After months of rumors and speculation, BioWare has confirmed that, Mass Effect 3, the final part of their space opera action RPG trilogy, will feature a 4-player online co-op mode. BioWare introducing multiplayer at such a late stage in the series is an interesting move, especially in light of the fact that they have been criticized in the past for neglecting their current audience in their attempts to court a new one.
It’s nothing unique to them, but I’ve always found it a particularly interesting conflict with BioWare. Their titles have been regularly featured here on The Border House because of the way their narratives, character customization options, NPC interactions, and marketing choices pose and interact with various social justice issues. Due to statements and responses from some of their staff, like David Gaider, on representation and the presence of queer characters in their properties, BioWare also tends to be perceived as comparatively progressive amongst game developers.
However, in the last few of their releases, many marketing and design choices have been at odds with their progressive rep, due to their often overdone attempts to appeal to fans of twitch combat and intense FPS action over fans of deep RPG character building and involved storylines.* Fans of the former are stereotyped as the “typical” white, heterosexual male gamer only interested in sex and violence, while the latter’s interests are often feminized.
Online play has always been a tricky proposition for the marginalized. To move from the insulated safe space of single player or local multiplayer where, generally, you will only be in the company of those you’ve chosen to be with and into the wilds of random online match-ups can be downright terrifying for some. The tenor of communities that pop up around games with online play (mandatory or optional; competitive or cooperative) vary, but many involve players constantly being exposed to a barrage of verbal abuse including racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and other slurs.
The multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 is both co-op and optional, but also said to be beneficial to the single-player campaign if utilized. It remains to be seen whether there’s any legitimate shift in the audience for the game due to its addition and how the current audience will comport itself in a multiplayer setting. A (sometimes dubiously) progressive developer does not necessarily equal a progressive audience, as the perpetual arguments about the inclusion of same sex romance on the BioWare Social Network prove.
Personally, I plan to give it a go. I’ve played online games for long enough that I’m sure I won’t hear anything I haven’t before, and I might just hear something I like.
*This is in no way a value judgment on either mode of play. I happen to enjoy both immensely myself.