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There has been an awful lot of commotion about Mass Effect 3's ending in the gaming community these past several weeks. Meant to cleanly wrap up the revered space opera trilogy and the story of the beloved Commander Shepherd, ME3 has thus far succeeded only in arousing the ire of fans. All the anger isn't without justification; ME3 sports one of the tritest, most unsatisfying endings ever seen—a true travesty for a series normally known for its exceptional writing and storytelling. Worse, the ending appears to break with much of the series' established lore and more or less completely discards players' choices up to that point despite promises from BioWare that it would be unique based on how one chose to play the series. Under enormous pressure, BioWare recently folded and agreed to "revisit" the ending in order to placate its ardent fans, although this has angered the more artistically minded gamers out there who believe that a game's ending should be final. As for me, I side with BioWare's decision. Let me explain.
I've includedone of the "best" endings above and aquick internet search will turn up an absolute plethora of reasons that gamers disliked Mass Effect 3's conclusion, so I won't waste time getting into the nitty gritty of exactly why it was so bad. However, those who have seen the ending or done any amount of research on it will find it relatively easy to understand why it got so many devoted Mass Effect fans riled up. A few mysterious plot holes here or there could have led to years of fun internet speculation, but BioWare took things too far into the realm of ambiguity and fans were quick to point that out. Still, there are those in the gaming community that BioWare should leave the ending as it is, unsatisfying though it may be. The most frequently used argument for this point of view is that of "artisitic integrity." While no solid defintion of the term really exists, it appears that "artistic integrity" is the refusal to change part of one's art just to appease one's fans. To do so, it seems to imply, would be to "sell out." On its face, this sounds pretty good. It's lofty, it's nebulous, and it seems like something one who truly loves art would value. But does it really make sense in the context of a game? No, I don't believe it does.
Art is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the concsious use of skill and imagination," so it would seem that games are art despite arguments to the contrary. However, they are not analogous to writing or photography or painting. Those things are often done simply for the love of them or with little purpose other than to convey a message or tell a static story. Games, by contrast, are an almost purely consumer-driven art form. Triple-A gaming titles are designed, developed, and published exclusively for one reason: profit. Sure, developers may pour their hearts and souls into a game and agonize over every detail and mechanic until it's all just right. Some may even work simply because they love creating fantastic products. When everything is taken as a whole, however, it's plain to see that game development studios fall squarely into the realm of commercial artists. Nobody out there is spending millions upon millions of dollars on massive gaming development projects solely because they want to convey a message or tell a story. More often than not, a piece of art is defined as much by the creative motives of its designers as it is by its finished state and, as such, it seems silly to apply the same standards to mass-market video games as one would to more "true" examples of artistic expression. If games are made to satisfy and thus profit from consumers, wouldn't it be fair to say that companies can and even should modify their products if it means continued commercial viability?
Another problem with the idea of "artistic integrity" in the case of ME3 is the general vagueness of the term itself. What does "artistic integrity" mean, anyway? Does it mean that no artist can ever alter their work after the fact? If so, that would seem to rule out post-release DLC, story-altering additions after the fact, and even patches. Of course, that simply doesn't make sense in the modern games industry. Perhaps the term means that a product can only be altered if it is flawed and needs to be corrected, but that opens up a whole other can of worms. Who decides what's flawed and what's not? Couldn't one say that ME3's ending is flawed, thus necessitating a change? There's a very thin line here between personal opinion and artistic fact, and I think that clearly shows that "artistic integrity" simply isn't very applicable in this particular case. The term is just too nebulous to be of any real use, especially when it is considered in the light of consumer-driven art like Mass Effect 3. Even beyond that, the usage of the term "artistic integrity" seems to contradict its own foundations. If an artist is meant to retain all control of their work as the notion of "artistic integrity" seems to imply, surely it is reasonable to say that they are free to alter and change their work at any time for any reason with or without the consent of their fans. "Artistic integrity" seems to imply that all power must rest with the creator, but it seems that forcing an artist to commit to never changing his work takes away his control and violates his "artistic integrity" every bit as much as forcing him to change it. In this case, BioWare has chosen to change their work in order to keep their fans—excuse me, customers—happy. I fail to see how there is anything wrong with that. It's the same thing any commercial artist would do if they wanted to continue being paid for their work.
The second major argument against an ending change in ME3 is often used in conjunction with the idea of "artistic integrity" and has to do with the precedent that such a move could set in the game industry. This argument holds that BioWare's so-called sellout will encourage other developers and publishers to attempt to release unfinished or inferior endings in order to charge people for them later. The problem is that the industry had been trending towards that point for years before Mass Effect 3 was release. Consider the constant sequels, episodic content, and DLC floods that dominate today's game market. Nearly every major game is part of a series, and nearly every entry in those series is concluded with a teaser or a straight-up cliffhanger, forcing you to purchase the next game in order to continue the story. Most titles also include their own DLC, much of which takes place after the main campaign has finished, thus providing "alternate" endings and new, important conclusions that players will miss without purchasing the content. I contend that the idea of paid-for ending DLC is merely an extension of the same principles that have been driving game franchises for the last ten years. Would I like to see it fully realized? No, not really. But the truth is that the industry is already moving that way, and without knowing whether or not BioWare plans to charge for the new ending content it seems a little unfair to lay an already mostly inevitable outcome at their doorstep simply for being the first. Even if we did, could any sensible gamer truly argue that they'd rather have an unsatisfying conclusion than shell out a few extra dollars? Remember, if the artists are to maintain complete control over their product then that necessarily includes the right to gouge consumers for it. Welcome to Planet Irony.
So clearly I don't agree with the reasoning in the two main arguments against ME3's new ending. However, I think there's actually evidence out there to support what BioWare is doing. Having new or alternate endings included in consumer-driven pieces of art is far from a new concept. Just look at gaming's closest cousin, film. Filmmakers have been filming, changing, and including alternate endings for many years now. It isn't uncommon for a movie to end one way in the United States and another way in Europe simply because focus groups indicated that each audience would receive the film better if the ending fit with their cultural contexts. Hell, most DVDs and Blu-Ray discs ship with multiple endings included. Some movies even include a default ending that is different from the one seen in theaters. All of this is done in the name of providing a better experience for customers, and I fail to see how BioWare's situation is any different. Sure, we're talking about a post-release outcry instead of a pre-release review panel, but the end result is the same: the audience will respond better to a different ending, so the ending must be changed. That's just simple business sense, and the frequency and number of "alternate" endings in film, a media format more or less universally acknowledged as an art form, once again illustrates the importance of maintaining relations with your consumer base as a commercial artist.
And that's the end of my rant. The bottom line: I'm proud of BioWare for doing the right thing and changing Mass Effect 3's awful ending. It would have been an outright tragedy for such a talented studio to commercially martyr itself in the name of something as nebulous and subjective as "artistic integrity." They've done what's best for them as a business and what's best for their fan base. As usual, those two things happen to be one and same in the world of video games, and I'm happy that BioWare has made the right call and killed two birds with one stone. I'll be waiting to post a full review of Mass Effect 3 until I've seen the "final" ending since I'd hate to have to slap such a great game with a score lower than it deserves simply because of a fumble at the one yard line. I only hope it winds up being the finale we were all hoping for.
These days it seems like there isn't a forum on the internet that isn't filled with angry gamers bashing the Call of Duty franchise. When a new shooter is released, the term "CoD clone" is essentially a kiss of death as it has slowly become synonymous with a lack of depth and overly user friendly gameplay. One would even be hard pressed to find a match on Black Ops in which someone isn't ranting and raving about how much they hate the game. It would seem, then, that a huge number of gamers out there detest the CoD franchise. Yet year after year, game after game, Call of Duty manages to outsell the competition by an almost embarrassing margin. As of November 2009, the series had sold over 55 million units worldwide, and that was before the release of Black Ops, a game that shattered the record set by Modern Warfare 2 for first day sales, selling more than 5.3 million copies in its first 24 hours on store shelves. As of this month, the game has sold 25 million copies just on its own. Obviously, there are a lot of gamers out there playing Call of Duty. So why the discrepancy between the general attitude towards the game and the sales numbers? What is it about the franchise that sells so many units? Well, let's take a look.
The first argument likely to be made by critics of the series is that it sells simply because of the name on the box. In other words, the game has garnered such enormous attention most people buy it simply because it's stamped with the Call of Duty label. There's little doubt in my mind that this is true in some cases. In games and electronics especially, many people simply want to say that they own and have tried the new "big thing." Where this argument gets muddy, though, is that it focuses solely on the effects of a huge franchise and not on the causes of those effects. It is true that Call of Duty has become a name that every gamer is familiar with regardless of whether or not they are casual or hardcore players, and it is also true that reputation alone can sell games. However, reputation has to be earned and familiarity rarely comes without something notable to ride on. Therefore, it's important that we examine the why side of the coin in determining whether or not Call of Duty deserves its place as the current king of games.
I contend, and I'm sure that there will be a great many people out there who are offended by this assertion, that Call of Duty is simply a better shooter than its competition. Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, though, let me explain why. The most basic differences between CoD and other shooters lie in the nuances of the games, not in the larger aspects like map design or multiplayer unlocks, though I will cover those later. First and foremost, the franchise is rock solid technically. Call of Duty is still the only FPS that I've played on a console that is able to run at a near perfect 60 frames per second with only very rare exceptions. Most console games have to sacrifice a little on the performance side in order to accommodate the fantastic graphics that gamers demand, and as a result they tend to run at between 30-40 frames per second on average. Granted, a heavily upgraded or custom PC could probably pull framerates in the upper 80s, but console sales make up the lion's share of CoD's sales, so we will focus on that. As most of you know, 60 frames per second is an extremely smooth framerate. It's so smooth, in fact, that it often makes switching between games like Battlefield: Bad Company (which runs right about at 30 frames per second) and Black Ops quite challenging. That super smooth performance allows everything in Call of Duty to animate in a much more fluid manner than it does in the competition's offerings. As a rough analogy, imagine making a sticky note pad flip book (don't act like you haven't done this, either) in which a man runs and jumps over a bench. Which would look better, the animation that fits on 30 sticky notes or the one that fits on 60 and can be flipped in the same amount of time? The added frames allow more fine detail to be included in each movement, resulting in a much more fluid and realistic looking experience. When it comes to competitive shooters, a fraction of a second can make a huge difference, so the more information you can pack into each unit of time, the better. Call of Duty manages to do just that, and it somehow manages to do so without sacrificing the excellent graphical quality that the series is known for. Great graphics and reliably excellent performance? Yes, please.
But Jim, you scream, who cares about framerate anyway? Most people don't even know what a frame is and couldn't really tell you the difference between 30 FPS and 60 FPS if they wanted to. This may be true, but even if someone can't recognize the underlying fundamentals of a well-tuned game, they can certainly see the end results. The first of these is the incredibly well designed CoD controls. It has long been known that a mouse and keyboard set-up is, in general, much more accurate than a twin analog controller. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if two equally skilled gamers were matched against one another, one using a keyboard and mouse and the other a gamepad, the mouse would win nearly every time. Call of Duty's remarkably smooth performance, however, has allowed developers to tweak the sensitivity of the sticks so finely that there are some truly impressive feats of accuracy and reaction in console matches. If you want an example, check out the file share of one of the world's top Black Ops players. More than any other shooter that I've experienced on a console, Call of Duty's controls do exactly what I want them to when I want them to do it. I never, ever feel as if the controls are lagging behind the input (as I frequently did while attempting to snipe in Bad Company and Bad Company 2), and with the inclusion of an almost undetectable aim assist system I feel confident in saying that CoD has just about perfected console shooter control this generation. Gamers love to feel completely in control of what they are doing onscreen, and with some practice Call of Duty allows that feeling to flourish far more than any other title can.
So, then, Call of Duty runs as smoothly as warm butter and has controls tighter than an ill-fitting pair of jeggings, but that's not all. It also boasts some of the most well balanced (with a few exceptions—looking at you, Vacant and Terminal) map design on the market and a great deal of freedom in choosing one's style of play on each map. If you really stop to look at most of the Call of Duty maps that we've seen up until this point, it's hard not to notice the thought that went into them. They are very clearly designed to flow in certain patterns, and this lends a certain amount of predictability to an otherwise chaotic experience. Everyone loves a little bit of "holy **** in their competitive shooters—you know, the kind of feeling you get when you hit a guy in the face with a tomahawk after it bounces off three different walls— but gamers also enjoy knowing, at least on some basic level, what to expect from each match. If you think about it, learning the ebbs and flows of any given board is really the only way to improve your game once you've become proficient with the controls. Without a dash of familiar patterns and set-ups, Call of Duty would quickly become a random, cluttered mess. Imagine Wasteland from Modern Warfare 2 without the hedges in the middle or Overgrown from CoD 4 without the creek bed or bridges. It would be purely random carnage, and that just isn't fun for very long. As it stands, players are able to find spots that suit their style of play or run through different memorized patterns on each map. Check out three of your most recent Black Ops matches on a single map and notice the similarities in how you move and where you go. That sort of patterned, predictable behavior is only possible through good map design that encourages a form of disguised order over unbridled randomness. Add a little bit of fast paced mayhem to break up the patterns, and you've got yourself an experience that is comfortable and random, predictable and unpredictable at the same time. That, my friends, is design genius.
Finally, Call of Duty offers something that has long been known to hook gamers for hours on end: unlocks and customization. As we all know, it's extremely difficult to turn off the "one more game" mentality when that new weapon or camouflage is hanging just out of reach. Of course, CoD is not the first series to have made use of progression-based unlocks, but it is the first to have combined them effectively with a customization system that allows players to build a class as they see fit. Run 'n gunners could build a nasty rushing class with the Lightweight, Marathon, Commando combination in CoD4 and campers were able to happily avoid detection with the Cold Blooded, Ninja, silencer combo in MW2. Black Ops ups the ante even more with perks like Flak Jacket for those who cursed the heavens every time they were "tubed" in the previous games. When all of this is combined, you get a package that allows players to play as they want to while always dangling a new unlock just ahead of them no matter which path they decide to take. Once again, this equates to nothing short of beautiful game design. There's a reason that nearly every other big name shooter has added some variation of this system to their multiplayer suite. It works, and it works brilliantly.
Like it or lump it, Call of Duty is the undisputed king of the current competitive FPS landscape. From a design standpoint, it really stands as a monument to the level of excellence that a pure FPS title can achieve. As far as why people hate CoD, I am unfortunately unable to make any reasonable inferences about other people's thoughts and behavior. Perhaps they hate it because hating CoD has become the cool thing to do these days. I do have to bow to my own logic there and assume that the hate must have begun for a decent reason, but nobody out there seems able to coherently string together an argument for why Call of Duty sucks, and I've had little trouble putting together a list of the reasons it doesn't. Maybe, as the pro-CoD trolls are usually quick to point out, they are simply bad at the game or find it frustrating. Maybe they prefer more tactical titles or games with larger, more open maps and vehicles like Battlefield. Any conclusion I could reach here would be strictly guesswork, so I'll leave it to you to decide which reason fits best with the CoD hate that you've seen. What I do know is that no matter how many gamers say they hate the series, nearly all of them probably own at least part of it and most probably own the whole thing. And isn't that evidence enough that Activision is doing something right?
Maybe I've just been in a bad mood recently, but I've been reading many of the comments on everything from game related YouTube videos to blog reviews to PMs here on GameSpot and I feel as if I've reached my melting point. I long ago came to realize that the best way to truly evaluate something is to debate it with an opponent who is at least able to defend his or her position as well as you are able to defend yours. As such, I love a good debate. These respectful, thoughtful conversations are becoming nearly impossible to find, though, and it seems as if we as a gaming community are beginning to lose the ability to form coherent statements or make valid arguments.
I feel like all I read at this stage is whining, ranting, or personal attacks. No one ever actually discusses the game at hand, instead preferring to discuss other games and the people who play them. For instance, among the many arguments I've found about the newly released Operation Flashpoint: Red River, I believe I've found more references to Call of Duty and Battlefield than I have to Red River itself. It is natural to compare roughly similar games to one another (though the only thing Red River has in common with Call of Duty is the fact that it's an FPS), but the community these days is moving beyond that into the realm of value judgments about the people playing said games. I found precious few comments or reviews discussing the differences between Call of Duty and Red River, and I found even fewer talking about why those differences were good or bad in the context of the games themselves. Instead, I read nearly innumerable responses that proclaimed that those that play Call of Duty are "frat boys" or "idiots," which of course prompted equally innumerable responses saying that those who enjoyed Red River are "tasteless" or "have low standards." Just today I received a PM about one of my reviews that ended not with a valid conclusion, but with me being told to "go play CoD, bro."
Well, let me tell you something, "bro," if we are going to have a discussion, it is going to be a logically sound, intelligent one. I have run out of patience for people who think that simply stating an opposite opinion without any supporting evidence is a valid way to argue. Don't just tell me (or anyone else, for that matter) that you disagree, tell me why you disagree. Which part of my argument didn't sit well with you? What evidence or support can you offer that could show that I am incorrect or mistaken? Did I misinterpret something, or did I simply miss something that you picked up on? These are valid lines of argument, and I will thus happily accommodate them because valid arguments lead to new realizations and considerations. Simply telling me that I "suck" or telling me to go play a game that you apparently loathe and consider beneath you (again with no real evidence to show me why you feel that way about it) is not valid. I don't care about unsupported opinions, I care about well supported positions.
Equally irritating is when someone entirely bypasses the argument at hand and goes straight for the throat of the author he or she disagrees with. This is arguably the most glaring flaw in most arguments I am a part of these days. Instead of someone telling me that they disagree with this or that assertion or offering some counter evidence, they inform me—and these are people who have never met me and know nothing about me, mind you—that I am a noob or an idiot or that I obviously just started playing games last week. They tell me that they dislike the way I write or that I should "get a life" or that I am not worthy of their time. Attacking an author instead of an argument to disprove something is an inexcusable logical fallacy. I love games and I love writing about games, but I also write about politics, life in general, and literature. In no other field is it acceptable to say "this person is wrong because I dislike him or have made this baseless judgment against him." You MUST deal with the argument, not the person behind it. For some reason, though, the gaming community, a community which is comprised mostly of adults who should know better, seems to ignore this simple rule.
Of course, many people may simply be afraid to write a decent argument. This is because many times one will be ridiculed for trying to write a grammatically sound, thoughtful post. To do so, says the community at large, is to assert that you are intellectually superior to them. How dare you use words that are longer than two syllables? How dare you punctuate your sentences correctly or use possessives and contractions appropriately? In every other field know to man, good and intelligent writing is considered a prerequisite for anyone to pay attention to you. In games today, refusing to use such contrivances as LOL or OMFG or dozens of question marks to denote the importance of a question is seen as arrogance. Apparently most people are happy to acquiesce to these unwritten cultural standards, and the cycle of poor argumentation coupled with poor writing is continued.
I will stop now, but I just had to get this off my chest. I understand that games are games and are not to be taken that seriously, but they are also multimillion dollar projects involving hundreds of talented people and deserve to be argued over intelligently by people who can support their positions. Movies are no more influential than games (they may even be less so these days), but you don't see film buffs arguing with acronyms like LULZ, bad grammar, or poorly thought out assertions, so why should it be acceptable in gaming? Such arguments and writing makes the industry look like it is entirely comprised of squabbling, unintelligent children and works to strip games of the legitimacy they've worked so hard to achieve. So please, next time you get into a game argument, try to argue like a grown-up and not an angry child. We'll all be better off for it.
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