Changing the ending retroactively: Mass Effect’s new DLC and implications for e-books

Might one of the as-yet-untapped benefits of e-books be the ability to revise?

After the ending of Mass Effect 3 sent fans into an uproar, BioWare and Electronic Arts have announced that a free downloadable content pack will be released this summer including additional cinematic sequences that will “give fans seeking further clarity to the ending of Mass Effect 3 deeper insights into how their personal journey concludes.”

Make no mistake, fans were extremely upset at the ending of the game. Instead of the expected multitude of different endings depending on the choices characters had made, there were only three, they were all somewhat depressing (and cryptically short with no denouement whatsoever), as well as somewhat jarringly different in tone from the game that came before. This was probably a contributing factor in the vote for The Consumerist’s “Worst Company In America” award that ended up selecting EA over such competition as Bank of America. (British Petroleum was the winner last year.)

But the thing that interests me is that the company is now taking advantage of the ability to rewrite the ending of a game that’s already sold 3.4 million copies. (Whether the rewrite will satisfy upset fans is an open question, of course.) What if you could do the same for books?

Some authors have later come out with revised editions of earlier works, changing or expanding them for various reasons, but these were usually sold as separate, entirely new print editions. By the same token, there have been a number of cases (most notably, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde) where e-books have been retroactively revised and reissued to fix typos and the like. (And I had previously discussed the idea of correcting e-books that way in general.) But I don’t think we’ve ever had a case where a writer pushed out a revised version because he wanted to change what he had originally written.

And I don’t expect it is terribly likely to happen, the way things are now. There’s a lot more money at stake with video games, and it’s important to give people incentive to buy the one you have now. Since authors wouldn’t be getting any additional payments for making corrections on the same book, coming out with a new edition in a few years would actually make them more money. (The same with textbooks; textbook publishers intentionally issue new editions every few years so that used copies of previous ones go out of fashion.) Still, today’s e-book delivery systems make it at least theoretically possible.

Funny thing is, BioWare could benefit by replacing e-books that way, too; as we mentioned earlier, the latest Mass Effect tie-in novel was so reviled by fans that BioWare actually promised it would have a “corrected” second edition. I’m sure the fans who bought it would be happy to get the version they bought replaced by that second edition when it comes out. (Though who knows whether there’s any chance that will happen?)

15 Comments on Changing the ending retroactively: Mass Effect’s new DLC and implications for e-books

  1. Logan Kennelly // April 7, 2012 at 8:43 pm //

    I haven’t been following this too closely, but my understanding is that this was not a re-write. Bioware is going to supplement the existing ending, so this is more like an author releasing an epilogue to an already-published book.

    The question still stands as an interesting one, though…

  2. Ok. now we have to get Harry to marry Hermoine.

  3. Clytie Siddall // April 8, 2012 at 12:46 am //

    This brings up the interesting question of who has the right to edit an ebook, and how much? EA obviously thought they had the right to change/supplement the ending of Mass Effect 3. The original story writer for the game may have had no choice. Can book publishers edit an ebook to the point that they change the story? Or is that entirely the author’s choice?

    Also, EA did this extra work not to earn extra money now (the DLC is free), but to protect the future money-earning capacity of their franchise. Book series, even author names now also comprise franchises. How far would a book publisher go (and how much pressure would it put on the author) to protect the money-earning capacity of future titles?

  4. Felix Torres // April 8, 2012 at 8:46 am //

    The Mass Effect 3 ending situation isn’t likely to offer any meaningful lessons for ebooks.
    Given that the new “Extended edition” DLC merely promises to “clarify” the ending with cutscenes it can’t really be considered a change but rather more of a justification. At best, an epilogue; at worst a teaser for the next game in the series.

    At present the three endings can be summed up as:
    – the bad guys were right
    – the traitor was right
    – everybody loses
    As described in the press release, the DLC the “clarification” will apparently seek to alter the *interpretation* of the ending rather than change the endgame choices themselves or by providing any further endgame scenarios. They are actually just standing their ground. The choices we got are all the choices we’ll get.

    Given that EA has already made clear that there *will* be future Mass Effect games (and probably fairly soon, given EA’s franchise-milking ways), but that they are done with the current protagonist, they can’t meaningfully alter the ending and still fit in the followup game already laid out and in process. (Which is pretty clear will be a pure shooter instead of a shooter in RPF trappings as ME2 and ME3.)

    We’ll know for sure in the summer when the DLC releases but for now I don’t think that they are actually *changing* the ending at all and I don’t think there is much of a lesson for ebooks in this incident. If anything, the main lesson from MASS EFFECT is that there is more (and easier) money to be made off shooters (in games as well as in movies) than from quality storytelling.
    And that is hardly news.

  5. Clytie: the author of a book holds the copyright to their work. The publisher’s editors recommend and suggest changes, and it’s up to the author to decide what to put in, what to leave out, and exactly how to make any changes they do make. The publisher’s clout is that they get to decide whether the book gets published or not (since they have an exclusive contract to publish it).

  6. Whether they’re creating a whole new ending or just changing the existing one is really beside the point I wrote the piece to discuss. They’re still making a change from how it was before, and that they have the ability to effectively wave their hands and alter three million installed games (just as Amazon could wave their hands and alter a zillion downloaded e-books) is amazing when you think about it. Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone being able to do that. I mean, they can even revise console games now, and it wasn’t very long ago at all that those were effectively set in stone—if a game-breaking bug, let alone the desire to change the story, was discovered after a Nintendo cartridge or a PlayStation 1 disc shipped, the only thing they could do was recall it because there wasn’t any way to “fix” it after the fact. And books were the same way (though of course printed books still are) .

    It’s an amazing world we live in, and I was just wondering if publishers might ever make use of this ability as fully as BioWare is.

  7. “Changing the ending retroactively”

    Correct me if I am wrong … but changing the ending in subsequently sold editions is not a “retroactive” act surely.

  8. In my opinion for endings to be changed on a whim would mean that alot of core gamers wouldn’t take playing some of their preferred games to the end seriously. Who wants to comfortably play through a game enjoying all its splendor and then to finish the game to now find out that its developer is going to make a new ending?

    So whats the reason for them to make a new ending really? Was this a plan to begin with? Did they make the game and leave this ending out to see what the players have to say after they finish the game? If the players would be satisfied with the released ending(s) or no?

    Bigger question now is if this new ending they have slated would be worth the time to wait on it and if it would be any good :s

  9. Felix Torres // April 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm //

    Sorry, but BioWare isn’t “taking advantage” of an opportunity; they are trying to difuse a wave of criticism that effectively froze sales. They were looking to sell 6-8 milllion copies across all three patform and launched with over a million pre-orders. A week later, once people started running into the ending and comparing results the smelly stuff hit the fan.
    But adding a couple of cut scenes isn’t changing the ending.
    Unless Bioware actively gives gamers additional choices leading to a *different* outcome they’re not really changing anything of consequence. Hardly anything to hold up as an example.
    If you want to use a real example of a video game changing its ending retroactively, look to BETHESDA’s FALLOUT 3. In that one, the shipped game ended with the hero sacrificing him/herself to save the post-apocalytic day. Then, by adding the Broken Steel DLC, Bethesda changed the ending–the protagonist survived to deal with a whole new chapter of the ongoing threat.

  10. Tolkein rewrote parts of The Hobbit 14 years after publication to make it consistent with The Lord of the Rings. Originally, Gollum gives up the ring willingly when he loses the guessing game. That’s a pretty big change.

  11. Howard – okay, you’re wrong :) The whole point of the exercise is not to change the endings of subsequent editions but to retroactively change the endings of already-sold ones through a post-sale patch.

  12. Peter -ahhhh ok !

  13. EA won “worst company in America” mainly because of for-pay DLC, partially because of unpopular acquistions, and also b/c video game fans have way too much free time to vote in online polls.

    If there’s one thing ebooks don’t need- but will probably get- it’s micropayment DLC to nickel-and-dime readers on their existing libraries.

    The Mass Effect ending is free, BTW. Most EA DLC is not.

  14. Bioware failed. Even if they change the ending now (which they won’t, they’ll only “clarify” it), the deed is done and the wounds too deep to forget. Anything they come up now will always feel fake, because it was done grudgingly after we, their customers, were called “entitled” and “whiners” by Mr. Muzyka.

    I advise everyone who ever loved the series to NOT buy the game. If you really want to play it, borrow it or something, but don’t buy it. And do everything BUT the last five minutes of the game. Exit the game just before Shepard gets lifted up on a floor panel in the citadel.

    It’s better to remember Shepard that way. Because if you go on, you WILL lose any desire to replay the series. All of it, including ME1 and ME2.

    I for one wished I simply shut off the game there. Then at least I would still have enjoyed the previous two games on their own.

  15. Oh and comparing this to E-Books. This is simply not comparable to Tolkien changing LOTR (he revised his stories and backstories a lot, including the languages).

    It’s comparable to say… if Rowling ended the Harry Potter series by having Harry wake up still in the same bed under the staircase in the Dudley house and it was all just a fantastic dream brought on by getting hit in the head by Mr. Dudley. It’s absurd and insulting to the readers who’ve invested emotionally in the series for so long, only to be told that “nyah nyah, you’re all losers for actually believing in fairytales.”

    Most authors who write good fiction, however, are thankfully sensible enough not to do that kind of betrayal to their readers.

    The only ones who play with their readers like that are egotistic jerks.

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