Dragon Age Origins Interview: Executive Producer Mark Darrah

TheGameReviews recently received the opportunity to visit Bioware’s Edmonton Studio. For the sake of full disclosure, we have opted to let our readers know that we were flown up there on behalf of Bioware and did not pay our airfare, hotel, or food. We feel that this has in no way compromised our judgment about Dragon Age: Origins and will be presenting what we hope will be a fair, unbiased, and informative look into the game. Check back throughout the week for an in-depth look into Dragon Age: Origins.

John Laster: So you’re the producer on Dragon Age: Origins, correct?

Mark Darrah: That’s right; I’m the executive producer, which is just a fancy producer title. What that does mean is I’m not only working on the production stuff on Dragon Age: Origins, but I also do all the other production stuff for that franchise, such as novels and the pen and paper game. But if we were doing two titles in the franchise, I’d be in charge of both titles.

J: So what other stuff are you working on besides the game?

M: So right now there is a novel coming out before the game, and another novel coming out along with the game. There is a pen and paper game in the works. We have apparel deals. We are working with a company to potentially get swords made. We also are working on comic book, and a few other things just in a planning phase at the moment.

J: So I was told all the platforms have been built from the ground up. What are some of the bigger differences I would see between the three versions?

M: It is the same story on all three platforms. The big, major difference is from the interface perspective. The PC is designed for the mouse and keyboard. Mouse and keyboard is really good at doing a very large number of things relatively slowly. It’s good for doing more tactical things, pausing the game, pulling out, looking around and issuing orders. The consoles are much better at giving a very small number of commands very quickly. So the controls are much more geared at keeping the action fast, letting you play the game with less pausing and more quickly. [It focuses on] less tactical, more action oriented gameplay, which I think is the biggest single difference you will see. The interface was done completely from scratch. So you will see a more paper based interface on the PC. The consoles are cleaner, quicker and sleeker designed more for the fact you don’t have a mouse, you have an analog stick.

J: One of the big things I noticed while playing is that the game felt very gory. What were the decisions made around that?

M: I think it’s just that the one thing this game is really about is the fact that even when there is an epic quest. You have your epic quest to stop the arch demon. There are still a lot of things that get in your way. The game is gory. It’s darker. There are politics. You have people fighting each other when they should be fighting to save the world. Those are all parts of the same thing that add depth to an otherwise good vs. evil story. It’s about adding grey to the world.

J: As far as good and evil, what is there in the game to encourage people to play in the middle, vs. just choosing to go all the way good or all the way evil?

M: So in the end, you’re playing as a grey warden and your gathering armies to fight the blight and stop the arch demon. So you’re constantly presented with situations where in order to do that you have to make decisions where there isn’t a clear good or evil choice. Where saving someone might cost a village its life or vice versa. So often there isn’t a clear good or evil choice.

J: So what have you learned from some of the past games that Bioware has worked on that have affected Dragon Age?

M: So we have learned things as simple as from Mass Effect, where we have taken some of the lessons they learned on the radial menu on the console, and how to present a deep game to a console gamer. Even to how we told stories back with Baldur’s Gate. So there have been lessons learned all the way along the way. There is always something to be learned from the past. There are always lessons to be learned from what other people are doing. It’s always important with game development to make sure you aren’t getting stagnant. We have to be aware of games like Oblivion and what they are doing. And Square and what they are doing. You always need to be looking up and around at the game industry as a whole.

J: I noticed you working on a whole social aspect to the game. Could you comment on that a bit?

M: What one of the people on the project called it is a massively single player game. We want you to be able to present the story that you are experiencing to your friends and to be able to compare and contrast how your experience is different than theirs. And because the game the choices you make have such a broad, big impact to what is going on, it is important that you are able to see how much else there is available and are able to share that experience with other people.

J: As far as those choices you’re making through the game, how is that going to affect your experience later on? Is it more of an immediate feedback or something you will only really see later down the line?

M: You see both. Things as immediate as if you go back to the mages tower and you have Morrigan in your party and you have Wynne, it’s possible to make Wynne so angry that you can no longer have her in your party, and in fact have to kill her at that moment, which is a pretty immediate response to your choices. Other times, you’re making a choice now that might not have an impact for 20-30 hours down the road. When you’re gathering armies there are times you have to choose between two armies. And that is a choice that you’re making now, but it won’t affect you until much farther down the road when you’re directly confronting the blight.

J: So it sounds like everyone starts with one of the six origin stories and then you go down the linear path of joining the Grey Wardens, and then everything branches out again for the player.

M: So that’s right, you play one of six origin stories and then everyone goes through the wilds and become a Grey Warden. And then yeah, you’re going back out into an open world. And in that case your choice of origin story is going to have impacts in the way the world reacts to you. But that’s where you’re gathering your armies, exploring more of the world, figuring out more of what is going on to move toward the final confrontation with the arch demon and the blight.

J: Can you give an example of how your origin story will affect the game?

M: An obvious example is if you play as dwarf noble you start in Orzamar and you’re actually exiled as part of that process. But one of the places you need to go to gather and army later is back to Orzamar. So you’re an outcast member of the nobility, so obviously people have a fairly large reaction to the fact that you’ve come back now as a grey warden so they have to let you back in. But they have preconceived notions as to what you are and what you have done.

J: Do you know how that differs from the dwarf commoner? Because I actually played through that origin story, and it seems like that same type of thing happened where they kicked me out.

M: So obviously at the end of each origin story you become a Grey Warden. But with dwarf commoner you’re starting from a very lowly stance, and you’re doing things just to survive. Dwarf noble you’re starting right at the top. You’re second in line for the throne. And then you’re betrayed by your own family in that case, so there are much more politics in the dwarf noble than in the dwarf commoner.

J: How would those differences be seen after you finish the origin story? What’s the branch between the two of those?

M: Within Orzamar, the caste list is very important. So as a commoner you are actually branded. And within Orzamar when you come back they recognize you as what you are, and they will make comments and that will affect your interaction. Outside of Orzamar, most people don’t interact with dwarves very often, so they will react to you as a dwarf, but less so as your specific origin story but more based on your race.

J: So are there any big differences between the races other than the statistical info, such as the fact dwarves can’t use magic?

M: So yeah, we kept to traditional role playing standards that dwarves are unable to use magic. The dwarves are a heavily casted race, very tradition bound, very political. Elves, who used to rule the entire continent once upon a time, are now an underclass and were actually formerly enslaved. So you have city elves where you are basically living within human society, essentially within ghettos. And then you have the Dalish Elves, who are essentially elves trying to capture their previous history and their glory. And humanity is the dominate race at this point on the continent.

J: So it sounds like you put a lot of effort into that back-story and just the whole environment.

M: So yeah, this is a universe that has had a lot of work put into it, there are thousands of years of history in various degrees of detail. The area around which the origins take place is written in extreme detail so that there is a lot of story there that has yet to be told.

J: So for the most part is that information people will get through playing the game, or will they need to check out the books as well?

M: There is a lot of information that is presented within the game, as you click on books and things you get codex entries that tell you additional back-story if you are interested in that, but even that just touches the surface of what exists. So some stuff will be further explored within the novels, within the pen and paper games. It’s also just stuff that we will be presenting in future downloadable content and future games as well.

J: What type of material did you use to come up with the universe, as far as sources. Did you get a large group of writers in a room and just say let’s create our own thing?

M: Well at some point, you are going to end up doing that, but there is a lot of inspiration from tradition fantasy. Because essentially what we are trying to do from a genre perspective is that we are trying to take something darker like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and then mix the more epic story telling aspects of like a Lord of the Rings and merge them into a more cohesive whole, where you have the overarching story, but you have the intrigue, the politics and the backbiting of a more political setting. So George R.R. Martin and Lord of the Rings are huge impacts. But I think because you are trying to build something new within the genre, it’s important to understand the genre as a whole and do a lot of research around the space.

J: So have you talked much about the DLC that is going to happen in the future?

M: Yeah, we have plans that stretch out for basically two years. And it’s going to be everything from really small stuff like item packs up to larger quests that might last an hour or two up to even fully fledged expansion packs. Really it’s a broad long term support plan for the game.

J: Will those make their way to all platforms?

M: Absolutely. I can imagine we might release something related to the toolset, which would of course be PC only. But at the moment everything is planned to be across all platforms.

J: And as far as mods and stuff go, in all likelihood, we will not be seeing anything on the consoles?

M: There are certainly some issues with getting user generated content onto the consoles, but it would be something we would love to do. So we are exploring that right now.

J: What would you saw the largest hurdle was with the creation of Dragon Age?

M: In a way, I think it’s just brining everything all together. Because ultimately you’re bringing together a new universe of storytelling, a new rule system, new codebase, a new engine and a new story. Each of those things is difficult in and of themselves, but bringing them together into one cohesive whole is probably the hardest part of new IP game development.

J: One of the things I’ve noticed is that the dialogue is just really well done. Do you know how much dialogue actually exists in the game?

M: There are 800,000 words of voice recorded dialogue. So that’s a lot. And then there is just over a million words total including all the codex’s and player responses.

J: So is there anything you’d like to tell our readers?

M: I really hope that what we have done with Dragon Age is please those people that have been Bioware fans for ages by creating a game that harkens back to games they have loved in the past that can give them that feeling they felt before. And for people that maybe haven’t given us a try, this is a game that is accessible for them and opens up a new genre to them. I hope this is a game that can both satisfy our existing fans and bring new people into our fan base.

Author: John Laster