2007, we’re at the peak of platform exclusives with the likes of Halo 3, Crackdown, Heavenly Sword and Uncharted all being released and consolidating each console’s unique identity. Some were one off cult classics, others creating bigger waves and establishing strong bearing franchises, but just a few really made a name for themselves and even ended up outgrowing their chosen platform’s shell.
One of these rare games is the beloved, and now highly renowned, Mass Effect series. Five years later, two more Mass Effect games, and now with Mass Effect’s trilogy come to close it’s not just the heaps of fans who want to know what comes next from this series, but also the rest of the industry – and probably with unwelcomed thanks to the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3, or more directly its response.
But why was Mass Effect such a big thing? Well, like many of the other new name exclusives it started off with just a cult following. The cult following of BioWare fans combined with the faithful audience of Xbox 360 lovers craving a new IP on top of the already acclaimed, but established, Halo and Gears of War games. It also helped that Mass effect was a pretty good game.
This game reintroduced the ‘hardcore’ RPG, we’d already experienced Fable and a bounty of Diablo like clones and they were mostly good, but a few of us wanted our renewed Baldur’s Gate, our re-conjured Deus Ex, our reinvented Knights of the Old Republic. Mass Effect claimed and delivered, and thus fans rejoiced.
Mass Effect was a modern RPG in all the right ways. All the lacking emotion and non-unique settings of previous RPG’s had been addressed here, this was a game that offered interesting characters that reacted convincingly and a setting that reflected an 80’s perspective of a galactic future, it was truly ambitious yet it pulled it off. Mass Effect had been well received and sold well, EA saw that potential and also saw that it became bigger by opening up to the untapped audiences who loved the good shooter. And voila, in condensed written form, EA inevitably propelled a good highlighted exclusive and propelled it to a multi-platform, multi-selling flag bearer through the more sizeable publisher’s marketing cash fund and by opening it up to PC and PlayStation – which is in no way a bad thing!
It might seem this way from the outset, but Mass Effect isn’t just big because of its marketing success. It’s an important game to the industry, too. Games are art, but they’re not nearly as qualitative and as respected as they should be, but every now and again a game comes along and teaches us something new. Mass Effect teaches the industry that social and story driven narrative is important, but it also teaches that the way this information is conveyed is important as well and that’s what makes Mass Effect special to the industry – it uses realistic animation to also help tell a story which we, as human beings, can relate to and in turn make us learn a little bit more about ourselves. Now that is art!
With that in mind it’s no wonder why Mass Effect will have a furthering future beyond Mass Effect 3, but if you’re a gamer – which narrows it down to rather likely if you’re reading this – then you probably already know that. What you might not know though is what that future might be.
So we already know that it ‘will’ continue, and we know that it ‘should’ continue, but what should it continue as? To fulfil the criteria of high sales and rich industry knowledge we should rule it out being another third person action RPG – at least in the same sense that it is now. After three games in a series that has progressively become more action focused for BioWare to then risk the franchise’s core fans in favour of keeping the casual audience? Seems like an identity struggle, which Mass Effect 3 already did struggle with, shifting it slightly in favour to action adventure. In addition, continuing a working formula that has already seemingly been mastered advocates lacking innovation for this industry. This is software, it should always be innovating. It’s also worth noting that after three games the stigma of ‘milking the franchise’ usually gets attached to a well selling series; Call of Duty has had that, even Halo has received similar sorts of flak and that has had some more than noticeable mechanical and story reinventions after Halo 3. It is still possible, but I think for the already stated reasons, Mass Effect 4, 3.5, or 3:1, whatever they end up calling it, should not just be another action focused third person RPG with a character change. It’s time for a genre shift.
A reason why Mass Effect is so fascinating, its scale, space is quite infinite. A genre that can propel that even further is strategy. Mass Effect is rich with races, locations, and already features more than enough reasons for war, what’s wrong with pulling that camera up and adding a few more units on the screen? Unfortunately a couple, a strategy game makes it that little bit harder to fulfil that unique mix of story, character and emotional driven narrative that Mass Effect really shines through. It’s definitely possible to tell a more broadened riveting tale on the contentious relations between the Geth and their Quarian creators, or the building, historical tensions between the Krogan and the Turians, but as soon as you pull that camera up for a stationary overview you then likely receive the stationary story overview of politics and war, not nearly as interesting as war and its effects on your favourite Normandy crew members.
The other potential genre that Mass Effect could try up next is the more ambitious, risky, yet arguably more fitting, MMO. This works for Mass Effect on all gameplay levels as it harnesses the scale of the universe pleasing fans of all races and planets, it offers the progression and customisation that the Mass Effect game’s benefit from, it sticks to the single character, third person perspective and all of the one-to-one, personal story advantages that come with it. Through an MMO system Mass Effect could blossom in terms of innovation proving that even a game that holds a magnitude of players, each player can also experience their own qualitative ventures equivalent to the likes of its singleplayer counterpart. There’s only one kink in this avenue, it has already been done before, very recently and by the same company in a matter of fact. You might recently recall a game called Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you look back at this game’s promising marketing campaign it promised the same invention; the fourth pillar of story and individual tales.
Remaking that game could be inadvertently, and maybe wrongly, admitting failure on its first MMO attempt. But then would it also be an intelligent business move to release and sustain two major MMO’s? This would essentially end two major franchises in a longwinded spiral of MMO expansion packs, because what do you do with a franchise after something so personally conclusive like an MMO?
Those are questions that aren’t suitable to be answered here, but they do help prove a point. The point that an innovative and popular series such as Mass Effect isn’t easy to continue if they want to keep innovative and popular, and yet, as we’ve already have found, the series has to continue.
This is why other big long running hits such as Call of Duty, Halo and Assassin’s Creed go on for so long with minimalistic structure and mechanical gameplay changes; they had been safe bets at making a profit. That’s the ultimate curse when a game becomes as big as this, expenses are generally very high and so less bigger changes to appeal to that much larger audience is the best way to go. So, we may just see another third person action focused RPG from Mass Effect after all and at the unfortunate lesser expense of true industry innovation. Or alternatively, if enough money is made from one successful project it’s not impossible for another more ambitious Mass Effect game to be prototyped, it’s be done before, and if so, Mass Effect Online and Mass Effect Wars here I come.