Altering The Deal: When The Game You Play Isn’t The Game You Bought

mass effect 3 screenshot Altering The Deal: When The Game You Play Isnt The Game You Bought

Imagine gathering some friends together to watch Star Wars. You and your friends wish to see the movies as they were originally made, and luckily you have the trilogy on laser disc. You start to watch the movies, and you’re shocked when Greedo shoots first. But wait a minute, that shouldn’t have happened. This isn’t the version of the movie that you bought, so what did happen?

Well, it turns out that George Lucas was so unhappy with the original versions of the trilogy, that he hired people to break into your house and replace your movies with his re-release versions. In his mind, he his providing a great service to the Star Wars community, offering an enhanced experience to movie fans everywhere.

Now this is obviously an absurd hypothetical situation, but it’s disturbingly close to something that we’re seeing more and more of when it comes to video games. Games are increasingly being changed through online patches and updates. Many times this is due to something that the developers didn’t intend, such as fixing a bug or a glitch. Other times, it can be a matter of developers altering intended game elements due to a simple change of opinion.

The problem is that intentions and current opinions do not really matter with any other product. If I buy a painting, and I take that painting home, I don’t have to worry about the artist forcing me to add a tree to the background. If I own an older Prince album, I don’t have to worry about all the profanity being removed, just because the artist in question no longer believes in using certain words.

But increasingly, that’s not how the game industry works anymore. Your rights to preserving the product that you bought expire the moment that you connect your console online. And the game that your friend tries online at your house could turn out to be a very different game than what they end up buying a week or two later.

Mass Effect 3 is a great example of this. I’ll spare you another lengthy opinion regarding the ending to that game, but the fact remains that people who play that game today–with the DLC and extended ending–will have a vastly different experience than those who played the game when it was first released.

But that’s all optional content, and isn’t a good example of the sort of “Altering the Deal” that I’m mainly referring to here. For a much better example, we need to look to the online multiplayer.

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wgtc best of 2012 mass effect 3 Altering The Deal: When The Game You Play Isnt The Game You Bought

Mass Effect 3 multiplayer is essentially a “free-to-play” game that is included alongside the main campaign. You pick a character class, select your weapons and attachments, and play 10 rounds against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Depending on how far you were able to get, and what difficulty you chose, you will get a number of credits to use in the game’s store, where you can randomly unlock new characters, weapons, attachments, and assorted gear upgrades.

The harder you make the game, the more credits you can earn for playing. The more credits you earn, the faster you can afford the most expensive upgrade packages, and the better your chances of unlocking new characters and equipment. So Electronic Arts was perhaps justifiably a little concerned when players uncovered an exploit on the map Firebase White that allowed even mediocre players to succeed on the hardest difficulty, and quickly earn a massive amount of credits with a very low chance of failure.

This was even more of a concern for EA due to the profit that they earned from the game. For people who were impatient, rather than repeatedly attempting to earn credits by playing the game, they could instead choose to buy credits. People could spend real money, to get virtual money, to spend on random upgrade packages, that in no way guaranteed the player that they would unlock anything they were hoping for.

This business model proved to be so successful for EA that several free DLC packs were made available. These included new maps, enemies, characters, weapons, attachments, and other assorted gear and upgrades. The maps and new enemy classifications were all instantly available, while everything else had to be unlocked at random.

So in order to deal with the map geometry exploit on Firebase White, one of the updates radically changed the map’s layout, and eliminated the highly defendable position on the far side of the map. To sugarcoat the change, the game’s developers kindly included optional danger zones for all of the original maps, but Firebase White received by far the largest change to any map’s basic geometry.

Although you could make the argument that nobody forced players to download the updated maps, it would be impossible to ever use the new classes and weapons without also downloading the massive change to Firebase White. And while Mass Effect 3 would allow you to continue playing the game without downloading the most recent update, that situation was never true for what I feel–as far as video games are concerned–just might be the most egregious example of altering the deal I’ve ever seen.

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Perhaps the best example of the worst changes to a video game made after release that I can think of belongs to the console version of Battlefield 3. Aside from the absolute mountain of balance adjustments made to weapons, vehicles, equipment and just about every other aspect of gameplay, there were two huge changes that personally ruined the game for me.

When Battlefield 3 was first released, the enemy spotting feature could have been argued to be a little too powerful. You could hammer on the “mark enemy” button throughout the game–which would put enemies on every player’s mini-map–and it could often end up marking enemies who you couldn’t even see yet, such as enemies hiding in bushes. If one team was marking enemies and another wasn’t, the team that was marking would have a huge advantage.

Although I personally didn’t mind this, I guess that the developers did, because several months after release, they made a rather large adjustment to the feature. They broke it. They reduced the range, but in doing so they somehow also destroyed the reliability of the feature. There would be many times when an enemy would be 10 feet in front of me with nothing blocking my view, I would hammer on the mark enemy button, and nothing would happen. They broke the feature, and even after several updates later, they never bothered to fix it. I quit playing several months later–soon after the second DLC expansion–and it still hadn’t been fixed. To be honest, I’m not even sure if it’s fixed now.

Then came the private console servers. When I bought the game, everyone used the publisher’s servers, which included reliable game settings. But after several months, these previously reliable servers had been rented out to people who frequently wanted to play one map over and over with a ridiculously inflated score limit. This often turned previously simple and fun matches into grueling affairs that could last for hours. This went on for weeks, and even after it improved, it was still never as easy again to find a standard game with default settings.

Perhaps even worse than any of this, private servers came with private rules, both written and unwritten. Many servers had clearly enforced rules that asked you not to use a specific weapon, or use a specific vehicle. Many of those same servers also had some not so clear requirements that included rules such as:

- If you’re in the vehicle I want to use, you may be removed from the game “to balance the teams.”
- If you use a strategy that I deem to be overly effective and “cheap,” you stand a chance of being removed.
- Only my friends and I are allowed to use the weapon that the server rules say nobody can use.
- If you shoot at me, I will kick you from the game.

Seriously, play any Call of Duty with voice chat enabled for a few hours, and then imagine giving those idiots the power to alter the match settings, and kick people out of the game for any reason. Nothing against all Call of Duty players–I’ve certainly enjoyed playing that series in the past–but you don’t have to look very hard to find people online who should not be entrusted with this sort of power.

But entrusting those people with the power to ruin the game that I paid $60 dollars for is exactly what EA did, turning a previously reliable game into an unpredictable haven of griefing, and essentially handing over the keys to the asylum. Rather than add new servers to the existing options, EA decided that they would prefer to rent their existing servers, which greatly limited your chances of finding a standard game.

Friends have told me that things did eventually get better. Filter options were added to find official servers, and it has also been said that EA was just unprepared for the initial rush of server rentals. But to be honest, this is of little consolation to someone who feels that their game was ruined. As much as I am highly anticipating Battlefield 4, I refuse to buy it until EA announces that this sort of nonsense will not continue.

Like Blizzard and their admission of the mistake they made with Diablo 3‘s real money auction house, I hope that Dice and EA have seen the errors that they made with the console versions of Battlefield 3.

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Borderlands Lillith Altering The Deal: When The Game You Play Isnt The Game You Bought

While Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3 provide some good examples of altering the deal, they’re far from the only example’s of this increasingly common practice.

I mentioned the Call of Duty series earlier, and as you may already know, the developers of Call of Duty: Black Ops II recently received death threats over making some slight adjustments to a few of the weapons in the online mode. The rechamber time of one sniper rifle in particular was adjusted from 1.0 seconds to 1.1 seconds, which is arguably just about as small of an adjustment as someone could make to a game.

And while you could argue that weapon balance is needed to make sure that players can have a “fair” experience with any weapon in a competitive multiplayer title, what about singleplayer or co-op games? What about games where, no matter how broken or overpowered something is, the only fun that is possibly threatened is your own?

Gearbox Software, the developer of Borderlands 2, has been quite excellent in supporting their game. One look at the patch notes should tell you that they’re committed to continuously improving the experience that their players have with the game. They’ve also released several paid DLC add-ons, featuring new characters and environments, most of which their customers seem to love.

What wasn’t loved by everyone in the Borderlands 2 community, however, were the changes made to certain weapons and other pieces of gear to dramatically lower their power. The “Bee shield” in particular saw a rather large decrease in overall effectiveness. The developers have stated that the shield was never intended to be as overpowered as it was for the first few months. Without going into too much detail, the shield worked by adding extra damage to each bullet that you shot. The unintended problem was that before the release of the game, Gearbox failed to notice that this included shotguns and other multi-projectile weapons with high rates of fire, where each bullet received the full damage bonus.

Arguably, the combination of certain weapons with the Bee shield became a late game “win button” of sorts. Many players only used the setup when repeatedly killing the game’s most difficult optional bosses, because it was the fastest way to defeat them and try your luck at their random loot drops. However, other players used the Bee shield everywhere, and then foolishly complained when they flew through the new DLC campaign in less than an hour. With more DLC coming soon, Gearbox felt that something had to be done.

They decided to fix this by dividing the overall damage boost by the number of projectiles. In other words, if you used a single shot weapon like a revolver or sniper rifle, you would get the full damage boost. If you used a shotgun or other multi-projectile weapon, you would only get the full damage boost if all bullets hit the target, and you would only get one damage boost, rather than one for each bullet.

The problem with this fix is that it didn’t just alter the affects of the bee shield. Any item in the game that boosted your overall damage was now divided across all projectiles, which not only resulted in making all shotguns far less effective, but the change also made many other pieces of equipment pretty much worthless. These issues were eventually fixed, but all players–including those who had never even heard of the Bee shield–had to wait more than a little while before their game started working properly again.

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battlefield 3 6 Altering The Deal: When The Game You Play Isnt The Game You Bought

While it shouldn’t have to be said that death threats aren’t a remotely acceptable or effective method of persuasive argument, it’s still a completely subjective matter whether or not those making the death threats may have a point. Obviously not a point that entitles them to make death threats, but a point that entitles customers to be outraged by changes being made without their consent to a product that they already paid for.

“It’s their game, they should be able to do what they want” many say, especially when defending changes that they agree with. “It’s my game, I paid for it, it shouldn’t be changed after I’ve given them my money” others counter, often when criticizing changes that they didn’t agree with.

But just when does change become unacceptable? When is it my game, and when is it their game? And just how far can a company go with the defense of “we feel it’s what’s best for the community,” and expect everyone to blindly accept that reasoning?

Again, these are completely subjective questions, and everyone will feel differently. Personally, I still enjoyed my time with Mass Effect 3, Battlefield 3 and Borderlands 2, and I don’t regret buying any of them in the least. But especially with Battlefield, I do feel that a line was crossed that I’m not comfortable with.

As gamers, we should be both excited that we live in a time where games can be updated so easily, and careful not to support developers when we personally feel that they abuse this power. Game developers would be doing both themselves and their customers a favor to remember that, like Luke Skywalker said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Wait, was that from Star Wars or not? Well, whatever. If I made a mistake, I can always just change it later.

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  • Alex McCracken

    Ask any WOW player from 4 years ago why he stopped playing. 9 times out of 10? streamlining updates.

    And I gotta admit, I wouldn’t have been half as pissed at ME3 had I never seen the quote “theatrical cut”. The long term history of video games are gonna get artistically messy…

  • Yo Yo Yo

    5 pages whining about patches? Nice