Forever Fantasy: The Philosophy Behind Dragon Age: Origins
You have to be careful to not chase the trend of the day... The problem is that with the amount of time it takes us to build an IP up from scratch, and introduce it into the market, the trend would probably be long gone. Fantasy goes through cycles, but theres always an audience for it.
bajillion fantasy based RPGs on the
market. So, why would a developing company make another? And, why would
someone make a single player fantasy-based RPG during the boom of
multiplayer and massively multiplayer games? Would they be nuts? No.
They’d be BioWare.
Mark Darrah is the Executive Producer of Dragon Age. He’s style="font-style: italic;">the man when it
comes to everything Dragon Age, including the books, the game, the
universe. So it seemed astute reasoning that he’d know a
thing or two behind the single player RPG, style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age: Origins.
Following the trail, we sat down with Mr. Darrah to try to find out
some of BioWare’s philosophy behind creating this game, due
for launch November 3rd.
To Take a Page from
Like the fans of Victor Hugo’s
style="font-style: italic;">Les Misérables,
there are literally millions of fantasy lovers in today’s
market, and BioWare recognizes the potential advantage in ancillary
products of fantasy, and more specifically, style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age
this meant a musical, posters, CDs, clothing, and a plethora
of other memorabilia. With Dragon
Age, it means novels, pen and paper
RPGs, and game expansion sets.
“In our experience,” Darrah stated,
“there’s a great breadth of fans,” and
this opens up the opportunity to offer players more of the style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age
experience than just the game.
In addition, the swing of current gamer flavor needs to be considered,
but not in the way one might think. “You have to be careful
to not chase the trend of the day. Paranormal, werewolves, and zombies
are pretty hot today. The problem is that with the amount of time it
takes us to build an IP up from scratch, and introduce it into the
market, the trend would probably be long gone. Fantasy goes through
cycles, but there’s always an audience for it. There may not
always be an audience for post-apocalyptic zombie worlds. It could be a
popular genre right now, but in five years, who knows?”
Even without brain-eating zombies, BioWare seems to be aiming the title
to a more adult audience than some other fantasy games.
“We really look at this as an opportunity to explore the
edges of the fantasy genre,” Darrah continued.
“This is a game that contains the elements of what
you’re used to in fantasy, like elves, dwarves and mages, but
everything is looked at in a slightly different tone. For example,
mages are distrusted heavily, and elves are an oppressed race. For us,
it was an opportunity to tell the stories we wanted to tell, but look
at it in a more adult way.”
Though more mature, the targeted audience is still large, and the best
way to target a large audience is to target several audiences.
“I think this is a game that manages to [target many types of
gamers]. For the Baldur’s
Gate player, there’s all
that depth there if you want it. You can pause and play; you can dig
into the tactics; you can be very careful and very calculating on how
you play the game. For someone who’s looking for a little
more action, you can play the game that way too, especially on the
consoles where the controls are much tighter and much more designed for
an action experience. It feels like it’s a totally
different game, and much more geared to the Action RPG
It’s been ten years since we’ve played
II, but Darrah believes style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age: Origins
could hit home with those players too.
“It’s not the same game, but it still invokes the
same feelings, the same depth of story and tactical element.”
And depth is a major reason players will keep coming back to a game.
It’s what sets good games that trigger an emotional response
apart from bland games that are forgotten five minutes after playing.
So how does a developer drive an emotional response? There is a method
to it, and Darrah explained.
“We tell stories that are real in a way. It’s in a
fantastic environment, but it’s something you can imagine.
It’s brutal, but you can imagine it really happening. I think
that helps strengthen the emotions. Even though you may be suspending
your disbelief by playing a dwarf, you don’t [have to try to
believe] you’re a dwarf doing something really weird. What
you’re doing and the experiences that are occurring seem
logical. That helps anchor that emotion.”
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Wasn’t Built in a Day
introduced at E3
2004, media and gamers alike were excited about the product.
And now, five years later, we’re about to see the game in its
completed state. So why did it take so long?
is a game of epic (or ludicrous) proportions, depending on how you look
at it,” Darrah explained. “For a game of this
scale, as it grows, it gets exponentially more complicated. To try to
tell a story of this scale, it requires a lot of people to get together
to polish it, and make sure that it’s up to the quality of a
game that we want to show to the public.”
It’s important to note that BioWare’s standards may
not be the same as some other studios when it comes to releasing a
product to the masses. As MMO gamers, we fall victim to early releases
perhaps more than most other platforms. BioWare, however, has a long
history of seeing a game through to its completion before putting it in
“The game at Christmas time [of last year] was a game that
another company would have considered shipping and releasing to the
public. But for us, it was just a lot more opportunity to bring the
quality up and polish it,” Darrah pointed out. The title had
recently announced a two week delay, pushing its launch from October
20th to November 3rd, but at this point it was explained that that was
more for logistical reasons.
Finding the Right
Perhaps one of the most challenging obstacles developing studios face
is to find an appropriate publisher. A fantastic game could go by
unnoticed if the publisher isn’t up to snuff, and conversely,
a virtually unplayable game could find its way into millions of homes
if the publisher is a powerful one.
In October of 2007, Electronic Arts purchased BioWare. The news was
pretty big, as the industry also saw a merge of Activision and Blizzard
not too long before the EA BioWare acquisition. This meant four of the
leading game companies were then just two, and BioWare could, at that
point, publish through EA, skipping a potential major hazard in
“It’s been a really good experience for me, for style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age, and for
BioWare as a whole because it was an opportunity to bring together a
Triple A Developer, like BioWare, with a Triple A Publisher, like
EA,” Darrah told us. “They haven’t been
jiggling our elbow or anything like that. They brought their expertise
on the publishing side, which is something we didn’t
The core behind any game from Pac-Man
to Grand Theft Auto
is the game’s engine. A good engine needs to power the game
to make it run smoothly and look great, but not at the sacrifice of
performance. Many games rely on pre-built engines to help streamline
the developing time. Other games, like style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age: Origins,
have so many new ideas and mechanics, that it becomes impossible to
build off of anything already in existence.
“It’s a new engine that we developed specifically
for Dragon Age,”
Darrah told us. That way, the door is left open for quicker expansions
and sequels, without having to reinvent the wheel.
“Once a franchise gets off the ground and you start
to look at sequels or new storytelling opportunities within the same
franchise. You want to look at possibilities to keep the audience
engaged. You’ll want five years between games once
you’ve got the first one out. You want them a little bit
closer together. Not every six months, obviously, but you want them
close enough that people remember them. ‘Oh yeah, right!
I’m still interested in that story.’ You
don’t want to go ten years and have them say ‘oh
yeah, right! … Terminator.’”
A custom engine provides more than just fancy effects, though.
“What we bring that some [other more MMO-based games]
don’t is an epic-ness of storytelling - the fact that you are
an earth-shaking force in the universe. Ultimately, it’s not
a massively multiplayer game, so we can do things based on your choices
that affect the entire world. That’s a great storytelling
is obviously a big part of the game, and important to
BioWare too. So how does the story pan out? Does the engine allow for
multiple endings of the game based on whether the player plays a good
or evil character?
“It’s actually more complicated than
that,” Darrah asserted. “There are endings based on
good and evil; there are endings based on your origin; there are things
that are open to certain origins that aren’t open to others,
so counting the number of endings is impossible. There are so many
things that impact the way the game ends.”
The game is set to launch on multiple platforms, which isn’t
always an easy task. Often the translation can suffer from one platform
to the next, but BioWare believes it is a fun experience on any system,
albeit, it can play differently.
“On the consoles, it’s amazing how different it
plays than on the PC. I think it’s a great experience,
regardless of the kind of game you’re looking for,”
Right alongside consoles, the rest of technology has advanced
tremendously over the past decade as well. The game is wrought with
character model’s facial emotion and reaction to the
environment, which makes for extraordinarily immersive game play.
Gate, everything was presented in word form,”
Darrah expanded. “Cutscenes just weren’t possible
with that engine. Then, with early or mid 3D, it became necessary to
tell stories that way, but it wasn’t the strongest way to
tell the story. I think we’re now getting back to the point.
We’ve crossed the chasm where now it’s possible to
tell stories and narratives from within the engine. It’s
showing you so much more. With the technologies now, it is finally
possible to tell a cinematic story.”
The game play technology also expands on the role playing field by
getting the player more involved. Darrah analyzed: “ style="font-style: italic;">Mass Effect was a
third person narrative. You played a pre-defined character with more
defined behaviors, and the player was a spectator. However, with style="font-style: italic;">Dragon Age,
it’s more of a first person narrative. You play more of a
character that you’re projecting yourself onto the screen, so
in that case, you want more choices in dialog, and that’s why
we’ve chosen that presentation between the two. We
don’t want the voice acting to interfere with what
you’re projecting on the story itself,” so BioWare
has opted for a mute protagonist to help create the role playing
environment they’ve envisioned.
Keep It on the DL
With such a massive amount of stories, and so many possible endings,
where does the game go from there?
“We don’t have anything specifically announced yet,
but I think there is a place in the market for full expansions that
bring significant amounts of stories and content to the
game,” Darrah assured us. “The plans as they are,
go from small bits of content like weapon packs up to individual plots
and mini stories to miniature expansions, to potentially full retail
expansions. Some of this content will be at the end of the game, while
other content will be accessible very early in the game.
“For example, the Stone Prisoner, which you can download free
when you first purchase the game, is something you can access very
early and something that will enrich the rest of the game.
It’s another playable golem character that you acquire.
It’s fully detailed, with its own plots and its own areas.
It’s huge in scope for downloadable content.
“It also serves to introduce players to the downloadable
content concept. You’ve bought the game, and you can download
this content free, and the game is going to be supported for two full
But how can a game that’s so detailed and interconnected
through so many webs of stories, areas and world events maintain a
library of downloadable content without breaking something else in the
“That’s one of the things that makes Stone Prisoner
so huge in scope,” Darrah elucidated. “This
character has things to say everywhere. Everywhere you go, there are
extra intricacies and webs, but it is possible to make content
that’s a little more stand-alone and off to the side. It
really depends on what exactly we decide to do. There are ways to keep
it under control.”
So, maybe BioWare isn’t crazy after all. There is a large
segment of the player population who still crave the fantasy RPG genre.
The studio also recognizes the importance of immersion, and takes the
term “role playing” as seriously as one can,
keeping it in the forefront of any decision and direction the game is
taken in. The technology is available to build an engine that can bring
cinematic storytelling to the player like never before, and
downloadable content promises to keep the gamer engaged for many, many
So yes, there is lots of room available for another single player
fantasy RPG. And come November 3rd, this is one writer who will be
making room for it on his own PC as well.