Making a Classic - An Interview with Dragon Age's Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw

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....
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.

Ten Ton Hammer: The choices that we're making in Dragon Age seem much more... pivotal than what we've seen in Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Mass Effect. 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.

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 shapes.

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?

Laidlaw: 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 world.

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.

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?

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.

Ten 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?

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?

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" perspective.

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.

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?

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.

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

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?

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?

Laidlaw: 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.

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

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?

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 entity.

Ten 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?

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...

Laidlaw: Exactly.

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.

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

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

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?

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.

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