In the business of big game development, there is a very thin line between games that are great and those that are generic. This is apparent when evaluating the qualities of mega-blockbuster Mass Effect 3. While lauded as one the greatest games of its generation, Mass Effect 3’s weaknesses show that the distance between amazing and average isn’t that far. One game’s lucky gamble is another’s stupid gimmick.
Playing games these days leads to a frequent feeling of deja vu. This becomes even more apparent while playing shooters. Like the platforming boom in the NES era, developers of shooters continually borrow gameplay elements and innovations from one another. From a business sense it’s understandable. The safe financial bet is to develop a game exactly like a successful blockbuster. This applies to sequels copying the formula of its predecessor as well as a developer copying the success of a competitor. It just makes sense when a company invests $50 million into a game that the developers and publishers need to limit their financial risks. That deja vu feeling has existed since origins of commerce and isn’t going away anytime soon.
Especially fascinating to examine is what separates the big blockbusters from their copycats. Some might argue that the only thing that separates a hit game like Mass Effect 3 and Syndicate is an advertising campaign. It’s impossible to argue against the substantial effect of a $30 million advertising campaign on the conscious and subconscious of our consumer culture. While this gap is an important topic to explore in-depth, that is not what makes Mass Effect 3’s success so unique. Big budget ad campaigns aren’t exactly a rare occurrence.
The most distinct separation between a game like Mass Effect 3 and the copycats is the developer’s focus on storytelling. Mass Effect 3 is not just paint-by-numbers space marine saving the universe tripe. No, we’re seeing true character development, meaningful relationships, and tragic outcomes elevate this game from the generic to a uniquely quantifiable piece of art. Nevermind the gameplay has been done better in other games. Forget that while Mass Effect 3 has epic graphics, everything seems hidden behind a veneer of black, light bloom, and a conservative palette. Mass Effect 3 coasts on the simple idea that story matters above all else.
What makes this even more interesting is the resulting elephant in the room. The simple fact of the matter is that a majority of gamers despise the ending of this game. I am not sharing with you something that you don’t already know. We’re talking about a game that has generated millions of dollars of revenue, yet has left many of its consumers mad as hell about their investment.
Nevertheless, BioWare’s focus on storytelling pays off in the most effective of ways. While it’s impressive that BioWare engages players with unique relationship paradigms rarely seen in mainstream games, it’s the developer’s use of “Choose Your Own Adventure” dynamics that pays off. The developer crafted a decision making engine that subtly connects every player with the intricacies of the story. While other games have cutscenes that are easily ignored or skipped, BioWare makes brilliant use of them in Mass Effect. They don’t let the gamer ignore the story. In fact, they probably turned off some gamers just interested in run-and-shoot mayhem. The central game design of the dialog wheel, for example, is brilliant and one the most important innovations of this generation.
There’s not much that separates blockbuster games from the run of the mill garbage shoveled out week to week. Fortunately, at least in the case of Mass Effect, that which causes this separation can be the most invaluable part of the game. Don’t worry friend, soon enough every game will have a dialog wheel and we’ll have to search for another innovation to drool over.