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The Rise Of Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II lead designer Mike Laidlaw discusses the creative process behind the sequel with Gamasutra, including topics such as keeping the series' fans while welcoming a larger audience, where fantasy meets reality, and more.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

February 25, 2011

22 Min Read

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.

ML: Sure.

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.

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.

ML: Precisely.

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.

I was really big into fantasy novels when I was a teenager, but then I started to notice that a lot of them used it as an excuse to not have believable characters. I don't want to generalize because there are also fantasy novels that I still feel very strongly and positively about.

ML: Sure, of course.

Certainly some people use it that way.

ML: Yeah. I think they do, and I think that in the same way that you can have hard sci‑fi that is really about the science, or about the trope, rather than being about the characters, that can work. It can work really well.

But I think that when you apply the same thing to fantasy, there's a lot less research required. You end up in a position where you can say, "Well, the magic did it!" As opposed to science, where you at least need to say, "No, no. It's electronic fission thermo‑nucleo blah." And suddenly it's that level of effort.

So I think that there's potentially within fantasy an invitation to do a sloppy job, if you want to be like, "I have a neat idea. I don't really have to think it all the way through!" Fantasy, as opposed to sci‑fi, where it's "I have a neat idea. Now I really have to think it through because it's the expectation." Anyway, to me not all fantasy falls into that but it's a danger. It's a mine on the field.

Right. I feel like definitely there's this deep thought going into fantasy games. I think it's also because a lot of fantasy games -- for obvious reasons, because of tradition if nothing else -- are ending up as RPGs. And then you have to put in all this goddamn effort to make an RPG that doesn't fall apart at the lightest touch, right?

ML: [laughs] True, yes.

You actually have to world build.

ML: Well, you have to world build, and then that has to hang contiguously with a set of rules. Like how does sneaking work, right? That's why you either see an abstraction, where people say, "Well, okay. Sure, you have a sneak skill, but when you're sneaking through that room that's brightly lit, you're actually crawling on the ceiling!" Right? And that's the jump many DMs make.

Good DMs tend to make distinctions. Like hide in plain sight is about distracting the guy in hiding. Similarly with games, you can't do the table‑top shuffle and say, "Okay, well, here's how you did it." So you have to build a contiguous rule system and world that where it's like okay, cool. I see how stuff could be achieved by some rogue using obscuring mist, or clouds of smoke, or what have you.

It is a chance to step back and take a more allegorical view of realistic situations, and that's a strength of the genre, potentially.

ML: Fantasy allows us to vilify things that we might not be able to vilify if they didn't have horns. You know what I mean? And then taken to its next logical extreme, fantasy allows us to recognize that sometimes things with horns aren't the villains. I think coming out of Origins, one of my favorite character things in general would be Loghain, who is presented as the villain. He betrays his king. He leaves the kingdom open to invasion by this unstoppable hoard of clearly evil Darkspawn.

And yet, if you've read the novel, if you dig into the game, if you understand him as a character, you realize that this is a person who's been grievously wounded by Orlais, the next-door nation. And that every decision he's made since then has been colored by that, by his betrayal, and by the death of his father.

Suddenly there's a person making those decisions. As much as I want to vilify him because he did the obviously evil Grand Vizier thing, I start to recognize that there's someone in there. So suddenly I'm drawn in by fantasy, wanting to vilify the bad guy.

Then fantasy throws me a curveball and makes me go, "I wonder if that guy I have to deal with every day, who's kind of a jerk, is just having problems at home?" which can be a very cathartic thing.

Like you said, the only difference is you can't handle it with a broad sword really.

ML: And that's exactly it. It can also be a very cathartic thing. [laughter]

It's interesting that ultimately, at this point, I think the RPG genre is more important in this generation that anyone could have predicted at the outset. There's more innovation being done in the RPG genre. There's more popular games in the RPG genre. You've got really vital developers producing games in it. Bethesda just really came into its own. Not to belittle the previous games they made.

ML: No, but I think they hit a stride. And I think that to me we've hit a point where the graphics are certainly not done, but I could say they're good enough.

I remember the first time I felt that graphics had reached the point where they were good enough was probably about Grim Fandango, where graphics were now good enough to have an artistic vision of Día de los Muertos and the skeletons, such that I can look at Grim Fandango right now and, like Snow White, it holds up. It's perfect. It looks just fine. I might wish it were slightly higher res. But in terms of its art direction, it was great.

So when technology is no longer the driving force moving from like Lode Runner to Wing Commander to Crysis 2, and it's not as fundamentally "Okay, no, no. Better, better, better," suddenly the artistry comes out of it.

I think that what we find is that when visual artistry is in there, that it's about elements like stories, and about immersiveness, and about elements like that, that as much as RPGs are able to spin this tale that sucks you in that you lose yourself in for hours, you have similar things happening with the shooter franchises like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor where they're about the experience.

They're about dragging your hindbrain into a place where you're actually afraid, and realize your pulse is elevated because of what just happened. To me, that is where games have come into their own and become about an experience and about interactivity, which means the medium is now playing to its strengths.

You talked about the three main points that you wanted to address with Dragon Age II. You said "combat is a big one." People were scared to hear that you were mucking about with combat.

ML: Yup. I think so. It's not specifically just that we're changing combat. It's that the combat has become responsive and faster. I think that from a certain point of view that means ‑‑ to use internet parlance ‑‑ "OMG you are dumbs down like action game!"

And of course, RPGs, people are pretty protective of them. They liked elements of Origins that were very tactical, that were very methodical. So when they hear that now I can jump and attack guys, well, that must be! That is an action trope, therefore it must now be an action game.

That's not true, but I understand how you can make that jump there, because what it represents to me is people saying, "I really like that thing you did. Could you not take it away?" Which I love. I love that.

So for us, it became very careful to be, I guess, protective of the elements of Origins that did work really well, that resonated with the people that like the tactical gameplay, because controlling a party is increasingly rare.

For whatever sins it may have committed against games, or the successes it had, Final Fantasy XIII decided to stick with turn-based combat. They said, "We weren't sure whether or not people in the West would still like that." And then it turned out that the feedback they got after all was said and done is everybody still liked that.

ML: Yeah, yeah. I think XIII, do what you will with it, but I think that in a lot of ways, the menu-based combat, having auto attack, I think some people felt the agency was lost. Well, what happened when I use the pick attack instead of it filling out attack for me?

So there's always danger when you make changes, right? But I laud anyone who experiments and says, "Well, I think maybe we could do this better." It doesn't always work, but the key there is to be humble and to be honest with yourself. Like we said, get people from Mass Effect and say, "So, what works here? What doesn't work here?" Do a sit down and focus test to make sure that you're doing your homework and that the changes you're making are the right ones.

Even then you won't get it perfect, I think that personally Dragon Age II is more responsive. It's a more satisfying experience, and yet it still retains the stuff that I love. Being a long‑term Baldur's Gate and frigging Gold Box fan, it's got the stuff that I like out of my fantasy RPGs, but it feels like a modern game.

So Peter Molyneux got up on stage at GDC last year and said, "Our mandate for Fable III is to sell five million copies this time, and that's why we are making specific streamlining decisions." Have you had any mandate? "We want a bump. We want to reach out to more people. We want more people to like Dragon Age II than Dragon Age Origins."

ML: Huh! Okay. So I think that's a goal, but when you say "mandate," it becomes a much harsher thing. Mandate is a "you must," and the decisions will be made due to focus groups or something.

For me, I guess, fundamentally, there are more people who are ready to play RPGs than realize it. These are people who will play FarmVille. These are people who have shot enough people in the head that they've leveled up in Medal of Honor. They've gained XP and have received awards as a result. That's an RPG mechanic. They've played [Grand Theft Auto] San Andreas and they've run enough, and gotten buff enough, that their endurance is a higher. They've leveled.

So I think there's more people out there with RPGs, and then it's honestly on RPGs to try to figure out how to take the mechanics that people are actually loving in other genres and say, "No, no, no. We had those years ago, but we understand that they kind of were scary."

So there was no mandate, but I mean there were decisions that we made as a team that said, "Okay, this is, I think, more welcoming." Not "dumbed down" or anything like that, but welcoming. Like starting the game, your character walks up, says something kind of over the top, and immediately starts exploding Darkspawn. I haven't set my decks at all. I haven't spent points.

What it does, is it lets you get into the game and go, "Okay, cool. This is what their combat is like. I get that." Then the next thing you do is build your character.

Then you level up and you start spending points, and the RPG mechanics are introduced in a way that's gradual, in a way that welcomes someone who would otherwise maybe go, "Whoa! Too complex!" and shut it off immediately, and lets them slide into it without even recognizing it ‑‑ which frankly, ideally increases the overall RPG customer base, which means we can make more RPGs, which means I can play more RPGs that I don't know the ending to. I like that.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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