Mind Games: Whoa there, space cowboy: Let’s wait and see with Mass Effect’s multiplayer

Oct. 14, 2011, 12:58 a.m.
Mind Games: Whoa there, space cowboy: Let's wait and see with Mass Effect's multiplayer
Courtesy of Electronic Arts

When I woke up last Monday and saw news, however vague, that Mass Effect 3 would introduce an online multiplayer component to the series, I rolled my eyes a bit and let out a gruff sigh. Not because I’m sure it’s a bad idea–I’m most certainly not–but because from now until the game’s March release date, a stubborn contingent of fans will inevitably turn the Internet into its Hall of Sorrows, moaning and groaning about how developer BioWare is losing its way, screwing its customers, caving to publisher pressure or ruining its own game. Just head to Google News, pick any site that’s running the story and you’re bound to see a snowballing mass of pretentious comments proclaiming the downfall of one of this generation’s greatest franchises. To quote a Game Informer user by the name of, ahem, Spiro Conspiracy Theorist:

“Oh God, no. Just because it’s mandatory for every shooter to have doesn’t mean you do, Mass Effect! I see no way whatsoever that this could BENEFIT the game, it’s clearly just a ‘hurr, 2011, gotsta have mp’ thing.”

Hurr, indeed.

That comment is a pretty typical one, and it’s a damn shame. BioWare has one of the most loyal and supportive fan communities in the world, but like any group behind the great Web-veil of anonymity, some of them might overreact to change and uncertainty.

Mind Games: Whoa there, space cowboy: Let's wait and see with Mass Effect's multiplayer
Courtesy of Electronic Arts

I can’t pretend to know all the details behind Mass Effect’s foray into multiplayer, the reasoning behind it or how it will tie into the final product. I can, though, take a more levelheaded approach to this week’s news.

One of the chief complaints about the announcement, as per usual with this kind of thing, is that BioWare is “diverting resources” away from Mass Effect 3’s campaign mode. If that were true, it would be a larger transgression than it might seem. Many gamers, myself included, are so invested in the still-unfolding sci-fi saga that even the slightest lack of polish or cohesion in the single-player story could put them into a small existential crisis. We’re talking about the sequel to the best-reviewed role-playing game in most of these fans’ lifetimes. It would be as if J.K. Rowling “diverted resources” from the main thrust of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” to ensure that Harry & co. mentioned Coke and Nike shoes at least twice per chapter.

But while high expectations are justified, concern is not–at least, not because of today’s announcement. BioWare is an enormous company and its parent, Electronic Arts (EA), is even bigger. They aren’t going to take time-tested employees–the guys and gals that have cut their teeth on this franchise for six years–and tell them to design online matchmaking algorithms. They don’t need to. BioWare and EA have enough coin in the coffer to hire new employees for just that purpose, and those job listings are exactly the reason we’ve heard rumors of Mass Effect multiplayer floating around for months. If anything, that’s a sign of a resource surplus, not a shortage. BioWare knows how to make a high-quality Mass Effect game, and now it’s spreading its time and money into new areas.

Mind Games: Whoa there, space cowboy: Let's wait and see with Mass Effect's multiplayer
Courtesy of Electronic Arts

Of course, the heavy financial backing of EA will elicit its own share of skeptical, anti-establishment reactions to Monday’s news–specifically that BioWare is selling out to mainstream, corporate pressure. In some ways, the fear is natural: EA is a giant, capable of swallowing up developers like PopCap for over a billon dollars and firing dollar-stuffed missiles at its biggest competition. But there is another, more endearing side to EA that I often feel gets lost behind acquisitions, inflammatory statements and irritating online passes. In the last five years, EA has sponsored far more than its share of quirky, original and financially questionable titles: Brutal Legend, Spore, Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space, Bulletstorm and even Shadows of the Damned would all be stillborn pipedreams if not for the Behemoth of Redwood City. For all its might, I posit that EA can still recognize, respect and keep its hands off a healthy intellectual property–especially when it sells over two million copies in a week. If EA did encourage BioWare to include multiplayer, the safe bet is that it was an addition, not an alteration, to the developer’s plans. Hell, on Xbox 360, the multiplayer will probably be on its own separate disc. Talk about non-intrusive.

Mass Effect is far from the first series to incorporate multiplayer after making a name for itself with an engrossing story, and it’s reasonable to assume that it will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. Here’s some familiar names: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, Uncharted 2, Bioshock 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence and Dead Space 2–the list goes on. Critical reception varied wildly for the multiplayer component of these otherwise stellar titles, but one thing was constant: it didn’t interfere with the single-player core of the game. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t play it.

In some cases, the parallel development of multiplayer may actually improve a traditionally single-player game. Mass Effect could reap the same benefits. A compelling co-op or competitive experience requires higher fidelity and variety in player-character animations, level design and combat scenarios than the series is generally known for. Needless to say, some of that work could bleed over to the campaign, tightening it up under the hood without overtly changing the experience.

With something so cherished as Mass Effect, it’s reasonable to be apprehensive of change. But it’s downright brash to so quickly vilify a developer for trying something new, especially when the ramifications are unclear. Yes, our connotation of “online multiplayer” is quite different than what Mass Effect fans are accustomed to. But concerned gamers need to take a step back and remember that BioWare and EA are not faceless corporations driven entirely by a bottom line; they might see money in multiplayer, but we shouldn’t expect them to get lazy with the campaign we know and love.

At the very least, I’d hope that BioWare fans could live up to their classy reputation and reserve judgment until they play the game in March. Until then, keep an open mind.

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