Dragon Age II Lead Designer Speaks On The State of RPGs

As the second part of our interview with Dragon Age II Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw, we discuss if BioWare has it in them to create another legendary character such as HK-47. Read on to find out his opinions on the matter.

Dakota Grabowski: How much free roaming do you have? From the experience of playing through, you talk about how one person opens up three branches, but there are some interesting characters. I think was walking down in the Lower End, and there were guys that I can tell that later on in the game will be a character that will open up to have interaction with, but right now he’s just sitting there waiting for me to open up the quest. Is most of the dynamic of talking to that person to open it up, or is it free roaming so that I can just go do my own quest?

Mike Laidlaw:
There’s a mix of directed and discovery; that’s really how I look at it. That’s largely to a BioWare style, when you get in to the beginning of Hawke’s story. “We need to make this money, we need to go on this expedition because the Templars are coming for us.” There’s that urgency. The approach you take is largely up to you. At the beginning, you have a few leads, but over time that expands and based on the experiences that people have playing that don’t know the story at all, what they find is that it’s like it’s constantly unfolding. They always find new stuff to do. Until eventually, you decide, “I’m ready, let’s go on that expedition.”

DG: Going back to Baldur’s Gate, BioWare was really known for giving you multiple side characters, and you guys kept growing smaller and smaller with KotOR. Then there was only a handful, and you guys went back up a little more with Dragon Age, a little more with Mass Effect. Where do you guys stand with party count and how unique are they, instead of just being a generic archetype?

ML: I think there’s a couple less than the potential spread in Origins. However, I believe that they are deeper. A big part of that is because the companions aren’t hanging out at your camp. That worked out well. It was a great metaphor for the warden because you were traveling and they were basically with you, or they were presumably off adventuring. For this one what we’ve tried to do is give him the sense that your companions actually have their own space, their own role, their own kind of agendas in the city of Kirkwall. There are moments when you come into the bar and you’ll find one companion chatting with another. You start talking to them, and then they’re talking about something the two of them have done. Then they’re like, “Oh hey Hawke, how are you doing,” and one of them gets up and leaves and you continue on. It creates this dynamic between the companions that says these are people. They have friendships within their own group. They’ve gotten to know people through you. As the game progresses, as that decade plays out, they start to have their own rivalries and things like, “I did that favor for you like you asked” kind of stuff. And you’re like, “Wow, this is neat.” These feel like much more realized people simply because they have their own place and goals within the city.

DG: Dragon Age had Alistair, KotOR had HK-47, Mass Effect had a handful but Wrex stood out. Will any of them stick in your mind that people hold on to like Minsc and Boo?

ML: I actually think there will be a number of them that do in DAII, because they play to different types. The funny character often gets remembered. They’re memorable, they’re amusing. There are a number of them who would be the funny character. Varick is hilarious. Isabella is hilarious; she tells a lot of dirty jokes. She’ll probably stand out. Alistair always has the one liner, he always did. He was also a real person. Someone who is making the one liners because A) he was feeling really guilty about shirking his duty, as his royal blood suggested maybe he should be doing and B) because he was suffering in despair of losing his mentor. What made Alistair resonate was that he was a person under the gag, and that’s always been our approach in any companion. Trying to have them be memorable for more than just the one note hit. You have to get a whole drum kit in there.

DG: Reflecting back to your past, Baldur’s Gate would offer a 100 hours of gameplay. When BioWare started going more towards consoles, the hours started dropping. Where do you see that in terms of the state of RPGs? Is the modern content becoming too much to produce? Or do users just want to have a more core experience and get it done given that some people don’t even finish their games? Some people are probably only half way through Dragon Age: Origins and never even got to the end. Where do you feel are the state of RPGs in terms of content and length of play?

ML: There are two angles to it. One is the resolution, or the density of the content. Baldur’s Gate had no voice; big blocks of text as someone wrote out, “he then does this and then he does this.” Before, we’re providing more and more expository text. What we’re finding is that while you could get a 100 hours of content like that reasonably easy, you could get the same emotional impact and investment in 40 hours of content if you increase the fidelity. I think that’s the approach we’ve been taking. Do we think the best game ever would be four hours? No, I don’t think so. I think that there comes a point that the returns are diminished. You’re putting so much effort that it’s like listening to a hi-fi stereo with that friend that everyone has that only listens to vinyl. Regular ears don’t hear that. It’s like an acquired taste. It’s like drinking a very fine scotch. Anything will get you drunk, but the fine scotch might do it in that smoother way. So I think in terms of the state of RPGs is that we’re faced with reality of other genres and platforms making huge strides in terms of presentation, fidelity, and – it sometimes is a dirty word for RPGs – but even accessibility. The sense that Call of Duty is close enough to being a black ops military shooter guy that even if I don’t know a whole lot I can get sighting down a barrel, and it feels like that. It’s not abstract in any way. Anyone can dive in with that. I get what I’m doing here and the story tells itself in a reasonable way. So for us, getting to the point where you don’t have to make that mental leap over, “that little sprite is me,” and get to the point where it’s like, “oh cool, sliders’ and all that stuff and the fidelity goes up,” it does engage more. If you get to the point where it’s super dense, then you’re putting way too much effort in it and you won’t engage as much.

DG: Last year I was asking everybody while I was interviewing them what their favorite side quest is. What is your favorite side-quest in Dragon Age II that you can you speak of? Last year, most people’s was the side-quest with Morrigan and her mother.

ML: I would say that it’s a later quest involving Aveline, and I honestly really don’t want to spoil it. There is a quest that’s tied to Aveline’s personal life that is absolutely fantastic, but unfortunately I really shouldn’t tell you about it. It’s just awesome.

DG: The Darkspawn haven’t really shown up. Will there be a point when Darkspawn will become a big, central conflict? Because right now they’re just fighting just a lot of thugs, and street bums, etc.

ML: You may recall that you are going to The Deep Roads and they’re infested with them. They’re definitely coming back. The Darkspawn, by nature, are never going to be as big an antagonist for Hawke as they are for the Wardens, because that is the Warden’s antagonist. I think that’s good in a way, because what that does is it lets us look at some other elements of DA that got a good treatment in Origins, but didn’t necessarily get as much. You’ll notice already there’s a mention of the Qunari, and you’ll get to see more of them. For me, it’s about broadening the world and adding more stuff. I think people know a lot about the Darkspawn and they should absolutely make an appearance, but do they have to be central? Not as much.