Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II's Mark Darrah

We visited Bioware a while ago and sat down with Mark Darrah, executive producer on Dragon Age II, to discuss the franchise and the changes they have made this time around.

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Obviously a lot has changed since the first Dragon Age. Although the game was well-received you have made quite a few changes - both combat and visuals have changed noticeably. You probably could have kept the same basic structure and still have satisfied the fans. How come you decided to head in this, potentially risky, direction?

Well I guess there are two questions there; from a combat perspective what we've really tried to do is about refinement. About taking what we already had and improving on what was weak. Dragon Age: Origins has really good tactical combat, you can really think your way through a battle, but it's not very responsive, in terms of giving an order there's a long series of events that have to happen before you can do something. So we've really been trying to improve that aspect of it, but it's really important that we keep that tactical depth.

Dragon Age II

For the visual style, for me I think the big, most important thing is that when you look at a screenshot of Dragon Age on a website and be able to tell, without it being labeled "oh, this is a Dragon Age screenshot, this looks like Dragon age". We didn't really have that for Origins, you could take an Origins screenshot and put it next to a Conan screenshot or Everquest screenshot and they would all sort of blend together in this medieval fantasy sort of look. That's really the main reason for the visual direction change, when you see something, you know that it's ours.

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Are there any aspects from the first game that didn't make the transition, that you wish you could have kept but wouldn't have worked in Dragon Age 2?

Yeah, it was a really hard decision to not have a pan-able tactical camera on the PC, but at the end of the day, we had to make that decision because it allows us to really make the game look a lot better and let there be a lot more levels. That top-down camera that can pan around actually makes it very difficult, actually doubles the time it takes to make a level. I wish there was a solution we could've come up with that would have allowed us to keep a feature similar to that, but the reality of the art did not allow us to do that.

Dragon Age II

I guess with the new style it would've been even harder than with the old style, since for example the interiors in Origins were often quite similar.

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Yeah, what removing that feature actually allowed us to do, was have a lot more variety and a bigger number of tile sets so it lets us be more visually distinct.

With regards to the story, having a single main character supposedly gives you a lot more control than with several different options from the get-go. It gives you a chance to flesh out the character more, but what have you done to convince people who might be skeptical of only being able to play a single character?

As you said, it really lets us dig in to the back story, so it allows us to give your character a family, because we know roughly what they will be like. We know you have a brother and sister, we know your father is dead, he was a mage and we know your mother is still living and escapes to Kirkwall with you. It lets us set up key moments in the story, based on who you are without having to deal with the branching aspects of a bunch of different racial variations - there are situations in Dragon Age 2 that wouldn't make sense if you were a dwarf - couldn't have mage father, for example. While it would be possible to write a bunch of inter-weaving stories, what we decided to do because this is such a key moment in the Dragon Age franchise about this human character, that we would focus on this human character.

Dragon Age II

Do any characters from Dragon Age: Origins make an appearance in Dragon Age 2? Aside from Isabela who was only a minor character in the first game.

Yeah, Isabela and there's at least one more follower who is a character from previous stuff we've released. And other characters from Origins might make cameo appearances, for example Alistair might appear, depending on exactly what you did in Origins.

After the release of Mass Effect 2 some interesting statistics gathered from players were published on the web, have you gathered similar statistics for Dragon Age? Did these statistics play a part in the design of Dragon Age 2?

Mass Effect 2 did a better job of gathering statistics than Dragon Age: Origins, but we did gather telemetry, but nothing to the detail of Mass Effect 2, so they were able to see, for example that a large number of players were Paragon as opposed to Renegade. We don't have the same kind of data but it's something we want to add to Dragon Age 2.

How do you see the future of Dragon Age? Does the introduction of Hawke mean that we potentially could be following this character for a long time?

One of the ways we've always looked at the Dragon Age series of games is that it's really a series of stories about the world as opposed to a series of stories about a single character. So while Mass Effect is ultimately the story about Shepard, Dragon Age is really the story of this world and is happening to it. So while we will on occasion go back and revisit characters, potentially in future installments where you play as Hawke again, we won't be tying the games to just a single character, it's really going to depend on the exact story that we want to tell.

By the end of Dragon Age 2, players will have irreversibly changed the world of Dragon Age, what does this mean for players that find multiple endings and branching paths very important? Will there still be plenty of choices and different paths to take?

The world is going to change and the end point has certain defined characteristics, that there's this civil war brewing and the Chantry is losing influence, but the specifics things that you do will have an effect on the outcome for the city of Kirkwall and what that means for you family.

Dragon Age II

The world of Dragon Age has always been a violent place. Has the violence escalated in the second outing or have you kept it the same? Perhaps even toned it down?

I think amount of violence is about the same, though in some cases it may be more visceral or bloody, but the amount of fighting versus the amount of talking your way through a situation stay roughly the same.

For Dragon Age 2, is there a more human aspect to the main antagonist? Since the Archdemon, and the blight as a whole was very monstrous, there weren't any strong battles of wit or will between the Grey Warden and the Blight in Dragon Age: Origins.

That's one the interesting things about how we're telling the story in Dragon Age 2, it's less about this one singular over-arching villain, there is this theme of oppression from the city of Kirkwall that's been purveyed, but there's less of a villain early on that you continuously bounce into over the course of the story. It's more about the relationships you develop with the people in Kirkwall who can rise and become villains as the story progresses, so it's more of a personal story about people and how your relationships with those people can result in world-changing events.

So potentially someone you meet early on in the game could become a villain, even though in the beginning it's just one of many people you meet?

Yes, it could even be someone who you've had a positive interaction with, but their views are so extreme and it just keeps pushing them further and further to the point where you have to step in and stop them.

What was your favourite moment in the first game?

For me, my favourite part is the entire plot involving Colin, because it's a really hard decision that's very emotionally impactful, the story of a child who's possessed by a demon, it's a really powerful theme.

It would have been really interesting to see, if you had more detailed statistics, what choice most people made.

Yeah and that's where it's really unfortunate that we don't have as much telemetry as Mass Effect because it would be very interesting to see how that scene played out for various people.

One of the main issues players and critics had with the first game was the noticeable difference in graphical quality between consoles and the PC. Has the gap between PCs and consoles been closed?

What I would say is the graphical quality on the consoles has really caught up to, and even surpassed what Dragon Age: Origins had on the PC. But in the meantime we've also been pushing the PC forward, the consoles will never completely catch up to PCs, because the PCs are always getting new capabilities. I would say they are closer together, insomuch as Origins on consoles was pretty ugly, while on the PC it was fairly attractive, now both at least are attractive, the PC has just been able to go even further.

Having worked on some the most well-received RPGs in the last few years, do you think there's something missing from RPGs or games in general these days?

I think we're seeing a convergence within gaming, in other genres their gameplay is starting to settle, so they're figuring out that shooters aren't radically changing games anymore, and as that happens they're adding more RPG mechanics and more story-telling. So I think what's happened to a certain degree is that every game is becoming an RPG on some level. I think they've got a lot of learning yet to do in terms of how to tell a story and how to react to player choice but I think we're going to see a lot of interesting stuff from the more mainstream genres in the next couple of years, as they become more and more of a storytelling medium.

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Dragon Age II

REVIEW. Written by Petter Mårtensson

"It took a while to get into the game. For the first five hours I was extremy sceptical, the changes to character customisation and being stuck in Kirkwall made me doubt that I'd ever like it."

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