Sasquatch Soapbox: Mass Effect 3's Extended Cut and the tail wagging the dog

Last week, BioWare released a band-aid in the form of the Extended Cut DLC package for Mass Effect 3. Having seen all the newly extended endings via the magic of YouTube, plus the dialogue added in to the final section before the ending, I can safely say that the standard game of Mass Effect 3 is now whole. I can’t shake the feeling that this is how the game should have been from the word “go” – this ending should have been included in the standard game from launch day.

But it wasn’t.

Many, many vocal, hardcore gamers on The Internet had very strong objections to the original ending of Mass Effect 3. My ire wasn’t aimed at the ending so much as the rest of the game. In many sections, Mass Effect 3 did not feel like a fully finished product; from certain inconsistent dialogue options to some banal side-missions to the annoying emphasis on fetch quests, many aspects of the game don’t feel fully baked. Why change the way missions are divided in your pause menu? Core missions are too easily lost amidst a sea of fetch-quests, whereas ME1 and 2 had a perfect way to separate those out. It smacks of either changing something that isn’t broken or sending something out the door before it’s finished; I’m not sure which I fear more in this case. This isn’t to say Mass Effect 3 is a bad game, but it’s an unfortunate step backwards from its predecessor when the opposite was expected.

What’s done is done, though, and all that remains is to apportion responsibility. Did BioWare get distracted? I doubt it. Instead, I think business deadlines drove too much of the need for ME3 to get pulled out of the oven five minutes early. Between the need for ME3 to be released in a certain fiscal quarter and Electronic Arts probably already having a marketing campaign in place with advertisements and other items set to roll on certain dates, the game suffered. It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog.

I know why it was pushed this way  — EA is a public company, and the greatest myth surrounding public companies is “return on shareholder value” which is driving too many businesses into making bad decisions. Mass Effect 3 was also rightly EA’s tent-pole franchise for that quarter of the year, but I question whether those TV ads could be delayed — or if they were really wise at all considering this is the third game of a trilogy. But it’s a case where losing a battle (pushing back the release date) is better than losing the war (negative impressions of the game upon release). A rather fitting point to make considering how much of ME3 involves hard decisions and sacrifice.

It boils down to a decision between whether games should be presented as art or commercial work. Is this game your 99-cent iTunes single, or is it an album meant to be listened to from front to back? Is it an indie film crafted with love that’s released once it’s finally finished, or is it a blockbuster popcorn movie full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Yes, Mass Effect is a series big on bombast and explosions, but it also features debates on the nature of genocide, profiteering, and what it means to be human. I know EA needs to make money, but isn’t that done by making the best game possible? Too many movies seem to be crafted with their TV advertisements in mind first and the actual movie second. Is this where we want games, and Mass Effect, to go?

Maybe I’m too emotionally invested in the Mass Effect series to see otherwise. Maybe I’m blinded by the idiocy of trying to mass-market the third title in a trilogy as “a great place to pick up the story.” Maybe I’m tired of marketing campaigns driving the creative process, instead of the other way around. Or maybe I’m still disappointed ME3 didn’t live up to expectations. It should have.