Eventually, these pieces all come together and form a finished game. Dialogue gets recorded, cinematics get rendered, code gets compiled, the game gets shipped. And what remains of the actual physical writing process?
Not a script, it turns out. Several years ago, the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) announced the creation of a Best Game Writing category for their annual writing awards. This decision was hailed as a milestone for the games industry – until several companies deserving of nominations, including BioWare, found they were unable to participate because they could not produce a physical script. The reason is that there is no script – only the game itself. And so Dragon Age II, like Origins, is ineligible for the award.
The writing team doesn't seem bothered by this. A play-through of Dragon Age II has so many potential permutations that its story can't be evaluated as a single piece of screenwriting. This is a format that defies Hollywood standards. BioWare's response to the WGA: the only way to know the full extent of the writing is to play the game.
For better or for worse, the WGA can't spare the time. On the other hand, millions of players were eager to do just that.
Dragon Age II hit the shelves in March 2011, and controversy quickly erupted. Critics hailed the game as setting a new bar in RPG storytelling, whereas fans -- particularly hardcore fans -- lambasted the game for changes to its core mechanic. (The specific critiques centered largely on gameplay issues that are beyond the scope of this article.)
The polarized opinions didn't come as a surprise to Gaider and the DAII team. "If there's anything that's surprising," says Gaider, "it's just how polarized some of the reaction has been. There's a lot of love for Dragon Age among our fans, and that love can translate into passion.
"In my opinion, that's better than apathy, even if it forces you to filter out the extremes. However, the criticism should not be dismissed as simple nostalgia. There are fans who felt disappointed... and there's a feeling [on our team] that we want to improve from the groundwork we've laid down. At the end of the day, Dragon Age can't be everything to everyone – so we simply have to pick a direction and make it the best experience we can."
In short, Dragon Age II was an experiment, and one executed over a relatively short time frame. As with any experiment, some things worked, and some did not. However, the writing team certainly stepped outside the box and attempted redefined how game developers can tell a complex game narrative. "This is something games have the potential for," says Gaider, "but which we as an industry constantly underestimate."
How will the lessons of Dragon Age II get integrated into future BioWare efforts? For now, we'll have to wait and see -- but the wait might not be long. Only sixteen months passed between the release of Origins and Dragon Age II, including a number of expansion packs released along the way, and with the continued popularity of the franchise, it's a safe bet that we'll see another game on the shelves fairly soon.
BioWare remains committed to prioritizing game writing, and players continue to demonstrate their desire for well-crafted narrative, so it seems fair to guess that Gaider and his team will keep pushing the envelope in development cycles to come.