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A Brief History of Fandom, Part 3: Retaking the Market, the Future

Kickstart Double Fine1

This is the third (and final) installment in an ongoing series on the history of fandom. Part one is here. Part two, here.

If you’ve stuck with this exceptionally long column so far, then there is a ninety percent chance you gave birth to me. Hi mom!

If you’re not reading this for purely familial reasons, then you would know that modern fan communities have a decades-long history of rallying around their fixations, often in the form of massive letter writing campaigns.

Historically, the largest of these campaigns have sprung from the fans’ need to either save their beloved universe from cancellation, or to fight against a change that they feel violates the spirit of the canon.

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Yeah... like this

But despite the impressive campaigns fandoms can mount, they still don’t have much control in terms of creative direction. Sure, if they don’t like something they can ignore it, but unless the creators reach out to the fans for input, communication only goes one way.

The “entitled” players

While conducting research for this column, I came across this old blog entry about H.E.A.T. from Tales to Mildly Astonish. In it, the writer quotes George Carlin’s hierarchy of importance in professional sports. In descending order, it is athletes, owners, fans, media. As with videogame fans, sports fans do not make any business decisions regarding their favorite team.

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The article then goes on to state that although we live in a predominantly capitalist economy, consumers (and fans) do not control what gets put into the market. Instead, they control which products succeed in the market.

Despite what we might tell ourselves about our ability to influence the world solely through purchasing decisions, we don’t control anything on the creative end of a product. Our “dollar votes” only let us select from the options we are given; they don’t give us control over the options themselves.

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This is how I feel all the time

If you feel a twinge of existential despair at this lack of control, you’re not alone. Thankfully, Mass Effect uses this same elective process to empower the player. Fans and players may not have written, programmed or distributed the game, playing Mass Effect allows them to experience a universe their actions have tangible influence.

How Mass Effect empowered the players

Everyone loves to feel productive. As a species, we are highly attuned to the sense of reward we receive from getting something done. But in the real world, we sometimes lose this sense of reward. Our actions seem ineffective, or even pointless. A compelling videogame will never allow players to fall into that sort of emotional trap, at least not for long.

Everything in a game is designed to provide player feedback. Videogames are a closed loop of action-reward encounters that encourage people to keep going. Everything, from a slowly-filling experience bar to ornate avatar armor, provides a sense of accomplishment and control.

Mass Effect took these videogame tropes and worked a very powerful choice-making mechanic into them. Through both action and dialogue, players were able to see their choices play out in extremely rewarding ways. Every player made their own universe within Mass Effect, so by the time Mass Effect 3 came out, each person may as well have been playing a different game. That is a pretty profound videogame experience, even if it is just an improved retooling of those old “choose your own adventure” books.

 A Brief History of Fandom, Part 3: Retaking the Market, the Future

Reapers weren't nearly as scary back in the day

Much like these old books, every option written into Mass Effect was put there ahead of time. Fans do not own any part of the Mass Effect intellectual property, but they did collaborate with the game to create their own unique story.

In Extra Lives (I know, I reference this book a lot, but that’s because it’s so good) Tom Bissell compares the experience of reading a Mass Effect novel to playing the Mass Effect game:

[quote]The way a reader reads a novel may change; the way a writer understands her novel may change; but the novel itself remains invariant. I could debate the meaning of Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect novel, but a debate over the meaning of Mass Effect the game would be comparative, not interpretive. What did you do on Noveria? I decided to extirpate the rachni species. What about the wicked Dr. Saleon? I gunned down the defenseless cretin in cold blood.[/quote]

The only thing players could conceivably “retake” from BioWare would be the sense of control the game allowed them to experience. To be fair, the three options for the ending still empower the player, just in a much different way than they have experienced before.

While the endings are in no way excellent, (I understand why they angered so many people,) this is the end of Shepard’s story. By the time the fate of literally every advanced civilization in the galaxy hangs in the balance, what type of option did the players expect? This is not a happy time, there isn’t going to be a happy ending.

Putting the player in his/her place

The story of Mass Effect is one of universal strife that focuses on Commander Shepard and the choices the player makes through this avatar. While Shepard is the star of the show, the plot actually spans several millennia. Generation upon generation of galactic civilizations have passed before the Reapers, and the player’s micro-story takes place during a turning point for literally the entire universe.

Yes, revealing a dramatic plot twist in the last act is a slipshod use of narrative, but at least it is an interesting twist. The last-scene reveal forces the player to reevaluate all the events of a game they’ve been playing for years. BioWare turned the players’ attention onto themselves, forcing them to confront their place in the universe. I could go on, but Carl Sagan explains it much better.

I recommend taking ten minutes to watch this, think about space, and then reevaluate what you’re doing reading some smartass kid’s videogame column on the Internet.

You’re back? Really? Ready to see how Carl Sagan ties into Mass Effect? Awesome.

Thematically, the end of the Mass Effect trilogy simultaneously humbles and empowers the player. Through the last-scene reveal, Mass Effect shows the player how, compared to the scale of galaxies, one human is utterly insignificant. Even in a story that allows players as much control as Mass Effect, the player’s actions would mean nothing in the grand scheme of the universe.

Then, the game gives them one more choice. With the ending, players can change everything in the universe. Literally. Everything. And fans feel their choices don’t matter? Yes, perhaps the weight of the ending is lost because players are only really aware of the full story for a few minutes, but how could they feel disempowered? How else could a game as large in scale have ended?

The sad part is, it doesn’t really matter. New endings are already coming out, which is nothing new to videogames. Bethesda did it with Fallout 3 so that they could extend the franchise with expansions and DLC. Much like comic books before them, videogames have learned how to alter and retcon their properties with impunity.

The Age of DLC

As the Internet continues to become a constant part of day-to-day life, physical media has started to wane in popularity. Online services like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam provide connected players with an online store for games they can immediately download and play, completely free of physical media. Developers of larger AAA titles have also caught on, and we now live in the age of Downloadable Content.

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DLC is an easy way for developers to extend the life of a franchise and keep people working in the gap between when a game goes for console certification and when it is released. As companies refine this process, more and more Day-One DLC has hit the market, making a lot of players feel that they are paying for the same product more than once. And make no mistake, there is certainly room for that contention. Depending on who you listen to, developers might already be keeping essential content behind additional pay-walls.

And despite the massive fan furor that may or may not have influenced BioWare to release new DLC, players still don’t have much control when it comes to what developers decide to create. Sure, sometimes DLC can be influenced by fan feedback, but it’s not like players are making any creative decisions, at least not like they are over at Double Fine Productions.

The future: Kickstart Mass Effect?

Much like the penny press revolution before it, the Internet has lowered the costs of publishing and allowed anyone with a connection to start publishing content for all to read. We have been living in an increasingly fast information explosion for just over a decade right now, and it’s still growing.

The Internet is also tearing down some of the old business models when it comes to publishing. Why would an author go through a publisher to get their book released when they could just release it in segments on Amazon? Why purchase comics in physical form when you can just download them digitally from the publisher? (Note: please continue to support your local comic stores, if you’re lucky enough to have them.)

And then there is Kickstarter and Double Fine Productions. Back in March, Double Fine turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to help make Double Fine Adventure, an upcoming old school point-and-click adventure game. Since publishers didn’t want to sink money into the project, (“Advenure games are not dead!”) they asked the fans for the money. They were hoping to raise $400,000. They ended up raising 3.3 million.

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All the monies, from everyone

Like most Kickstarter campaigns, Double Fine offered a series of tiered rewards for contributors. But regardless of how much the fans opened their wallets, every single donor will have a say in the design aspects of the game. Double Fine has promised to set up an exclusive chat service to get feedback on music and concept art, allowing fans for the first time to be able to directly influence what goes into the final product. More than 87 thousand people will  collaborate on Double Fine Adventure.

Returning to the entry from Tales to Mildly Astonish, George Carlin offered an important quote about the fan/fixation dynamic: “You pays your money and you takes whatever they feel like giving you.” That has been true throughout most of fan history, but as crowdsourcing continues to develop as a feasible option for game developers, fans are going to have more and more control over what they get to play.

When fans become investors, then we can say they are entitled. And when, eventually, a company inevitably their investors, those fans can say they were betrayed.

Recent history has shown us that as much as fans have united to save a property, they can also united against it. For awhile now they’ve been pushing back: against businesses, against canon changes, against anything they don’t like. Maybe, by empowering them both in-game and as investors, fans will have a chance to push forward.

Colin is a columnist here at Default Prime. He's a gamer, unprofessional writer, and plays a mean bass kazoo. He thinks the gaming industry has a lot of growing to do, but he's eager to see where it goes.
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