BioWare will soon release Dragon Age II, the sequel to its well-received Dragon Age: Origins, the second of its original IP launches this generation and the one most firmly connected with the studio's history as a PC developer, and one that has delivered some of the most beloved epic fantasy RPGs in the history of the medium.
Of course, with sequel comes change -- as with Mass Effect 2's major differences from the original game, so too does Dragon Age II significantly evolve the formula laid down in the original title.
In this interview, lead designer Mike Laidlaw discusses how the team arrived at the decision to change core elements of the game, including a controversial evolution of the game's combat system. He also discusses how fantasy backdrops unexpectedly encourage more realistic storytelling.
The stuff you talked about during the press presentation reminded me, obviously, of the leap between Mass Effect 1 and 2.
I spoke to lead producer Adrien Cho about how the team did a really high level sift through all of the community reaction to the first game, codified it in to documents, and prioritized changes. Did you guys do a similar process for this?
ML: We did exactly that process. I mean, for us, what it boils down to, I think, with BioWare, is we like to think we make pretty good games, and games people like. But you never, ever, ever let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you made the perfect game, and you'll just do that again. Because that gets really dull. [laughs]
And also, it's not very challenging as a creative endeavor. So for us, it was very much, look at reactions, seeing what people liked and didn't like about Origins. And there's a lot of stuff people liked. And so, the big challenge, of course, becomes not throwing that out.
One big improvement seems to be that the art direction is stronger. Not to insult the work that was done on the first game, but I really feel like the art is more impactful this time around.
ML: Well I think our art director, Matt Goldman, is a BioWare veteran. He and I worked together on Jade Empire. And he's unique in that he delivers a very clear vision and has a really, really good idea of composition and how we put things together. And so, as a result, I think his team got really inspired and very excited.
And the thing about Matt is he's a great communicator. He can kind of tell you why it's going to be amazing in terms that even non‑artists can understand. So the whole team gets on the same page, and when we see the results, we go, "Yeah! That's great."
So the end result, I think, is a game that, in a lot of ways, both from a design and from an art standpoint, have moved to try and refine its identity after Origins. Because Origins was great, but it was a long run, and it was the first crack.
And that's the way of things. In a lot of ways, you would argue that Return of the Jedi or Empire Strikes Back get significantly stronger vision in terms of visuals than Star Wars, even though it was very strong. It still is like, okay, they knew what they were doing and they were in familiar territory by movie two.
It's the way of games. Also, especially, I think the complexity of an RPG means that you're going to hit it harder the second time around after you've been through one iteration.
ML: Absolutely. Well RPGs in general have so many moving parts, it's easy to get distracted. "Let's just make it go!" as opposed to, "Let's make it beautiful."
Well how do you, as the lead designer of the game, keep a bead on all of the moving parts?
ML: Well, I think for me, it's that I have a team that I trust implicitly. These are guys who are dedicated, passionate, and really love role playing games in general. So I have like sim designers doing the conversations, my writers telling the story.
And the thing is, they're good communicators. They've worked together as a team for a number of years now. They know kind of where things are going to head. And then my job is to kind of keep them pointed in the same direction. If we want to do something different, explain why that's going to be good, why it's a value for the player.
I think my fundamental strategy is, and I know Preston Watamaniuk, who was lead designer on Mass Effect, shares this, is "think about the player first." Understand that someone has purchased this to forget about the work they do, to let go, and to go have a rollicking adventure, and have fun. That's the key. While "fun" varies for everybody, there are some things that are more fun than others, and that's kind of universal.
So from a technology standpoint, how much do you guys share with Mass Effect? Anything?
ML: We probably share expertise more than we share technology. Being on different engines results in a difficulty in sharing -- I mean, even legal difficulties in sharing tech [The Mass Effect series uses Unreal Engine 3, licensed from Epic -- ed.]. But, in terms of design and philosophies, and vision, and how we communicate stuff to the teams, there's a lot of coherence there between the two projects.
So there's an awareness that Mass Effect has done really good stuff. They're two floors down, I can go talk to them. And even getting to the point where we bring Mass Effect people to play DAII, and they will bring us down to play Mass Effect. And the end result is, I think, the games are stronger because you have such a different viewpoint, and they come in and will give amazing and incisive feedback.
I know I've seen demos of the dialog tools you use, which are very BioWare-specific. So is that kind of stuff that can or cannot be shared?
ML: That is all internal so, it's shared. Actually, they're separate. They're not the same code base. But the skill set and the overall functionality, and the way they flow are very similar. So, a writer, especially, and a simulator designer, can move between the two project pretty easily without a whole lot of learning.