Do you ultimately structure your teams essentially the same way between the two games? Is there like a BioWare unit? Because it seems like studios really do find a rhythm. You guys have been going for years. Now you're both shipped to major releases this generation.
ML: The teams are structured pretty similarly. They are built around the same kind of principle roles in terms of who we report to in structures and stuff. And I think, largely, that's because BioWare is pretty committed to people growing.
So if someone like one of my simulator designers, who does all the conversational staging, said, "I would really like to learn Unreal." Okay! Great. He's able to move in, he gets the position. He knows the role. The job is the same, but he has a new set of tools to learn.
So it kind of keeps it so people can learn in a very focused way, rather than like, "And now you have to learn how the team works!" The end result is much more friendly for staff who want to expand or change their horizons.
What engine does Dragon Age II run on?
ML: This is Eclipse, it's called. It's kind of an Eclipse 2.0. We jokingly call it "The Lyrium Engine", but really, it was built from the ground up for Dragon Age.
For the first Dragon Age?
ML: Mm‑hmm. And rebuilt for Dragon Age II.
How did you make that decision as a team, way back when you were starting out?
ML: I think what it came from was BioWare was in a period where we were looking at expanding our own IPs. Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age were all results of that. And so, we thought, there's certainly some value to looking into an engine, and Dragon Age sort of became the flagship for this engine.
And the nice thing is that -- because it was built from the ground up for multi-party member RPGs with these kinds of stats -- it was built to work well with the kind of game that we wanted to make. And while Unreal offers advantages, this offers advantages, we basically managed to build it with a client clearly in mind.
It seems like it's something where there's never a clear-cut answer. It's a decision that's still being made on a case-by-case basis, on a studio-by-studio, team-by-team basis.
ML: I think, in a way, that's good because a different engine sometimes lets you flex different muscles, which means the games keep their different flavors, which is really key. And I think that one worry I've seen out of Dragon Age is people go, "Oh my God! You've turned into Mass Effect!" Well, it's not a cover based shooter in space, so, that's unlikely. But it's like, okay, we have their conversations. "Well it must be Mass Effect." Well, sure, that's a tech that we shared, that's an expertise that we shared.
But the games do keep their own distinct visual and gameplay identities, which is really exciting because Mass Effect is an amazing game. It's not necessarily for everyone. And Dragon Age is in the same pool. And you really want to, if you have a team that's passionate about it and really interested in telling these stories, then you want to make sure you're catering.
You spoke about how the game stories came more out of the world-building, and finding stories to tell within the world that you built. How did you go about building that world?
ML: It was probably, at the beginning -- I think a lot of it came from the original creative lead on the project, James Ohlen, and Dave Gaider, who has always been our lead writer, kind of sitting down and deciding that -- we, fundamentally, as a studio. And certainly Ray and Greg were involved in this decision.
We wanted to do fantasy, but we didn't want to do someone else's fantasy. So the end result there became -- not deliberately contrarian, not to say, "Our elves aren't going to be like other elves," but to say, "What would make elves interesting?"
Or to ask questions like, "So, In D&D, a mage at first level can charm person, which is essentially a form of mind control, with apparently not much study.Wouldn't that scare people to death? Yes, it would! Huh. What would happen then? Well, what if the had a strong church organization that made sure the mages didn't go out of control?" And so on and so forth.
So questions where you sort of fundamentally look at things that are familiar within the realm of fantasy that people know inherently, and then essentially, it's kind of like a good Orwell book where he just holds the lens up and says, "Are you sure that's what you think it is?" And then the world comes out of that. And so, that's where I think Dragon Age began -- having started there, there is some element of contrariness in it.
There is also an internal consistency, because the questions that were asked at the beginning were, "Would this make sense?" And the nice thing is that the world that's been built out is one that hangs together.
You can say, "What would happen if someone did the following?" And then you could say, "Well, the political and economic repercussions would be the following," because this is a world that makes sense.
Fantasy has a reputation for being fantasy.
And the funny thing is I listened to R.A. Salvatore speak at the last GDC, about his very strong efforts to create believable underpinnings. And today I spoke to Tomasz Gop from CD Projekt Red about the Witcher 2 and about how they want to make sure that the world makes sense. It seems like I hear a lot about making sure that everything is logical from the guys who are developing fantasy games -- more than anybody else.
ML: Well I think it's because -- if the inherent nature of the medium you're working in is something that people have, say, traditionally derided as silly ‑‑"Oh, there's fairies and unicorns, whatever. I can't take that seriously"‑‑ no artist wants to work in a medium where they aren't being taken seriously unless they're in satire, in which case they want you to not... you know what I mean!
But to me, I think that fantasy is an intriguing part of our psyche. In a nutshell, much of it is an idealization of a time that was terrible. The Dark Ages were not good. But by adding elements to them and by sloughing off some of the details, like the various plagues, or using them in a story way, we try to go back to something that's a little simpler, that's a little more fundamental. You know, that has that warrior culture that has evolved into maybe office politics.
And it lets us understand things that we have to deal with day in and day out, except that we can sometimes resolve those conflicts with a broadsword. And that's cool. But what's not cool is doing it while riding a unicorn, in which case you have to discard it as childish or silly.
Then as a creator, our goal becomes to still have the unicorn and have the unicorn make some degree of sense, so that you don't have to feel like it's something you shouldn't be doing. In an ideal world The Witcher or us -- you name it -- we manage to make fantasy something you know and feel is not a guilty pleasure so much as just a pleasure.