A New Golden Age?

When Mass Effect 3 came out, angry gamers instantly flooded the internet. There were only a small number of potential endings to the game – a game that was shaped by decisions a player made over the course of three games in five years. It was seen as a slap in the face, and was considered a poor way to wrap up the series’ sweeping space epic.

In response, BioWare offered a “Director’s Cut” DLC, where alternative endings are provided to the main storyline. It will be made free for a short time in response to fans of the series.

This is pretty amazing to me.

As gamers, we’re living in a great day and age. Gaming has evolved since the humble days of monochrome, polygons and floppy disks. Interactive entertainment has become highly accessible. Digital distribution, independent studios, and new pricing schemes are all helping to cut costs for gamers. Gaming technology has advanced in leaps and bounds: graphical quality is near photo-realistic, and processing power is incomparably faster than that of several years ago. Budgets are bigger and the stakes are higher – the envelope is continually being pushed for us, the customer. More is being offered beyond the point of sale, and it’s something that gamers are not only content with; it’s something they expect. For example, The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition has come out with plenty of new content in the form of documentation and additional game modes, and it’s already free for people who have purchased the game.

But it doesn’t stop there. The explosive uptake of the Internet over the past several years has given gamers a voice. Game publishers and developers are now being held up to higher standards than before. Game reviews are now being overshadowed by the threat of public opinion in the form of Metacritic and Amazon User Reviews. The people now have a tangible and very direct say in the development of games, and it is something quite unprecedented.

Case in point – several of the patch fixes for Battlefield 3 have come directly from the online community, passed on by DICE’s community manager and manifested directly as amendments to the game. People have submitted things such as waiting screen designs, UI modifications and the like in an attempt to enhance the overall Battlefield experience. Even the colour-blindness mode (which modifies the game’s UI colours to be more easily differentiated) was a modification provided by the dev team for the community.

The arrangement is not perfect, by any means. Passionate well-intentioned boycotts by disillusioned fan boys and online sabotage such as Amazon-bombing muddies the waters and gives an unbalanced view of the game. After all, who are we to trust? The game reviewer who has probably been bought off by publishing PR, or the vitriolic uber-gamers who condemn a game to damnation based on some DLC controversy?

Developers’ fear of angering the gaming masses can lead to a fear of innovation and failure, which can result in some derivative and formulaic games. Creativity and attempts at new directions in gaming suffers. (I suppose that’s where the indie industry comes in, but money has the power to make great things happen, so I’ve been led to believe.)

Still, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer. Developers and publishers take big risks with every title that they develop, and it’s in their best interests to make sure that gamers keep coming back. The consumer has some line of direct input into the products that they are using, often with tangible results. Games have become living, evolving things, and gamers’ voices have a considerable influence on their development.

Here’s hoping that we make some good calls.

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