Inside PR – The Mass Effect 3 Ending

It’s not uncommon for people to have absolutely no clue what PR reps do. I thought that it might be informative and mildly entertaining to talk about what happens behind the scenes by looking at industry news from a PR perspective.

Today’s Inside PR takes a look at the uproar over Mass Effect 3′s ending. What was the thought process within the PR department when fans started going ape over the “bad” ending? Could they have undertaken alternate courses of action? Did they make the right decision? Are gamers taking this whole “sense of entitlement” thing too far?

Read on!

Disclaimer: I don’t know exactly – or even vaguely – what happened inside the PR department. This is all hypothetical, based on what we know about the situation and our experiences with similar scenarios. It’s meant to give you a peek into what we do in PR.

Genesis of the Story

I’m not going to dive too deeply into the in-game events that kicked off the furor – I’ve neither played nor finished Mass Effect 3, and there are a lot of websites that have covered the whole thing extensively. Google it. Long story short: after three entries spanning several years of real-world time, the Mass Effect series (as it stands) came to a conclusion, and an army of vocal detractors went into a frothy rage – like a Starbucks soy-milk latte of anger – over what they considered an inadequate wrap-up of their beloved series. For a game that so heavily pushed character relationships and story, the sentiment was that there were simply too many loose ends, not enough closure.

Inside PR: At this point, the PR department is content to keep an eye on the situation. Media reviews have been exceptionally strong, and the game is selling like hotcakes, so there’s really not a lot that needs to be done just yet.

Escalation

It’s important to realize that people, by their nature, are much more likely to complain when something doesn’t float their proverbial boat. This phenomenon is just amplified in an online setting; anonymity (or relative anonymity) makes it even easier to complain. I’m pulling these numbers out of my ass, but I’d say that if 50% of people are complaining about your game online, only about 25% are actually not enjoying themselves; everyone else is having too much fun to bother with forums and such.

In this case, the detractors got really loud. They voiced their disapproval of the ending on forums and social networks, resulting in media coverage of their outrage. With a title as hot as ME3, media were happy to write up story after story about the matter – it’s a big-traffic game, and the people want to read about it. With increased media coverage, they drew out the less-vocal detractors – the folks who, perhaps, weren’t fans of the ending but were content enough to remain silent. Now, with a growing army behind them, the issue is getting a lot of attention.

Inside PR: The PR department is really starting to pay attention. The first decision that needs to be made is whether to comment on the matter or to just see if it blows over. If you’re passionate about the game you just released – and surely the developers at BioWare are – then you really want to make a statement. How could these people who claim to love your games be so angry about a title that critics absolutely loved? However, jumping in to comment also draws additional attention to the story. It legitimizes the complaints. PR decided to wait.

Critical Mass

Things really started to tip when a fan-driven petition was launched on March 13, urging BioWare to change the ending; strangely enough, this petition aimed to raise money that would be given to the Child’s Play charity. Weird. Anyway, if you, like me, have a Twitter feed full of gaming people, you’ll know that the Mass Effect 3 ending was pretty much all you heard about for a few days after this. It continued to get worse, climaxing (tee hee!) with the March 19 news that fans (it’s starting to get hard to call them “fans” at this point) had filed a complaint with the FTC.

Inside PR: At this point, the issue has become too big to ignore. PR — likely urged on by the higher-ups — decides that a statement needs to be made. But what should that statement entail? You have a few options:

  • Stand behind the ending and change nothing. The upside with this choice is that you essentially say, “get over it; this is the game we wanted to make.” The downside is that you may very well have to withstand the wrath of a bunch of gamers who don’t feel like you give a damn about them. For a company as community-focused as BioWare, this likely wasn’t a great option.
  • Concede, and make changes. In this scenario, you’re able to show that you are listening to your fans — something that really helps build “brand loyalty” (ah, jargon!). Of course, the flip side is that you could be seen as giving up your artistic integrity, and it sets precedent: if you complain enough, we’ll change stuff for you.
  • Do something different. You could also try to come up with an entirely different scenario — a blend of the above options, perhaps. It’s been speculated that BioWare planned DLC that would alter the ending all along. But if so, could that play into the decisions you make as a PR department?

The Response

Two days after news of the FTC complaint hit, BioWare’s Dr. Ray Muzyka posted an open letter to fans of Mass Effect, stating that BioWare had heard their concerns and would be taking steps to allay complaints. Of course — as is to be expected in an online arena — there were cries that BioWare had “given in” to complainers. The conspiracy theorists suggested that BioWare had planned to charge people for ending-improving DLC all along, and had simply underestimated how significant the outcry would become.
Inside PR: At this point PR is really trying to figure out how to turn this all into a big win for the company and game. You had a tremendous amount of positive buzz right at release, and seeing the entire dialogue about the game turn into ongoing arguments about the ending and the merits of artistic integrity definitely sucks. Maybe you had planned to release DLC to expand upon the ending. But if you charge people for that, you’re going to get strung up by an angry mob.
As has been revealed today, BioWare will be releasing free DLC that will expand upon the ending, bringing closure to various plot threads and characters. Of course, a lot of the talk online relates to the aforementioned “giving in” or the downfall of artistic integrity. Did BioWare plan this DLC?Maybe, maybe not. But does this really imply that they’ve conceded to fans? Or is it just a matter of a community-focused developer listening to its fans and giving them what they wanted? By making it free, there’s really nothing for detractors to complain about; it’s a very gamer-friendly move. If they hadn’t planned this DLC previously, then gamers may actually end up getting the short end of the stick — they’re going to have to wait longer for DLC the developers really wanted to make; this scenario being most aggravating for the people who didn’t dislike the ending. That non-vocal majority that was just too busy playing the game and having fun.

 

That’s that! Hope you enjoyed this feature… would love to hear your thoughts on the whole scenario, and whether you’d like to see this sort of story again!
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