Artistic integrity, critical response and public relations

Suppose you are a producer of artistic content, such as movies, books or video games. Suppose that you have cultivated millions of fans across the world that love and believe in your products, are eager to invest in them, and freely generate buzz and word-of-mouth advertising for you. And now, suppose that once you deliver your latest masterpiece, your fans object to some of the artistic choices you have made, and demand that you change your product to match their expectations.

What would you do?

Would you give in to your fan base and make the changes? Would you stand by your finished product even if your fans hate it? How can you manage a crisis like this, where on the one hand you risk alienating your fans, but on the other hand you risk setting in motion a negative precedent, so that any future product can be subject to revisions brought on by your fans’ insistence.

That is the dilemma facing BioWare, a world-renowned Edmonton-based video game producer. On March 6th, 2012, BioWare released Mass Effect 3, the epic final chapter of their space opera franchise. I cannot find words to express how eagerly the series’ millions of worldwide fans were anticipating the moment they could fire up their gaming consoles and once again place themselves in the shoes of Mass Effect’s hero, Commander Shepard.

Mass Effect 3 (as well as the entire Mass Effect series) has received almost unanimous critical acclaim. Particular praise is given to the game’s dialogue and plot, with many players commenting on how tense, engaging, and at times touching the story and characters are. In almost every way, Mass Effect 3 is a triumph…

…except for one very important aspect. Fans and critics absolutely hate the last ten minutes of the game, in which the story concludes in a way that many consider to be deeply unsatisfying.

How are fans of the series making their dissatisfaction known? Through social media, of course! Within days of Mass Effect 3’s release, a Facebook group called Demand a better ending to Mass Effect 3 (also called @RetakeME3 on Twitter) was launched, and it now has almost 60,000 members. The group is demanding that BioWare immediately begin work on a free DLC (i.e. downloadable content), which would offer a more satisfying end to the series. Regional chapters of the group have been opened by users in Russia, Hungary, Brazil, and China, and the group continues to make news on gaming websites, fueling the controversy.

In my view, BioWare must treat this problem seriously, just as it must understand that whatever decision it makes can have lasting impacts on the industry as a whole, given its prestige on the video game world stage. BioWare also has a genuine opportunity to emerge from this crisis with an even stronger fan base than when this issue began… but only if it can develop a strong communications strategy that fits with its vision.

Video game producers already understand that the nature of their product is different from other artistic or entertainment products – books, movies and TV programs cannot be changed once they are released to the market (ignoring the obvious George Lucas and Star Wars jokes). On the other hand, in the age of the Internet, video games are a wholly different beast: updates for games are frequent, and in fact entirely new levels can be purchased as DLC, even months or years after a game has been released. There is even precedent for a DLC ending to an already released video game: in 2008, Ubisoft Montreal released Prince of Persia, and when the game ended on a mysterious and uncertain note, it released an “epilogue” that customers could purchase separately, which wrapped up the game’s main story.

In my view, BioWare ought to consider three questions when planning their resolution to this issue:

1)      What will be the effect of our decision on our creative workforce, which depends on having a certain level of artistic freedom?

  • If BioWare decides to change the ending, it might risk demoralizing its workforce, if they strongly value their artistic and creative integrity.

2)      What implications will there be for the unveiling of our future intellectual properties if we have thousands of angry fans today?

  • New intellectual properties are risky – BioWare depends on having a strong fan base that will help them generate pre-launch buzz for new products, and purchase them even if they are untested.
  • If BioWare do not change the ending, how long will it be before it is able to recover from this fan backlash?

3)      What impact can our decision have on the video games industry as a whole, and how can this affect our reputation within the industry?

  • If BioWare changes the ending, its competitors might claim it does not respect its own artistic integrity, and use this against them when promoting their own products
  • Also, if BioWare changes the ending, its competitors might be upset at the precedent it sets, as their fans might start demanding changes to their products as well

BioWare finds itself in an unenviable position; a victim of its own success. The fact that this backlash is so strong, and continuing to generate controversy, is a testament to how loved their franchise really is. The entire gaming world now awaits their decision.

UPDATE – THURSDAY, APRIL 5, 2012

Today, Bioware released a statement announcing its plans to address the ongoing controversy over the ending to Mass Effect 3 and the company’s relationship with its fans.

According to the official press release, BioWare will not be changing the ending to Mass Effect 3, nor will it offer new ending possibilities. Instead, this summer, it will release a free DLC titled “Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut”. This pack will expand on the original ending by providing clarity as to its meaning, as well as offering closure to some of the game’s secondary plot points that remained unresolved.

I think this strategy will appease the concerns of some fans, but will not address the desires of others. Instead, it will accomplish two important communications objectives:

  1. BioWare is letting its fans know that it is cognizant of their concerns over its product, and will take steps to address some of their questions
  2. BioWare is also letting the fans know that it cannot be pressured into reversing course over its artistic decisions

At this point, it is inevitable that BioWare will upset a part of its fan base, no matter what decision it takes. But in my opinion, this compromise is the best decision BioWare could make, because it will succeed in addressing each of the major concerns outlined in my above article:

  1. It keeps the artistic integrity of its creative workforce intact
  2. It contains the damage to its brand image by appeasing a portion of its fan base
  3. It upholds its positive reputation in the video games industry by demonstrating that it can listen to its fans, without backing down to them