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RANT: The Angry Mob

I spoke only a week ago about how Kickstarter can be used for some truly great purposes - and some truly godawful ones. This is a great example of the bizarre kind of hive mind behavior that I find so fascinating - and startling. Kickstarter allows thousands upon thousands of individuals to consider contributing money - very small amounts, very often! - to get a project going... or, in some cases, fund it completely. The tidal wave of donations towards Double Fine's Adventure Game project is only one example of crowd-sourcing as a real-world application of the power of the Internet horde.

That money doesn't just go towards creating a fun game and a documentary to go along with it - that's people's lives! Their livelihood! The Internet just gave them the money to work for the next year and then some! In this economy, how incredible must that be: to know that the funds to pay for your paychecks are secured through the next two holiday seasons? All that as a result of enough people seeing the project, contributing whatever small amount was convenient, and then sending the link to their friends, even the ones who don't like Tim Schafer's work - because, hey, the video was pretty funny!

This kind of swarm behavior has been seen before, certainly, but rarely with such a real-world component to it. In years past, it's been very easy to regard Internet phenomena as largely restricted to... well, to the Internet. If everyone on Something Awful thought a movie was atrocious and made some outrageous Photoshops of a key scene, then that's great - but it certainly didn't pay my bills. Nowadays, if the Goons spot some social injustice that they feel must be dealt a decisive blow, I'm liable to see groups of activists in Guy Fawkes masks protesting at a local gas station.

It's getting harder and harder to avoid, too. Not only is mass social connection a reality, but it's insidiously become something of a necessity. Facebook and Twitter are seen as avenues of "presence" for many professionals. Everyone else has a profile - why don't you? They're used as messaging applets, event organizers, and news outlets, requiring some degree of connection even if you never log in. There's tremendous peer pressure to be as connected as everyone else.

This nonsense regarding Mass Effect 3's ending - notably the tremendous cry for revision from the "public" and the semi-ambiguous response from BioWare itself - is noteworthy primarily for its disproportionate size to its importance. I, like many others out there, beat the game, and didn't think much of the ending - and then carried on with my life. I hoped to see a funny joke video about it the next day. I didn't raise thousands of dollars for charity in order to demonstrate how dissatisfied I was. But I'm a droplet in a gushing river of Internets. I suppose raising money for charity is actually a good thing, but consider that the motivation behind the fundraiser is quite seriously DEFINED as fan backlash in the hopes of getting an alternate ending generated. It seems absurd to say it out loud, but the truth is that someone thought it would work - and thanks to the magic of crowdsourcing, it actually MIGHT have some kind of impact, regardless of how bizarre that seems.

As weird as it seems, this kind of rule-by-mob seems to be the logical extension of the hyper-connectivity that we've all been sold on. An excellent piece on Gamasutra talks about how EA's determination to make accessibility - both in-game and through social networking - ultimately promised a final catharsis that it couldn't possibly achieve. While I think they could have created a more satisfying climax, there's no doubt that the plethora of elements that could or could not be included in a Mass Effect ending sequence would have been a great deal more work to put together than the tighter, more concise endings that are currently available.

Were time and budget a factor when it came time to decide how to end the trilogy? Very likely. I can't imagine that they weren't. But what really troubles me is this idea that the voice of the unwashed masses might somehow call BioWare to account for this ending. There's a finality to a project when it is complete, and there is a very real mental process that an individual goes through wherein they acknowledge that the project is at an end. You remove yourself from "the zone," the space in which you've focused completely on the project for whatever length of time - and you almost have to force yourself to engage in other activities in order to stop thinking about it. This is true for nearly any kind of work, big and small, and the process of "closing" becomes a much bigger deal for a larger work.

What happens if BioWare calls everyone in and tells them that they're going to start working on an alternative ending? Or an epilogue to the existing work? If you're part of a DLC team that knew you had work to do after the game launched, then you're probably a lot better prepared for this kind of news. But if you've "wrapped"? If you've moved on? If you had other plans about how your work and your life were going to go, and they were changed because a thousand anonymous voices on the Internet didn't like what you'd put together with the time that you had available? The implications seem troubling. It's not just a matter of calling people in to rework something that they've mentally checked out on: it's an alteration of a business strategy based on the demands of an overly vocal unknown percentage of the fanbase. If I'm fine with the ending, am I supposed to be as loud about it as the guy next to me that hated it, and is willing to put up $5 just to prove his point?

I'll be very anxious to see just what BioWare does with the feedback that they've received. They've said repeatedly that they are, in fact, listening, and that some kind of a more visceral response will be forthcoming in April. I'm not sure what they could say that make everyone happy.

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