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Opinion: We don't play games - they play us

Andy Hartup argues that fans like to be heard but are happier when developers take control

This article originally appeared in Xbox World magazine.

Back in March, BioWare delivered the final chapter of the Mass Effect trilogy. It was meant to be the epic send-off for one of this generation's best-loved series, but instead it caused an internet storm as players complained about the ending.

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In the weeks that followed, the official BioWare position went from - and I'm paraphrasing here - 'there's nothing wrong with our ending, we like it' to 'we're making an extended-cut as quickly as possible'. Why the change of heart? The answer lies in this question: who really owns the games we play?

It's a question I asked plenty of developers in the months after Mass Effect 3, and they all came up with different answers. Jen Timms from United Front Games believes they belong to us: "[LBP Karting] belongs to our community." Meanwhile, Rob Jones from Visual Concepts insists that developers own their creations: "I think the game still belongs to us. Because as developers we are the end user. You'd never hire somebody that wasn't also the target user on to your team". There's also, technically speaking, the real owners: the publishers, copyright holders and financiers.

It's the money-men who ultimately decide whether or not a game gets the green-light. They can dictate the content of a game and compromise a studio's vision mid-development. However, public opinion always sways the money-men paying for a project. Give the consumers what they want and you stand a greater chance of reclaiming your investment. Stifle developers' creativity, though, and you end up with a 'product' like 007 Legends, a critical and commercial flop. A successful game - as a product - is one that accommodates all three parties.

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But that still doesn't tell us who actually owns the game. Who gets the final edit? Who gets to kill Shepard off at the end of Mass Effect 3? Moments like BioShock's 'Would you kindly' twist demonstrates that, for all the freedom given to players in even the most linear of games, it's the devs who are in charge while the pad is in your hand.

They set the rules for the glorified sandpit that we play in, and to a lesser or greater extent, they dictate how we play. Even DICE balance weapons and maps in Battlefield 3 online, maintaining a level of order in a largely chaotic shooter. In other words, we exist within the boundaries of developers' visions, regardless of how or why that end vision has been reached.

While we're in the game world, we're in the developer's domain. We should respect the fact that they've created a game the way they intended and, for better or worse, that it's their product. How we choose to interpret that world is up to us - that's what truly counts, and where we take ownership of the games we play.

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Look at Skyrim - it sparks the imagination of its players to the extent that it can be considered 'owned by the users'. Skyrim becomes yours when you apply your character's morality, using it to dictate the actions he or she takes. Bethesda are mute when it comes to morality - the world of Skyrim reacts to your actions instead of trying to influence them. It becomes yours when you start creating backstories for the non-player characters you interact with. Why? Because you want to make sense of the world in your own way. It's here Skyrim becomes 'yours'.

So let's go back to Mass Effect 3. I personally thought BioWare's original ending for ME3 was inspired. While the majority of the game played out as a fond farewell to the cast I'd grown to love, the vague ending allowed me to fill the gaps with my own imagination. Is Shepard still alive? Was he indoctrinated? Did the Normandy ever return to Earth?

It was a stroke of genius allowing the game that had championed (largely binary) player choice throughout the whole generation to finish with an ending that let players make the ultimate choice: what do they think happened to the Mass Effect universe? Free from the constraints of the game world, ME3's open ending was the closest players have come to truly owning a videogame series. And what did we do? We demanded that BioWare filled in the blanks...

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