Selling Out

Mass Effect 3 is what happens when developers and publishers sell out.

The game was destined to be a platinum seller based on its compelling narrative alone. We are all heavily invested in the Commander Shepard that we’ve created over the course of two games, and we’re dying to see how the story comes to an end. The solid gameplay of the second game just sweetened the pot, as we all knew that Bioware could only improve on what was already great. Who knew that those improvements would pretty much just be a multiplayer mode that no one wanted, as well as two extra single-player modes–one that automates the decision-making process so illiterate gamers can shoot more often, and another where the difficulty is drastically lowered so gamers can focus completely on the story.

This is just the latest incidence of a trend where a game is judged by its publisher or developers to be not good enough to stand on its own merits, and so it is either watered down or saddled with extra fluff to appeal to a wider audience. Seriously, did we need multiplayer in Bioshock or Grand Theft Auto? Did the mechanics in Dragon Age really need to be completely reworked to be more “action-y”? Were the changes to end-game PvE in World of Warcraft so essential?

It’s not too hard to see why game companies would want to go for mass appeal–mo’ money, mo’ money. The question is, does a game need to be significantly altered from its original iteration in order to attain this mass appeal? The easy answer is a resounding “no,” at least for those games that are multiplayer focused, like shooters, sports, and strategy games. In the realm of single-player games however, there are far fewer examples of blockbusters. There are the holy trinity of Nintendo franchises–Mario, Zelda, and Metroid–but these have the benefit of a 25-year legacy backing them up; if they were new IPs launching today, I seriously doubt those games would see nearly as much commercial success. Beyond that, there are a few standouts like Fallout and Skyrim… but more commonly single-player games end up being good but not amazing sellers.

And so, we get the sellout titles. Funny thing is, only rarely if ever does “selling out” actually lead to increased sales. It didn’t help Bioshock 2, or Dragon Age 2, or Assassin’s Creed Revelations, or Metroid Prime Hunters, or… someone got an exception here? So why bother? Why waste the development time and resources on these changes and additions that don’t make the game better, but don’t actually improve the bottom line either?

I have no idea. And maybe that’s why I don’t work in the games industry.

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