Previously on, "Getting Players to Care"
I talked about all sorts of interesting stuff and laid out the foundation for this article series. Each part leads directly into the next and explains what the heck is going on. If you haven't read a previous part, check out Part 1 and skip along merily through my linear corridor of an article-design. I'll work on a non-linear article series next time, I promise.
When Saving the World Works
While it might seem that the Rokia Study argues for focusing solely on single individuals, this is only the case when you're Creating Emotional Engagement between the player and the conflict. As long as the players have invested their emotions into the plight of a specific individual, it can be a powerful supplement to have the outcome of that conflict ripple out to affect many other people as well. This does not provide emotional investment, but rather gives the conflict an aura of importance. While the players in The Sarah Phenomenon did not emotionally invest in the fate of the larger village to any great extent, quickly putting the entire village at risk the moment they learned about Sarah, the knowledge that they were battling for the lives of many gave their struggles a sense of added weight and epic scope – something for them to be proud of.
Saving hundreds of people from zombies is an important task, a goal worthy of a hero. It was this element that gave the players a sense of heroism. However, due to the cause they were fighting for being comprised of the faceless masses – they were unable to emotionally invest in the crisis to any significant degree. It was not until Sarah was introduced, and the conflict was given a face, that the players genuinely cared enough about the crisis for its own sake – and not just because of the gold that they were promised for saving the town.
A loss of scale can deflate a story. An excellent example of this is BioWare’s Dragon Age series. In the well-loved Dragon Age: Origins, the first game in the series, the player is fighting to save a kingdom from an army of monsters. This struggle is segmented into a series of conflicts building up to the final battle, with each segment featuring its own small cast of characters to give the issue a personal face. The result was adoration from players and reviewers around the world.
However, in the sequel something went wrong. Dragon Age 2 disappointed both fans and critics and was generally not considered a fitting successor to Dragon Age: Origins. There are many possible reasons for this reaction, particularly concerning the stylistic changes and lack of polish due to short development time, but I believe the biggest reason for Dragon Age 2’s lackluster reception is due to its lack of scale.
In the first game the player was on an epic quest to unite the land against an army of darkness. The sequel confines the story to a single city where the bulk of the player’s tasks involve such situations as clearing out mines to make them safe for miners or tracking down the son of a runaway noble. The events rarely seem to have any vast significance beyond altering the opinions of a few NPCs towards the player, and it is only a few times where the fates of many seem to hang in the balance.
While I would argue that Dragon Age 2 is a highly enjoyable game and often improved upon its predecessor, this lack of scale utterly deflated the game’s sense of importance. It's difficult to feel like an epic fantasy hero when most of the work you do is what you’d associate with a city guardsman. It is difficult to imagine Gandalf or Aragorn tracking down the mayor’s runaway son, or clearing out a few spiders from a mountain trail. While many of the conflicts and characters in Dragon Age 2 were compelling, the loss of scale muted the drama and resulted in a sense of deflating excitement.
It has been demonstrated that players respond best to an emotional appeal that focuses on the plight of an individual, and it has likewise been demonstrated that adding a sense of scale to the backdrop of the conflict is a highly effective combination. This method of marrying an individual’s plight to a larger-scale issue will be a core element of my model for Creating Emotional Investment. Indeed, failing to understand this principle is the core reason that Mass Effect 3 disappointed so many players.
Once Upon a Time I Was Falling in Love, Now I’m Only Falling Apart
As of this writing (which was originally in March 2012) there are 57,511 “likes” for the “Retake Mass Effect 3” movement on Facebook. This group represented a gathering of the players shocked and disappointed by the ending to the epic science-fiction trilogy. What makes this group so interesting is that their motto was, “Demand a Better Ending to Mass Effect 3”. Unlike most outraged fan bases, they loved the game overall but hated the final few minutes of it. For them, it's the ending that ruins Mass Effect 3.
The disappointment of BioWare’s most dedicated players was overwhelming. On March 5, 2012 the most significant impartial poll on BioWare’s own social forums showed an astounding 63,559 voters despised the ending – approximately 91% of the 69,601 votes. This number gets more shocking when one factors in that another 4,070 voters, approximately 6% of the total, desired that the ending be changed in some small way. Only 1,474 voters, approximately 2%, endorsed the endings as being “fine as-is”.
This poll was not professionally conducted, and one can make many objections regarding its accuracy, but it is unquestionable that a vast number of BioWare’s most loyal fan-base actively desired them to alter their endings. Users that gave the game poor ratings on Metacritic overwhelmingly cited the poorly written ending of the game as the reason for their displeasure.
But what is most astonishing about this scenario is not how many fans despised the ending, but rather how much they cared. They were so emotionally invested in the Mass Effect series that rather than writing it off as a disappointing finish to a game, they were actively campaigning BioWare to alter the ending post-release via downloadable content.
To demonstrate how much this issue meant to them, the hastily gathered community instigated a charity drive – encouraging players who want a better ending to the series to donate money under the “Retake Mass Effect 3” movement’s name to a charity known as Child’s Play. In less than ten days, dissatisfied players had contributed $80,000 of their personal money to the charity drive. However, due to Child’s Play being sensitive about being associated with third-party causes, the charity drive was capped at $80,000 – leaving dissatisfied fans to look elsewhere for positive methods to demonstrate how much they cared about the game.
This is a phenomenal example of emotional investment on the part of players. The players cared so much about the Mass Effect series that they rallied to convince the developers to change the final game’s ending. They are acting against their own best interest by spending money on the cause they likely wouldn’t otherwise spend and are channeling it to positive ends. With so many fans clearly having such a deep emotional investment in the series, Bioware is to be applauded. They clearly accomplished something incredible with the stories of most of the Mass Effect Trilogy. It seems impossible that such brilliant writers could go so wrong in the final few minutes.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 5. Let's see how it all went wrong.