Dragon Age II - Interview
Dragon Age II
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date:

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Dragon Age Origins was a smash hit last year, but BioWare is already hard at work on a sequel. With Dragon Age II set to release in March, BioWare was kind enough to invite an RPGamer representative to a press event in Edmonton. While there, I was able to sit down with Mike Laidlaw, Lead Designer for Dragon Age II, David Gaider, Lead Writer for Dragon Age II, and Mark Darrah, Executive Producer for Dragon Age II. These interviews were conducted separately but have been combined and reformatted for easier reading. In addition, they were transcribed from extremely informal audio recordings, and as such may not be exact quotations.

Why is there no subtitle for this entry in the series?
Mike Laidlaw: There are a couple of reasons. One of the main reasons is that we had Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age: Leliana's Song, Dragon Age: Witch Hunt, Dragon Age: Awakening, so what we wanted to do is make it very clear from the ground up that this is a full-fledged sequel. "Well if you're not spending six years you couldn't possibly be making a sequel." — Yeah, we can. Because the engine was done and everything. But we wanted to make sure for people who were curious — is this a sequel or another expansion? It kind of muddied the waters. So we said, "Let's call it Dragon Age 2 and then if we do expansions, it'll be Dragon Age 2: Blah." I think that was the main desire, just to let people know that this is a sequel in every sense of the word.

What did you learn from your experiences with downloadable content in Dragon Age Origins, and what are you planning on doing differently with Dragon Age 2?
ML: I think probably our number one lesson was that the stuff that resonated the best was stuff you could do while playing the Warden, continuing your character and expanding on your story. I think people really dug Leliana's Song, but I think they would have dug Leliana's Song more if they, as the Warden, had gone off and done Leliana's Song. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but you step into Leliana's shoes and she's the protagonist. For us that was a neat experiment, because it gave us a chance to ask, "What would it be like if the narrator were unreliable?" — as per the opening of Dragon Age 2 — and "What would it be like if the narrator had a voice?" — like Dragon Age 2. So it was kind of experimental on two fronts, but I think the big thing for us is that we want to focus on delivering larger and meatier packs of content that really focus in on expanding Hawke's story and adventures during his time in Kirkwall. And the nice thing about telling a decade long story is that you actually have spans of time where you could put another thing he did there, or you could have flashbacks. We're already dealing with a temporal storyline, so it gives us lots of chances to add things like, "While he was doing this, he was doing this other thing."

With Dragon Age Origins: Awakening, continuity can be broken if certain choices were made in the main game, such as your dead Warden suddenly being alive again. Since we now know that you'll be able to transfer world data from both Origins and Awakening to Dragon Age 2, how will the game handle story conflicts like this?
ML: We'll be treating the Warden dying in Origins as kind of a precedent. Certain things are being parsed in certain ways. You could also import an Awakening save that's using a different Warden on top of an Origins save that had a dead Warden and that kind of thing. It's a pretty complex logic tree, but it's basically set up so that if it is self-conflicting, the Origins stuff will take precedent.

What was it like writing a family dynamic for Dragon Age 2?
ML: The closest thing to this I can think of is Imoen as your half-sister in Baldur's Gate 2, so we haven't done a lot of family dynamic. I think what it did is it opened up a different storytelling avenue for us. It's a challenge to make characters that feel like they have a connection to you, that act like they've known you their entire lives, because as a player you're kind of diving into that. But a big part of opening the game with a kind of "fleeing for your lives, saving your mom" opening act is that it helps to establish that connection. Then as we proceed forward, what I love about it is that it plays out where it's not just people you've just met, which is our more traditional approach, but it's also companions that have known you since you were in diapers, and you get that sense of either sibling rivalry or sibling affection. I think what it does is that it helps ground Hawke as not a child of prophecy and not an amnesia victim — it gets away from some of the tropes that I think people have come to expect, because the family is right there keeping him as a real person, even though people want to perceive him as "The Champion."
David Gaider: That was one of the things for me; we started off talking about what we wanted to do differently, and one of the things was, "Let's do a family. Let's do a family that doesn't immediately get killed off." It does have a really interesting dynamic. Whenever you're trying to get a player involved — emotionally involved in a story, you don't know for sure what's going to work. You can't present something to them as in "You're going to care about this." All you can do is have a variety of "hooks." We throw them out and hope that one sticks, and family is one possible one. We don't want to say, "You care about that. You must care about that." But family, just like romances, those are ones that have a better chance of being a good hook for a player, and family was just something we hadn't tried before; we always pushed the romances a lot. When it comes to a family member, that these are people you have connections to, we're sort of implying the connections. We don't sit there and talk about your exact history with a family member, we leave it up to you to form what is your exact relationship with them. But the idea that the player isn't some lone orphan disconnected from everything I think was important. Especially since the story has you completely disconnected from your origins — you're taken out of Ferelden, you're taken out of Lothering, you're a penniless refugee that arrives in a new land. We could have gone the route of having you completely alone, but in Dragon Age: Origins you had different origins that gave you roots to the world, and having some roots to connect you to the world I think is important, and we didn't want to lose that.

Since it's a long-running dynamic, is there anything in Dragon Age 2 that lets you see what that dynamic was like before all these events started happening? Anything that goes back and looks at them in their childhood or other previous times?
ML: There's hints of it, but we're not going to flash back to young Bethany or anything like that. One thing we know is that people like to stay focused on their character. But your family was originally from Kirkwall, so exploring your Mom's reasons for departing and the history behind that, and digging into your father's past — these are major parts of the game; it's not the only thing you do, but it adds a real texture to your character as a person rather than just as a legend. So not explicitly, but you can get a really good sense, especially of your mom, because she left Kirkwall so by coming back you can see what your family was like and in a lot of ways you have the opportunity to inherit that legacy and become that Kirkwall nobility you once were.

What kind of differences are there in the storyline between the male and female versions of Hawke? Does it actually have an effect on the story itself?
ML: It does, there are certainly any number of permutations of people reacting differently because you're male or female. There aren't too many moments where it's an entirely different plot because you're a guy or girl because that seems a little weird. One of the big thing that Dragon Age has always prided itself on is parity in the genders. I remember working with another group that was looking at the property stuff, and their stuff had a lot of things like, "Well she's not bad, for a woman!" and I was like, "Whoa... ok." We want to dial down the stuff like "women can't be warriors," because that's not a DA thing. So we tend to keep what you can do and what you're capable of completely even, but people should react differently. When you run into Isabella for the first time, if you walk in as a guy, she flirts with you almost instantly with something like, "Finally someone who can keep his rigging straight," or some sort of nautical allusion like that. But as a girl, she says something like "Hey, watch yourself because you're nothing but tits and ass to the men in here." So it's kind of these nice, subtle differences in interaction without any kind of sense of, "Well you can't do this because you're a woman," because that's kind of antithetical to what we're trying to do with Dragon Age.

After playing the first parts of the game, I noticed there's a very strong focus on Apostate mages. Is this a recurring theme throughout the game?
DG: There are certain themes in the Dragon Age world that are important, and certain conflicts that we think are represententative of Dragon Age as a whole. The elves are one, their conflict with humanity, and you have the Dalish elves that are sort of outcasts looking to reclaim their lost heritage. The mages and the templars is another conflict that's very central. It's one of those interesting arguments that's also very topical. It's a theme of oppression versus freedom, or freedom versus security. The mages are being oppressed, but for very good reasons because they are dangerous, sometimes not intentionally, but for the mages who are intentionally dangerous, they ruin it for everybody else. So there's a very good reason to oppress them so you can have an interesting argument. As soon as you can have people that are both righteous arguing completely opposite sides of the same coin, then you know you've got something that's compelling. So yes, the mages and templars are a very central part of Dragon Age 2.

One thing I've noticed while playing through the early stages of the game is that there's a lot of references to characters from the first game, and not only direct ones but passing references as well. Are they pretty much all going to make appearances in some way or another?
DG: Not all of them, we're just picking and choosing. It varies, too — there are offhand references which are easy to throw in, but then there are cameos where they actually appear. That's part of a sequel. Occasionally people will say, "Why do you call it a sequel if you're not playing the same character?" Lot's of games do that, but the point of there being a connection between the games is that there is a connection. There is a past in the world and we don't want to lose that connection, so there are characters that people had a connection with — sometimes it's just a cameo, but for someone who really loves the character, even a cameo is a neat sort of moment where they can say "Oh, that's what happened to that person." I think that can be a fun way to add something for the person playing.

The combat in Dragon Age 2 has really been sped up and made a lot more dynamic...
ML: I think so, yeah. The battlefield can move a lot faster. One thing that always bothered me is enemies that would run past me as I tried to get into position to attack, orbiting them like some sort of Death Star. I thought we could do better. The closing moves are a huge part of that.

One thing I noticed though is that there was a lot of repetition in some of the attack animations; my rogue, for example, kept doing a sort of windmill attack over and over. Is this being streamlined or is it just context sensitive?
ML: It is actually context sensitive. Each character class and weapon has something like fourteen different attacks they can do. There's an attack while you're turning to the right, an attack while you're turning to the left; if you're a rogue and you have someone to your right, they'll do a kick and then turn and start attacking. So in situations where enemies are running and you're doing a windmill attack, it's probably because you're doing a medium length closing attack. There's probably still some work to do in terms of, "well lets get the roll in there a little more often," but it comes to a point where we could do a million variations, but it wouldn't fit in memory.

I've been playing as a rogue, and most of the skills I've seen so far have been very positioning based. A lot of them are very fast and make the rogue a lot more fun to play, but some of the positioning skills feel a little stiff. The rogue has a backflip move, and this one in particular feels that way — it's always a backflip; it's not directional, it's always straight backwards from wherever you're facing, even if that's into a bunch of enemies. Was this done intentionally because this is a tactical sort of game, or are you just not wanting to make it as "actiony" as a traditional action title?
ML: There's a fundamental answer there, which is cool. One of my tenets when we sat down to look at combat was, "What I want to get away from, guys, is the sense of active defense," because at that point you're basically making what we'd call a brawler, where you have blocks, you have dodges, and that sort of thing. The problem with active defense, as I see it, is that active defense works exceptionally well if you're controlling one guy, but I don't want to move Dragon Age into a position where I'm controlling one guy, and I don't want to feel like the AI won't flip out of the way so I must try to control all four peoples' defenses. So when I sat down with the combat team, we developed a rule that said, fundamentally, defense is a preparatory activity — putting on armor, drinking the right potions, casting buffs, maintaining modals, that provide protection so that as the player I'm largely the offensive coordinator, choosing what spells to cast, what debuffs to throw, whether or not to stun the guy, and so on. The end result is that, while you can't do directional stick evading, what you can do is pause the game, switch characters, take the aggro, and play it like an RPG with the kind of complex tactical elements that we thought were really neat. The rogue's evade skill does some additional stuff. It flips backwards which is great, but it also causes enemies to lose threat, so they tend to move back to your tank. It has a sort of double role. It's a really fundamental thing: if I want to make a team-based game, I think that active defense gets you in trouble, so we moved away from that and said, "Make defense preparation and active in the moment."

With Dragon Age Origins, there were severe differences between the PC and console versions. Can we expect the same sort of differences with Dragon Age 2?
ML: Nigh identical. Interface? The way you play it, control scheme, all completely different. Do I click, drag, and drop my armor or click X to wear it, those are all fundamentally based on your platform, but in terms of encounters and the way the overall design is laid out, what we've done is build our assets so that they work well on the console and work well on the PC and then basically played to the strengths of our engine. The problem with the engine we had in Origins was that on the PC it was fabulous, it handled thing well, but a really good example would be you have a group against ten archer dudes — each of those guys would be built like you: they'd have gloves and boots and armor and a helmet and a bow and a quiver, so there'd be all these parts that the systems were trying to handle, but they'd all look identical. So instead, from the ground up, we focused on building assets that would work well on both systems. They don't look any different — in fact I think they look better, even on the PC, than they did in Origins — but since they're built in a different way, the tech can handle them a lot better, the engine can handle them a lot better, and so everything is smoother, meaning we don't have to make those kinds of compromises depending on platform.

A few years ago BioWare made a DS game, Sonic Chronicles, but since then we haven't seen anything on a portable platform. However, you're still making smaller-scale titles like Dragon Age Journeys and Mass Effect Galaxies. Do you have anymore plans to work on portable platforms, maybe the 3DS or rumored PSP2?
Mark Darrah: I was actually the project director on Sonic Chronicles. At the moment we don't have any plans. The business model is pretty tricky on the DS, PSP less so, but never say never. I think with the 3DS being a more powerful platform, everything is kind of converging to a certain degree in the mobile state. So the mobile stuff on the iPhone, 3DS, and PSP are all much closer to each other from a hardware perspective. So never say never.

What kind of plans do you have for tie-in novels for Dragon Age 2?
DG: We had such a short timeline for this game, I just didn't have time to think about it, really. The first novel I wrote, we were crunching. So I would work here until nine o'clock at night, then go home and start writing by nine fifteen, and that was kind of hell. So I didn't want to do that again, but now that the game is done for the writers, I might have time now. So we're talking about it. I would like to keep writing. It's always a good situation when it comes to something like a novel to have somebody working on it who knows the property and knows, for Dragon Age, "What is a Dragon Age story?" The thing you can run into with third party developers sometimes is that they may like fantasy, but there's lots of room in fantasy for just about anything. They think that just because Dragon Age is fantasy that anything applies, but no. Dragon Age is a tale that takes place in a particular area in the fantasy genre.

Where do you see the Dragon Age franchise going from here?
MD: One of my long term goals for the Dragon Age franchise is to have it be one of those fantasy IPs that's up there with Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter... That's a very grand thing and we're not going to get there tomorrow, but definitely more games in this vein, more games advancing the storyboard. We've got anime coming from Funimation, more linear stuff — comic books, books, things like that. But also other games around the peripherals... mobile stuff. I could easily imagine us doing some sort of strategy game in the future, especially if we want to get into very large, political stories where we have nations fighting against each other. So there's a lot still to be done.

RPGamer would like to thank BioWare for their time and for granting us an opportunity to see Dragon Age II in action. Thanks again to Mike, Mark, and David for their time and insight, and a final thank you to crew at fortyseven communications for organizing everything. Dragon Age II arrives in stores on March 8, 2011 on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.

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