Experienced Points4 Reasons Why The Mass Effect 3 Debate Refuses to DieExperienced Points - RSS 2.0
1. The gameplay was modernized
Classic BioWare games owed a lot to the company's RPG roots. Neverwinter Nights and KOTOR were real-time games with turn-based sensibilities. In KOTOR the action played out in real-time, but under the hood you were still queuing up "turns" in the classic tabletop sense. This kind of gameplay is very niche.
In contrast, Mass Effect 2 is very much a modern shooter with a light glaze of RPG mechanics. This isn't just "more popular", this is the industry standard, and as budgets ballooned games have needed to go for that bigger market just to stay alive. I don't know if turn-based fans are willing to play action shooters, but I think the market shows pretty conclusively that the Gears of War and Uncharted crowd isn't going to put up with stiff, janky shooting mechanics that are dominated by character stats instead of player skill.
Mass Effect represents an awkward bridge between the "old BioWare" RPG and "new BioWare" action game. It wasn't number-crunchy enough to feel like an old-school RPG, but it wasn't tightly skill-based enough to feel like a proper shooter. So it was a middling RPG and an atrocious action game.
BioWare won a lot of new fans when they revamped Mass Effect 2 to have more mainstream sensibilities. A lot of those new action fans either ignored the first game or, if they did give it a try, they were immediately repulsed by the terrible shooting mechanics.
So now we have this annoying side argument: When we talk about which games are "worse" or "better", we've actually changed audiences going from the first game to the second. A huge portion of the fanbase never bothered finishing the first game. This creates a problem because...
2. The story changed genres
The first Mass Effect was a slow-paced, high-concept sci-fi opera. It was about world building. The game started at a human colony, and then used that as a launching point to bring the player into a strange new universe full of exotic aliens and fantastic technology. The humans seemed kind of small and unimportant in comparison. It has a very episodic structure, where each planet had a mystery for the heroes to unravel.
By the third game, all of that had changed. It was no longer a story about a scary new universe. It was now a story of the MOST IMPORTANT [WO]MAN IN THE GALAXY. Shepard wasn't an insect, swept up in a storm of galactic politics. He was at the center of everything and the main villains (the Reapers) were personally interested in him. (Or her.) The secondary villains were entirely human, and they had all the best technology. Earth wasn't a small village, it was the home to the most important person, site of the most important battle, and the linchpin of the entire galaxy. The plans for the Crucible - the most important artifact in the galaxy - were even found on Mars. A human ship led by a human hero fighting human terrorists at the behest of a human-controlled council to save the human home world from space robots that were suddenly obsessed with humans. Talk about anthropocentrism!
The game still had an episodic structure, but now the episodes revolve around the main character and their relationships. This is a classic hero's journey story.
These two kinds of fiction are really different in terms of audience. Think Star Trek and Babylon 5 versus Star Wars and The Fifth Element. (Some people like to use "Science Fiction" versus "Science Fantasy", but that always ends up in pointless debates about how scientifically plausible the technology is, which isn't really the point.)
The important thing here is that we have a ton of stories where a singular hero saves to kingdom / world / galaxy, and very few games focused on high-concept world building. Most games are in a hurry to explain the universe so they can get on with their story, but we don't have very many that use a story as an excuse to do a bunch of "strange new worlds" type exploration and world building. When Mass Effect moved its focus from the setting to the protagonist, it ditched a small but neglected niche in favor of telling yet another "hero saves the galaxy" story. The people who got ditched are still waiting for a replacement. It's hard to move on because there's nowhere else to go. Nobody else is doing this kind of thing in the AAA league. (And barely any indies. I can't even think of any off the top of my head, although I'm sure you'll remind me in the comments.)