Forever Fantasy: The Philosophy Behind Dragon Age: Origins

How many fantasy RPGs does it take to make a gaming market? Hundreds, if not thousands, apparently. In a day of so many fantasy based RPGs, one has to wonder if another game of the genre will take off, particularly a game that is single player only, with no multiplayer options. Ten Ton Hammer got together with Dragon Age Executive Producer, Mark Darrah, to talk about just that. We asked Mr. Darrah what BioWare was bringing to the table with the new game, and he shone a light for us on The Philosphy 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 there’s always an audience for it.
There are currently about 70 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 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, 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 Jean Valgenre

Like the fans of Victor Hugo’s 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, Dragon Age material. With Les Mis, 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 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 player.”

It’s been ten years since we’ve played Baldur’s Gate II, but Darrah believes 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.”

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

The game has been in development for near half a decade. First 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?

Dragon Age 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 our hands.

“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 Mate

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 developer/publisher communications.  

“It’s been a really good experience for me, for 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 have.”

Gentlemen, Build Your Engines

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 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 strength.”

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,” Darrah noted.

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.

“In Baldur’s 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: “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 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 years.”

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 game?

“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.”

The Verdict

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 hours.

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.

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