On the other hand: Those Mass Effect Animations

A brief recap of events for those that might not even know what Mass Effect is. Mass Effect has been a long running sci-fi video game series by developers Bioware.

A few months back amusing gifs and videos started emerging of the new iteration Mass Effect: Andromeda that showed off some less than stellar facial animations as well as bugs involving walk animations. This was pre-release, so the giggling that came along with these hilarious videos was accompanied by concerns that the game was not going to live up to the developer’s high standards. People started getting pretty angry too, because, well, this is the internet.

The internet, continuing to be the internet, dug up a name for a woman that claimed to be the lead facial animator. A YouTube content creator that goes by the handle ‘TheRalphretort’ then unearthed more information on her (including all of their social media info) and that is when the abuse started.

Bioware then released a response that disavowed the connection with the woman and condemned the abuse.

On the one hand

I know what it is like to have high hopes in a title. I think it is fair to be disappointed when an aspect of a game doesn’t seem to meet the bar set by previous entries in a franchise. I also think that airing your grievances to those accountable is a natural inclination (with the heavy caveat that you need to experience the product yourself before you do so).

On the other hand

The keyword in my limited defence of the angry fans is ‘accountable’.

For the following argument’s sake, I am going to pretend that this woman was the lead facial animator.

In this case, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

- What is this individual responsible for?

- What is this individual accountable and not accountable for in regards to the rest of the team?

- What is this individual accountable for in regards to the general public?

The difference between ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ is critical in this regard. In a smaller team of developers, the two tend to merge to be one and the same, but when it is a team the size of Bioware it is certainly not the case.

I’ve worked in a testing department (under the moniker ‘Quality Assurance’) on-and-off for the last 13 years, early in my career I used to watch the credits in games, with a special interest in the QA department. A producer asked me once why I did this and I replied that I was interested in who was responsible for letting the bugs get through. He pointed out that the QA team had probably reported the bugs and it was probably not their fault that the bugs are in the finished product. I was embarrassed by how obvious that was.

So, to ask those same questions in regards to testers, something I have some knowledge of: testers are responsible for finding bugs, and reporting the bugs. The team, as a whole, are accountable for not finding bugs that go on to affect player’s enjoyment, with the team lead becoming the person that is accountable for their team’s performance. However, they are not accountable (or responsible) for fixing the bugs. Testers are certainly not accountable to the public for finding and reporting bugs.

In this last case accountability stands with the company and there are representatives within that company who will be responsible for writing the responses like the one that Bioware wrote on twitter. But, but, but, they may not be fully accountable for the wording.

Confusing? Sort of.

If a salesperson sells you a product, and I mean they stand there and convince you to buy a product they are responsible for the pitch. However, they are not responsible for the actual fabrication quality of the product. If the product is faulty, the responsibility falls to the person who built and/or quality controlled the product, the accountability for the product falls upon the company that trained and invested trust in this individual. The accountability for dealing with your complaint on the product will be shared between the company that sold you the product and the company that shipped the product. As a customer, at no point can I imagine a person taking personal affront with the individual that built the product, nor with the individual with the sales pitch. There are exceptions to this rule of course but this is under the belief that all involved have good intentions.

As to the lead animator and those three questions, within the structure of Bioware? Accountability and responsibility gets even murkier. I will explain why from my own experience.

I worked in compliance for many years, compliance is making sure that a game is ‘road worthy’ by executing a series of tests mandated by the Hardware Manufacturer. If a game fails those tests during final submission to the HM then it cannot be released, so our job was making sure that the game was as robust as possible in that regard. There are more wrinkles to this that I won’t go into more detail about, but what we do and how well we do it can make or break a game.

I worked with a team of testers that executed tasks, they were responsible for completing the testing and finding the bugs, but I was accountable for it getting done. I was responsible for making calls on whether a bug ‘really’ needed to be fixed or not and providing advice to development teams. I had an influence on this during conferences with production and development teams but I was not fully accountable for the decisions made therein. There were certainly calls that I decided on that made me responsible for the submission date being changed but there were layers of actions and decisions that were made that I was not privy to or I simply had no control over that never made me fully accountable.

This is how most companies work, it makes them lumbering and inflexible but this is because of checks and balances that should prevent mistakes. When mistakes are made, it means failures at multiple levels. This is not the doing of one compliance specialist, nor of a lead facial animator and this means that the whole company is accountable.

Conclusion

People like to find answers to problems. Having something bad happen and not being able to immediately point towards a perpetrator and a subsequent solution is troubling to us.

It is just that in real life, beyond book and film thrillers, answers are just not that simple to come by. Those interested in how animations for Voice Overs and cut scenes work would do well to check out this long interview with a number of animators on how hard it really is.

What happens in real life is that a person was subjected to death threats and abuse, and it was facilitated by someone that clearly enjoys harnessing this anger. This is unacceptable and is indicative of wider problems beyond amusing animations in a finished product. This abuse might come from a frustration with not having a voice, but by going out of their way to try and silence or shut down someone else, these people are not finding a way to be heard, they are making it an excuse to be ignored.

Taking this a little more seriously, I write for Arcadian Rhythms about video games and stuff related to video games. I am a failure to the game designer.