Gaming Articles

On Brand-Recognition and Expectation

So the wait is finally over! Just last week, on March 21st, Mass Effect: Andromeda officially released and gamers and critics alike have dived headfirst into the latest installment of the venerable series, and the reaction has been, well… mixed, to say the least. The early previews were unusually divisive for a AAA level game: some outlets were fairly optimistic about the experience, while others had a more skeptical take. First impressions were varied obviously, but looking back, the consensus seemed to be that the game had some obvious issues, ranging from some startling examples of weak writing to the now notoriously embarrassing animation issues. In the wake of the game’s full release it seems that these concerns are more persistent than fans had hoped, with animation woes in particular being a constant distraction throughout the game. The overarching plot and character development, typically a point of pride for Bioware, has been cited as disappointingly unremarkable by many reviewers, with many of the complaints stemming from awkward dialogue and stilted delivery, which is only exacerbated by the animation concerns.

Face_Mass_EffectThat’s not to say the game is terrible, the problems that exist are noticeable, but not game-breaking in the eyes of many. It would seem that there are a good number of fans and critics who agree that things do get better as things progress, and the game is making decent sales, swiping the number one spot from Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands in the UK sales charts, even if it hasn’t quite kept pace with Bioware’s previous titles.

Debate surrounding that game has been intriguing, with fan, critics, and developers alike weighing in on why Andromeda’s problems exist, what they liked about the game, and what this new direction for the series means going forward. At the moment however, I find it far more interesting to look back, and compare this newest game with the series very first installment: the original Mass Effect. With nearly ten years of evolving development processes and the leap to a new generation of consoles, one might reasonably expect Andromeda to be quite a different experience in comparison to the series’ progenitor. Instead, with an increased focus on exploration, a new setting with unfamiliar characters, and the way the game sidesteps the plot of the original trilogy, Andromeda does seem to position itself as a spiritual successor to that initial experience, rather than a direct continuation of the series.

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Mass Effect, is obviously a fairly well-recognized RPG. Like Andromeda, it has significant issues, some of which held many players back from enjoying the game, such as unrefined gameplay, and slow build up. The animations weren’t spectacular either, but they were at least comparable to other games of the time period. Despite the issues it had, many players managed to look past its flaws and Mass Effect has become a beloved game with hordes of dedicated fans, and at release it was met with fairly universal praise from critics and gamers alike. Now we have Andromeda which, like the original Mass Effect, puts its player in a brand new setting with new characters, benefits from the time and resources of a prestigious studio, and is, in the eyes of many critics, a fairly enjoyable game with some significant flaws that detract from the experience. Unlike the original Mass: Effect however, Andromeda has taken a serious bashing from the general audience. While critical reception is about ten points lower on average for this latest installment, the average user scores, as judged by metacritic, are just barely over half of those given to the original game.

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[Disclaimer: Metacritic scores are obviously not objective fact, and by no means do I intend to present them as such. However, I believe, in general, they can be used to give a basic idea of how a game is viewed in the eyes of the public.]

So why exactly is the original Mass Effect hailed as a classic while Andromeda is barely keeping its head above mediocrity in the eyes of the public? Well to start, some of the blame has to lie squarely on Bioware and EA. As you may already know, Andromeda was handled by Bioware Montreal, their first game as a lead developer, and unfortunately it does show. While the animations are the most notable example, the game overall seems to have missed out on the level of polish typically expected of a Bioware game. Though the developer itself hasn’t appeared to make a statement about the game’s issues, (except to condemn the harassment of a former EA employee) it would seem that the reasons simply boil down to a lack of resources and time to give everything the care and attention it needed, especially under a less experienced studio.

[Update: Since the original posting of this article Bioware has promised to detail future plans for the game.]

In contrast, the original Mass Effect has no major signs of being rushed or underbaked. It is certainly less impressive graphically, and the gameplay has not aged well in the slightest, but it also came out ten years ago. Andromeda’s problems aren’t deal breakers, but as time moves on, gamers expect more, especially from a developer with Bioware’s reputation. It doesn’t help that the game industry itself is constantly pushing to hype up consumers by saying their games are bigger, prettier, and more advanced, something that gets applied even more so to big name series. We saw this with the original Watchdogs as well, Ubisoft pushed their new sandbox game so hard and set the expectations of consumers so high, that when the game inevitably failed to reach its own promises it got torn apart by players, despite favorable reviews from critics and being a fairly decent game in its own right.

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This is where I think the crux of the matter comes into play however. Mass Effect: Andromeda is the continuation of a franchise people have adored for years, and the original Mass Effect was not. People absolutely went into Andromeda with an expectation of having an amazing experience just like the previous games had given them, and why shouldn’t they? Of course most gamers will be interested in a sequel to a game series they love, even if it’s simply set in the same universe with little connection to the previous games. The very fact that the title begins with Mass Effect automatically links this new game to that incredible, thrilling experience that people remember from the original trilogy of games, which immediately colors our opinions and sets an expectation of quality in our minds, even if it’s a subconscious one. Andromeda was always going to have a tougher time winning people’s affection because we already expect a certain baseline of quality. The original Mass Effect was by no means an obscure indie title on the back row of shelves, but it was a brand new IP in a genre that appeals mainly to a more specific audience, and so when that game turned out to be surprisingly engaging, with interesting characters and story arcs, it meant a lot of people were willing to look past its issues to explore the world it was setting up and the potential it had.

Despite a decade of graphical advancement, three whole games of iteration, and significant combat improvements, Andromeda simply could not reach the heights it was expected to hit by its players because when you’re making the fourth installment in a famous franchise, being good isn’t good enough. And with that in mind the rumors that Andromeda was not given the resources and time to succeed become even more frustrating, because Bioware and EA should have known better. Whoever decided to hand the game to a support studio, whoever didn’t allocate time for animation improvements, whoever pushed the game out of the door with its glitches and problems, they all should have known better than to allow these kinds of issues to exist in their game. They especially should have known better than to let critics and gamers have access to the first ten hours of the game before launch, considering the underwhelming nature of the introduction that left a sour taste in people’s mouths before the game was even launched.

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Andromeda will very likely be remembered as one of the weaker games in the series, if not the weakest, but ironically, it will almost certainly be successful regardless. EA has predicted three million sales for launch week, with outlets estimating anywhere from 6-9 million lifetime sales, blowing the original game out of the water, and very likely surpassing both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 without much trouble. Despite the increased scrutiny that comes from the more critical of the gaming world, brand recognition really does drive sales, and if Andromeda had been a brand new IP it would have likely enjoyed a far more generous reception, and sold much less impressively.

That’s the grim irony of the whole situation, whenever a big name studio develops a game there is a difficult choice to be made right at the beginning. Do you make a successor to a big name franchise to guarantee sales, even if you don’t have the time/resources/passion to live up to demands? Or do you create something new that gives you room for error with fewer expectations, but will be far less likely to establish itself? It’s a difficult question for any developer, or any artist as a matter of fact. The line between creative expression and economic incentive is blurry one at best, and I honestly don’t think it’s entirely fair to tear Bioware apart for making a game that they felt would sell well. The real issue is when developers and publishers try to have it both ways, investing less into the games they create and dressing it up in a familiar universe to boost sales. It’s not just unfair, it actively hurts both companies and the consumer. The people who buy your games will be upset that they don’t live up to the previous entries, and the trust in your brand will begin to erode. It may seem like you can simply put a familiar name on just about anything without consequence, but even titans can fall, and if you don’t put the required time and effort into making a game that lives up to its legacy, you end up with a Call of Duty situation, where year after year interest fades and gamers grow increasingly tired of the IP. And let’s be honest, Mass Effect does not have the staying power of CoD, if Bioware isn’t more careful with their next jump into this series, they run the risk turning a lot of people off the series, and Mass Effect deserves better. Whatever happens to Andromeda and Bioware in the future, we should remember this whole controversy as an important lesson to the entire industry about brand recognition: If you’re going to capitalize on a big name IP, be sure to throw your whole weight behind the project, and really live up to that expectation. It’s better for gamers, it’s better for you, and it’s better for the medium as a whole.