The gaming community's revolt against the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 has compelling implications for the future of storytelling.
On March 6, Bioware released Mass Effect 3, the final game in a science-fiction trilogy. A commercial success, the game shipped 3.5 million copies within its first week and received numerous positive reviews based on early impressions.
Then players—many of whom have been playing the series since its launch in 2007—began finishing the game. The series finale, the capstone to what for many players is over 100 hours of play building a single character across the three games, is a dud: while critics praise the game itself, the ending is viewed as incomplete, ill-explained, and thematically inconsistent with the rest of the series. As a reviewer on Forbes put it, the finale was a "kick in the teeth."
Plenty of popular series have ended with controversy; the phenomenon is not limited to video games. The finales to Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and The Sopranos drew considerable amounts of criticism. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had similar issues with Sherlock Holmes. After killing the eponymous character off in The Final Problem, fans of the series were sufficiently upset that Doyle brought Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House—nearly a decade after Problem's publication.
The protest movement, Retake Mass Effect, has a chance of succeeding. The group itself has experienced viral growth (per Facebook Insights, over 230 percent growth in "likes" over a single week) and has managed to paint itself in a positive light by donating a significant amount of money to charity whether or not the ending is rewritten. To date, more than $70,000 has already been donated to a charity, Child's Play, which provides toys and games to hospitalized children. Bioware employees have communicated via Twitter and their company forums that they are "listening" to fans and have not ruled out the possibility of a rewrite. Between the viral growth of the movement and the positive message of donating regardless of outcome, early indications are that Retake has done an excellent job of positioning itself for a win.
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The implications of a win—a rewrite of the game's ending—are largely unprecedented. Given the unique nature of the medium, the rewrite could be pushed out digitally as downloadable content, or "DLC." DLC acts as a patch, updating or appending the existing game files to provide new content, improve old content, and fix software bugs. Mass Effect 2 relied heavily on DLC, requiring purchase for at least nine DLCs on top of the base software. Mass Effect 3 continues this trend, launching with release-day DLC priced at ten dollars. Bioware's publisher, Electronic Arts, projects 42 percent growth in digital goods (as opposed to packaged goods such as physical game discs) in fiscal year 2012, and DLC makes up no small part of that growth. Because the existing ending limits the scope of DLC Bioware could conceivably leverage for additional revenue, a rewrite seems logical from a financial standpoint.