ML: We wanted to create our own world, to have one where it was our IP, our rules that we could break if we wanted. It really does provide you with the opportunity to expand within your own franchise - we've got the Dragon Age novels, the pen and paper game - we have the extra pieces that are now part and parcel of this thing that we've created.
CCC: When it was decided to create a new fantasy IP, how was it decided what form the gameplay would take?ML: Without putting it so explicitly, we all knew what we were trying to do was to create another Baldur's Gate, to create a spiritual successor. Over time we became more explicit on that, kind of gathered together around that idea. You know, in Mass Effect we gave you the chance to play the role of Commander Shepard, the tip of the spear of humanity. In Dragon Age, you're playing a modern, streamlined, much more active and real-time Baldur's Gate. That influenced everything from the way we designed the world to the way we designed the interface to the way you play. We asked how do we invoke the story and the feeling of the grandeur of the games we loved in the past, and yet knock off the rough edges? It's got much higher fidelity graphics, it's got modernized gameplay elements like flexibility. It's not always top-down - you can play it like a shooter with traditional WASD controls.
CCC: What are the challenges of creating a game like this for a gaming audience that's significantly different than it was in the Baldur's Gate era? We're definitely in the era of shooters now.
ML: The shooters that do well are the shooters that have a story. You know, like in Call of Duty 4 - crawling out of the helicopter after being nuked. It was amazing. Being dragged into a limo and shot. Halo has Master Chief, a protagonist that everyone kind of feels like they know, they understand him because of the way people react to him. Gordon Freeman is like this silent, everyman character, yet almost the ultimate Messiah. There's some amazing work done there. Shooters were a genre where people said "eh, they don't really care about story in this," and to be fair in multiplayer they don't, but all the good ones have these really strong narratives. In think RPGs came to the party wearing the narrative hat already, so for us the challenge was making sure those shooter guys weren't turned off by giant walls of text and huge expository kinds of things. We had to adopt a storytelling approach that was much more modern - putting people around you that comment, making you absorb the world through osmosis. It's not about insuring that you learn this bit of history. You can go through huge chunks of Dragon Age without dealing with the Chantry, but by the time you get to the Urn of Sacred Ashes, you kind of know what the Chantry is about. It's a passive process how you get the story.
CCC: That seems to be a pretty popular modern gaming convention.
ML: I think so. People used to be chasing better graphics and stuff that looked "real." We're at a point now where we're kind of skirting the uncanny valley, where the characters benefit from looking a little stylized. Games are now able to generate that level of realism where you can forget that you're staring at something fake. The voice acting has reached a level where you've got good talent by professionals, so those things are now at a level where you can stop chasing hardware gains and start chasing immersion and storytelling. I think we're going for that point where the games that leave you forgetting about who you are and thinking about that character.
CCC: Which is something that BioWare is well-known for.
Certainly. I think we try to make those games that make you feel like you're very involved. We try to take advantage of the medium, in that a novel is a very passive experience compared to what we're trying to do. Between Dragon Age and Mass Effect, there's two very different forms of narrative. There's the third-person involved narrative and the first-person involved narrative. In Dragon Age there's no voice, there's nothing getting in the way of making you feel that you are the character. In Mass Effect, you create your own version of Commander Shepard, but you're still Commander Shepard.
I think the fact that Dragon Age offers an experience that's different right from the beginning, with the six different origins, that sets the tone. It establishes a space for the game where we say to the player "you get to make some pretty big choices." I think that people will find that really exciting. I think the origins do a really good job of introducing you to one element of it. We don't have to tell you how human nobility works, how dwarven nobility works - we only tell you about the one that matters to your story. So we kind of get you into the thick of things right away. We pull you in. When you get involved, you start to forget about the fantasy and start to think about your story. And because of the darker elements, it dodges a lot of the archetypes, quite deliberately.
CCC: What are the challenges of designing such a massive game?
ML: I guess there's two. The first is scope. Spiraling out of control is a danger when you're working on something that's almost too big to see end-to-end. There's always a chance of you getting lost in the weeds. The other challenge is coordinating efforts and keeping the game consistent. The number one challenge of having a game this size is having a part that blows. You don't want to feel like a part was rushed, or that it doesn't hold up. To make sure we had that same level of quality throughout, we paid attention to all the game to bring it all up to that level where the player wouldn't hit this sudden dry patch.