Was BioWare happy to leave behind Dungeons & Dragons to work on Dragon Age Origins? Is designing your own rule set more fulfilling than adapting someone else’s? The answers might surprise you.
Dragon Age (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows) signals Bioware’s return to fantasy role-playing, a “dark heroic fantasy” that lets you choose from six origin stories designed to alter you play experience in more than the usual cursory ways. It’s in stores on November 17th.
In the following interview, the game’s lead designer Mike Laidlaw talks about BioWare’s relationship with D&D license holder Wizards of the Coast, the pros and cons of drafting a new rule set, and directed vs. open-ended gameplay.
Game On: Why the departure from Wizards of the Coast? Was it more about the money in terms of the D&D license? Or the desire to craft your own system without another entity watching over your shoulder and making sure you hewed to their rules and mythology?
Mike Laidlaw: Our relationship with Wizards of the Coast, and LucasArts as well on the Star Wars games, it’s actually gone quite well, because I think there’s a mutual respect there. They’re maintaining their IP, maintaining their rule set of course. But watching the changes D&D has undergone, you know, second to third edition was revolutionary. Third to fourth is another huge jump. It’s hard not to look at that and think, “Wow, those guys are pushing the envelope hard.”
That said, at BioWare, we’ve very aggressively gone after our own intellectual properties. Jade Empire, Mass Effect [see our interview with Casey Hudson], and now Dragon Age are all ones we’ve developed internally, and what we saw with Dragon Age was an opportunity to move beyond rules that were designed for simulating combat in a pen and paper environment, as well as really taking advantage of the fact that we have a computer able to crunch numbers far faster than humans can with dice.
This allowed us to move to more of a real-time combat system, where the movements of the characters are what determine the attack rates and where animations can be adjusted on the fly. If you use something like a heat spell, or a “flurry of blows” kind of attack, you can actually see the blades come out quickly and the damage occurring as a result instead of being in a place with rounds, a number of attacks within a round, that kind of feel where there’s always that six-second D&D gap. We thought, if we have an opportunity to create something new, let’s create something that works better in the medium we’ve chosen.
GO: When you were pulling it all together, how much of the development cycle was invested in drafting the rules themselves?
ML: In all honesty, this kind of development is an ongoing process. Over the span of the four years we’ve been working on Dragon Age, there was constant refinement throughout the system. The basic system was established by doing paper and whiteboard work, running scenario combats and that kind of stuff. In the early stages we were holding the rules up to light, so stuff like “What exactly influences how accurate you are?” You know, is it just strength? Is it strength and dexterity? Is it just dexterity? So just establishing some basic tenets.
Then of course you have to get it in the game to see how it really plays and feels. Our approach was to start with the basic “How does attacking work as a mage?” “How does it work as a rogue or fighter?” And great, good, we can swing a sword or shoot things from a staff. Now what about archery? How does that work? So there’s constant permutation in the rule set as you start to implement real combat, real dungeons, real pacing and flow to the game. You start to realize what elements of the game aren’t holding up, say archery, as in “Archery could use a boost, because right now an archer doesn’t feel quite as effective as a melee warrior, and I want it to be a valid choice for all players, so how do we fix that?”
Well, you sit down with guys who live and breathe rule sets, and our systems designer was a fantastic guy to work with. He would say “Here are three approaches we could take to do it.” We’d pick one, implement it usually in a test shard, and play with it for a day, going hands on with what we were trying to accomplish. Even in the late stages of development we were implementing changes. Archery’s a specific example where we ended up adjusting the base attack rates. Archers now draw a little faster. They shoot with a bit more accuracy. And those change just integrated better.
GO: What’s more fulfilling, designing your own rule set from scratch? Or using something ready-made like the D&D system, but where you had to be mindful of hardcore D&D fans?
ML: It’s interesting, because yeah, there is only so much permutation you can do with someone else’s system, but the process of a good adaptation results in something that holds true to the rules while doing so in a way that complements the medium.
For us being able to design from the ground up I think did give us some advantages. It definitely gave us some boosts we wouldn’t have had otherwise. But to put it up against the implementations of, say, Neverwinter Nights…there, what I think we did was create a very effective simulator for the D&D rules, in that we had the number of attacks increase, we had visualizations of things like dodging and parrying, kind of that combat shuffle, and all of that felt very good to me as well.
I’d say it’s an apples oranges thing. With the D&D rules what you’re trying to implement is a faithful adaptation that people understand…how it works, how it’s interacting, where players can see all the die rolls and let the computer do the heavy lifting, but still understand exactly the mechanics of what’s happening.
With us, we’re using different mechanics that aren’t ported over, that don’t have that legacy of history from D&D third edition. At the same time, they also don’t have the “Oh man I rolled a 20!” kind of feel that D&D gives, where people reminisce about the time they rolled all sixes. You have pros and cons with both approaches. Ultimately you have to make choices that match the game experience you’re after. With Dragon Age, we decided to start with “computer first,” which led to “What does that really mean?” which in turn led to stuff like combat timing, with animations as a bigger driver. I think having animations that match battle tactics results in higher fidelity for combat. It just looks that much more spectacular.
GO: Playing under certain constraints–“linearity” as we like to say–gets a bad rap from gamers who see open-ended “sandbox” play as sort of a progressive mandate. Is Dragon Age more of a directed game, or an open-ended one?
ML: In a single play-through, I’d say Dragon Age is around the 60 percent sandbox mark. In terms of its total potential space, meaning the possibility space of all play-throughs, it’s probably more like 75.
Linearity to me is an important tool for storytelling. It’s the only way to maintain a narrative drive, to give your character a goal, to give your character a raison d’etre. As a result, even games perceived as completely sandbox still have core storylines that drive them forward. The balance is making sure that the freedom you give players feels appropriate to the setting and the space you’ve created.
If the player is going to be capable of wandering around, the ideal design involves somewhat arbitrary objectives with payoffs like “Oh good, you’ve been doing all this wandering, so guess what, someone’s going to benefit from that.” A good example of this would be in Bethesda’s Oblivion, harvesting nirnroots, finding them, and hearing them in the distance as they emit that low hum. It’s really a function of wandering to find those, and yet there’s someone who collects them and uses them in a quest. So there’s a linear nature there as well.
In Dragon Age our approach has been to have a bit more linearity, because we are story-driven. I mean, BioWare’s riding on the legacy of story-driven games, after all. We want to make sure the player understands the context of what they’re doing. I think that’s doubly important when you’re creating a new world that people don’t know, where there’s no history behind it.
So we sacrifice a bit of open-endedness to maintain narrative drive. But then there are points in the game, really vast points in the game, where the player is given a clear objective, like “You need to gather an army to defeat the blight.” Then how you do that is completely left up to you. You’re simply thrown into a world map and it’s just like “Go…proceed from there.”