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The Changing Dynamic of Entertainment Intellectual Property Ownership:  

How and Why a Fanbase Took Ownership of the Franchise It Loved

 

In early March, BioWare, a developer in the ever-growing stable of developers Electronic Arts has acquired over the years, released, behind a monstrous marketing budget and plenty of press, the epic conclusion to its space-operatic action-role-playing trilogy, Mass Effect 3.

Review sites went nuts.  Fan speculation was enormous.  Midnight release parties. Ads featured in creative showcases.  And there was the rocket-launch-PR-stunt, where special edition copies of the game were sent into space and tracked via GPS - whoever found it when it landed got to claim it.

Commander Shepard, the series' protagonist, was the man (or woman, depending how you played the game) of the hour.

This game would change the world.

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ORIGINS

The Mass Effect franchise launched in late 2007, destined to be a critical success.  The game brought forward a revolutionary concept in that your playthrough could be radically different than another player’s due to the decisions that you made.  From small conversations to large, galaxy-affecting decisions, the choices you made could be wildly different from someone else (and could affect your gameplay in future sequels).

At the time, BioWare was a developer working with Microsoft Game Studios to get it published.  Just two months prior, MGS had launched the third installment in its epic sci-fi trilogy with developer Bungie, Halo 3.  Complete with award-winning creative and product tie-ins with the likes of Mountain Dew, Halo 3 was not to be trifled with.  MGS could not give the kind of marketing money to Mass Effect, a new and unproven franchise, like it could to Halo 3 (Halo 3 would blow away all sales records at the time, earning more money in its first 24 hours than Spider-man 3, the top opening box office at the time, made in a single weekend).  

Mass Effect would still sell about three million copies of the game, though, due to glowing reviews, very high critic ratings, and speculation ahead of its release. The many awards that kept pouring in as well didn’t hurt, nor did the publicity it received for what some considered controversial depictions of sexual encounters with aliens (a controversy revealed to be completely overblown by pundits who had not even seen the scenes, let alone played the game).

While not generating the kind of buzz in the mass market that Halo was capable of, Mass Effect had everyone in the gaming community talking.  In fact, to get the franchise rolling ahead of release, BioWare published a novel as a prequel to the game to really get those in the know hooked before even playing it.  The talk and speculation (thanks also in part to good showings at events like E3) got BioWare noticed by behemoth games publisher Electronic Arts, who, just ahead of Mass Effect's launch, bought VG Holding Corp, the company that owned BioWare and sister developer Pandemic.

With EA at the helm, BioWare and the Mass Effect franchise had near unlimited resources at their fingertips.  The demands to generate more revenue, though, increased as well.

Over the course of the next couple years, the Mass Effect franchise would be augmented with compatibility (a PC version), downloadable content (DLC) in the form of two new add-ons to enhance gameplay and give players new areas and side-stories to explore, another book, and even an iOS game.  All of this kept franchise devotees paying for just enough to keep them occupied with something Mass Effect until they wore it out and the next piece of Mass Effect entertainment came out.

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HUBRIS

In January 2010, Mass Effect 2 was given to the clamoring masses.  Following the critical success of the first installment, and with EA’s deep coffers funding the project, Mass Effect 2 had a much larger budget for both production and marketing.  Big-time celebrity voice talent like Martin Sheen, Carrie-Anne Moss and Yvonne Strahovski (of Chuck fame) added to the already stellar cast from the first installment, which included well-known names like Seth Green, Keith David, and Lance Henriksen.  An all-new combat engine, enhanced dialog system, and incredibly detailed visuals, all of which needed to be shipped on two discs, really showed off the increased production value.  And big, primetime TV buys helped tell the world.

Mass Effect 2 sold over four million copies of the game.  But the revenue for the gaming property didn’t stop there.  Downloadable content was to be an integral part of this game, and a way for EA and BioWare to bring in more money down the stretch as more content was released.

Immediately, on launch day, some downloadable content was already available for the game.  While this seemed like an issue to many gamers, wondering why it hadn’t been part of the game they had bought, it wasn’t a huge issue, as it was free.  And the day-1 content wasn’t hugely integral to the story – just a minor, extra character and a couple extra missions.  It wasn’t completely without controversy, though, as, in a tactic to help combat game piracy and the used-game market, this content was only free to those who had a non-transferable code available in the box of the newly purchased game.

The money continued to pour in with subsequent DLC packs released every few months.  For roughly $10, players could download these packs that provided additional characters, story, and hours of gameplay.  Also, even smaller microtransactions (around $2) were constantly made available for new pieces of armor and weapons.

In all, EA had helped take a game that would normally take in $60 end up bringing in over $100 from any consumer that the complete experience.

On top of all the gaming content released, more books and graphic novels were added to the franchise, as were social and mobile games, helping bridge the gap between games leading up to the conclusion of the trilogy, Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 3 was going to have a lot to live up to.  The first two games had been highly acclaimed releases, amassing a very loyal following willing to spend money on as much content in the franchise as they could.

But it promised a lot.  This was to be the culmination of the Commander Shepard story that started with the first game.  During production, and leading up to the game’s launch, BioWare staff consistently said in interviews how unique each player’s playthrough would be based on the decisions a player made in the previous two games.

It was to be bigger and better than ever, building upon everything that made Mass Effect 2 such a success.  The marketing made this clear, going all out with multiple, beautifully done live-action television commercials, rockets launching games into space worldwide, and sponsoring petitions to declassify extraterrestrial intelligence information from governments.

Mass Effect 3 would be huge, and the precedents had been set to make more money than ever off this franchise for EA.

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NEMESIS

About two weeks before the game launched, Microsoft inadvertently, and prematurely, put some Mass Effect 3 DLC up for sale on the XBOX Live Marketplace.  While it was only available for a short time before the problem was fixed, and could not actually be played without owning the game (which was a few days away), the advertised story that the DLC covered was, to many fans on forums and social media sites, essential to the story and should not be considered an optional add-on.  Additionally, and equally controversial, the DLC was going live on launch day, and unlike the previous day-1 DLC, this was not free.  In other words, a piece of the story that many fans considered essential to the overall experience was being sold to them for an additional $10, separately from the $60 game, on the same day that the game is released.

While a complaint, it was not a deterrent.  EA rightly estimated that its loyal base would buy the game and shell out more money for additional DLC.

Within a few days after launch, though, something was up.  The most hardcore of hardcore fans had finally finished the game.  After all, the game, which takes up two discs, took some of the quicker players at least 30 hours of game time to blast through to the end.  As they finished, discontent started to grow among the different forums online.

What started as a small trickle of discontent began to swell as more people played the game and took to the web communities to vent.

Many issues with the game were based on some small things, such as odd glitches, lack of the attention to detail that was found in previous games, and bugs that prevented importing the face of your previous character.  Issues like this have unfortunately become common in many games, as it’s now easier for a company to make an update on a game quickly and provide a free download instead of spending the time to thoroughly test before release, owing to an age when a new download to update the game was never feasible.

Also, the inclusion of a new character, modeled after and voiced by a personality for IGN, really irked people, as it blurred the lines between the developers and the media, and lent credence to the argument that alliances like this could hinder the possibility for a game reviewer to be unbiased.

Other issues were with the new multiplayer mode, added to help attract an even wider audience.  In a game that had been only single-player in its previous two iterations, the multiplayer mode was new and refreshing.  But BioWare had tied it to the single player mode, making it so that you would have a very hard time getting the “best” ending without playing multiplayer, forgetting that, in its industry, the single-player and multiplayer consumers are often very different and seek out very different games.  Furthermore, the multiplayer mode was full of opportunities for microtransactions to buy upgrades for a player’s characters – so many opportunities that it could be really easy to accidentally hit “Purchase” and spend a couple dollars before one realized that he had.

Many issues like this pointed to the game being rushed and EA taking advantage of its core fans of a beloved franchise.  In fact, the game had originally been set to release in November the previous year, but BioWare had to get an extension from EA.  The best EA could allow was delaying it a quarter.  As a corporation with a plummeting stock price, the company needed something to help alleviate its fiscal issues – Mass Effect 3 HAD to go out.  And every attempt to glean some more money from its consumers had to be made.

The small fires of discontent turned into a conflagration once more and more consumers finally finished the game.  The ending was not what most had expected.  To them, it went against everything that BioWare and EA had promised over the previous months.  They had been promised wildly different endings depending on how they played the game.  They had been promised closure.  

They got a choice of three endings that their previous choices seemingly had no affect on, and no closure, as so much was left unanswered.

They felt cheated.  They felt betrayed.  For something they had been playing for almost five years, putting hours upon hours and dollars upon dollars into, they had nothing but heartbreak and incompleteness to show for it.

BioWare shut down all comments on its own social site, cutting off a vast majority of the criticism it was receiving.  It couldn’t do this on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, though, or other popular gaming sites, so the anger continued to intensify, visible for all to see, and consumers looked at other ways to begin voicing their issues.

Massive consumer efforts to “take back Mass Effect” (a phrase borrowing from the final game’s tagline, “Take Back Earth”) began, with different groups popping up to show their solidarity in finding a way to petition BioWare and EA to make things right.

One group channeled its anger into charity, donating money to the Child’s Play organization, in an effort to essentially say “we care THIS MUCH, but we’d rather our money go to something good.”

Others were not so positive.  BioWare employees received threats daily. One group, in a move to mock the three choices in the ending, sent the company a large order of cupcakes, coming in three different colors.

One man even filed a complaint to the FTC, citing Mass Effect 3’s advertising and many interviews with the company about the game as deceptive.

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CATHARSIS

Initially, the company defended the game and its story, citing artistic integrity.  The argument’s there for video games as pieces of art – even the Smithsonian recently did a special exhibit, The Art of Video Games.  It’s a creative work, for entertainment purposes, much like film can be.

Consumers argued, though, that BioWare lost the chance to claim artistic integrity when it started nickel and diming its consumers at every turn (at EA’s behest, no doubt), spending valuable development time and resources on a multiplayer mode to attract other gamers when it could have been devoted to expanding on and cleaning up the single-player mode, and even going as far as to create a biased relationship with one of the largest gaming news and review publishers.  Artistic integrity cares not about profit.

Furthermore, consumers argued, a game CAN be changed.  The technology is there to do it.  And BioWare had previously taken the position that Mass Effect belonged as much to its fans as it did to BioWare, so there was no reason to shut them out now.  Unlike a movie on DVD, everyone who bought the game could download something that could dramatically change the ending.  So they could, and should, do something about it.

So BioWare, after a month of intense commentary in the community, and coverage of the controversy from many mainstream publications like Forbes (which provided possibly the most unbiased coverage, as many gaming publications tended to take sides with either the gamers or the developer, with the vast majority siding with the latter), finally decided to create an extended cut, which will provide more explanation and clarify the choices.  And it would release it for free.

To further placate the enraged fans, BioWare, over the next couple months, proceeded to release multiple free DLC packs with new additions for the multiplayer mode.  These were most likely planned anyway, but it is unknown whether or not the original plan had been to charge for them, or if BioWare convinced EA (or EA realized) the goodwill that free DLC can bring to keeping fans signed on and anxiously awaiting the next piece of the franchise.

And finally, over the summer, months after the release, consumers were treated to the extended cut.  While it did not dramatically change the ending, and for the most part only worked to extend it and provide clarity and closure to many of the loose ends, most fans were satisfied.

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A NEW ERA

What transpired this spring will have ramifications in the future, especially for software and digital entertainment.

The consumer gained a lot of power here.  Getting BioWare to capitulate and back off from its stance on artistic integrity and provide something new and unplanned, for free, sets quite a precedent.

Franchised entertainment properties, where you have fans heavily invested through multiple content releases in the franchise, belong as much to those purchasing them as those who create them. Like writers who retool their shows when criticism abounds and ratings suffer (see Parks and Rec), video game developers will need to learn to adjust to criticism positively and provide their consumers with what they want if they want to keep them interested and willing to buy future installments.

It’s why many people who read the book first always say the movie was terrible: they were invested in the story already but don’t like how this part of the franchise came out.  But that’s a different model – there’s no DLC in the film industry (yet), unless you count popcorn and a Coke.  The movie’s out, it’s not changing, so you’ve either made the sale on the next installment already or not.

With entertainment IPs released on digital platforms, the ability to change the content is a lot easier.  Developers and publishers have the opportunity to ensure they keep repeat business on this franchise by ensuring the devoted fanbase, the business partner in this franchise who has become stockholder with all the investment he or she has made, is happy.  

Had Mass Effect 3 not been a sequel in a franchise that had two previous blockbuster games, multiple books and graphic novels, a couple mobile and social platform games, the community it created would not exist, and there would have been no outcry – just a game people bought, played, and never played again. 

But it WAS a part of an amazing franchise.  One with a very rich and detailed story – a story where the player, as the protagonist, got to shape the future of the world based on the decisions he or she made.

And did they ever.   

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