Changing Mass Effect 3 with Fans: A Case Study of Innovation and Change Communication


This paper was originally written for Innovation & Change course at Department of Communication, University of Jyväskylä by Honza Švelch and Veronika Veselá. It is now published on delver into videogames with a bonus chapter about EA which didn't make it to the submitted version due to space limitations.

Fan ME3 ending by Hellstern.

In this paper we explore innovation and change processes from the perspective of communication. In the first part, we lay basic theoretical framework using organizational change literature. In the second part, we examine three case examples of change and innovation processes from development and post-launch treatment of BioWare’s hit video game Mass Effect 3: 1. fan art contest, 2. FemShep canonization, and 3. discursive struggle over ending change. All examples are connected by an important role played by BioWare’s fan community, posing as a strong stakeholder group.

1. Theoretical framework

1.1 Definitions and Distinctions

According to many scholars and business professionals, innovation and change is necessary for a successful organization. While these two terms are very close to each other and describe similar processes, there are substantial differences between them. Innovation has mainly positive connotations: “innovation is considered a source of competitive advantage and economic growth” (Damanpour, Schneider 2006: 215). Change has a broader meaning and can be even interpreted as a consequence of a failure: “organizational change […] would not be necessary if people had done their jobs right in the first place” (Weick, Quinn 1999: 362). Still, innovation and change in the context of organizations have a lot in common. How much is clearly visible from two following definitions. “At the organizational level, innovation is defined as the adoption of a new product, service, process, technology, policy, structure or administrative system.” (Damanpour, Schneider 2006: 216) “[…] change is a set of behavioral science-based theories, values, strategies, and techniques aimed at the planned change of the organizational work setting for the purpose of enhancing individual development and improving organizational performance, through alteration of organizational members’ on-the-job behaviors” (Porras & Robertson 1992 in Weick, Quinn 1999: 363). Both these processes are seen as intentional. There is also a hint of a potential benefit coming from innovation and change which is tied to a successful implementation. We will discuss this matter later when speaking about stages (phases) of change/innovation. The main difference between change and innovation lies in the aspect of “newness” which is required for innovation. Therefore we can state that for the purpose of our paper, innovation is a special type of a change.

Weick, Quinn (1999) and Munduate, Bennebroek Gravenhorst (2003) distinguish between two different approaches to organizational change: episodic and continuous. This distinction is also relevant if we talk about innovations. Borrowing the words from Munduate & Bennebroek Gravenhorst, we can describe episodic change as a means to “reach new equilibrium” (2003: 3) and the continuous one as a “constant adjustment and growth” (2003: 4). We can illustrate the difference on the subject of our case study: developer BioWare was continuously altering and improving gameplay of Mass Effect games to attract a wider audience. This process was comprised of many small changes which were happening during the development of Mass Effect 2 and 3 (see chapter 2.3.1). At the same time BioWare also empoyed the episodic change, for example when announcing the Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3 (see chapter 2.3.4).

"Constant adjustment and growth" of FemShep.
While the distinction of episodic and continuous change/innovation makes an impression that change is either quick, or a very long process, it is important to take in mind that every change goes through many stages on its way from an idea to reality. Organizational scholars usually agree on three main phases: initiation, adoption decision, and implementation (Damanpour, Schneider 2006), or from a slightly different perspective: unfreeze, change, and refreeze (Weick, Quinn 1999). Initiation is usually stimulated by internal or external factors. In this phase organizational members recognize a need for change and propose their ideas for potential adoption. In the second stage organizational members evaluate the proposed innovations/changes and prepare for the change implementation. The last phase consists of practical application and routinization of the innovation (Damanpour, Schneider 2006).
1.2 Stimuli and Capability

As we stated earlier, change can be stimulated by external or internal factors. Our goal here is not to identify all possible variables influencing change and innovation but to find those which are relevant to our case organization. BioWare started working on Mass Effect 3 around 2010. The development was influenced by successes of both previous games. Especially Mass Effect 2 achieved a great popularity among players and critics. The factor of a great economic health of a franchise usually leads to innovation (Damanpour, Schneider 2006) and that was also the case of Mass Effect 3. Big fan base located on BioWare’s official internet forums (BioWare Social Network) largely contributed to innovations in form of external communication (Damanpour, Schneider 2006). Developers were actively seeking feedback for the game on their forums and implemented some of the fans’ suggestions.

Stimuli alone are not enough to achieve sustaining successful organizational change (Oxtoby et al. 2002). The fact, that BioWare achieved such successes with Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, raised the expectations of players. For example, Dragon Age II failed due to too much change, which was uncalled for from the perspective of the audience. The change was unsustainable as Oxtoby et al. learned from experience of many different firms: “Organizational change cannot be pushed too fast if it is to be sustained.” (2002: 317). In result, the external factor of the dissatisfied player community led BioWare to rethink changes made in Dragon Age II and to search for more sustainable model for Dragon Age III.

1.3 Communication and Resistance

Change and innovation is a major organizational process which, in order to be successful, has to be communicated and “organizational scholars have long acknowledged the importance of communication in explanations of organizational change process.” (Lewis 2007: 176) Insufficient communication often leads to resistance. Although resistance is often seen as a hindrance to a change/innovation process, it can also be beneficial for the organization: “[…] it can still influence the evolution of shared discoursal themes, employed discursive resources, identity construction and the formation of organizational ideology […]“ (Erkama 2010: 161).

4th of 6 FemSheps.
Generally, resistance is something that organizations try to prevent. Communication can help in many ways. For example, it can explain the goals of innovation/change process “reducing uncertainty and clarifying the vision of change” (Lewis 2007: 177). It can also facilitate a participatory decision making (Lewis 2007). BioWare used this communicational aspect when it gave opportunity to anyone to vote for a canonical version of female Commander Shepard (main hero/heroine of Mass Effect games, see chapter 2.3.3). The role of communication is to maintain a negotiation between different stakeholders and the implementer of the change/innovation process (Lewis 2007).

From a more practical perspective, to achieve clear and unified communication an organization has to establish a communication policy in which every organizational member knows their communication responsibilities (Haan 2003). Confused statements from different organizational representatives only strengthen the uncertainty of various stakeholders. We would touch more upon this subject when speaking about voices speaking for BioWare (see chapter 2.1.1).

2. Case study of Mass Effect 3

2.1 BioWare

BioWare was founded in February 1995 as an independent game studio by Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada). Their first game, Shattered Steel (1996), started cooperation with American video game publisher Interplay which later released BioWare’s critically acclaimed series Baldur’s Gate (1998), based on Dungeons & Dragons. Despite the success of the games, Interplay reported big losses which subsequently led to bankruptcy. BioWare sought out new business partners and developed Neverwinter Nights (2002) for French publisher Infogrames. After that the studio started working with Microsoft, e.g. Jade Empire (2005). In November 2005 BioWare formed a partnership with another independent developer Pandemic Studios backed by an investment from a private equity firm Elevation Partners. In October 2007 the whole partnership was bought by American video game company Electronic Arts (EA). BioWare therefore lost its independence and became a division of EA. However, it still retained its own branding. 

BioWare then continued in their focus on role-playing video games and developed two, both critically and commercially, successful series: Mass Effect (2007) and Dragon Age (2009). In 2009, EA restructured its game development and formed a new team which is now known as the BioWare Group. This new group is led by the founding member of BioWare Ray Muzyka as a Group General Manager. Greg Zeschuk works as Group Creative Officer, the third founding member Augustine Yip left the company in 1997 in order to pursue his career of a medical doctor. In present, BioWare Group consists of six studios, including the original one from Edmonton, and in itself is an international organization with employees in Canada, USA and Ireland.

Except video games, BioWare also sells various merchandising connected to its popular game franchises, e.g. clothing, lithographs, art books, action figures. In cooperation with third-party organizations it also creates some parts of transmedia storytelling (Jenkins 2007): novels (with Del Rey Books and Tor Books), comic books (with Dark Horse Publishing), animation movies (with FUNimation Entertainment).

2.1.1 Voices of BioWare

Outside of traditional press releases, BioWare and its employees release various statements through different channels. In this short chapter, we would like to introduce the most important spokespersons for issues connected to Mass Effect series.

Jessica Merizan, Community Manager.
The majority of official communication (except the organizational press releases) is made by Ray Muzyka, General Manager of BioWare Group, and Casey Hudson, executive producer of Mass Effect series. Other top representatives[1] can express BioWare’s opinions, usually only as statements in various journalistic interviews. David Silverman, Director of Marketing, was very active during the pre-launch promotion of ME3, mostly working as a presenter for BioWare TV video. Official communication on BioWare Social Network is conducted by Community Coordinator Chris Priestly and to a lesser extent by Community Manager Jessica Merizan.

BioWare’s employees regularly express their opinions on BioWare Social Network and on Twitter. Despite the, usually apparent[2], personal nature of their messages, fan community sometimes misinterprets them as organizational communication. Even when these messages are understood correctly, they can build an undesirable picture of the organization. Employees are through their personal statements (written in informal style) often seen as caring and concerned human beings while the organization due to much more complicated communication policy as secretive and above all profit-driven[3].
2.2 Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts, Inc. (abbreviated as EA) is a traditional American game company. It was founded in 1982 by Trip Hawkins (former Director of Product Marketing in Apple Inc.) as a video game publisher. In late 1980s it also began to develop games in-house. Throughout its career it released many popular games as the Need for Speed series of racing games, The Sims, Command & Conquer strategy series, Battlefield first person shooter series, or the sports series as FIFA, NHL, Madden NFL. EA operates on global market, mainly in Northern America, Europe, Asia and Australia. These regional markets are divided by a delay in release dates (Veselá 2012). Video games from EA are usually localized to different languages.

EA is an international organization with 9 043 employees as of February 2012. It operates as a developer, publisher and distributor of video games in 75 countries. According to a report from the third quarter of fiscal year 2012 (Electronic Arts 2012a), EA was the number one publisher in Western markets with 17 % segment share. The whole company is divided into four labels: EA Games, EA Sports, Maxis, and BioWare. EA also has a co-publishing program called EA Partners which cooperates on releases of third party games, e.g. Rock Band, or Crysis.

EA has a history of buying smaller developers and then changing their franchises. This practice has been many times criticized by the video game industry and players. In 2008, current CEO John Riccitielo acknowledged that this behavior was wrong and said that EA is now giving its subsidiaries more autonomy and lets them keep their own organizational culture (Kohler 2008). The negative picture of EA as a company still remains in the public and the media, as shown by a recent poll made by American magazine The Consumerist (2012) in which readers voted for, in their opinion, worst company in the USA. In the final round, EA won over Bank of America with 64.03 % votes. While the whole company has a bad public image, individual subsidiaries usually retain their reputation from their independent years. For example, faults made by BioWare are explained by studio’s fans as a direct influence of EA, as a negative decision made by EA and forced upon the studio. In-house developers are seen as victims of EA’s organizational culture[4].

2.3 Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 (ME3) is a conclusion to a popular trilogy with the main character Commander Shepard. BioWare started developing this game even before the second one had been released (in January 2010). The whole development process, the final product and pre- and post-launch treatment were subject to many changes and innovations compared to first two games. In following chapters we would like to examine different types of innovation and changes connected to ME3 with special focus on communication.
2.3.1 The Game and its Development

Mass Effect games are third-person action role-playing games. The main game mechanics are cover-based shooting and conversations with multiple choices. The whole transmedia storytelling (Jenkins 2007) is set in an original fictitious world developed by BioWare and inspired by popular sci-fi franchises as Star Trek, Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. According to Juul’s typology of video game worlds (2005) we can categorize it as a coherent world, which lets players imagine it to a full detail. The fictitious world of Mass Effect expanded through novels, comic books, spin-off games and DLC (Švelch 2011) into a massive transmedia storytelling with many side characters and episodes.

Mass Effect is one of few sci-fi role-playing/shooter games and has nearly no direct competition. At the same time, BioWare and EA realize the potential of the game and try to expand its audience with every sequel. Starting with ME2, EA began marketing the game also to players of shooter games as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or Gears of War 2. ME3 implemented an innovative option which enables the player to choose between three different play styles (Action, RPG, Story) which shift the balance of the two main game mechanics. ME3 also introduced multiplayer into this series.

2.3.2 Fan Art Contest

Garrus Vakarian by Sean-D-Omega.
When working on the last part of Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare innovatively used fan art[5] for promoting Mass Effect. Following official communication platforms served (and still serve) for displaying pieces of fan art, which also receive rich feedback from members of the player community: Mass Effect Facebook page, Mass Effect official website, and BioWare TV (web streaming series of promotional videos). Fan art posts on Facebook make around 20 % of all posts and serve two purposes: 1. to promote BioWare activities (FemShep vote, Fan Art Contest, organization's participation on festivals), 2. to entertain the player community and refresh the Facebook Wall (Veselá 2011). Displayed fan art does not only promote the game, but also facilitates gratification to its authors by gaining a higher social status in the player community and by the recognition from the developers of the game.

Continuous promotional use of fan art resulted in the Fan Art Contest, where fan artists had the possibility to submit their artworks depicting Mass Effect characters, environments and lore that were later showcased on San Diego Comic Con. Over 1,000 submissions of artwork were received by BioWare (Silverman 2011b), among them the best were chosen by the team of BioWare artists and awarded. From Fan Art Contest's announcement, BioWare was promoting it using several communication channels which were constantly referring to one another, interconnected by hyperlinks. The contest was announced on June 23, 2011 on Facebook (BioWare 2011) and in News on masseffect.com, the message included a link to Terms and Conditions for the submission of artwork[6] (Priestly 2011) published on BioWare Social Network. Facebook was used as the main channel for showing pieces of fan art submitted to the contest until the announcement of winners on Comic Con. The ceremony, hosted by David Silverman, was broadcasted by BioWare TV (Silverman 2011b). Patryk Olejniczak from Poland became the overall best fan artist and was offered a job as a concept artist for ME3 during a live Skype interview. Winning pieces of fan art were regular part of Facebook posts and BioWare News during following month. In the case of BioWare Fan Art Contest, the organization showed that it has not only "the most talented fans" (BioWare 2011) but also knows how to use their artwork for promotion as well as for innovation of the ME3 development.

This episodic innovation has led to a more sophisticated use of fan art for both promotional and community building purposes. After the Fan Art Contest, BioWare started interviewing fan artists for Fan Art Spotlight articles posted on Dragon Age II website. In January 2012 BioWare announced fan fiction competition (Asunder Creative Writing Challenge) also for Dragon Age II. Most recently, this March, BioWare organized Citadel Days fan video contest for ME3.

2.3.3 Fair Process of “FemShep” Canonization

Players of Mass Effect games were always given a choice between male and female version of the main hero, Commander Shepard. At the same time, female version was never used in any promotional materials for the first two games. In fact, only minority[7] of players play as female Shepard, therefore this marketing decision was logical and understandable. Although a small minority, female Shepard supporters were very vocal in their pursuit for equality between both genders and in the end achieved their goals.

The process of female Shepard canonization began in June 2011 with a tweet by David Silverman: “there will be a #FemShep trailer. We actually had a meeting on her yesterday. We are working on the look now.” (2011a) In July, an administrator of Mass Effect Facebook page posted a poll about female Shepard’s appearance[8] in which any Facebook user could participate by “liking” one (or more) of the six proposed variants. After the voting was closed and the winning appearance was selected, some of the fans were confused by the nature of the poll and presented options[9]. To prevent possible negative reactions, BioWare announced the second voting in August which focused solely on hair color[10].

In this case example, BioWare employed the technique of fair process. Fair process is built on assumption (backed by some empirical evidence) that “Individuals feel better about outcomes if the decision process offers them a perception of autonomy, competence and a perception of being respected in their relationships with the group.” (Wu et al. 2008: 2) Also “participation [in change initiative] is beneficial […]in increasing satisfaction of stakeholders […]” (Lewis 2007: 188) While main characteristics of fair process were maintained, the first poll failed in factors of transparency and representativeness (Wu et al. 2008). While considering the transparency, BioWare did not communicate clearly all details of fair process: it did not state if the winner would become a canonical version without any corrections. After the results were known and fan community started to discuss them, BioWare had to realize that they had not achieved representativeness with presented options. Second poll rectified those two aspects of fair process. Still, fan discussions showed that fair process does not always increase the acceptance of outcomes: some players (and journalists) interpreted the use of a poll as a fear of responsibility on the BioWare’s side: “With one simple contest, they've absolved themselves of any responsibility for perceived prejudice for FemShep's appearance […]” (Prell 2011) 

Still, successful and innovative fair process is to a great extent driven by communication. Outside of Facebook polls, BioWare used FemShep vote also during their live broadcasts (BioWare TV) from San Diego Comic Con.     

2.3.4 Discursive Struggle over Mass Effect 3 Ending Change

Soon after the Mass Effect 3 release, fans dissatisfied with the ending started lobbying for a new conclusion to their favorite series. Events of Mass Effect 3 ending controversy are a great source material for study of crisis communication. What is even more interesting from our perspective is how discourse of ending discussions evolved through change and resistance (Erkama 2010).

Mass Effect 3 was released on Tuesday March 6, 2012 (in Europe on March 9). After few days[11], players started expressing their feelings about the ending and forming an organized group demanding different endings. The main argument of fans was that they were promised something else than BioWare delivered[12]. But not everybody was angry at the finale of ME3, some journalists and gamers started defending BioWare’s original ending and came with an argument of “artistic integrity”. For example, one of the first people to introduce the concept of artistic integrity was Kotaku’s Mark Serrels, on March 13 he wrote: “Once a piece of fiction is complete, and released into the wild, it must remain that way or its integrity will be desecrated.” (2012)

During first week, BioWare was monitoring the situation and releasing only vague statements. While this was result of a crisis communication, from retrospective we can say that it was also a beginning of change implementation communication (as in the end BioWare announced Extended Cut DLC). Casey Hudson effectively avoided the question concerning the endings in the first interview after the crisis from March 13: “I didn’t want the game to be forgettable, and even right down to the sort of polarizing reaction that the ends have had with people–debating what the endings mean and what’s going to happen next, and what situation are the characters left in.” (Gaudiosi 2012) The second statement from Casey Hudson (this time official press release) used a very careful approach to situation and continued within the discourse of collaboration between developers and fans which was used before the launch[13]: “Your feedback has always mattered.  Mass Effect is a collaboration between developers and players, and we continue to listen.” (Priestly 2012)

Retake ME3 campaign poster by peshewa.
At that time gaming community was already arguing within the discourse of artistic integrity which pushed backed more specific discourses of false advertising, and of illogical and unfinished ending. The ending controversy became a general topic when many mainstream media covered the story, for example BBC News ran their first story concerning the endings on March 20, 2012 (BBC News 2012). The issue became so widespread that BioWare had to take into account much more stakeholders than just their customers, EA, investors and employees, especially when many game journalists opposed any potential changes[14].

In the next official statement from March 21, BioWare already accepted the artistic integrity discourse: “I believe passionately that games are an art form, and that the power of our medium flows from our audience, who are deeply involved in how the story unfolds, and who have the uncontested right to provide constructive criticism. At the same time, I also believe in and support the artistic choices made by the development team.  The team and I have been thinking hard about how to best address the comments on ME3’s endings from players, while still maintaining the artistic integrity of the game.”(Muzyka 2012) Muzyka also promised a solution to ending controversy with more details to come in April. Following press release (Electronic Arts 2012b) and official clarification (Darklarke 2012) from April 5 expanded upon this stance while announcing Extended Cut DLC: “Though we remain committed and are proud of the artistic choices we made in the main game, we are aware that there are some fans who would like more closure to Mass Effect 3. The goal of the DLC is not to provide a new ending to the game, rather to offer fans additional context and answers to the end of Commander Shepard’s story.”

From the change perspective, resistance (in this case those who opposed the campaign for a new ending) clearly influenced the discourse and the shared discursive themes (Erkama 2010) of the organizational change process. BioWare have chosen to communicate the Extended Cut DLC as a compromise between different stakeholders’ interests (Lewis 2007), namely the conflicting fear of loss of artistic integrity and call for a better, more logical ending. In our opinion, this decision can lead to a situation where both groups will be dissatisfied with the Extended Cut for being too much in favor of the other group and vice versa. 

Conclusion and Discussion

In this paper we tried to describe and analyze three examples of change/innovation processes connected to Mass Effect 3. All our examples were very closely connected to Mass Effect fan community which in spirit of participatory culture (Jenkins 2006) actively cooperates on the world of Mass Effect whether BioWare approves it, or not. BioWare is aware of the potential and (economic) power of its fans and treats them as a very important stakeholder group. BioWare seeks feedback from fans and lets it influence, innovate and change its games. Communication with fans is important for game development and is also stressed in press interviews. Despite the privileged position of fans as stakeholders, BioWare has to take into account more opinions, especially the views of game industry press. While in our first two examples video game journalists posed only as spectators, in the last one they actively participated in discussion over ME3 ending change, often opposing and resisting any potential change. BioWare decided to communicate a compromise in order to satisfy the majority of stakeholders. The situation is still evolving: the Extended Cut DLC will be released this summer. There are many possibilities for further research, for example analysis of Extended Cut reception or confrontation of findings with an insider voice from BioWare. 

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[1] For example, Mac Walters, lead writer of Mass Effect 2 and 3, Greg Zeschuk, Creative Officer of BioWare Group, or Michael Gamble, Producer of Mass Effect franchise.
[2] For example, Michael Gamble’s Twitter account is introduced by a proclamation that: “Opinions here may not be shared by BioWare or EA.” (Gamble 2012)
[3] This happened in discussion thread EA/Bioware in Full PR Damage Control Mod (Bachuck 2012) on BioWare Social Network during the ME3 ending crisis.
[4] Dissatisfied Mass Effect fans often compare EA to main antagonists of the game, the Reapers.
[5] Fan art is any work of art made by a fan, based on a fictional world of a given story (usually told by video game, comic book, movie, or book).
[6] For the purposes of Fan Art Contest fan artists were granted the limited license to "use the BioWare EA Property to create drawings, illustrations, and/or graphic representations based on the BioWare EA Property for submission to the Fan Art Showcase." (Priestly 2011) By this BioWare reserved the rights to exploit the submitted fan art for its business purposes.
[7] According to BioWare’s official statistics (Hillier 2011), only 18 % of players choose the female Commander Shepard.
[8] The first poll is available (as of 2012-04-27) at http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150244340101645.322035.85811091644&type=1.
[9] The first poll focused mainly on hair styles, but consequentially also on hair color. In the end, appearance with blonde hair was selected resulting in somewhat negative reactions which compared the vote to beauty pageant (Lange 2011).
[10] The second poll is available (as of 2012-04-27) at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150264015271645.327924.85811091644&type=1.
[11] The most important initiative “Retake Mass Effect 3” was formed on March 8, 2012.
[12] Namely, widely different endings which will take into account what players have done across the entire series (JohnnyG 2012). Other arguments consist of inconsistencies found in the last 15 minutes of the game (letjemari[at]gmail[dot]com 2012).
[13] For example, Casey Hudson on March 2, 2012 in an interview for VentureBeat: “I think we’re co-creators with the fans. We use a lot of feedback.” (Takahashi 2012)
[14] The contrast of reception from press and fans were reflected by BioWare’s official statements: “We've had some incredibly positive reactions to Mass Effect 3, from the New York Times declaring it “a gripping, coherent triumph”, to Penny Arcade calling it “an amazing accomplishment”, to emails and tweets from players who have given us the most profound words of appreciation we've ever received. But we also recognize that some of our most passionate fans needed more closure, more answers, and more time to say goodbye to their stories—and these comments are equally valid.” (Priestly 2012) “The reaction to the release of Mass Effect 3 has been unprecedented. On one hand, some of our loyal fans are passionately expressing their displeasure about how their game concluded; we care about this feedback, and we’re planning to directly address it. However, most folks appear to agree that the game as a whole is exceptional, with more than 75 critics giving it a perfect review score and a review average in the mid-90s.” (Muzyka 2012)

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