Dragon Age Origins Interview: Lead Developer Mike Laidlaw

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 (J) – Lead Editor, TheGameReviews

Mike Laidlaw (ML) – Lead Designer, Bioware Montreal

ML: So, John, what’s on your mind?

J: You said each platform was built from the ground up for that platform. Could you talk to me a little about that?

ML: Sure. So what we did with the game is I had two principal rules when we were doing the console development because we built on the PC. I said, all right, first thing I want is that the content is identical, excepting cases where if there’s one thing that absolutely doesn’t work we’ll talk about it, but as a general rule: identical content. Now the only couple of changes we had to make were some slight tweaking of a couple of fights, because they worked better in the console space of the game, in terms of the interface and how the camera works. Very few, like I think there were two we had to change. So that was kind of step one to make sure the game’s content was the same because I didn’t want anyone to feel like they got the watered down version or “you cut this whole part” or anything like that. So to me that was vital, and the second thing was I had to play this game and feel like it was built for this platform. So, you know, I don’t want a quick bar across the bottom with abilities, when I’m playing on a console. This is where we went to the drawing board and said “Okay, Mass Effect, you know, you guys did this.” I was on Jade Empire, so I know what we did when we were going between console and PC. And so moving the radials, keeping pausing play, focusing on the role of the trigger, the layout for the quick bar putting it down in the right corner, right trigger shifts it, ‘oh, okay, cool, you know.’ So suddenly you get this sense of physical mapping on screen and kind of reaction where characters can quickly and easily navigate their abilities, control their party and bounce between different members in the same way they could on the PC but with a totally different interface, so that was my objective. It took a lot of hard banging, and we have an exceptional development team. The programmers and artists sit side by side and just work on it and stuff, so even getting the tutorials in place was again a different process; we have different tutorials on the PC, by nature.

J: Earlier, you were talking about a lot about how you don’t just have good and don’t just have bad, but you have that moral ambiguity. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

ML: We made the explicit choice not to give a kind of morality meter or anything like that. I think it’s a perfectly good mechanic. It’s exceptional in Star Wars, where the Light Side and the Dark Side is very deterministic. But for Dragon Age, we wanted to do something different and give you a grey morality. I mean, you’re a Grey Warden for a reason, and towards the end we said that, you know, the way people react to you and the way you feel about those choices should be what drives you. So we created a kind of space like the Grey Warden you play can act in following vein, but like you’re never going to be like “No, I’m going to side with The Blight;” that’s not what Grey Wardens do. So within that space we gave you perfect freedom to sculpt your party, to chose who your allies are going to be, and to choose what kind of army you want to forge. Towards that end, you do have the “greater good,” you do actually have that as motivator and that is an amazing opportunity to give the player that is morally more grey. I’m saving the world, and that’s what I’m doing, so sometimes you have to break a few eggs.

J: As far as if someone was to act completely bad as far as they could try, would that effect their reputation?

ML: Yeah, the game is consistently tracking decisions you make, the way you interact, and all of those are things that can be commented on by followers and can be commented by other people you meet. Like “you did X, but why?” And they hear rumors. People will accost you over certain acts, you know, in fact if you start stealing too often, there’s a chance that people will send hunters after you so little elements like that come back to haunt you. And then, towards the end of the game the army that you forge has a very different character based on what kind of leader you’ve been, what kind of creatures you have. At the very end of the game you kind of mull through the kind of consequences of the decisions you’ve made, the allies you’ve made and the trail you’ve left behind you in terms of body count.

J: As far as your party liking you or not, how does that effect the game?

ML: Well, the approval has a couple different effects. There’s content that can appear depending on high or low approval. Low approval can lead to crisis moments where they call you out, turn on you, leave the party, or demand you explain why you’ve been the way you’ve been and that’s content that’s exclusive to the player running on low approval. At high approvals, they have a mechanic called Inspired, or Inspiration. The Inspiration mechanic allows your followers to gain an ability. Sometimes they gain new powers they can use, and they grow as characters as a result. Now often, there’s storylines that are unlocked, new quests and stuff as well, for having high approval, and of course, romance is an option too. So that leads to a direct kind of response, and what you’ll actually find is that some elements higher approval will make it easier for them to kind of understand why you did what you did, even if they disagreed

J: So it’ll be easier for them to agree with you?

ML: It can be, yeah, it can be. Or possibly, it can be the difference whether or not they’ll betray you given the chance. That’s another [option] that shows up too, and it can be very compelling to have them go “No, no, you’ve treated me far too well” or “you’ve treated me like crap, time to die!”

J: So it’s possible for an instance to come up, where most of the time they would betray you, but if you’ve built up that relationship they might decide to go against their own backgrounds and their own options?

ML: Exactly, exactly and to me that’s really rewarding. Arguably it’s a side part of the game because as Warden, you don’t have to maintain good relations, but when it pays off, it’s like “Yeah, good job!”

J: One of my favorite parts so far playing through the is the dialogue, even when you’re just walking.

ML: You mean the interaction between the party members? I honestly think that is one of the things I’m most proud of, and the writing team did an exceptional job of bringing these humorous, sometimes kind of catty moments to the forefront. You know, walking through Orzamar and hearing Lillian talk about “those adorable little bunny pigs” or whatever. Their characters just leap at you as a result.

J: It’s been nice to see how the interaction has changed depending on whose in your party as a result.

ML: Oh yes, that’ll change, quite a lot. Morgan and Alistair love one another [sarcasm], for instance.

J: As far as the whole Dragon Age universe what type of enemies are we going to be seeing? I’ve noticed so far I’ve seen undead, ent like creatures, a werewolf…

ML: Yeah, it’s a mix of creatures that we kind of think of as the Corrupted, which is where the Darkspawn and the ghouls, the shrieks and the hurlocks, all those characters kind of fall into that category. Demons are a major, I mean, The Fade is honestly a very real and present danger in the Bazallian forest. The Veil, as we call it, is quite thin and so spirits and demons can manifest more easily. And then you have, obviously, the mages who are a constant source of danger. They can be possessed at any time, which is why people are so afraid of them. Abominations, people hunting their own glory, right, so I’ll put mercenaries, bounty hunters, mages, and you name it coming after you too. And then there are some things that fall into more elemental spaces; the dwarfs build golems to guard ancient treasures. You name it you’ll find it tucked away. And of course dragons, we do have those, and they are awesome.

J: Are there any good characters besides the humans, the dwarfs, and the elves? Is there anyone who is going along with you?

ML: There are some and one that is the most interesting because a lot of people don’t register the significance of this. I don’t know if you played the mage origin by chance, but you would have met the Spirit of Valor. Spirits are generally quite happy in The Fade and they represent kind of the best of humanity, right, honor, justice and that kind of thing. To me, the Spirit of Valor, he lends you a hand there, he’ll lend you one of his weapons, but he challenges you a little. So he’s asking you to step up, right, so you kind of almost have them on your side and yet they’re very subtle parts of the game. It’s the whole sense the good works behind the scenes in a lot of ways where the demons are, of course, just out there ravening. There are some non-human allies you can acquire, and some of them are actually based on the choices you make as you play through the plot. I would not be lying if I told you that it is actually possible to have the werewolves join you and join your army, and that’s kind of surprising and throws people off. And you’ll see why when you get a little further into the Brazilian forest there.

J: As far as those origin stories go, how do those come into play after you’ve joined the Grey Wardens?

ML: They’re consistently referred back to. Certainly the most obvious way that we call back to them is in some way you’re either revisiting places or characters that you saw in your origin story. A mage going back to the Mage Tower, for instance, will see the fallout of their encounters with Jowan, run into Gregor and Irving again. These characters then in turn go, “You, you are back!” and call it out whereas a character who is not a mage they’re like “I don’t who you are,” so the tone can lead to different interactions.

J: So you’ll be running into some of the characters from other origin stories, even if you didn’t play that particular one, so if you run through the game a second time, you might recognize them.

ML: That’s exactly it. Yeah, so it’s funny to have a met a guy from Dwarf Commoner and you’re playing through as a human noble, and your character has no idea who he is, he doesn’t know who you are so you don’t have that interaction. So again your origin story does echo forward and honestly even right up to the last minutes of the game there are choices offered to you based on your origin. Because you have a very different set of goals and upbringings, and a city elf doesn’t give a crap about the Circle of Mages, but the mages sure do, so it’s nice.

J: You said there was almost an unknowable amount of permutations for the ending?

ML: The ending is very reactive; it’s constantly kind of cross checking the number of events through the various areas you’ve visited to show how the world shapes up. I wouldn’t say it’s unknowable, but it’s awfully big. There’s a lot of different ways things can turn out, and I think a some people were saying “Oh, it’s kind of the chintzy thing.” There are actually very big decisions that affect very core elements of the ending, and I totally don’t want to detail them because they’re an awesome surprise.

J: One of the things I’ve noticed is that, as far as this game, this game seems pretty gory compared to a lot of the other Bioware games that I’ve played. What was the reasoning behind that?

ML: It’s funny like, I’ve actually been asked today, “Why do you have blood in your marketing?” and I’m like, because we have blood in the game. It’s a key thing. I mean, it’s certainly thematic in terms to the corruption of the Darkspawn right. Like, there’s the danger of getting Darkspawn blood in you and you come out of a battle splattered with it and that drives it home. But really, we wanted to make a dark mature fantasy. Something that the challenged people that kind of fell into the same situation we’re in where a lot of Bioware guys, there’s obviously a lot of young incredibly smart talent out there, but there are some 30 years old “we’ve got kids now.” But when we entered the industry, we were in our 20s, and you know, “4 AM and pizza, man!” that kind of mentality. I think gaming, it’s kind of like reading books, it doesn’t lose its edge, it’s still fun no matter what age you are, and so we see this growing group of people that are ready for a more mature take on fantasy and that’s where you get bloodier combat, maybe more complex and political power plays, and villains you can identify with because you can see how you could make those same mistakes. “Man, he actually thinks he’s doing the right thing,” or maybe he knows he’s not doing the right thing, and he’s in denial now. I think that a more mature take demands that the whole game be consistent. If you had these dark elements of the story and combat was like hitting guys with Nerf bats, it wouldn’t feel right, so I think that consistency is key.

J: So to a degree, is this game targeted toward that type of group? I’ve been told it’s a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, which is an older game?

ML: I wouldn’t say it’s targeted only at 30+ gamers, but it’s a mature game. I think anyone who is able to handle mature games is ready for Dragon Age. So what I hope to see is that anyone who understands a what a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate means goes “Oh, yay, I remember playing that!” or “I’ve heard of that of that and it keeps showing up on these best of lists.” That’s good, that’s extremely good, and it’s a good touchstone because I truly believe this game is truly hitting notes that Baldur’s Gate did. The key is that we’ve modernized it and that we’ve shaved off a lot the rougher bits and made the combat more real time. I press shield bash, and wham I hit a guy with my shield and then he falls down. I think it’s all very visceral and in your face. As a result, I think anyone can play it and get into fantasy and not feel kind of daunted. You start in a new world and give you a very focused origin story approach, like here you’re an elf, “how does that work?” You start with limited abilities, you start with a kind of very focused character guy. You have two weapons specializations, and I know how that works, right? From there, your character starts to grow and then your party starts to grow, and it evolves, and it lets you ease into this new world, this new fantasy, without feeling like you had to climb a wall to get in there. And that’s where I’m really excited about this. The game is very accessible, you can dive right in, dive into the story, get hooked and then start to feel the strategies as they grow and expand.

J: As far as how many party members there are have you said or disclosed anything?

ML: Total no, no we haven’t disclosed the absolute total, there’s some surprises floating around for you, and there certainly enough to form two full parties. The thing is that some players will have different experiences. It’s possible to miss the Dog, you can leave Lothering and not get Llaina.

J: I’ve already noticed that a couple of people next to me have a different people available then I do.

ML: That’s interesting, yeah, and which places you go to you tend to meet new potential followers as well too, so you’ll end up with some of them joining earlier or later and that’ll change kind of the way they feel and the way the react to you too.

J: As far as where you go, when, is that left to the player for the most part?

ML: It is. The game has a system basically called persistent scaling, so what this does is it has a world where we can scale within a range so you don’t end with spaces where you come back at level 24 and everything’s just as tough as it was when I was here at level 12. Instead the game remembers when you visit places and what level you were at here, so it’s possible to go into a dungeon or something and it’s too tough. So go out and do one of the other big plots, and the dungeon will be “Oh, I’ve got better equipment and stuff I’m ready to deal with this challenge.” So as a result, the game is adjusting itself to you which it has to do to allow you to wander freely, yet at the same time it’s doing it the smart way so it’s not trivializing your experience.

J: So it’s possible to enter an area that is too tough to beat?

ML: There are some areas that are harder than others, and I wouldn’t say they’re impossible to beat, but they’re going to demand your "A" game. Similarly if you go after the High Dragon at level 12 you may have a very hard time of it, so at that point you’d probably want to come back at closer to level 18 or so and have leveled up a few times and have found some fire resistance equipment for instance. Those kinds of things I think are very gratifying as a player to spot something, know that something is there for you and to come back and deal with it later. Because when you do get the thrill of victory, you know that you achieved something you couldn’t before and that to me is actually very exciting. It’s partly why with our combats, some of them are just go ahead and charge in, but there are some that are tougher that are by design. You need to think about a little bit. So the player charges in and gets wiped out, usually there’s an auto save just before, so he goes “okay, maybe I’ll try opening with a Blizzard so they’ll get frozen and fall down, what would that do?” and suddenly the change of tactics, when that works, that’s when the game is just singing for you.

J: So as far as the tactics system goes that’s available on the console as well as the PC?

ML: Yup, exact same implementation, slightly different…

J: Radial menu?

ML: Ah, no, well you can dive in the radial menu but because of that kind of sorted order we kept that elements of it, but basically you indent them and move them up and down. You can reorder stuff, but you have the same list, the same options like okay, I’m really hurt I’m going to use a healing potion. I’m out of mana I’m going to use a Lillirium potion, all those options are available.

J: How does party switching work?

ML: There are certain safe locations that are safe, basically you see the icon light up, and you can change there. At camp certainly when you leave each time, but the nice thing about camp is that everyone is there so you can change equipment, which I love. But yeah, when you’re at safe locations, you can change out anytime. In the middle of a dungeon? Not so much.

J: How does the specialization system work for players?

ML: Well, each character can receive 2 specialization points at 7 and 14 and then…

J: Four choices?

ML: Yes, 4 choices per class and then specializations are unlocked from story elements, purchasing items, finding lost lore and that kind of thing. The neat thing is that specializations stay unlocked so in future playthroughs. Specializations stay unlocked, so they’re still available to you. It’s certainly possible to win without the specializations, but they do open up a special chain of abilities and are thematically strong.

J: So how hard would those specializations be to find? Is it just something you’d randomly bump into?

ML: No, it’s not random… Typically the harder to find ones are tied to events in the story that are part of an exclusive path for something else. So you end up with opportunities. For instance, Blood Mage is only available if you’re a mage yourself, and if you’re a rogue you could learn Templar from Alistair if he likes you enough. We tried to dispense with things that are random.

Author: John Laster