely viewed as being a straight line, start to finish, and intentional from the beginning.  Once the game is on shelves, there is an expectation that the product be a complete vision of what the developers intended, even though in reality that is almost never the case.  The different phases of game development are often invisible to the gaming public, due in part to a lack of transparency in public relations, and as such there is the perception that game content is fixed and absolute.  This is reinforced by the physical nature of the medium dating back to cartridge days, where what you saw was literally what you got.

There is really no good way to reconcile the realities of development with the expectations of fans.  There are always going to be a few players who have very high expectations for game content that simply can't be met, and these players are going to feel betrayed no matter what a developer does - especially if they're looking for reasons to be angry (which also likely factors into some of the outrage around Mass Effect 3's DLC).  However, coupled with other public relations gaffes by EA and BioWare, including the personal attacks towards Jennifer Hepler, censorship of their online forums, and The Old Republic's mysterious vanishing unsubscribe button, the handling of the "From Ashes" controversy was also far from ideal.  BioWare may not be in the wrong with including on-disc DLC, but it's clear that their treatment of various controversies has not come across as especially honest or in the interests of their fans.

Closing Thoughts

I'm not about to pass judgement on BioWare or on any individuals involved in the events - this isn't a problem where blame can be easily placed on a single person or group.  The reality is that it is a sign of trends within the games industry that have been developing for the last several years, and in many ways have come to a head now that such a high-profile release has been brought into the spotlight.  I think both sides have a good point, but it's also indicative of the dissonance between the authorship players have over their experiences and the business of making and selling games.  EA, I hope will discover through these discussions, that they simply can't market a game like Mass Effect the same way they market Battlefield 3.

I think a more productive question to address isn't whether or not players own content that is on-disc, but rather whether developers should exploit the emotional attachment and sense of authorship players have over their game experiences in order to produce DLC.  The "From Ashes" pack is better-integrated with the story than any prior BioWare DLC, but in doing so they also alienate fans by making the content feel necessary rather than optional.  Unintentionally or not, this also suggests that the emotional value of a game experience hinges on the amount of money players are willing to spend.  As a company whose business is getting players emotionally invested in their stories, characters and worlds, BioWare will need to seriously re-assess the messages they're sending to fans through the content they're producing, and how they offer it.

3 comments:

  1. Grat article - very professional and fair-minded. Why not post it on Gamasutra, like the ones before this one?

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  2. Thanks! I did post it there, but they seemed to be having technical problems that prevented me from publishing it there. It's up now.

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  3. Sort of related - not having played any of the ME series, I've been sitting on the sidelines watching the furor erupt around the ending. There's apparently a theory that Sheppard has been indoctrinated (brainwashed?) by the baddies and the ending is a hallucination. Summed up here: http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/bt/aj/topreasons/34653-me3-indoctrination-theory-a-dlc

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