What we saw was a fascinating RPG title that throws back to the golden age of games like Baldur’s Gate, but also advances the genre in significant ways. Ways that MMORPGs should pay attention to in the years to come.
It’s been a while since someone has put out a truly epic, PC-friendly RPG. While Dragon Age is headed to both consoles and PC, the game clearly has learned a lot from the MMO crowd in terms of interface and feel, and should be very familiar in some ways to MMO gamers. This familiarity though, makes what they showed us in Edmonton even more interesting. There’s no reason that MMOs couldn’t learn some lessons back. Although, I suppose, this is the same company making one right now (Star Wars: The Old Republic), so perhaps they will – at the very least – learn from themselves.
One part of our adventure in Edmonton was to see their GamesCon Demonstration. This focused on a very simple concept that seems to fill every inch of Dragon Age: choice that matters.
The demo was rather simple. They took a specific moment in the story, in this case a situation where the party has found a valuable religious artifact. A few ashes from this urn have the ability to cure any ailment in the world. Essentially, it’s the fountain of life. They need it to cure a poisoned ruler who will help the characters in their cause.
Once all the baddies are slain, tests passed and dungeons crawled. The player reaches the urn with a simple choice: take what you need and leave it there, or take what you need and destroy the rest.
Unlike many games where all choices are black and white, good and evil, Dragon Age focuses on shades of gray.
David Silverman, Dragon Age's Senior Product Manager, stood up and ran us through how he would handle the situation and his logic for doing so. According to him, these ashes, which had been hidden for so long, were too powerful and while they might be hard to get, if they fell into the hands of the enemy, it would make their quest a lot tougher.
He chose to pour some dragon’s blood in the urn and destroy all save a tiny pouch.
One neat element of Dragon Age is that the characters in the party definitely have minds and agendas of their own. In this particular group were two highly religious individuals and one who is far more chaotic.
The destruction of the ashes immediately set off half the party against the main character, while the chaotic Mage remained steadfast to the plan. The cleric and rogue were outraged at the destruction of such a valuable artifact and turned on the main character.
A fight ensued and both were killed. Permanently.
Then, as the now decimated party left the dungeon, they came across their guide. A historian, this man was thrilled to see that the main character had come out alive and with some ashes. He had plans to essentially turn the area into Disney Land. He envisioned studies, religious pilgrimages and more.
The main character tossed a dagger and hit the man square in the back of the head.
He had murdered three people in the name of secrecy, but, in his eyes, that did not make his character and party evil. He thought that those three deaths would save millions of other lives. A truly lawful good character may have spared those three lives, but what would happen later? What were the long term repercussions? He was not prepared to take that chance.
Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw then stood up and replayed the same scenario in another way.
In his version, he respected the artifact, pleased members of his party and didn’t kill anyone.
Laidlaw believed in the greater good of humanity and that the artifact would be protected and preserved. He allowed it to become a holy shrine and decided to take that risk.
When he left the dungeon, with his party intact, he had a much different experience. A dragon had long lived in the area to protect it, but Laidlaw wanted to make sure that the inevitable pilgrims were not decimated as they came to pay their respects.
What followed was an epic dragon fight. The battle was arduous – and let’s be honest, the devs cheated a bit for brevity’s sake – but in the end, that very rogue who had been killed in the other demo struck the fatal blow. A neat trick of Dragon Age is that they do custom little death animations for major monsters. In this case, the rogue mounted the dragon’s neck and stabbed it with her dual swords until it fell to the ground.
That’s the lesson of Dragon Age. Small choices can greatly alter the entirely gameplay experience. It matters who is with you, what options you choose and these choices have huge repercussions on the rest of the game.
The question becomes: What can MMOs learn from this?
With instancing, there is no reason games cannot have this level of content. Perhaps in an MMO each character cannot be the center of the known universe as they are in an RPG, but they can still make choices as a group within a dungeon that have a great impact on the rewards or even path they take to the end.
Too often, MMO quests are static point A to point B experiences and Dragon Age shows the difference between a well written, beautifully crafted RPG experience and the barebones work we see online.
The excuse that everyone has to be the hero is there, but it has become a crutch for poor story content and linear dungeons that require no thought or adventure. It’s time for MMORPG designers to go back to their RPG roots and look at titles like Dragon Age for what they can teach them. It’s clear from the amount of times Bioware referenced World of Warcraft last week that they did it in reverse.
It’s an old joke in games that everyone steals from everyone. Fact is, some things just work. That’s why they have hotbars and WASD with over the shoulder camera in Dragon Age (although you can also scroll out and play it isometric with point and click). They saw what is familiar in the genre these days for PC RPGs and took the best parts. Now it’s time for MMOs to do the same.