The release of Dragon Age II sparked a controversy among the role-playing game community. Some enjoyed the changes BioWare had made in its follow-up RPG. Others decried BioWare for purportedly neglecting its most ardent fans with simplified mechanics. We spoke to Mike Laidlaw, lead designer on Dragon Age II, to get his thoughts on the debate, the reasoning behind some of the changes, and what he thinks of the finished product.
GameSpot: How do you think the reception for Dragon Age II would have been different if this had been the first game in the series?
Mike Laidlaw: I think it would have been different--exactly how is probably hard to tell, at this point. When you think about Dragon Age, one of the things that comes to mind is the legacy, going back to the Baldur's Gate games and that kind of thing. Actually, [that comparison] was drawn during Origins. It was an explicit, spiritual successor kind of connection. Certainly, I think Origins did a very good job of following in that vein. What Dragon Age II does, or what I perceive it as doing, is take a lot of those gameplay elements--working together as a team, functioning as a combat unit, having a story that unfolds with choices (all of those core things that I see as principal to both Baldur's Gate and, more importantly, to Dragon Age)--and tries to bring some newer ideas to the table (elements of responsiveness, elements of interactivity in the way those fights are coordinated) into what I think is a more modern setting and expectation. For most players, the idea of the solo combat is surprising.
I do think Dragon Age II is running up against some elements of Origins, and it's not something we went into completely blind. We certainly knew there would be some friction between what Origins players have come to expect and what Dragon Age II delivers. But I don't see the two in opposition to each other. I've talked to Origins players who said, "As soon as I moved it to hard, I totally see where Origins is again." That's fair, and I think that's something over time we'll continue to tune and capitalize on that fusion between the Origins experience and Dragon Age II.
GS: In terms of the story in Dragon Age II, it feels like Hawke's rise in Kirkwall comes at the expense of the gameworld as a whole. In contrast, the player saw and learned a lot about the world in Origins. Is the idea that Dragon Age II has a narrower focus and lacks the broader context a fair assessment of the story?
ML: The goal that we were going for is twofold. First, we did want to focus in on a more personal experience--the experience of one person and not the avatar of an organization. To be quite frank, that's a story we told before, and while there's nothing wrong with it, we really wanted to challenge ourselves to not have you end up in the Jedi Order or a Child of Baal, what have you. The story is tighter, and what I think it does is it moves through time in a way that we move through space in Origins.
In Origins, we very much had a mandate to bring a new fantasy world to life--one country, specifically, of a new fantasy world to life. And we moved around through that. But really, what I want to see Dragon Age II set up is a world that's evolving over time just in the same way that Ferelden, as the Blight advanced, evolved through space. When I look where Dragon Age II leaves us, it leaves us with a phase that's inherently more interesting--one where we see strife and things falling apart. This is in stark contrast to the ending of Origins, where we saw things resolved. Oh good, the Blight's over. That's great. We can all go back to minor politicking, which as comfortable as that would be makes for a far less compelling world to be in.
So, in that respect, I think the narrow focus of Dragon Age II really does what we originally hoped to do, which is to say, "This is an event. We want to change the world." As our lead writer said, we want to kick over the sand castle we just built to change something and to show that this is a dynamic space. But we don't want to do it in a way that's just a heavy-handed, "And then a war started!" What we wanted to do is show in a uniquely Dragon Age way this is something that people and real passions and motivations got involved in. It wasn't just an event that happened because it seemed convenient for the narrative.
GS: In terms of the creative process, can you talk about how the story came together and how the final product compares to the initial ideas the team had?
ML: That last answer covers a lot of what we wanted to achieve--the changing of the world and evolving it over time. Obviously, there are a million small permutations that change over the course of any game's development, but really, the scope and the movement of Hawke, from Ferelden survivor--something that ties it to Origins--to champion of Kirkwall, and the chaos that ensues as a result of that, is pretty much the original story arc we envisioned. In the same way that Loghain is a comprehensible villain, such as it is, we wanted to make sure that we were telling the story of a descent into madness in a lot of ways. It's driven by miscommunication, suspicion--human motivations rather than some sort of overarching evil.
GS: Companions are a big part of the series. For Dragon Age II, what was the process for selecting these companions? Did you start with a list of archetypes and fill in the details, or was it a more organic, one-at-a-time process?
ML: It tends to be more organic than some sort of list. But at some point, you have to make sure you have a reasonably balanced party and that the classes, genders, and races are represented in a fair way. If we made a party that was entirely dwarves--even if they were incredibly interesting--some of them would have to end up on the shelf for later use. [They might be] characters with their own motivations and goals, but ones that don't work together well as a complete party. What we tend to do when looking at companions is we start with who would be interesting and, honestly, who would make sense. What characters would potentially arrive here? What characters would tie back to the old game, but not necessarily make people say, "Oh, it's just Alistair again." We develop them and we always develop more than we end up using because there are some that would be great, but they don't fit for whatever reason--be it mechanical or story driven. Often, what those do is they end up in our minds, waiting for the future.
GS: The personalities of the characters in Dragon Age II--some reviews have pointed out that they feel more subdued than the characters in Origins. Was that a conscious decision, or was that a natural byproduct of having a main character with more personality?
ML: It's maybe a combination of those two things. Certainly, the main character having a stronger personality, one where you are able to provide sarcasm, [instead of] having you be the straight man and relying on someone else chiming in for the laughs. But at the same time, when you're looking at a cast of characters like the one in Origins, they're remembered fondly. They always are. So when you're sitting down and playing Dragon Age II for the first time, you're instantly contrasting and comparing to those characters that, in a lot of ways, became your friends--in the way we all kind of empathize with fictional characters. We all wish we could hang out with Aragorn.
On first blush, it's easy to dismiss the new people as nowhere near as cool as the old people. But what I see with Dragon Age II is that the characters, perhaps, don't wear their hearts on their sleeves as much simply because they don't have to, because we have more time for them to evolve and grow. The story arc around Aveline--to use one of our best examples--is more involved than any character story arc we had in Origins. Not to say the Origins characters don't have their involved arcs, and certainly couldn't have them in the future, but it's something we consider a byproduct of the way the game is structured. Later on, the characters have as much or more personality than they did before.
GS: In terms of interacting with these companions or other characters in the game, how do you feel about the way the dialogue wheel came together and how it made things a little more clear and direct?
ML: I'm very happy with it. The wheel, as a whole, provides a couple of really cool advantages. It lets us hold more conversation options than we had available in Origins where we had a cap of six. We technically have a cap of 10, so you can get a nice, cleaner interface to ask questions for clarification. I love the investigate system. It also provides what I see as the prize behind every door insofar as when you read a line of Origins dialogue for comparison, you see everything you could potentially say. In your brain, you've done the totality of that conversation. Whereas looking and saying, "Oh, I know that's going to be a smart-aleck line, but I don't feel it'd be right to use it," you're left with that temptation or that urge to pick it because you can't tell exactly what you'll say. What I think is the key gain with the icons is that you do know it will be sarcastic, which allows you to make a much clearer choice about how you want to interact with characters. If it was going to be suave or if it was going to be diplomatic, you know at a glance rather than having some confusion around what might happen.
Text is always a pretty horrible medium for conveying sarcasm or sincerity. Being able to put a heart, as much as you could argue that you could tell, lets you say, "OK, I'm certain with this choice. I'm not making it blind." That's very important when you want to associate yourself with a character.
GS: You have less control over your companions since you can't equip them directly as you can Hawke. Can you describe the idea behind this particular change, and did you feel that you might be running the risk of players not feeling as much of a connection to those characters?
ML: The key driver behind it was the idea of unique visuals, being able to have Isabela stay Isabela instead of generic rogue put into the same leather armor your character is wearing. It lets us create a visual space between Hawke and the companions. And it gives the companions their own personalities [in the form of] unique body models and animations that are tied to how they idle--simple stuff like Aveline and the way she stands with more of a straightforward stance as opposed to the cocked hip Isabela has and so on. The overall goal there was to keep the companions in a place where they had more personality, but still provide customization in terms of amulets and rings, because having things like fire resistance is important.
Long term, do I think it hurt people's connection to them? I don't think so. I think if anything, the criticisms I've seen leveled at that are largely, "I don't like it, simply because I either want to control them or I don't." That's fair and something we'll end up evaluating over time. It's likely that we'll end up coming back to a way to equip your followers, but at the same time, I really do think that having their own visual signature is really important. It's something that resolves one of the parts I really disliked about Origins where I'd see people's screenshots with their badass team and they would kind of all look the same. Near the end of the game, everyone had the same set of suits of armor. It was kind of like, "Man, that's not Morrigan if she's not in those robes." We ended up in this space where we decided to go with that visual style, and I think it's something we'll continue to iterate on in the future.
GS: Did you toy with the idea of tying the equipment system with the relationship system? For example, you can equip a character only if you've built a positive relationship with him or her.
ML: To a degree, it was something we considered. You'll notice that if you have Merrill or Anders move in with you, they'll change outfits in response to getting out of Lowtown or Darktown. It's something where I think there's a lot of weight behind it whether it's an unlockable reward for earning their companionship or if it's something where their visual signature remains the same, but has more evolutions. Potentially, it could go so far as letting you change to a certain class of armor, but keeping their visual style the same so that they maintain a consistency, even though you still have control over their inventory. These are all things for us to explore.
GS: The most noticeable change for combat is how much faster it is. Looking at the final product, do you feel the team was able to hit that sweet spot between being quick and reactive while still allowing for strategy and planning out moves ahead of time?
ML: I think it's close. There's some tuning to be done, but I'm much happier with the overall feel of the combat in Dragon Age II than I was with Origins. Origins brought some amazing team-based play into the fray, and I know that the systems driving the two games are identical in terms of which stats are checked and how the combat is calculated. But the overall feel that as a warrior I don't have to gamely amble forward to begin my attack is something that creates a consistency between classes. If I have someone nearby who can launch fire from their hands and explode enemies, I don't feel that just because I'm wearing plate-mail I should have to trudge forward to begin combat.
Obviously, there's balance to be done. Certainly, we made some changes in terms of what I think of as the barrier to entry. Origins, especially on the PC, was very difficult unless you were already an RPG veteran. Now, that's a more realistic [difficulty]. It's something to continue to tune, and this is a first outing with something that has almost endless potential.
GS: When you made that change, did it feel like a big gamble at the time?
ML: I felt very confident about it. There are people who dislike that change, and that's perfectly fine. That was not unknown because it's a bit of a paradigm shift in that it moves some fundamentals in a different direction. But what it doesn't do is sacrifice the overall goal for Dragon Age, which I've said before is the idea of teamwork being an important and key part of the franchise--having a party and not just a single character. Ultimately, I think the game controls better on all four platforms, but we knew it was something that would create some response. We knew at first blush people would look at it and say, "Oh god! What is that?" We saw that coming in some of our early demos, but the simple truth is that I've seen innumerable people say, "This is way better. There are some issues--things to be resolved overall with the game--but the combat is more fun to play." To me, that's really the goal.
GS: A lot of PC fans have talked about the removal of the tactical camera. What was the decision process for removing that instead of keeping it in there as an alternate perspective?
ML: The perspective we had for the tactical camera in Origins, with its extreme pull-up, created a very different approach for the way we designed levels. What it really created was restrictions on the way we designed levels. Things like Hightown with the chantry vaulting up into the distance would have been very difficult to achieve in that kind of tactical camera simply because of the way spaces and levels were constructed. With that in mind, we looked at getting enough space to move the camera in and out to be able to position it, and I think the main complaint seems to be that it's tethered to my character. At the same time, it's something that represents a change that's still very playable. It's just become a hot-button issue because it's a difference between Origins and Dragon Age II.
GS: With so much of the focus in Dragon Age II placed on the quicker pace of combat, are there any changes to the combat system that you think are overshadowed and overlooked?
ML: The thing I find most intriguing is the concern that combat has been dumbed down because the earlier fights are less punishing and because they are faster. Somehow this translates immediately into stupid, which I strongly disagree with. There's some balance tweaking that we will continue to do through patches, but really, the things I see in combat are being able to rely on characters to execute orders quickly and being able to rely on cross-class combos, which are a significant step up in terms of their overall usefulness--the premeditation of building them within your party as you level up rather than them being something that's just inherently available in the game if you happen to pick the right set of spells and use them in a certain way. That, to me, is a much simpler system--one that is reasonably opaque, not one that you can plan for unless you've read extensive FAQs before. When I hold up Dragon Age II to my goals for what we want to do with the franchise--that idea of team-based combat being central--then cross-class combos represent a very good step in the right direction, feeling like my mage and my warrior are more powerful together than they are apart.
GS: It seems like one of the big counterarguments to dumbed-down combat is that you still have advanced tactics slots that let you get into the nitty-gritty flow of combat. Did the team experiment with the idea of bringing those to the forefront of combat, or did they feel comfortable keeping them as an optional feature tucked away for the more advanced player?
ML: Tactics are really there for the more advanced player. The danger of tactics is that if you fiddle without intent, it's pretty easy to make a character that doesn't do anything that's particularly good. That's why we have the presets like the defender and supporter for the different classes, so you can get a quickly automatically generated and updating version of a tactics table--as you buy new abilities, your AI works better. In terms of what tactics allows you to do is something that is a very powerful option. It's there for advanced players, for sure, or for people who want to play on harder difficulties, and it's something I love to use myself. But I don't think it's particularly welcoming or something that I would want to integrate as core gameplay. It's a "with great power comes great responsibility" system where it's possible to make your characters do nothing as a result of it. I think it's best if someone seeks it out, looks up tutorials, messes with it in a way that they have an intent to understand how it works and to play at a higher level.
GS: Not everybody is an armchair game designer. Some people might just break the system, right?
ML: Right, but at the same time, I think if it's something you like and something you want to do, that's something we identified from Origins feedback--people feeling perturbed that they had to spend points they normally would have put into persuade to get tactics slots. As you level up, the complexity can grow. The overall cap is higher than it was before. There are people that love that system, so we wanted to take the reins off and let them run with it.
GS: The team made some major changes to skill trees and how they branch out, and removed some skill trees entirely. Can you take us back to the early days of Dragon Age II development and how you approached the skill trees?
ML: The removal, such as they were, was really the skills. My opinion of the Origins skills is that they were a little vestigial. They were there, and they certainly served their purpose in terms of putting points into crafting, and as a result of putting points in crafting, I can now make cooler things. That's very good, but the problem is, because we're providing a party where you can have a B team--to use the old Final Fantasy terminology--you could have Oghren as a master herbologist, mixing together all of your potions at camp rather than having you feel like you're making a meaningful sacrifice. You just have a character you simply didn't use who covered that base for you. Again, looking at that, we thought that really wasn't rewarding. It's more just kind of a pain. Survival being not exactly the most compelling skill and persuade being one that I personally felt was never particularly strong simply because it's an abstraction of natural charisma, which we in turn tried to turn it into, "OK, did you bring the right follower with you? Do you have the right personality to pull this off?"
That was the removal of a system that provided little gain towards an extra step for character progression. Then, of course, looking at the talents, which are the spells or abilities--to me, they open themselves up by being a web instead of a chain. They allowed for greater customization. They allowed people to dabble and yet still get to the ability they wanted in the tree. They also allowed for things, like a certain school like entropy to have focuses where you can say, "If I go up this tree, I'm the more damaging, hex-related side, or if I go up this tree, I'm the more sleep and disabling side." This means you don't have to invest fully in the tree just to partake in a part that you want to use as a part of your strategy.
GS: Are you confident in how the trees came together, or do you feel there's still some room for improvement?
ML: I would question anyone who was 100 percent confident in anything they've designed. There's always room to improve, and there's always room to tune and look what effects they have. Are there enough upgrades? Do there need to be more? Less? But what I am confident in is that I feel those trees are visually-- and in terms of gameplay--more interesting. They're something that provide greater flexibility in character, and that, to me, is an excellent change.
GS: Were there any features that you simply didn't have time to implement or any features that would be best preserved for the next Dragon Age game?
ML: There always are. A number of them are set aside briefly to be explored later. What I really understand about Dragon Age II is that we retooled a lot of the game and set ourselves up for a greater challenge by trying to retool it--combat falls into this case--in a lot of fundamental ways while still trying to capture the same feel. It would have been much easier to explode the whole thing and say, "Ah, whatever. You control one character and you don't have any conversation options. There." That's an easier game to make, but that's not Dragon Age at that point. Looking at the fundamentals and looking at the overall pacing and flow became our focus for Dragon Age II, and the thing we have a mandate to do is add in suitable and fitting additional activities. My next big goal is to make sure that there are deeper interactions with crafting or the next steps in terms of being able to do more than talk, fight, and disarm traps.
There's a fairly wide spread of things to do. But I think as a player, saying "OK cool. You did a lot of cool work here, but I would like more. I'd like to be able to interact with my world more"--that's a perfectly fair request, and that's one we're hoping to address as we go forward.
GS: Regarding the process by which you guys gather feedback and assess whether it's viable for the next game, is it the same process you used when Origins shipped, or have you learned more about the validity of fan feedback this time around?
ML: It's always valid. You have to take a read of what the fans are saying, what reviews are saying, and what the non-fans are saying. Are there people out there who are saying, "I could not play Origins, but love Dragon Age II" or "I couldn't play Origins and this is more of the same." You have to keep your ear to the ground. Look at forums. Take a look at what comments are coming up. What are the common concerns? What are the common perceptions? I think the big key is to not adjust 180 degrees again, because we've done this. I think, as a team, we're quite happy with what we've done with Dragon Age II, and this is establishing a solid foundation that keeps a lot, in fact almost everything I want to keep about Origins, but still has tons of room to grow and, frankly, a more viable future for the franchise. It's one that's more sustainable because we brought the world to a place that's inherently more interesting than "Yay, we beat the Blight. Good for us!"
GS: How does this spot you're in right now compare to, when you first started Dragon Age, where you thought you might end up after a second game in the series? Are you largely where you expected to be?
ML: For context, our original expectation for this franchise was established when we were working on Jade Empire. That goes back a ways. Where we're at right now is a franchise that has a strong-enough fan base and interest base that we're able to see strong reactions, both positive and negative, to change. To me, what that means is that people are engaged with it and people care. That was always really the goal--to bring a fantasy property to life from nothing and to create a world and a space that makes people intrigued and curious to see more. They're hungry to find out what happens next.
From the roots of where things were at in terms of combat and gameplay to where we are now, I see things as--I wouldn't say a progression--a refinement that takes into account the sensibility of it being 2011 and a number of the fundamental gameplay changes we've seen across all genres. So, the increased speed to me is an understanding that most games now have this level of responsiveness, but the thing we desperately don't want to lose is the idea that Dragon Age has an alchemy that makes it special. It has party members. It has banter. It has equipping stuff--some of those amazing, classic RPG mechanics that I loved since playing Wasteland or the original Bard's Tale. We wanted to make RPGs, especially fantasy RPGs, accessible, cool, and interesting to people who have been playing RPGs for the last seven years and not realizing that every time they ate food or went for a long run in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, they were essentially grinding constitution.
To me, that represents a huge audience that may have disregarded RPGs, especially fantasy, as being too hardcore or too confusing. And making certain changes to make the game palatable without ripping out the mechanics that make RPGs so fascinating to a stats guy or what have you. It keeps this genre evolving into something that's fresh and not stagnating.