Are Single-Player Games like Dragon Age Doomed?

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Dragon Age Origins

GO: I spoke recently with Mass Effect 2's Casey Hudson about the way your choices interplay with other characters you meet and change the story in meaningful, non-trivial ways. Is their overlap between your design approaches?

ML: I think it's the strength of our whole studio, that all of our writers and all of our storytellers fall in love with the characters that join you. We celebrate them, and we love their stories and histories. The more texture we feel we can give them, the more we take an element of the game that could be workaday, like "Oh he's the guy who hits things for me," and turn it into "He's the guy who's around all the time, he's the steady part of my party, he's part of my experience," and what can we do with that? It's why people love character generation and face generation and hairstyle choice and that kind of stuff. It's because you're always with these characters, always looking at and interacting with them. So we say, let's expand that to the party and talk about what we can do to bring them to life.

It's giving them things like consistent willingness to jump in and interject. One of our characters is notorious for his wry asides as you go through the adventure. And then you take that a level deeper and slowly make it more apparent that what he's really doing is coping. He's up against some very bad things. He's a Gray Warden, he's taken an oath to defend the world against The Blight and that's finally happening, so this is his coping mechanism. It's not just "the guy who's there to be funny." It's the guy who's being funny because of what he's dealing with. That's where it starts to shine.

Then you add more layers to it, with characters that interact with each another, where your party is quibbling back and forth as they explore. Internal rivalries and such. I remember a sequence where one of my party members was teasing another one for being a big softy. What that does is take moments that might otherwise be "I'm just traveling across this level to go back to that store," or "to pick that one chest that my rogue is now good enough to open," and makes the characters part of your adventure. It makes them part of your story. It gets rid of the mundanity. It replaces it with something that can be amusing, or startling, or insightful--something that can grow the characters. And of course as characters start to feel approval or disapproval for your leadership, their reactions change. They'll challenge you and ask you "What the hell are you doing?" if they disapprove. If they approve, they become inspired. Sometimes they unlock new plots, or new parts of their history they want to explore with you because they trust you enough.

And then you go to the final step where there's subtle cues, like clicking on a character that has high approval for you, and they'll tend to respond briskly and positively. Or click on a character with low approval and they'll respond with exasperation and annoyance. It's adding a layer of texture to the game. If this is a primary mechanic, having a party-based game, why shouldn't it be a party-based experience?

Dragon Age Origins

GO: The quality of your relationships actually affects your party's battle performance?

ML: That's right. There's an approval rating that…it's the closest thing we have to a morality index in the game. The people who are closest to you have their own opinions about how you've acted and interacted with them and with others. Their approval can lead them to become inspired, which is a mechanic in the game whereby they receive boosts based on their feelings about the way you lead.

And of course the party is bigger than the group you take with you immediately. What I find with many players is, they decide on a tone for their Grey Warden, often based on how their origin story played out. Some of the sterner origin stories, take the city elves for instance, tend to lead players toward a more hard-nosed approach. Players then tend to build a party that reflects off that origin story, that feels right for their particular character.

Dragon Age Origins

GO: Fable 2's Peter Molyneux told me the hardest thing to accomplish in a game is, you do all this work, and getting people to notice and appreciate subtle but important things without forcing them to look, is far and away the most challenging thing.

ML: There's a point at which you have to accept there are subtle graces that are best if they're part of a holistic experience. You don't necessarily want to call attention to them. You almost want the player to not notice them, but to kind of lose themselves in the flow of the game. Things like a character who disapproves of you reacting with exasperation instead of nicer tones should feel like a product of the way you're playing and a product of the adventure you've been having. By doing that, I think really good orchestration and really good painting...there are subtleties to it that your eye doesn't necessarily pick out unless you're looking specifically for it. It's like the sound you don't hear until someone points it out. But as soon as they do, you realize it's been part of your surroundings the entire time.

So there are parts where I think that subtlety isn't something the player necessarily notices, but something that helps the player engage and lose themselves in the world, in the game, in the entertainment they've chosen for themselves. The more you can make someone step outside of their head and feel like they're saving their homeland as opposed to "that guy on the screen is saving the world," the more the game is meeting its goals.

GO: Thanks Mike.

Follow me on Twitter @game_on

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