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Contributors: BillMurphy,MikeB,garrett,SBFord,Grakulen,

Dragon Age: A Lesson For MMOs

Posted by Dana Wednesday August 19 2009 at 3:10PM
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Dragon Age is a single player RPG. There’s no way to even pretend it’s an MMO, so we were a bit surprised when Bioware asked to go out to Edmonton and take a look at it.

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.

Eager to keep the secrets, still powerful, of the place quiet, the character tried to talk him out of it. It failed, and he left claiming only force would keep him quiet.

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.

TheStarheart writes:

Great article! This makes me even more excited for Dragon Age and by extension, the rest of Bioware's projects.

SW:TOR you are looking stronger every day.

Wed Aug 19 2009 3:59PM Report
ThomasN7 writes:

It is going to be epic! Can't wait!

Wed Aug 19 2009 4:06PM Report
TdogSkal writes:

I cannot wait for DragonAge.  Saw it at E3 and it was amazing.   Player choice effects everything... That is how all RPGs should be MMO or single player.  PERIOD.

Wed Aug 19 2009 4:10PM Report
dregg writes:

 Yep, I have been watching this game and waiting for a long time.  Not too much longer now!

Wed Aug 19 2009 4:27PM Report
Sarr writes:

This is EXACTLY what I suggested to Turbine in new D&D Online's beta.

And what was their response? They're looking into it!
Estimating how much work it requires, and how worthy is the effect!

I've already seen they experiment with it. DDO is absolutely instanced game. You can do it. Add to that D&D system, where you character has alignment and class, and you've got groubreaking D&D MMO experience. Even more unique, if expaned that way from now.

For example, imagine Lawful Good Paladin and Chaotic / Neutral (evil?) Rogue in one party.

What can you do with that as a dev?

Allow only certain characters OR classes to affect quest / dungeon flow in some way. Rogue may steal something. Paladin may want to do much more than others.

This could change the quest flow, and compliment new "PvP Challenge System" of D&D Online. You can challenge anybody and instantly jump on arena with him for PvP (after leaving dungeon).

I remember being challenged by a dwarf in beta, few weeks ago. He obviously didn't like that I casted spells on NPCs (doing them no harm, just testing spells). He swinged his axe, and I was challenged. Then he defeated me, with some trouble, in PvP brawl.

Turbine, if you'd do this - it's even worth to concentrate on revamping old, starter quests! No one did it before, DDO would be pure winner.

Wed Aug 19 2009 4:52PM Report
Sarr writes:

Ah, if you're Polish, check my DDO portal:

I will implement translation system, but some time later.

Wed Aug 19 2009 4:53PM Report
Mariner-80 writes:

Dragon Age sounds wonderful but I wonder.... is there a "save" option. I can imagine making a choice that goes really badly and not liking at all how things turned out.

I am not sure these ideas are really feasible in an MMO; I am waiting to see how SWTOR pulls this off.

What I like best about Dragon Age is the development of NPC/AI sidekicks that really matter. I wish more games, like Guild Wars, would, develop this angle (yes, even in MMOs). I'd rather group with AI for story and with other players for OOC fun.

Unfortunately, my experience is that, if you care about story and maintaining immersion, you're usually much better off with AI companions than with other players.

Wed Aug 19 2009 6:09PM Report
illyana writes:

 there are many people who abhor instancing in their MMOs but, as the article points out, it is a great device to tell a really good story that all too amny persistent world MMOs sadly lack. point proven by GW1's great storyline. and dont dismiss Guildwars 2 cuz it will still use lots of instancing, aside from adding persistence, to tell another epic tale.

Wed Aug 19 2009 6:49PM Report
Emeraq writes:

I whole-heartedly agree with the fact MMO's can learn from DA. I also agree about the point made witih instancing, even though there are gamers that hate it,  that instancing can allow for varying game experiences from player to player, party to party, based on choices made within the instance. If done correctly the world doesn't have to be static, everyone experiencing the exact same story, but choices CAN have an impact on each individuals direction/story!

Wed Aug 19 2009 7:41PM Report
Yauchy writes:

 Great post.  Its good to see someone point out crying "clone" is ignorant to the fact that reuse with adaptation can bring about great -new- products.

A bit of thought (without business involved) can go a long way...

Wed Aug 19 2009 9:16PM Report
FastTx writes:

This can work in some PvE based MMO's but not all. This only allows replayability and nothing more. Adding 3 optional paths to a quest line  could be used to actually create 3 seperate quests. Most MMO's nowadays need hours upon hours of gameplay content and this system will make it harder to achieve. Expect short games where this system is implemented, and implemented well.

Wed Aug 19 2009 9:30PM Report
delateur writes:

That's why I'll probably always enjoy single player RPGs more than MMOGs.  I think if anyone can pull something like this off, it's going to be Square Enix and the next Final Fantasy Online.  They're willing to break out of standard molds, even to the extent of excluding a vast amount of the player base (FFXI excluded me, unfortunately.  I loved the game overall, but the pace was too slow and soloing to difficult, but to its credit, if you DO meet a great group of people, it could be one of the best games I've seen for immersion and ambiance.).  I'm really tired of companies just emulating the core of WoW and throwing a few different bits in to make it seem different.  All I see is people lining up at the gate of some quest waiting for the respawn, with all the sociopathic or infantile types jumping ahead and spreading unhappiness to those who actually care about the other people they're playing the game with.

Wed Aug 19 2009 10:29PM Report
Vrazule writes:

Making MMO content more like single player RPG  content may increase development costs, but it also has the potential to make them a lot more profit over a longer period of time.

Wed Aug 19 2009 10:59PM Report
ninjajucer writes:

I'll admit it, in BG2, I killed that bald guy and took his pet Boo. Great stuff like this is fun to play as evil as possible.

Wed Aug 19 2009 11:10PM Report
Saryk writes:

Content like this could be done in a MMO. If you change the faction rule set of a game where choices were a heavy hit on a faction. It would make people think twice before just doing something. Today they would just go kill to get thier faction back up, but if they could not, or would be very hard. It could change the way games are played. Also with the choice of the Ashes. If the whole party were involed with option to destroy the ashes or not. It could divide the party and make a cool PvP scenario.

Wed Aug 19 2009 11:47PM Report
Orthelian writes:

This article left me with a massive grin. Thanks. I've been getting annoyed with the staff blogs and editorials that I frequently disagree heatedly with—particularly yours, Dana, without intended offense—but this is just excellent to me. It illustrates not simply why I love everything BioWare is doing over the next few years, but also exactly why I've gone from hating any and all things instancing (when it first started creeping in) to insisting that it's one of the best things we could be doing for the MMORPG genre.

Completely open-world, uninstanced, free-form sandboxes are just as progressive, but I think EVE, while desperately needing competition, has that model so beautifully well-covered that I'm left astonished that no one has yet fleshed out the potential of instancing to a similar degree. Age of Conan flirted with it awkwardly in Tortage, but that's been about it. Plenty of games with instancing and claims of story-driven gameplay, yet none getting very far with it....

Thu Aug 20 2009 12:08AM Report
UnSub writes:

In single player games, player choice only impacts on the single player.

In multiplayer games, you can't have a single player making permanent decisions that impact on others - first one to the Chalice of Life gets all the benefits. So everything is instanced and nothing is permanent. It becomes less a story and more a 'pick-the-path-to-the-optimal-loot'.

Also, this has been done in other BioWare titles (such as Jade Empire, where your party can turn against you) or in games such as The Witcher (longer term consequences for actions).

Thu Aug 20 2009 12:33AM Report
Sovrath writes:

Yes but if we are to listen to this part:

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.

We then come to an impasse because all I hear is how players DON'T want instancing and that instancing is bad for an open world.

So which is it? I personally belive that instancing IS the way to better story telling but it also contributes to everyone being the savior.

mmo's don't have the ability to make everyone happy and give everyone satisfying game play. If you have no instances then either only one individual or party gets the right to claim the prize/decisions makng for the world or you get different parties fighting for the enounter which also gives only one group the prize/ability to change the world OR you allow respawns in which case, in the end, everyone will have the chance to win the prize/make a decision making encounter affect the world.

some sort of happy medium needs to be established.

Thu Aug 20 2009 1:40AM Report
ranaghast writes:

Bioware has released some of the best single player RPGs of all time and with each title they progress the genre one little or big step. This is my opinion on what they will do with SWTOR. They will not recreate the genre but will bring some refreshing ideas like instanced storytelling and decision making. I am sure this will add a lot to the immersion and relieve the gameplay of the grinding feel that most existing quests have.

Thu Aug 20 2009 2:36AM Report
Gyrus writes:

I will be interested to see the end result... but sorry... it's possible that the 'choices' are not as epic as you might be hoping.
Deus Ex allowed player choice (as an example) - but ultimately although the plot lines would diverge for a short time they would converge shortly after.  In fact, the loss of half the party could simply mean that some of the plot (and challenges ahead) are simply bypassed to make the game playable to the end.
I could be totally wrong...I hope I am... but wait and see before jumping on the hype train.

Thu Aug 20 2009 3:40AM Report
Ra9narok writes:

I think that BioWare is an awsome western game developer. And YES ex-Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) is an awsome eastern game developer, too. Dragon Age is a game that brings us back to the great all days of Baldurs Gate, Neverwinter Nights and the older RPG game, where you're playing in the underworld (can't remember the name anymore). I'm happy to see that there are still some developers out there who never lost the trail to the oldschool RPG-s.

Thu Aug 20 2009 4:14AM Report
Moodah writes:

For the beginning it would be already fine if during a quest in a MMO, you would have multiple options and depending on the steps you take, the outcome changes.

I remember Blizzard flirted with it very early, if you remember the quest in Desolace, where for one quest you have two tribes of centaur (Kolkar and something else) and you havd to align yourself to one of them by kiling the others to progress with the quest. Nothing big comes out of it in this case, but I think that should be worked on, because suddenly you don't have only A and B, you get C and D in the way your quest goes. It is very rudimental, but still way better than just A and B.

Problem with AOC was that it didn't give you C and D, it just tried to mask A and B with the dialogue, which unfortunately didn't work cause you saw through it extremely fast

Thu Aug 20 2009 4:47AM Report
phaydee writes:

Ultima X Odyssey was supposed to have these kinds of decisions to make with their virtue system.

ei. "A hooded guy asks you to get his gold medallion back that has been in his family for centuries. He tells you who stole it and where that person could be found. Once you find the thief, he tells you that he only stole the medallion so he could sell it and buy bread to eat. From here you can either be Compassionate by giving him some bread, letting him live, but taking the medallion back; or practice Justice and kill him, taking the medallion to its rightful owner. When you return to the hooded guy who gave you the job, you find out the medallion isn't his, but another person's who got robbed by the foodless guy, and now you can either Honor the agreement and leave with your payment, or be Honest and take the medallion to its real owner, killing the person who gave you the job. "

Thu Aug 20 2009 7:56AM Report
reanor writes:

 MMOS will never learn any lessons. Not becouse devs are straight minded, without creativity for quests etc. Its because players lately tend to like as linear content as possible. All they need is - give them 10000 mobs to grind and they will be happy. Player base community has been dumbed down by stupid games like WoW and other similar games with very little RPG element and a lot of grind opportunities. Grind quests, grind achievements, grind raids, grind for money, grind for X. I think we are doomed to see dumb games be more popular with every year.

Dumb games for people who don't care about story behind the character or behind the game itself. Just give them those couple weeks so they can grind to the highest level as soon as possible. Skipping all the quest texts all the cutscenes so they just can get to that level cap asap and be uber level capped ninja killing machines.

I think games like Dragon Age will always be valued as single player hits and never like a successfull MMOs. Since MMO developers first of all care about how to attract EVERY POSSIBLE player of any age. And so far, it was first 20 levels of enjoyable content and then you just grind through the rest 30-80 levels.

Thu Aug 20 2009 9:52AM Report
Frobner writes:

I think we should wait for the game to come out before we want to make a MMO like it....   NWN had plenty of options - twists and turns - but in the end it also had limits and the story ended up pretty much the same.


Why are MMOs not doing the same as DA ?  Because its harder and takes more time to create this content than the normal - "go do this and this and come back" content.

Thu Aug 20 2009 11:20AM Report
Dana writes:

Gyrus: Agreed that from my article, it's hard to get too excited. This was a bit of a strange gaming event. I saw this demo, and then had a lot more hands on, presentation and interviews. However, that second half is embargoed for a bit longer yet, so I had to try and divorce myself from it and write this article. Obviously, it still colors my thinking a bit. ;)

Many of the things you mentioned and others have will be addressed in my second piece, one way or the other.

Thu Aug 20 2009 11:45AM Report
Soultice writes:

I would love a MMORPG where your decisionse effect your character and your group.  Having said that most players do not want any consequebces for the decisions that they would make.

 Doing it in a PC game is cool, but doing it for a MMORPG will piss alot of players off. 

Mon Aug 24 2009 11:27AM Report
talismen351 writes:

One of the few PC game titles I have been looking forward to. I have pretty much come to the point that if it is made by BioWare...I will enjoy it. This game and Mass Effect 2 are at the top of my must have games. And KotoR is at the top of my MMO list. I think Bioware will bring back the RP in MMORPGs.

Tue Aug 25 2009 7:36AM Report
Eisdrache writes:

I like the experience of being with other players, but MMOs lack RP this days. This will be the first single player game since Morrowind I will try.

Sat Aug 29 2009 12:04PM Report writes:
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