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Dragon Age and MMOs

Interviews By Garrett Fuller on November 09, 2009

For those who missed the launch of Dragon Age last week, it marked an important return for Bioware back into the world of fantasy RPG gaming. Recently, we sat down and talked to Mike Laidlaw, Lead Designer on the game and got his opinions on what MMO tools Dragon Age used to create a fun and familiar game. Mike also talked about what some MMOs can learn from Dragon Age and the plans Bioware has for the game's future.

Mike first commented on the response the game has gotten and how well it has been doing this week. Launch week is always busy, but one of the things Mike enjoys the most is seeing players go to the forums to post their own stories and experiences with the game. The response to all six different opening story lines has been very positive. Bioware is internally happy and Mike sees the players comparing their experiences as a great example of the game's depth.

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Mike next talked about what elements from MMOs Dragon Age took and how they used certain tools to make the player feel comfortable in the game. Mike explained that anyone making a fantasy game in today's marketplace cannot ignore MMOs and World of Warcraft specifically. He said that you are always competing against that juggernaut. He explained that what early MMOs gave WoW was the common user interface that all players have grown accustomed to. In the same way that Quake set the stage for FPS games, WoW has standardized the interface used to play RPG games. That interface was translated into Dragon Age specifically to make the player feel comfortable with the game. This way, players can dive right into the action and feel comfortable and confident. They can then go on to experience the more in depth parts of the game like story, the world, and character development.

Another element that Dragon Age borrowed from MMOs was the idea of multiple layers of content. Mike explained that MMOs have the luxury of carrying a player through the game on different levels. The first being small solo content, simple quests and story lines that a player can do alone. The next is small group content, whether it is small dungeon raids or group quests. The third is large scale raids, giving players a huge area to work with and allowing for teamwork and guild development. He described the layers of an MMO as small, supportive, and epic. Mike pointed out the original Onyxia quest chain as a good example of this layered approach, doing solo quests and group content in order to eventually get into the epic raid portion of the dungeon. It is this type of game play that Dragon Age saw as an advantage in MMOs and looked at ways to implement those pieces into their single player game.

Flipping the topic to what MMOs might learn from Dragon Age, Mike explained that he did not want to offend any of his fellow game designers. So I asked him for three areas where he felt MMOs could learn something from Dragon Age as an RPG game. The first and biggest, he said, was story. The importance of story in a game is critical and he feels it is an area where MMOs are lacking. Bioware has always kept a strong story element to all of their games. Mike said that players like guidance and having a reason to play. Strong story lines provide players with a need to go back into the game. He saw this as a better way to keep players interested than just farming for loot.

Dragon Age is very good at having the world react to the player's choices and decisions. Mike explained that the other area in which MMOs are lacking is in the ability to give players a sense of impact on the world they are in. The problem MMOs face of thousands of players having to do the same content needs to somehow be trimmed down so that the individual player can feel like they are having an impact.

The last example Mike gave of an area where MMOs could learn from Dragon Age was in the sharing of the experience. He said that MMOs are very lucky to be able to give players an area to build and create their own fun. He hoped to see more MMOs have mechanics in the future to give players a chance to build and share their own stories. Bioware has always held true to the story element in games, MMOs can definitely benefit from that aspect. I asked Mike if this is any indicator on what we can expect from Star Wars: The Old Republic, he just laughed.

It was impossible not to ask Mike about the work on Star Wars at the other Bioware studio, so I asked if now that Dragon Age has launched will any developers be going down to Austin to work on Star Wars. He said that the two teams are pretty distinct and that the Dragon Age team has a role in continuing the franchise. They have a two year content plan for the game with lots more patches and journeys planned for players to experience. Mike did say that now with having both Bioware and Mythic as part of the EA family it is a great environment to share ideas. All of the teams look for lessons they can learn from each other with Dragon Age, Mythic, Mass Effect 2, and the Star Wars teams all under the same umbrella.

Mike said that players can expect a lot of exciting stuff from Dragon Age in the coming months. The team has a great history and passionate world builders and hopes to deliver much more in upcoming patches. He said that David Gaider, the lead writer on the game, lives his life as a full time Dungeon Master which is great for the team. In creating Dragon Age they wanted to make a darker fantasy game that gave players tough choices to work out. The writers looked at things like the idea of using or abusing power and racism among the elves, dwarves, and humans. They wanted tough issues that never really got to this depth in previous fantasy titles. To illustrate, Mike used the example of the first level Dungeons & Dragons spell Charm Person as a way to show that Mages can really trick people into doing anything they want very early on in their development. He said the team laughed about that asking, does anyone else find that a little creepy? As a result, they created the Templar class to keep the mages in check when building the world. Mike pointed out the attitude toward elves and the dwarf cast system as some of the darker story elements in the game.

The other area that Mike said the team worked very hard on was the strong characterizations. They wanted the Grey Wardens to be a group that was not necessarily good or evil, but more about getting things done against the Blight. Mike said that the stories about the world and what happens during the Blight are very interesting. It is not just Tolkien where everyone unites against Sauron. In this world, there are back stabbings and factions trying to take power even as the Blight threatens to destroy all of the races. Mike said it was these story elements plus the combat team's achievement in the fighting that he liked the most about the game. In combat there is more than just one way to win. Players have a lot of choices and ways to work through a fight and eventually come out the winner.

Dragon Age has had a strong first week and looks to keep players occupied from some time. In my own experience with the game, with my first character I started rushing through content like I was playing an MMO. I went back, re-rolled, and started taking my time with the game. For me it was a big switch from my PvP smash and grab play style. I'd like to thanks Mike Laidlaw from taking time to chat with us this week. Also, if you have not tried it, check out Dragon Age as a nice break from the MMO grind.

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