Dragon Age: Origins Interview

Article Index

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Electronic Arts
Developer:BioWare Corp.
Release Date:2009-11-03
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Edmonton. The Lion's Head Pub. Several drinks in, I find myself in a conversation with Dragon Age: Origins lead designer Mike Laidlaw about the standards Sir-tech set with Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. As the drinking continues, we exchange stories about battling 99 berserkers in The Bard's Tale, interacting with Zombie #1201 in Planescape: Torment, and which characters voiced by the late Tony Jay had the most impact on us. Not your typical bar conversations, in other words.

But it was this dialogue that spurred me to seek Mike out the following morning so that we could continue our RPG chat - only this time, we'd be zeroing in on Dragon Age: Origins. Linearity was at the top of my list:

GB: From what I've played so far, the game is very linear, at least during the first few hours. At what point does it open up to free exploration?

Mike: Yeah. Whereabouts are you?

GB: I just drank the darkspawn blood to become a Gray Warden.

Mike: Oh, yeah. You've got one dungeon, and then you get the world back. It's going to open up a lot. The reason we have a linear opening is largely for a couple of reasons: one, to establish the setting and story. Because it's a brand new IP, if you just drop people into a world they don't know, then there can be kind of like a degree of confusion.

And we're trying to build a story that's got its own dramatic, you know, impetus, and that kind of stuff. So I think a linear opening causes people to kind of understand, okay, here's the role. Here are the events that lead to me becoming a Grey Warden proper, which you just did.

Then you basically get to see how that plays out. And at that point, what you're about to come to the realization of is that I'm going to need to gather an army. And at that point, it's up to you. How are you going to do it? Because you basically take charge.

GB: So when the world map opens up, is it in traditional Baldur's Gate style, where you have something like 30 locations, and only certain ones are available depending on what you've learned or explored previously?

Mike: Yeah. We mark your map. You can see your progression as you move through it. You reach locations, and then you go back into another one, and away you go. You can have random encounters on it as well. You can run into roving groups of darkspawn, that kind of stuff.

GB: Okay. So if you find yourself needing to gain experience or more coin, can you travel back and forth to different areas in order to take advantage of the random encounters?

Mike: Yeah. Actually some people we don't want people necessarily just grinding, or just infinite respawn kind of stuff. It's a closed economy, by deliberate choice, because there comes a point at which, you know, people are like level 99 and the game's trivial.

Or you have to balance the game to the point where you run into the problem with everyone having ridiculous equipment that they are like, (I'm a soldier of the banner!) And the people are like, (Why are you wielding that glowing three-handed sword?) So I mean, yeah. We try to keep it within a range.

But at the same time, yes. A lot of people actually will go through and do part of a quest, pause, and then go back and do part of another quest, then go back as well, because it lets them kind of gather items and equipment from some of the easier frontends, and then they dive into the deeper dungeons. It's really up to you.

GB: So once it opens up, I would assume that there are some story-driven elements where for periods of time, you have to go through this path or that path to progress the story. But what percentage of the game would you say is opened up to free, non-linear exploration?

Mike: Eighty.

GB: Eighty?

Mike: Eighty. And I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "I've just went through a fair amount." But the thing is, it is a big game.

There is an awful lot of game where you are completely in the driver's seat. And there are parts where what I see is that people get in that head set where they're like, "Oh, my God. I have to do this." And you don't. Like you could turn around and leave, and come back later.

But they go through the Brecilian forest. They go to the West Brecilian forest, and they go to the East Brecilian forest, and then they go back to the West, and they complete this quest. And then they go into this dungeon ruin. Then they go to the next level, and the next level, and they like never turn back, because they're kind of excited to see it play out. And that's pretty cool to me.

It's like when you feel like you just want to know how it turns out, and it pulls you in. I hope no one gets frustrated by it, because they certainly have the option to U-turn, and take a little break, go hit a shop, go back to camp and heal, all that kind of stuff.

GB: Interesting. Now, there are conflicts with the protagonist and particular followers over different decisions you have to make in the game... but are there ever conflicts amongst the followers themselves? And can it result in a battle to the death, or anything else extreme in nature?

Mike: We moved away from any that are kind of outside of your influence. But [the GamesCom demo] you'll actually see tomorrow, there's a conflict with followers where they turn on you. So I think that's what you're looking for there. And yes, there are instances of that.

There are instances where they're threatening to abandon you, that kind of stuff. And the approval system is part of that. I don't know if you're far enough, but if you check out Alistair, he's got an approval button that determines how he feels about you. You know, your choices you made in the Korcari Wilds, so did you kill the soldier or heal him? Alistair has approval that reacts to that.

GB: I also remember reading at one point that the approval rating even affects your followers' performance in battle. So if you're a good-natured character taking the righteous path in the world, that makes certain followers in your party more powerful in combat... but what about the more nefarious you are? Are there characters that respond to that?

Mike: Morrigan's general opinion is that every mage in the tower should be put to the stake. That's not the nice guy route, but it's what she thinks should happen.

GB: So if that's the route you take - if you just cut them down, that will improve your standing with her, and, ultimately, her combat performance?

Mike: That's right. Now how is everyone else going to feel about that, including the circle mage, who could join you? Not so good.

Yeah, there are definitely conflicts in terms of morality and goals between the party members, and they make it pretty clear. And there are times when, you know, they're like, "What the hell are you doing?" They actually just stop you in the middle of a big decision. And you can try to talk them down, but often, you just watch your approval dip by 20 points. And you're like, "Oh, God. Okay. They didn't like that."

GB: Speaking of which - have you announced the total number of followers in the game?

Mike: No. Not the total. Because there are some surprises in there.

GB: So that's something that you're just going to leave for people to find out for themselves?

Mike: For a little bit, yeah.

There are some surprises. And honestly, the neat part is that there are followers you could miss, depending on your actions. Followers you could eliminate before they even join your party. Generally, you can tell, but you know, if you want to do that, then go for it.

GB: So between all of these followers, do they provide every spectrum of what your party might need, regardless of which origin story and class you took for your protagonist?

Mike: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. You are never going to be left with a, (Oh, God, I have nothing but mages. I have no one who can take any hits.) No. You're never going to end up in that situation.

And the best part is, once you get them, you can build them however you like, so you know, maybe they'll join at level 6, and you've got 14 or 15 levels to customize them from there on out. So you say, (I get what your thing is for your type of magic, but you're also going to start healing now.) Sure. You know, you're not going to be locked into it. They're not going to level up on their own unless you want them to.

GB: I only ask because in the Neverwinter Nights 2 adventure pack Mysteries of Westgate, there is no mage you can recruit into

Mike: Oh, dear.

You are missing a significant chunk of the D&D ruleset then.

GB: Exactly.

Mike: Yeah.

GB: Alright, moving on... Dragon Age has a massive history behind it, a history that you've put years of work into. How do you keep track of it all, and make sure that none of the designers or other team members are accidentally breaking something that isn't supposed to be broken?

Mike: Right. Making sure that you have people that are immersed in the IP, the intellectual property, and having really good and empowered leads and sub-leads that kind of understand what the goals of the game are from a high-level view. So when we talk about broken, there's the history of broken, like, (Well, hold on, you don't do that with magic in this world.) Right?

That's largely handled by the writers and the editors, and we have a full team that works on that, Dave Gaider being the lead writer for the game, who then wrote the novel as well.

And so you have this watchdog element, and they're doing most of the writing, so most of the factual stuff is either in the codex or the journal of what people say. So as long as that team's all on the same page, and I'm on the same page, then we're all in pretty good shape there.

For keeping the game itself functional, in terms of how it runs, that's where the programming and art come into there. The technical designers will build the levels, construct them. And they all understand, by working directly with the writers and the artists, what the goal of the level is, and what the overall theme is.

So that's where you get things like, (Well, it would be cool to have a dragon there!) But this is a subtropical climate or whatever, and that's not where dragons live. So what else can we do?

It's funny. The goal is to have a big fight here, so what can we do, the equivalent of that?

GB: So how do you police that with fans who are going to be creating modules for the game? How do you keep them from stepping out of your boundaries or do you not care if they skew your history?

Mike: You basically have to accept that if it's going to be fan-made, and they're just going to work, it's going to be non-canon. You know, it's kind of like fanfic, right? You accept it. I remember reading one where someone had taken the Jade Empire ten years later, or what would happen if you hadn't come back, or you died, or a number of different elements like that, and they explored that space.

I mean, it's written, and it's there, and you know, it's cool, but it isn't the canonical version of what happened. If people want to try and build it to be as accurate as you can, our goal is to try and support them, and give them the info they need. But at the same time, unless it's an official licensed product then there's not much we can do.

If we do a licensed one, well, then, it's basically up to us to make sure the documentation's there, and then we have someone that can go through and just check what they have.

GB: So you've considered the possibility of licensing Dragon Age out for some type of module program?

Mike: Well, we don't have any specifics announced on licensing deals and that kind of stuff. But you can already see the intent in doing the pen and paper role-playing game, which is your first example of something beyond pure BioWare tearing into the Dragon Age universe. And it's been really cool. I mean, it's really neat to kind of go from a company that takes pen and paper and turns it into video games, to a company making video games that get turned into pen and paper.

So that's a beginning. Where it goes from there, we'll have to wait and see.

GB: I did an interview with Chris from Green Ronin on that, too. It'll be interesting to see the final product. Where does that project stand, and do you see that releasing in the same schedule, or at least around the same schedule, as Dragon Age?

Mike: Yeah. That's the intent.

GB: Do you plan on expanding that into adventures, modules, and that sort of thing?

Mike: I'm hoping. I think that'd be great.

They've been quite good to work with. Certainly pretty true to the lore, doing their best to pull in the elements that kind of explain the whys, that the game maybe doesn't go into detail, because in dialogue, people don't go, "And here is why I'm doing that." Right? So yeah.

GB: Is it difficult keeping that project on track to make sure that the ruleset and everything that they're describing matches up to what you want to do with Dragon Age the video game?

Mike: No. Not terribly. And I think honestly the key is strong upfront communication, and saying, (Here are our big goals for Dragon Age as an intellectual property. These are the themes that we explore, and that we want to continue to explore. And do you guys feel that you can work with me on those specs?) And if they say yes, then, you know, we can basically come to an agreement to be true to the spirit of the thing.

You know, the exact rules don't have to be the same, but I mean, they have all the spell lists and all the data. They understand the how and why of the way it works in the video game, and then from there can extrapolate out to the how and why of the RPG. And the rules can be different, as long as the intent and spirit of the things are the same.

GB: Let's talk monsters. From what I've seen so far, I've ran into Hurlocks, Genlocks, subdivisions of each like the emissaries, and then you have your more challenging yellow and orange mobs. We know there are dragons, and we know there are ogres, but that's about it. How many creatures are actually in the game, and how diverse do they become?

Mike: It's several dozen. I don't remember off the top of my head the exact number. But basically what we tried to do is take an ecology approach to it, where there are different creatures that live underground in the deep roads where the dwarves live. They then live on the surface, then travel with the darkspawn hordes.

So there's quite a big variety. You see them in general classes of demons, undead, darkspawn, creature or animal, and abominations. So you know, those are kind of our broad classes. And there are several examples of each. And of course, Dragon has some as well.

GB: I haven't seen any undead in the game yet. Will we be running into standard skeletons, zombies, that sort of thing?

Mike: Yeah. The undead and demons are not part of the darkspawn. The darkspawn are one threat. I think it's key to know that there is more than just one threat in the world. And often, the greatest threat can be humanity itself. Ambition, you know, hence going back to betrayal as a theme.

GB: Are these monsters or the loot in the world ever scaled to your party's level? You had said that 80 percent of the game was kind of free exploration, so obviously we might stumble into a more challenging area, potentially early in the game. Will the game scale the challenge accordingly?

Mike: Within limits. There are some areas that are harder just by nature, and some areas that are easier just by nature. But generally, the game is attempting to balance itself. What I wanted to avoid, though, was the problem of the game always being the same difficulty level, like one kind of vanilla challenge level. There need to be some spots that spike in difficulty, things that are off the have-to-do list.

There's more license for my team to build something a little harder, more challenging, but at the same time more rewarding. Right? You know, artifact level magic weapons, or whatever.

And I think people are going to find those, and usually the more obscure it is to find, the more the more likely you are to get sat down the first couple of times you try it. But still, that's the nice thing about having a world where you can explore, is you can back out, go somewhere else, and come back in a few levels, and try again.

GB: To me, that is a staple element of the RPG, and one of the reasons why I was very disappointed in Oblivion. No matter where you went, Oblivion just scaled everything to your level. There was no concept of risk versus reward. I like knowing that I can walk into an area and find it way above my head, but if I pull off the right tactics, I can take down a beast or some other obstacle before I should have been able to and reap the rewards.

Mike: Yeah. That's exactly right. And kind of catapult yourself up a bit by what you pull out of it. There's a lot of stuff that's kind of optional. You know, you click on a tombstone, and an air of cold permeates the entire area, and an ominous whispering begins. And you go, "Maybe I'd better save before this one, huh?" Like, if we actually took the time to warn you that perhaps you shouldn't be clicking on this, that's a pretty good indicator that something rough is there. But at the same time, it's probably worth it. Right?

GB: On the subject of rewards, I noticed that the game has item sets. One of my companions was getting some type of fatigue bonus for wearing the same type of armor, and I assume it only goes up from there. How far do you take the item set concept in Dragon Age? Are there sets that span rings, amulets, helmets that sort of thing?

Mike: In some cases. It's largely tied to your armor. Largely, the item sets are armor. There are some others, but they're pretty hidden. And basically, if you right click on any piece of armor in the set, it will tell you exactly what the set bonus is. So you get some that reduce the amount of fatigue, so it's essentially lighter if you wear the whole set. Some might buff your damage, or your criticals, or that kind of thing.

So it's not a huge impact on the game, but it's there, and it's got to be some encouragement to try and collect a set of armor together, right? And there are suits of armor that are very powerful when put into a set, like the set bonus is more significant. And each piece of armor is also quite strong as well.

So at that point, the player's kind of like, "Hmm, do I want to wear the boots, or do I want to wear those other really good boots?" And that's what I love. Like when I think about equipping and building my character, that kind of choice between you know, partly between the aesthetics, because I care about that. (I gotta wear the green pants!)

Or but also the item set bonus does this, but those other boots do this. And so I feel torn between my equipment. I feel like the game's kind of left me in a place where I'm very excited to be, like I'm not sure which is the right one. I'm going to try it like this, you know.

And I like that. I like feeling like progressing my characters is a choice, and I'm sacrificing some things to get other things. In the same way, you can't learn all the weapon talents. You kind of have to pick what type of weapon you want to use as a warrior, right? It's the same thing, like, (God, I wish I were awesome at both, but I can't be, because I went with sword and shield. Right?

It's not irritating, but it's the delightful frustration of knowing I can't have it all, of not being the uber-player. You know what I mean? And knowing that then my goal is to make up for the weaknesses. Oh, he's not good at range? Well, what if I brought a rogue in?

GB: Now with important equipment like what we're talking about, is that statically placed in the world?

Mike: Yeah. There are many things that are statically placed in the world specifically to be rewarding based on a series of events and adventures. I think it's a very valid way to put treasure, is to say we know that you got through something amazing to get here, so in that chest is something amazing to reward you. I would never, ever rely upon a completely random treasure system for that kind of thing, unless I had assurances that it would draw something from the amazing pile.

Even then, I prefer thematic stuff where... I'm in this ancient elven tomb, and I just killed an ancient elven spirit, and in its ancient elven sarcophagus, I found ancient elven armor. That to me just hangs better than, you know, a ridiculous maul or something. You know what I mean? Like, well, that doesn't seem very elven to me.

So it's important to me that you feel like your reward is not just commensurate with your effort, but also kind of thematic, too. If I find dragon scales on a dragon, then I go make dragon scale armor, wicked.

GB: So in the case of pickpocketing or mundane, standard chests, is that loot random?

Mike: There's quite a bit of stuff that's random, yeah. It's generated from different tables, based on the type of creature that and you know, you will find stuff like healing items in that pile as well.

GB: Okay. I'm going to jump over to the base camp we've heard so much about... Are there multiple base camps?

Mike: Well, kind of... but kind of no. The camp itself is always kind of an abstract, so it's in the same geometry in terms of where you explore, but basically, you can be anywhere. You can be in the Brecilian forest, or at Redcliffe, and kind of go to your camp, but basically, you don't go anywhere. You just set up camp at a convenient place with some water nearby, and away you go.

And then from there, you can leave, and you basically leave from wherever you were. Your camp is considered to be where you are. So it's kind of everywhere and nowhere at once. It's almost an abstraction. But ultimately, it provides a place where you can recover from wounds if you've got injuries. There's also a store there. Everybody in your party is there, and all of their inventories and skills and level ups, and all that it's all there.

So you basically have a party and whatever you've collected, so you can move all your equipment around, and get ready, and then set out. I like having everybody's stuff available at that interface.

GB: I noticed, too, that you can speak to any of your immediate followers at any time.

Mike: Yep. Often you can ask them like, )What do you think about the place we're in?), too. It's pretty cool.

GB: So if you're pursuing a romance, are there specific points where you have to strike up a conversation in order to keep it going? You know, in order for it to progress to the next stage? I remember in Jade Empire, it was very specific. In Jade Empire, if you missed a specific trigger point with one of your followers, the romance was over for good.

Mike: Oh, I know exactly what you're talking about. Yep. No, because the game itself is open for the vast majority of it, you can always go back to wherever it is you needed to be. I can't think of any situations where you would miss out, unless something you've done has resulted in the death of a follower, or them up and leaving or whatever, in which case your romance is probably screwed anyway. You know, death does that.

But yeah. I mean, there are instances where certain discussions, they're not going to have out on a road. They're like, (Can we maybe set up camp and talk about this there?) And in which case, you go, "Oh, so you want to talk about it,) and away you go.

GB: But if you don't set up camp at that point, and don't for a few hours further into the game, will that conversation still be able to take place?

Mike: Well, then you talk to them about it again, and now you're at camp. Very few things in Dragon Age are on timers. There are sequences in the game that kind of lock you into a bit of a course of action for a while, largely because it backs up the narrative, and it creates kind of a dramatic tension for you. It's like, "Oh, my God. I'm trapped in my own nightmares," or whatever. At that point, you're not going to go wandering back to your camp, but that's largely for dramatic purposes.

But you know, once you've done that, then you can go back to camp. You can go shopping. You can go back to Denerim and visit the bars. Whatever.

GB: At the point where I'm at in the game, I've always had a follower with me. Other than maybe the first 30 seconds of the game, you always have a follower. Can the game be soloed? Once you get past the intro origin, can you drop all of your followers and solo the game the rest of the way through?

Mike: Yeah. There's some situations where people are forced into your party, because they are pivotal to the area you're in, or the thing that you are doing. So they become kind of locked in there. But other than that, yeah. You can run it solo if you want.

That said, I'm unapologetic about the fact the game was designed for a party of four. So good luck to you.

GB: It's the same with Baldur's Gate II, too, though. A lot of people enjoy the challenge of trying to make it through solo.

Mike: Oh, yes. The lead designer of Mass Effect went through it with a rogue. That was like, wow. Yeah, a mage and stuff, sure, but a rogue? Wow.

GB: On the topic of Baldur's Gate II, are there any strongholds in Dragon Age? That was a pretty significant part of it, being able to acquire de'Arnise Keep and experience those types of areas and everything that went along with them.

Mike: No. Not in the same way you're thinking. The problem with the Dragon Age kind of situation is that any place that you kind of took over would probably then be later destroyed by the Blight, which would be a little tricky. It's not something we're opposed to by any means. It's just not something that fit for what you were doing as a Grey Warden.

That said, there may be something available in the expanded content that fills a certain degree of that void.

GB: Warden's Keep, by chance? I did notice references to something called Warden's Keep next to The Stone Prisoner...

Mike: I can neither confirm nor deny that rumor.

GB: Okay, I'll take that as it is. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mike.