As a developer, what do you do if you've already created a handful of
the most beloved roleplaying games of all time? How can you ever top
games that are already considered the best of the best. The folks at
BioWare Edmonton had to deal with those questions, and more, when they
began work on Dragon
Age: Origins
. With the release date of Dragon Age quickly
approaching, a number of questions still remained in the air for eager
fans. Ten Ton Hammer sat down with Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw in
Edmonton to try to hammer out some of the lingering questions.

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Ten Ton Hammer: The
choices that we're making in Dragon Age seem much more... pivotal than
what we've seen in Baldur's
, Neverwinter
, and Mass
. Was this a decision that was made early on, to
have each of these decisions actually influence that outcome of your
game? Not only that, but there are also more options available to
player than what we've seen previously, as well.

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Mike Laidlaw:
Yes, we wanted to make sure the game was very reactive to the things
you're doing, because it all comes back to this idea of building a
"customizable" game. We wanted to make sure that this was a game that
really was your experience and something that your origin story really

The origin stories, especially, are a great area to see these decisions
showcased. What you see there is actually a mix of things that are
going to carry forward and decisions that only affect your immediate
outcome. Not everything carries forward, but a LOT of things do.

That's where we're really forging new ground and being more reactive
than we have been in the past. It's a really just a conscious choice to
make sure that there's a number of things you can choose and do so when
we introduce particular characters or go back to a player's origin
city, people are going to remember how you behaved and reacted.

To me as a player, that's incredibly gratifying.

Ten Ton Hammer: How does
it really play out in the game? Are players going to be traveling back
to their origin city very often?

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Every origin story has at least one element that is a direct call back
to their specific city/area. There are other lingering effects that go
on throughout the game, like if you choose the mage origin, people will
react to the fact that you're a mage. They're going to be intimidated
by you simply because you are a mage. I mean, mages are scary in our

If you're a dwarf, your existence on the surface will make people
wonder what you're doing above ground. Elves will be treated like
second class citizens. All of those things will carry forward. Even
male and female characters elicit different reactions. Different people
will flirt with you, and the Grey Wardens will react to you
differently. Some even might try to take advantage of you.

You may think they're simple, basic choices at the beginning, but they
really, really matter. They all matter, and that's what people are
excited about.

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Ten Ton Hammer: So even
from the basic character creation selection, players are making
decisions that will affect how their characters are going to be seen in
the world. Are the classes thrown into that mix as well? Do warriors
and rogues have different stories?

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Laidlaw: Warrior
and rogue classes have the same origins, but the way they're played out
may be entirely different. The tactical standpoint is certainly much
different. If a warrior moves behind a guy, he gets a slight bonus to
hit, but if a rogue moves behind someone, they start getting bonus
damage based on cunning and the animation even changes.

The progression trees are also different. For example, rogues are the
only class that can pick locks. If you play a rogue in the early game,
you're like "open chest, open chest, open chest." You're opening all
kinds of stuff and getting loot and money. If you're a warrior, you're
staring at the chests glowering because you can't open them. But once
you get a rogue in your party, you can start popping chests open.

That's a new and different choice for characters. If you're playing a
rogue, you should be rewarded for that choice.

Ton Hammer: What
drove you to make this game so much darker than Neverwinter Nights and
Baldur's Gate? They were D&D based products and you were
constrained a bit by the license, but why did you decide to make it so
much darker?

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Laidlaw: To
be quite frank, what we're seeing - and what we recognized in ourselves
- is a maturation of the gamer. As a company, we've gone from a bunch
of young bucks working in a garage to a group of adults in their 30s
with kids. With that in mind, I think there's a shift in thinking where
people want something a bit more mature to chew on. They want something
challenging in both the gaming and decision-making sense.

So our initial decision was to make this more mature game, but then our
next decision was to hone that choice.  We wanted something a
little more realistic, a little grittier, than just having gore for
gore's sake. While there's still magic - and that's not "real" - at the
same time it's got themes of betrayal that you might not explore in a
happier game. There's so much rich drama there, why should we back away
from it?

That ultimately made us challenge ourselves. We wanted to know if we
could do it in a respectful and contextual way. We didn't want it to be
the arbitrary inclusion of sex and violence; obviously people procreate
and obviously people die in wars.

Ten Ton Hammer: There are
some sexual themes in this game, and while Baldur's Gate had some in
the "romantic" conversations, in the start of Dragon Age you're
literally placed right in the middle of those situations in some of the
origins. I played the dwarf commoner, and you're immediately dropped
into a scenario where you're talking to your sister, who's a
prostitute. Where do you draw the line from being "in context" to
beyond that point? How do you know where to stop?

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Laidlaw: Our
art director actually has a brilliant mantra: "It should be violent,
but not sadistic. It should be sexual, but not sexist." If you define
those lines for yourself, you can basically feel like it's a game
you're prepared to defend. It's certainly not a game for kids, and some
of the origin stories - and the dwarven commoner is one of the harshest
- really hit on that.

I mean, you're a thug and your sister is a prostitute, but is your
sister just a sexual prop? No - she's a real person doing what she's
doing because your family is in a very tough situation. Your mom is
drinking herself into a stupor, you've been branded at birth...

These are hard times [in the game], so you can understand how that
happened. But we, as developers, wanted the player to excel past the
limitations that were presented to players at the very beginning. For
the dwarven commoner, he probably has the highest rise out of anyone.
He goes from being worse than a commoner to a general of armies.
Basically each origin ends the game from some sort of "king-like"

It's your basic hero's journey, fantasy adventure, whatever you want to
call it. From a youth to a man. From a girl to a woman. It's all about
that maturation of character, and we're trying to do it from different
points of view.

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Ten Ton Hammer: Are you
worried that once this game launches, players will be over-the-top with
the content they create with the toolset? Some of it probably will
happen no matter what, but do you think it will be a pervasive thing?

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Laidlaw: I
don't worry about that, per se. That's like worrying that someone will
film something naughty because we made a video camera. People are going
to build what they want to build. People are inspired by that, and
that's good.

What Dragon Age delivers is the idea of "owning" the content you
create. If all we had was some sort of "thrust meter," I might be a
little concerned. Generally, I think  the fact that people
might want to make these sort of "slasher" games or more erotic games
is unfortunate, but as a company you have to decide if that's worth
hauling back on the tools and limiting creative freedom.

I honestly think the community will self-regulate. There will always be
a market for things that are off-kilter, but there's also a market for
things that are high quality and even ingenious concerning things you
can do with our tools. We saw that in Neverwinter, and I think we'll
see that again.

Ton Hammer: But you
won't allow those more "off-kilter" modules onto your community,

Laidlaw: I
think there'll be some sort of content regulation, certainly. But I
don't think we want to be overly draconian about it.

Ten Ton Hammer: Compared
to your previous D&D-based games, Dragon Age feels fairly...
limited... when it comes to class/race selection. Why did you limit the
selection so much?

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Laidlaw: The
choice to go with the three classes was simply that people understand
what they're selecting when they opt to create a warrior, rogue, or
mage. When you don't have the kinda "sub-classes" like you do in
D&D - the ranger and the barbarian are great examples - you
often don't have that subset of talents that comes along with them.
That means you're not really narrowed into a particular channel, which
gives us the option to let players expand their characters where ever
they feel fits their playstyle.

As the game progresses, the characters get more complex and the players
can make more and more decisions regarding the play. But that said,
it's a gradual progression and you're exploring the world as you expand
your character.

Players feel like the character and the story are moving at the same
pace, so as they come to understand the mechanics, they can adjust
their characters as they see fit, so they don't have to necessarily go
back and completely remake a character if it doesn't fit their
playstyle perfectly.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will the
specializations that players pick influence how NPCs respond to the
main character and his party members?

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Some of them will. There won't be too much of that, but there are some
instances of that happening. What you don't know, however, is how to
find those NPCs in the world. You have to go digging in some cases.

Specializations aren't just unlocked by level either. You might have to
find someone that helps you achieve a particular specialization that
you want.

Ten Ton Hammer: So it's
not something where you can earn a specialized class simply by hitting
level 20?

Laidlaw: You
earn points to gain specializations at 7 and 14, but becoming
specialized is something you have to do in game. You get some inherent
benefits with the specialization, but you also unlock a new talent tree
as well to further customize your character.

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Ten Ton Hammer: Can
players earn more than one specialization?

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Laidlaw: You
can earn two. So you still have to make some choices in the game about
your character.

That's the theme of the game!

Ten Ton Hammer: You talk
about story a lot, but what were some of the things that you wanted to
modify concerning RPG-style gameplay? Where did you decide to
differentiate from older RPGs?

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Laidlaw: For
me, it's the interplay of the party. We really wanted to make design
decisions that make players feel that they're not just controlling one
character. Yes, you have a central character, but the game to my mind
is at its best when group interplay is at the forefront. Spell
combinations are a great example. Understanding that having a guy
tanking with sword-and-board is a great idea when you have an
individual using a two-handed sword beside him.  Being able to
build tactic trees that are conditionally based is another thing that
we've integrated into our game.

Essentially we wanted to give players the understanding that it's not
just you in the game, it's your whole party in the game. On top of it
all, you don't necessarily have to micromanage everything either. In my
mind, that gives us a really unique feel. We've broken away from just
single person gameplay, and we've regathered the party and instructed
players on how to turn the group into a *force* rather than a single

Ton Hammer: Speaking
of the party, you've spoken about the banter of the party in this game.
BG and BG2 had that sort of thing, but how do you take that to the next
level from what we saw in BG2? Where does it stop being pithy, witty,
back-and-forth and actually becomes something more?

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Laidlaw: In
my mind, Baldur's Gate 2 did an exceptional job of making you care
about your followers. So we didn't want to set out to break Baldur's
Gate 2. What we did was we made sure we had at *least* that level of
interaction. We wanted to make sure we had those iconic characters that
players remember.

Ten Ton Hammer: The
Jaheiras and Viconias and Minscs...

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Some of the writers that even worked on Minsc's dialogue and Jaheira's
romance worked on this game.

Ten Ton Hammer: Viconia
was always my favorite.

Laidlaw: She
had an exceptional feel about her. She was, ultimately, the bad girl
that was trying to be better - or not - depending on how you played the
game. We essentially wanted to hit that bar, and you can only push that
bar so far before it becomes all consuming.

That said, in Dragon Age all of our characters have their own histories
and we added some new mechanics, like approval.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you
talk about that?

Laidlaw: Approval
basically ranks how the characters in your group are feeling about you
and the decisions you're making.

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Ten Ton Hammer; That was
kinda in Baldur's Gate, correct?

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Laidlaw: Yes,
but that was based off of alignment. It was a broad reputation

Approval is much more personal than that, and it's very subtle. As your
approval goes up, what they say when you click on them or as you give
them orders can change. It goes from something like "Fine, I'll do it"
to something along the lines of "Yes, m'lord. What can I do to help?"

We do have some moments where you party members can become so angry
with you that they turn on the group and leave or fight you. There's
some very, very deep interaction there.

So does it make BG2 look dates? No. But does it have new elements? Yes.
Followers are really what help make the game so memorable.

Ten Ton Hammer: Finally,
one of the interesting things for BG2 for me was the number of NPCs
that were in the game and could join your party. If you weren't paying
attention, you might miss an opportunity to have someone in your party.
Is there that similar amount of NPCs in Dragon Age?

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Laidlaw: You've
basically got about eight characters that can join your group, but the
role a player will come up with will determine the type of party you'll
build. If you're a rogue, you might not want to necessarily play
through the game with another rogue. Or maybe you do - because then
someone is always backstabbing.

Party composition is something that players constantly discuss, because
the situations become so different when you play with different
characters in your party. You'll be able to enter different areas or
banter back and forth, and it all depends on who you have in your party.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Dragon Age: Origins Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016