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The (Mass) Effect of Facial Expressions

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Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?

Nicholas: I’ve gone through this before, and it seems cyclical, but it definitely seems like gaming has been on the backburner as far as my usual interests are concerned. Don’t get me wrong, I still love gaming and it was only recently that I was completely enthralled in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but that longing for the weekend just to play the latest and greatest is sometimes a past memory than a current state of mind. The reason I say this is because there are moments when I think about upcoming games as that title that breaks what I’ve just said. That AAA title from one of the major publishers that’s going to have me hooked to my screen for a few weekends, where I consider the possibility of unemployment so I can dedicate more time to whatever virtual world I’m living in.

For me, Mass Effect Andromeda was that game. If you asked me what I was looking forward to the most over the past few months, my answer was always that. I didn’t watch pre-release trailers, I didn’t engage in discussions with friends – I kept my knowledge to the game as low as possible, and my excitement as untainted (but enthusiastic) as possible. Problem is, despite the fact Mass Effect Andromeda launched two months ago, I’ve still yet to play it. Matter of fact, I’ve yet to even buy it.

The reason for this though boils down to one thing – the launch failed. With BioWare at the helm and with how much I loved the trilogy before it, I expected this to be game to play, the answer to our prayers and well worth the wait, but from all reports, it just wasn’t. Glitches, bigotry from members of the development team and less than favourable reviews from gamers and the media alike, everything I had hoped for became tarnished almost overnight.

So before we get into the meat of it all, I wanted to ask you two things: 1) have you had a chance to play Mass Effect Andromeda and 2) what are your thoughts on it overall?

Andy: I have not played it yet to be perfectly honest. I have downloaded the 10 hr trial via EA Access but haven’t gotten around to trying it yet. I played the first three games, never finished the last because I burned myself out at the time and just haven’t gotten back to it. At this point, I’m not sure I ever will, but that’s another topic for a different day. In regards to what I think about Andromeda, or rather the reception of it, the cynic in me says, “I’m not surprised.” Not because of the quality of the game by any means, because like I said, I haven’t played it, but because it just seems that we are in an age where it’s simply cool to teardown everything. Find a fault even if it may be trivial, and just rip it to shreds and make a big deal out of it.

I have to be 100% honest here. One of the reasons we have had such a long hiatus from writing Game On or Game Over is in early March I had major shoulder surgery. Actually the day of my surgery was the day Andromeda was released. So it wasn’t at the forefront of things I was paying attention to. I do know there was some chatter about facial animations and people making it seem like a gigantic game-breaking thing. I have yet to ever play a game where a characters’ face greatly impacts my experience. But then again, I am from a generation of gamers where giant pixels were characters. So maybe it’s just my standards. Maybe I’m just getting disenfranchised with the notion of continually ripping things apart just for the sake of doing it. I remember a time when gaming was about… having fun and enjoying the experience.

From the people I have talked to that have played it, they all enjoy it. Yet, almost every one of them made a comment to the effect that it would be a better game if it wasn’t a Mass Effect game. One of my comments when it was announced was that I thought Mass Effect was supposed to be a trilogy and then be done. Of course, all the resources used in creating the world, characters and whatnot make it hard for studios to walk away from games when their stories are over. Before we get to what I think you want to talk about, let me pump the breaks here and ask you a couple questions. I know you loved the first three games, would you have been looking forward to this one if the name Mass Effect wasn’t tied to it? Moreover, does attaching that name to this game automatically put undue pressure and expectations on it? Meaning when Mass Effect are the first two words that gamers see there are a certain set of expectations that they apply to it. So maybe the real question is… should BioWare have created a new world/universe with new stories to tell?

Nicholas: Would I have been looking forward to this game as much if it wasn’t Mass Effect? Probably not. I maintain the fact that I’m not a massive sci-fi gamer, but there was something about the original trilogy that just pulled me in. For that reason, knowing that there was another ME game meant that I was going to buy it, even if it didn’t necessarily fall into the list of genres I usually play. If I had known that BioWare were making a new sci-fi game like Mass Effect but without the same name, would I still be interested? Yes, but not in the same way that I was for Andromeda. Like you said, and to answer your second question, there’s definitely an expectation associated with the name. Even if Shepard isn’t the main protagonist, even if the characters and settings don’t make an appearance, there’s something about the ME universe that I’m keen to explore yet again. If the same game was announced but called something else, would I enjoy it as much? Most likely, but that initial hype wouldn’t be involved.

You asked whether BioWare should have created a new world/universe with new stories to tell. The answer is definitely yes – because that’s kind of what I expected from Andromeda. Knowing that it wasn’t going to continue the story of Shepard I was already prepared (but still interested) in exploring a new world within the universe of Mass Effect – one that might never touch on the Citadel, the Reapers, etc. For me what made ME great (among other things) was the gameplay, the storyline and the characters – all three things would work without the brand associated to it.

You mentioned that there’s a culture of negativity in the community lately, one that tears games apart without giving them a shot, and I’d like to explore this further. Yes, there’s certainly a case to be made that the hubbub over facial animations and the random Twitter comments from a member of the development team is largely irrelevant, and that some game glitches can be overlooked if not all players are experiencing them, but I want to pose this question to you – should we be making these exceptions given the size of the game and the people involved? What I mean is, if the facial expressions are a little lacklustre for an indie game, sure you’ll give it a pass. But should we have greater scrutiny when the likes of BioWare and EA are at the helm? AAA should bring with it certain levels of quality, and especially in a series like Mass Effect, poor facial expressions can (and do) destroy the atmosphere between certain characters – which is a big deal with the storyline and character interaction is so pivotal to this franchise.

So I’d like to put it to you, at what point does a flaw become significant enough to warrant the backlash? Is the impact to the game important, and does that depend on the type of game? Furthermore, does it matter who’s behind the game as well?

Andy: Can I use the term ‘size doesn’t matter’ here? I mean really why does size matter, whether it’s a studio of four people or a studio of  400 people, making a video game is a complex thing. As the scope of the game grows so do the potential problems. Making a game the size of Mass Effect is a daunting endeavour and if people think there would be minor hiccups or that quality control should catch every little thing, I don’t think they truly appreciate what goes into making one. A completely rhetorical question, in a game focusing quite a bit on aliens… why is it a minor facial animation that has no impact on the game what-so-ever get people all riled up?

To get more in-depth to your question though. For starters I don’t think any flaw should ever warrant a “backlash”, unless it’s a game-breaking, system-killing bug. Something that locks up your system, loses a save file or makes the game unplayable. Then I can see some of the ire, but let’s be honest here, gamers are very good at making mountains out of specs of sand. I think that is part of the problem, in that the community makes such a big deal out of everything, when something big does pop up it’s hard to know because of all the commotion for things that don’t really matter much. It’s just my opinion, but I firmly believe that a lot of things people complain about don’t really matter. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it, we are talking about video games. They are supposed to be fun. I don’t know of many people that go to the latest Will Ferrell movie and get up in arms about dialog choices, plot points or upset that the acting isn’t top notch. Movies are there for entertainment just like video games.

I don’t want to come across like I’m giving game developers a free pass to make a glitch-filled game, but people need to keep things in perspective. Like the tweets from one of the developers, how does that in any way affect someone’s enjoyment of the game? It doesn’t. It just gives the mob mentality someone to focus on. I mean death threats over facial animations… come on get real. That’s just asinine. Mad at a developer, send a death threat. Upset with the direction of a franchise, send a death threat. Don’t like that the main character is female, send a death threat. Don’t like that the main character isn’t a female, send a death threat.

It seems counter-intuitive that gamers demand perfection in every minute detail of a game. But yet attack those talented enough to try. It begs the question, when is enough enough? Have car do we push these developers before some of them start to say – “You know what I’m sick of all these threats, I’m going to do something else with my life.”? I know if I was a developer that received death threats I’d seriously consider a career change. Or at the very least step completely away from social media of any form. Then you lose that really cool personal connection we have with developers. Do you think the ease of which we can contact those developers is a big part of this issue?

Nicholas: That’s just the situation though, and I guess part of the discussion we are having this week, is at what point do seemingly small issues to one person become significant issues to another? Let’s start with the facial animations. Yes, you are correct that a game like Mass Effect focuses heavily on alien interaction, but the interesting thing here is that the alien animations (rather, the non-human-looking races) are fine, it’s the human-esque ones which are the problem. On face value this might seem like a non-issue, but consider what element of Mass Effect pulled gamers in most. It wasn’t the combat (which was fantastic in its own right), but rather the story. What made the story amazing? The characters, and the interactions we had with those characters. Facial animations that appear dull simply detract from that immersion element that made ME so amazing, and while I’m sure you overlook it after some time, it’s a shame that it’s even an issue. In most games you’re right, it’s nothing major, but I can understand where the criticisms and complaints come from in a franchise like this.

You mentioned whether size matters, but even here I feel there’s a case to suggest otherwise. When a game is being made by four people I cut them slack if things aren’t necessarily perfect. Yes there’s a standard, but you adjust your expectations accordingly. I love when an indie game blows me away, but what I expect from an indie game and what I expect from an AAA title are not one and the same. Going further, when you have a studio like BioWare at the helm and a publisher like EA behind them, you simply expect better. I understand games are complex, I understand that the grander the scale the greater the possibility for issues, but we’re not talking a NPC not being shaded correctly once in a blue moon. We’re talking about disconnected character interactions due to (dare I say) lacklustre work on facial animations. This isn’t a characters fingertips we’re talking here. It’s arguably one of the most important aspects of these characters. A studio that respects their fans and respects the art that is video games shouldn’t ship a product when such a visual element is sub-par.

To touch on what you’ve said at the end, once again I’d like to offer an alternate perspective. “The views and comments expressed are not representative of my employer.” We see that line written time and time again, but as we’ve discussed in the past, a simple disclaimer just isn’t sufficient online. When you make the comment that tweets from a developer shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the game, once again, put yourself in the shoes of a die-hard fan. You love BioWare. You love what they put out. You particularly love Mass Effect. But one day you’re scrolling through your timeline and a member of the dev team, someone you’ve been following makes a racist comment you take offensive with. It’s got nothing to do with the game, but it still bothers you – and in the current modern climate, the comments made by this particular member of the dev team are highly charged. Again, a molehill to you or I, but a mountain to someone else. At the same time, when you work for a large company like BioWare, whether you like it or not, your opinions and comments have repercussions and you should be smarter about what you post.

So, to answer your question – do I think the ease of how we communicate with these developers is a big part of this issue? No, not particularly. Yes, anonymity and instant communication are a factor and are certainly what causes some people to be jerks online, but I don’t think that’s the issue we’re seeing here. What we have instead is a major game with a massive fan following and high expectations feeling let down and (potentially offended) by the team responsible for its creation. It looks like we’re in disagreement here, but can you see where I’m coming from? Can you understand how this is potentially more than just some vocal gamers being vocal for the mere sake, but legitimate complaints from those who ultimately care the most?

Andy: OK, that’s two separate things and to do them justice need to talk about each individually. First in regards to the facial animations, or other minor imperfections in a game, yes I can understand how those can cause people to, shall we say, be removed from the moment. Granted, I’m not as bothered by things like that, but yes I can empathize with those who are. I remember playing Skyrim when it came out and for a while there was a glitch where some dragons flew backwards. I thought it was hilarious. I spent hours chasing after backwards flying dragons because I was laughing so hard. Sure some people got up in arms about the “game-breaking’ glitch but to each their own. I guess I am just a pretty easy going person, if it’s not game-breaking then I’m not overly worried about it.

Now onto the second part of your question. This is the part where I just can’t budge on, but I’ll give more examples too. Social media can be amazing, it allows us instant connection with brands and people alike. Have a favourite game, you can follow them and more often than not engage them in conversation. Know a developers name, chances are you can find them as well. Many of the developers that I choose to follow actively engage their fans, which is awesome. Same with the individual workers within that developer. I’ve talked to some pretty cool people because of that. Then one day one of those individuals says something that’s taken out of context, or goes against the thoughts/beliefs of someone and suddenly it’s a talking point by everyone.

Let’s say I follow “Developer X” on Twitter. X is one of the lead developers on Fallout, so I have traded tweets with him back and forth over the past couple years. One day he tweets, “The holocaust never happened it’s all fictional.”. I don’t run out and say, “boycott Fallout because one of their developers said this!” Private social media accounts are just that, private. Yes, most, if not all, have that little disclaimer line that you mentioned, but we both know that doesn’t mean squat when the internet mob starts churning and the brand tries to protect itself/distance itself from one person. More than likely, in my example, the person would be fired for making an insensitive comment. But should they be? Should X be fired for saying something on his personal Twitter account? Or his personal Facebook page? It’s not within the scope of his working on Fallout, nor was it ever associated with them. But people will still demand action, because that’s what they do.

So I truly believe social media is a double-edged sword. We, as gamers, love being able to talk to not only the studios behind the games but the individuals as well. Yet when something isn’t to our liking we circle the mob and send death threats, then when all is said and done we start to question why individual developers aren’t as outgoing as they once were. If I was a developer for a studio I would have my social media accounts on absolute lock-down, fake names, locked access, everything.

So while I can agree with you on the glitch/bug aspect can you see my point in how the mob mentality and making mountains out of grains of sand in regards to social media actually hurts the industry?

Nicholas: Oh I 100% see where you’re coming from and I don’t necessarily disagree with a lot of it, but I think we need to acknowledge the responsibilities of being a someone online. When you’re a normal gamer or civilian like you or I, what we say online is largely irrelevant. Say something offensive and maybe a friend or colleague might be put off, they might even unfriend or unfollow you, but it kind of ends there. Alternatively, when you’re a lead developer for a major franchise/studio, as much as we mightn’t want it to be the case, what you say has greater effects and consequences. People associate people with companies – we do it all the time with our favourite community managers – and they need to recognize that unfortunately that freedom to say whatever and suffer no consequences is a thing of the past.

To me it smells of taking the good and wanting none of the bad. There are people that love having this massive fan base to interact and talk with, but then want the responsibilities of a teenager who jumps on Twitter after dinner once he’s done all his homework. Sadly, that isn’t how it works. If you truly want the freedom to say whatever then you don’t use your name and you don’t mention your employer. Just like you said, have your social media accounts on absolute lock-down.

It’s been a long-time coming with this article and we’ve finally neared the end, so to wrap things up I wanted to get your final thoughts on what we started on. For all intents and purposes, Mass Effect was in many ways a hit, but in many others, somewhat a failure. Fans have both praised and criticized the game, and it seems that for all the pre-release hype, once EA started to receive backlash they quickly replaced any talk on ME with the news of the next Battlefront game. There have been talks that the poor sales of ME:A might cast doubt on the future of the franchise, and this is something we see time and time again. For you, is this a lesson to be learned by EA to never rush the development process, even when you have one of the biggest names in the industry behind you, or have gamers just ruined things for themselves again?

Andy: I think the answer isn’t as simple as we would like it to be, it’s all in the details though. We’ve already confirmed it in this article without really meaning to actually. To you, slightly off facial animations are jarring and grounds for a fairly significant backlash. To me it’s something to be shrugged off and counted as no big deal. The say the devil’s in the details and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What some find appalling, others may find just fine. There is no singular way to please every person. The obvious answer would be someone saying, “well just make it with less bugs and glitches.” Yet, it’s not that easy if, in my eyes, the issue that some have isn’t a big deal. It can quickly turn into a Catch-22.

I don’t think Andromeda was rushed though. Mass Effect 3 came out on March 6th 2012 and it took 5 years for the next one to be released, hardly a rush job in my opinion. I think the term “rushed” is one of those that’s used way too much. A lot like how the term “hero” is thrown around now-a-days. Five years between games, so probably realistically four to four-and-a-half years of development time is pretty damn good for games in the era we live in if you ask me. Look, I get it, there were some things with Andromeda that some people didn’t like. Yet on the other hands there are things with the game that other people enjoyed. Who’s right? I’d argue both are. It’s the nature how things are, not everyone will like everything and that’s ok.

Your last point is probably the most interesting to me though. No one knows what the internal goals were when EA released it, but you sure seem to be onto something with your Battlefront comment. It sure does seem like EA quickly shifted their focus from a game that can generate sales to a game that’s not even out yet. I’m not sure why they made that switch so suddenly and with such across-the-board ferocity. I haven’t seen a ME ad in some time now.  If the sales were down it could very well be because of the bugs that some people encountered, it could be that gamers are becoming more and more accustomed to waiting for a sale, or it could be franchise fatigue as well. Or maybe a combination of those things. The beauty of being a gamer right now is, regardless of that, there are plenty of great games to enjoy. There’s something for everyone for sure. Maybe ME:A can be a lesson to other developers/publishers going forward… but then again what’s the lesson if half of the fans loved it? Ah, the good ole gaming conundrum.

Tune in next time for the next instalment of Game On or Game Over. If you have any ideas for our next article, feel free to contact Andy or Nicholas on Twitter.