Dragon Age: Origins
Dragon Age: Origins - "Die beste unserer Storys!"
OnlineWelten: Lead Designer Brent Knowles has been with Bioware since the days of Baldur's Gate 2. His new baby returns to the genre of Epic Fantasy, but is darker and doesn't follow any AD&D rules. Jörg Langer spoke with Knowles about the highlights of Dragon Age, and why there are no longer 6 or 8 party members in modern solo RPGs. Dragon Age is set for a 1st quarter 2009 release, and console versions are to follow later one.
OnlineWelten: Apart from the graphics and the AD&D license: What is the biggest improvement Dragon Age has compared to Baldur's Gate 2?
Brent Knowles: Ignoring graphics, ignoring all the improvements in how much we learned over the last few years, I think it really comes down to making things more exciting. With our new combat system, we're able to do things that we dreamed about. When I worked on Baldur's Gate 2, we used to talk a lot in the lines of: "Hey, could we do this? Could we have large creatures? Different behaviour? Different tactics?" But it was beyond our means to achieve: We didn't know all the tricks, and obviously the technology was not there. So our new combat system is as tactical as in Baldur's Gate, but it's even more exciting. It's more about a heroic feel, things are a little bit more realistic, even the spell system fits better in the "historical fantasy world" we have created. Having this own world that we've built up has allowed us to add exciting creatures, a magic system that's deep and detailed, a history that spans thousands of years. So this new world instead of the AD&D world and rule system is probably the biggest thing which makes Dragon Age unique.
OnlineWelten: Is there something in particular you didn't like about the AD&D rules?
Brent Knowles: Honestly, I love the Dungeons&Dragons rules, but they're very exception based. You always have to consult the manual or a subsection. But there are other ways of adding depth to a rule system than having lots of "if this, do that". I think for people like me who really know all the little tricks of the AD&D rules, the battles in Baldur's Gate 2 were fine. But I think other role playing fans could find the combat difficult and frustrating. Dragon Age has a deep rule system, and people have to think about what they do. But I think we present it in a way that is logical, that they can learn without reading a 800 page manual.
OnlineWelten: The E3 and GC demos featured a lot of cut scenes and story sequences. Is this typical for the overall game? Won't that make the story too linear?
Brent Knowles: When you're presenting something, you're focusing on the cinematic elements. But it was not representative of the pacing of the actual game. The demo you've seen was truncated, there were gameplay scenes that were moved out of it. We definitely have cinematic dialogue and cutscenes in Dragon Age, but I am a big fan of pacing your game well. There will be moments in the game where you'll have a lot of cinematic scenes, but we pace that with combat, with character progression. I have a lot of people in my team that will protest if we rely too much on cinematic sequences. They go like, "let's make that more interactive, let's add a dialogue here." That is the type of refinements that we're still doing even at this point, when I play through the parts of the game.
OnlineWelten: How does the critical path through the game compare to the "I want to see it all" approach?
Brent Knowles: We're not speaking exact numbers, but the critical path play will be similar to Knights of the Old Republic's, which is longer than Mass Effect's. If you do all the sub plots, it's harder for me to give an estimate on the playing time, because it depends on player's preferences a lot. But it's definitely not going to be as long as Baldur's Gate 2, which I think had 200 hours of gameplay.
OnlineWelten: How would you describe the replayability of Dragon Age? There are the "origin stories", but will they make me want to play the game twice or even more often?
Brent Knowles: I promise you, there's a heavy replayability. There are different characters and stories depending on what background you choose. But even when you get out of the background and into the real story, you're making decisions all the time. What party members will you have join you? There are interesting NPCs all around, so you can play another time with different party members. You have to keep your party members happy. So you can do things a little bit more selfishly, have mercenary type of characters in your group who will say yes to your every decision. In another playthrough you may try to be a little more noble and helpful, and get different party members. Your decisions really affects how the world changes. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of minor changes that you'll be making. And there are several major things you can affect in the world. So people will wonder, "what if I did that differently?" And they might do it differently the next time and get a different ending. And then there's the pure role playing aspect: To play another character the next time. Even within the mage class, there are so many spells that you cannot get access to them all in one game.
OnlineWelten: Players will have one main character plus three party members at the same time. That's more than the three in Mass Effect - but what happened to those parties of six or eight heroes of earlier computer RPGs? Are modern players no longer able to control larger groups?
Brent Knowles: It is a balancing act. Six versus four is not that much harder for the player. But from a storytelling point of view, having three other guys in your party is more manageable in terms of them having dialogue or banter. Also, we have to think about performance issues: We have very detailed, beautiful graphics, so six different characters would cause more performance hiccups. Four is a very good number. I used to solicit savegames for Baldur's Gate 2 to test out stuff, and I was surprised about the number of people that didn't have a full party. Four gives you more than some of the more recent RPGs, and balancing that number against the party interactions and controlling them works better than a larger number.
OnlineWelten: Neverwinter Nights was heavily based on user generated content, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect weren't. Dragon Age seems to be moving back to the user generated content: You'll be supplying players with complex editors and tools. Do you really think user generated content is that important?
Brent Knowles: User generated content has been always important to us. We have a separate team working on our post-release content and our tools. I think we showed how great it is to build a community with Neverwinter Nights. With that game, because it was the first time we were doing it, it was kind of like the focus for us. Now, we're more experienced with many things, and can focus on the game itself and on the tools at the same time, with separate teams.
OnlineWelten: It has just been revealed that Dragon Age will be released for consoles after the release of the PC version. Can you expand on differences in the interface? Will the graphics be inferior to those on the PC?
Brent Knowles: We definitely will have to make interface changes, we don't want console players to get frustrated with Dragon Age. So it won't be a pure port from PC to console. Of course, we'll have beautiful looking graphics, but at this point I cannot give you any specifics. We're going to make sure that the console versions of Dragon Age will be good games on their own. And we're going to take the time required to do that.
OnlineWelten: But it will be the same game, it won't be a "light version"?
Brent Knowles: Yes, it will have the same core gameplay elements. We always knew in our head that we would do a console version. There was a point in the project when I actually plugged in an Xbox controller, and we made some tweaks. For a while, that controller interface was quite popular in the team. We know the interface has the potential to adapt and allow players to do party based gameplay on the consoles. Of course, there's a lot of work left for us to do it really well. But we're definitely not planning to do a light version.
OnlineWelten: For a long time, Dragon Age was supposed to sport a co-op mode. Suddenly, that plan was dropped. Was it dropped because you realized you couldn't finish it in time, was it dropped for good? Or could it resurface at a later time?
Brent Knowles: We're telling a great singleplayer story, and having multiplayer makes that really difficult. In Neverwinter Nights, there were sacrifices we made in this respect and at the time, we felt they were worth it. But we really want Dragon Age to have a very solid story. Unfortunately, with co-op, there are many issues like "What will the other players do or see when one of them gets a cutscene?" That wasn't necessarily going to be fun for them. After ship date, there's gonna be post-release content and a great active online community. And the post-release content team has really great ideas of how to engage people in the world of Dragon Age. But ultimately, Dragon Age is a single player RPG experience. In my opinion, it has the strongest story we've ever made.
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