Dragon Age Producer: Expansion Strategy Driven By Fans
Later this month, BioWare will release Dragon Age: Origins -- Awakening, a full-scale expansion pack for last year's already-massive original fantasy roleplaying game.
And unlike most post-release content these days, which is frequently sold in small downloadable chunks, Awakening is a $40 retail package, with SKUs for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 as well as a PC downloadable version.
Gamasutra caught up with online producer Fernando Melo to discuss the thinking behind selling Awakening as such a significant expansion. He explained that, while the actual content within the add-on has been in the works since before Origins was released, the delivery method took longer to determine -- and fan feedback contributed heavily to the final decision.
Full expansions are less common in an era of compartmentalized DLC. What was the thinking behind the strategy?
Fernando Melo: The fans had a lot to do with it. The first thing we got requested as soon as we released our initial DLC was, "When is the full expansion coming out?"
We already had some thinking around it. The team has been working on Awakening for over a year, but the idea of releasing it as an actual boxed product came from a lot of what the fans were asking for.
So far weíve released lots of different kinds of DLC; weíll continue to do that, and each of them plays a part in what kinds of stories we want to reveal. Awakening allows us to really advance the knowledge of the world by a substantial amount. Itís not adding a chapter; itís adding an entire new volume set, effectively.
The cool part is, because we spent man-years developing the background of Dragon Age, all of these pieces -- no matter how small or how big -- really reveal lots of little parts around it. They all play a role. Even the smallest item has some kind of lore, and in some cases foreshadows things that youíre going to see or characters youíll meet.
Thatís part of what makes it very special -- at some point, these things will coalesce, and youíll get a much bigger picture of whatís happening. Origins takes place in a small sliver of time and location in the world; Awakening fast-forwards that a few more months and is set in a slightly different place. All the DLC revolves around those pieces, but thereís going to be more coming for sure.
In your presentation, you emphasized that this is a "content" expansion more than a "features" expansion -- less of a bullet point list, more straight-up game expansion. Is that down to you and the players seeing the primary strength of Dragon Age as being its story and world content?
FM: It is. More than "content," generally, itís really the story. Thatís what made Origins so special, and [it's what] people really seem to gravitate towards. There's a lot of depth, very memorable characters, and the fact that you make choices and you get to live out the consequences.
There are new features in there -- you can now do rune crafting; thereís some combat balancing; there are all-new tiers of items; you have smarter, higher-level enemies; you can use higher-powered spells; and thereís a re-spec ability.
But all of those are fairly subtle. There isnít one whiz-bang feature we wanted to prop up. It really is about driving a whole additional part of the lore, and we felt that that was what was going to resonate best with fans.
What do you and the team think of the reaction to Dragon Age? It's a very intricate, hardcore, multi-layered experience. Have you been surprised at how that's gone over, when that isn't exactly the template for a successful game these days?
FM: I think "pleasantly surprised" is what we were. We always felt very strongly about this kind of game, and we were going to make it regardless. But yes, we saw in the news the kind of numbers itís been selling, and the very high Metacritic, and the game of the year awards and RPG of the year awards, even from mainstream press as well.
It really helped to reinforce the fact that there is still an audience for this stuff. I remember when we first started talking about Origins -- before it came out, I mean -- there were questions like, ďIs the PC market dead?Ē
What this has shown is that people love great story; people love good games of any fashion. It's really helping the team to validate that, yes, this is something people want. Itís not just for the hardcore. Weíve attracted lots of people into the franchise, which we hope to continue to carry forward as well now with Awakening and beyond.
Was it difficult to get retail space for a product like this, with the crowded shelves of specialty game stores?
Fernando Melo: Thatís a good question. Maybe! I can only speculate. As an industry, retail expansions are difficult to put on the shelf.
But kudos to the EA team for really being able to drive that forward. When we made the decision that we wanted to go that way, and the fans really seemed to want that, EA just jumped on board and supported it.