A Farewell to Licenses
Game developer BioWare has been on a roll for quite some time. Being the creator of some of the most highly acclaimed RPGs in gaming history has a certain amount of cachet attached to it. So, when given the chance to interview the man who wrote part of Baldur's Gate II, the character HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age, Jason McMaster took it. In his interview, he gets a look at Dragon Age and discusses how BioWare approaches its game design and writing.
Crispy Gamer: How do you feel about this game after working with a license for so long?
David Gaider: Well, there are some good things and some bad things. With a license like Dungeons & Dragons, you have to spend no time. You can just go, boom, right into it. There's no explanation required. With D&D everyone knows what it is. Same thing with Star Wars.
On the other hand, it's really great to have a chance to build your own world. I spent quite a while, as we started production, building the world as we at BioWare decided what we wanted this to be. That was a lot of fun. So, it's good to build your own world because you feel a sense of ownership. It's also tough, because when we show the first bit of Dragon Age, you can't show everything at once and people see the fantasy setting and say "Oh, this is typical fantasy," but it's not, it's really not. Sure, we use elves, dwarves and other archetypes because if you don't, you run the risk of alienating the people who really like fantasy.
Then, when you start using those archetypes, everyone pegs you as generic. When you start developing your own world, it takes time to get below the surface. We took the basic fantasy characters and have put our own spin on them as well.
Crispy Gamer: Can you give us some backstory?
Gaider: Sure, I'd love to explain the Dark Spawn. The main story is about the Blight, which is caused by the Dark Spawn. They erupt from the surface of the world like locusts. If they're not stopped, they'll corrupt the world and make it unlivable. The organization known as the Grey Wardens were formed to stop the Blight, and that's what you start out as.
On the surface, the Dark Spawn would kind of resemble orcs, as they're an evil horde. However, there's a little bit more to them. There's the story that's told in the world by the Chantry, which is sort of the church, and the story goes that a long time ago the mages ruled. In fact, they became so powerful and proud that they opened a gateway to heaven to usurp the Maker's throne. The Maker would be their god, of sorts. Well, they did it and stepped into heaven but because of their sin, heaven was tainted and turned the Golden City (what heaven is called) into the Black City. The corruption also affected them and twisted them into the first Dark Spawn. The Maker says, "How dare you?" and throws them back to earth. Because of their corruption, they're repelled by light, so they burrow down into the earth where the dwarves live. There, they multiplied.
The Dark Spawn worshipped dragons, which are now known as the Old Gods. The Maker imprisoned the dragons for lying to mankind about being the real god. So, the Dark Spawn search for their gods and when they find one, their corruption spreads to it and makes it into an Arch Demon. It then bursts from the ground and they come pouring out with it. That's what begins a Blight.
In the game, it has been a long time since the last Blight, and that was one soundly defeated. Humanity then decided that the Dark Spawn were defeated. This leads to the dwindling numbers of Grey Wardens. When the game starts, a new Arch Demon has arisen and started a new Blight. The Grey Wardens are then called upon to do what they're poorly equipped to do.
Crispy Gamer: Well, for the game itself, is it skill- or level-based?
Gaider: Level- and class-based. You start with the very simple, "holy trinity" classes and from there you specialize your talents. I can't really go into details of what those skills and talents are, but I can say that there are a lot of choices on how to array your skills. You're also leveling up your party as well, so you can lay them out as you need. If you're a heavy fighter-type, there's no problem. You can do that. There's also quite a bit to do with the mage classes, as well.
Crispy Gamer: In Dragon Age, during the demo I noticed a lot of talk about choices affecting how the game plays and where you go. How much do choices factor into the ending of the game?
Gaider: BioWare creates story-driven games. We don't really create sandbox games. There's even a point in Baldur's Gate II where the world opens up and you can go wherever, but it's still under our control. Of course, you can lose yourself in the world of Dragon Age, the choices are there. I would say that there are more choices than in our more recent titles, but that's hard to judge.
There are a few big decisions that you have to make towards the middle of the game that change things quite a bit. In fact, those are really hard to write because once those things are in place so you have to account for them through the rest of the game. To that end, there have been places where we've been tempted to take things out because it would be easier on us.
Crispy Gamer: Do some hand-holding?
Gaider: Right, but we decided to keep them in because we love those parts. We love the way this works and how there's more freedom. For endings, we have big endings and small endings. I love the Fallout idea where you find out how the choices you made effect different areas we went to.
Crispy Gamer: How long are you expecting the game to be?
Gaider: That's hard to say. The only thing I've been seeing lately is that, content-wise, this is the biggest game we've attempted since Baldur's Gate II. When we get closer to being finished and we have most of or all of the quests in the game, we'll be able to better judge, but right now all I can do is look at the amount of areas, dialogue and quests and say, "Wow, that sure is a lot."
Crispy Gamer: So maybe like Baldur's Gate II?
Gaider: Well, that game is in a class all its own. Some players, God bless them, loved Baldur's Gate II a lot. I loved it a lot. However, even now I look back and I'm not sure that Baldur's Gate II needed to be as big as it was.
Crispy Gamer: Can you talk about the origin stories?
Gaider: Not yet. I will say that people have looked at Mass Effect and seen how you can mark an origin story down. It affected the game, it came into play. The Dragon Age origin stories have entire chapters devoted to them. It also determines where I start. If I'm a poor person from the human city and I grew up in the ghetto -- if I go back to that area, I'll meet people who will remember me and I'll get an experience unique to my character because that's where I'm from.
If you're a dwarf and you come from where the dwarves live, and you go back, you'll get unique dialogue and they'll know you. The important thing isn't how many choices you give. You can give a million choices. The important thing is that those choices are recognized during play. Like, if you have an origin story that makes you a noble -- if someone knows your noble, they'll treat you differently. Or if you're a race that is looked down on, people can sometimes behave differently towards you, even in a racist manner.
Players like feeling that the experience is more tailored to them and that they're not just getting some cookie-cutter story. With origin stories, I'm hoping that someone plays as a dwarf and says, "This really feels like it's made for a dwarf. What happens if I play as an elf?" It'll feel the same way for the elf. That's the idea.
Crispy Gamer: Is there a level cap in Dragon Age?
Gaider: Sure, I could tell you the cap but it won't mean anything. Without knowing the system, there's no way to quantify it. Make no mistake, when you're Level 1, it's not like you're a nobody. Not everyone has a level and class. That makes you special in this world. Most people don't have a class of their own. That makes you a hero. You're special and that's why you're recognized as being someone with skill, but we aren't looking at godlike power.
Crispy Gamer: Here's something I'm curious about: In Bethesda games, they've gone back and forth on whether or not the monsters level with you. For instance, in Morrowind, you can go places where you will get your ass kicked.
Crispy Gamer: In Oblivion, though, they match your level. How are you guys going to handle that?
Gaider: Hard to say at this point because we're still playing with it. I think the plan is to have a little bit of scaling depending on the area, but there's a top limit and bottom limit. If you go to an area that you're too powerful for, you won't have bandits running around in glass armor or anything. It depends on the creature as well. We might say a boss creature might scale more than your average bandits.
We've been playing with this idea of "gateway" encounters. So that when you're on your way to an area, you might run into a group of monsters and those monsters would be indicative of what you'll face. That way you can decide to go forward or not.
So, if you enter an area that's too tough, you'll maybe decide not to go, but if you want to go...
Crispy Gamer: Then you can.
Gaider: More power to them. If they can handle it, then they deserve the rewards. If you put in too much scaling, it feels like leveling up was pointless. When I played Oblivion I almost didn't want to level up. There were some missions that you had to escort people, and those people didn't scale but the monsters did. If you were too high level they'd slaughter your charge. Oh, but we never make mistakes like that!
Crispy Gamer: Oh, no, never.
Gaider: I'm sure we will. On the other hand, we can't leave scaling out. Of course, the hardest of the hardcore...
Crispy Gamer: That's me.
Gaider: You don't want any scaling at all. Most people, I think, want to have some leeway. Because if the player goes to an area that they're too powerful for and the boss comes out and he just whacks him, they might say, "What the hell was that?" I think that the real idea is to give the player some idea of what to expect.
Crispy Gamer: Are you guys including co-op and multiplayer?
Gaider: Oh, no. Nope. For Dragon Age it's just single-player. We had planned it early on. We wanted to create a second campaign for multiplayer, and I think that taught us some lessons. The more you spread out your focus, the more you run a risk of making some of the other pillars of the game not as strong as they should be. As you and I were coming over, we were commenting on how many MMOs there are at GenCon. There's so much multiplayer.
Our past couple of console games have been single-player, would it really hurt to do another one? Nah, not really. I guess we could add it in eventually, but I'm really leery of that. Multiplayer is one of those things that you don't want to tack on at the end.
Crispy Gamer: No, that's something that most places design in from the get-go.
Gaider: Precisely. We're looking at some sort of tool set to release as well for player-created content. I loved the multiplayer for Neverwinter Nights, but if you look at most of the content made for it, it was single-player. We'd love to do multiplayer, but you want to do it well. We decided we can't include multiplayer and the single-player game and have them both be as good as we want them to be.
Crispy Gamer: Which brings me to another point. You use elves and dwarves in Dragon Age -- are you afraid of getting backlash from that instead of making up an entirely new world?
Gaider: You know, if you see an elf, it's going to have a slim build and pointy ears because that's what an elf looks like. If it looked different, why would you call it an elf? If I show someone an elf, they can say, "Oh, an elf, I hate elves." Without the look into our history, you wouldn't know that our elves aren't like the typical fantasy elves. They don't dance around in flowers.
Crispy Gamer: Using a fantasy archetype saves you a lot of explanation.
Gaider: I discovered while writing Dragon Age that there are elements of the world that you have to introduce to the player, and it can be hard to do. As the player, you're supposed to already know this stuff. You're from this world. What I try to avoid is the character asking what everything is. You should know. You've lived here your entire life.
Crispy Gamer: ?And you're one of the heroes of the world.
Gaider: Right. It helps that if they meet an elf that they can assume enough about them to understand it. I can then gradually introduce the rest of their history subtly. If you raise the bar too high, it's harder to get into, so we want to keep it relatively simple. And, you know, if you don't like elves or dwarves, do you actually even LIKE fantasy?
Crispy Gamer: I've known a few people that are constantly looking for the best of something or other and don't like what they've had so far. So, my thought is: Do you actually like this thing?
Gaider: I think The Lord of the Rings has brought about a certain level of fantasy exhaustion. But if someone doesn't actually like fantasy, well, the game isn't for them. There are a lot of people who love it, and will be interested by fantasy that is recognizable but with different twists and quite a bit darker. Not as much hand-holding and lots of hard decisions. As a writer, I love sticking the knife into a player and twisting it around. If I can make a player cry, that's awesome. I'm sure whoever wrote Aeris dying in Final Fantasy VII sat around chuckling thinking about all the people who will cry.
Crispy Gamer: Watching the demo, I really liked watching the way magic worked together. I liked that you can light a grease spell and then put the fire out with a blizzard.
Gaider: Yeah, the mage that they had in the demo has all sorts of spells you wouldn't really put together. The designers loved putting that in.
Crispy Gamer: There was no dialogue or combat, and yet it was engrossing for hours. My point is, though, that while playing Bloodlines I got to Chinatown and the sewers and started thinking, "What if they had the time?" What could this have been?
Gaider: In that respect, at BioWare, we produce polished products. We've had the opportunity to put out the vision that it started with. For someone like me who works there in a creative capacity, that's a great feeling. Like with Dragon Age, I've been on it for five years. I'm very eager at this point to talk about all the characters and romances that no one knows about yet. It feels good to know that BioWare is going to work on it until it's ready to go, and we'll get it to where it should be.
Crispy Gamer: You guys have a rough idea of a release date?
Gaider: First quarter next year is but we're aiming for. Of course, projects slide. I'm sure there are people who will swear it will be first quarter, but who can tell? I don't have a crystal ball to be able to tell.
Crispy Gamer: Are you still building the world at this point?
Gaider: No, it's basically built. When I started working, we were building the world. We picked an area at a time and did the plot for that specific area. As we go, of course, there are testers making sure everything works and we have to go back and tweak. It's a lot of work, and as we go along we're going back over earlier ground and trying to perfect it.
Crispy Gamer: The game sounds pretty great. I'm looking forward to it.
Gaider: It can be very immersive. I always get chills when I see the battle I wrote that the trailer and demo are based on. It looks sort of like what I imagined, but it has gone far beyond as well. It has a life of its own.
Crispy Gamer: Yeah, the Blight is really cool.
Gaider: People sometimes say that they look like Tolkien orcs and it kills me a little bit inside. I want to tell them all how MY orcs are different, but it sounds so lame to talk up your own orcs.
Crispy Gamer: They have an undead feel.
Gaider: Sorta, I think some people will still write them off as just orcs, but I hope they play the game anyway and figure out how much thought we've put into it.
Crispy Gamer: David, thank you for sitting down and talking with me and good luck with Dragon Age.
Gaider: Oh, no problem! Thanks for the luck.