Yesterday at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, I sat down with BioWare's Fernando Melo, Dragon Age online producer, and asked him some questions about the game, some of them suggested by our very own community. Stay tuned for one more interview, this time with lead designer Mike Laidlaw, as well as my preview of the game.
Ausir: Can you tell us more about your role at BioWare?
Fernando Melo: I’m the online producer on Dragon Age. Part of my job is pretty much everything that happens after the game has shipped, so all of the downloadable content, with Dragon Age: Origins it was things like the social network site, and the toolset, patching, all that kind of stuff.
Are there any plans for more DLC for Origins before Dragon Age 2?
Yes, we’re not finished with Dragon Age:Origins, there is more content coming, we’re going to have some more details very soon, actually. And then we’ll talk more about it when we get there.
Will it bridge Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2?'
Not so much a bridging, I think it’s going to be more of an opportunity for people to close off some points that were left open in Origins, it will be an opportunity for them to kind of go back and revisit some places and find some characters they might want to have a final encounter with. We’re going to talk a bit more about it when we actually announce it, but I think people are going to be happy with this.
Are there plans for some new features on the social site with Dragon Age 2?
There is quite a lot of stuff that will be coming with Dragon Age 2. A little early to talk about that just yet. Once we get closer to launch in March, we’re going to talk more about what’s coming up in the social site.
Are there plans for as much downloadable content for Dragon Age 2 as for the first one?
I don’t know, we don’t have the full plan yet. Definitely the DLC for Origins has been very successful, we’ve had great feedback on it. On Origins is that we did a lot of experimenting to see what kind of content people wanted to play. It was really our first time to do this much content from the very launch of the game. We’ve got lots of really good data that will help us create the Dragon Age 2 DLC. There will be DLC for Dragon Age 2, but it’s too early to talk more about that.
How did the information you gathered from the community, from the social site, etc. influence the changes in Dragon Age 2?
Absolutely. Community has always been an integral part of everything that we do at BioWare. We invest a lot of time. We love to hear what our fans have to say. Sometimes we don’t always agree with it, and sometimes we can’t do what people are asking for, but it’s always great to hear, and we always try to listen to different viewpoints. The community is one aspect, we listen a lot to what the press has to say, we listen to what we hear in actual focus testing, and we actually test new ideas, new concepts, everything from concept art, story, names of things, a lot of these we get lots of different feedback on and then use to inform our decisions. We also gather play-through data through telemetry that people can opt to provide, and that provides us with a lot of information, not on individual users, we can’t see that, but we can see how many players played this part, how many completed this DLC, etc. And this helps us identify a lot of things that we should be doing more of, and things we shouldn’t be doing any more of.
Can you tell us more about the changes in Dragon Age 2 that were influenced by the Mass Effect series?
Well, probably the closest one will be the conversation wheel. I think it was something that we saw was very successful in Mass Effect, it was a great mechanic to use, we wanted to use that. One of the things that we saw is that it’s not always obvious, not only in Mass Effect, but in other games that use similar conversation systems, even in Dragon Age: Origins at times, what the tone, intent of the line is based on just the text of the option. So we introduced the icons that tell you what tone you should expect from the line. The player will also play an integral part in shaping Hawke, the hero of Dragon Age 2. If you’re constantly picking a sarcastic response, diplomatic response, aggressive response, over the course of the game, when you meet a character and make an introduction even before you actually have any choices in dialogue or if you’re in the middle of combat and he’s doing his combat call-outs, all of this will start to reflect the character you’re making Hawke to be. It’s a very clever system and I think people will feel, along with the player voice, that these are going to add a lot of character to Hawke.
I think the way we make games hasn’t changed. We’re trying to evolve Dragon Age a little bit, not radically change it. There’s a lot of misconceptions in terms of the changes we’re introducing. You’ve had a chance to see the game now, and you realized that the changes are quite subtle. The players who played Origins are going to feel at home. The BioWare style of gameplay is very much present.
Can you tell us what advantages there are of focusing on a more defined character instead of giving the player more choice in defining the character?
I think it’s kind of deceptive. I actually believe that by having a focus on a single character, such as Hawke, you’re actually going to find more options, because what we do is revolve the story around what the character is, what he or she is doing and what impact they’re having on the world. And really, much like Origins, the story of Dragon Age is more about what you as a player are doing to the world, what changes you are making to the world through these very important characters. In Origins, it was very important to us to give you an introduction to the different races and cultures. With Dragon Age 2, there is some importance to Hawke being a human character. And I think we can actually customize the choices you are going to be making along the way and give you much more depth in that character. So I hope people will see that it’s actually a deeper experience and will actually see even more customization than they could before, where we had to allow for such a wide range of characters.
Will the story of the Warden have an influence on Dragon Age 2? Or are they completely separate?
They are separate stories. The key thing is the events in the world that the Warden shape, those you can actually bring with you. So you will be able to import your Origins save game, and the key decisions that you made that shaped the course of the Dragon Age world will be reflected in Dragon Age 2. The way that Dragon Age 2 is designed, you actually don’t need to have played Origins. It’s made to introduce new players to the world and it’s done in such a way that it’s grounded fairly early on in the Origins timeline, it takes place with Hawke and his family leaving Lothering as it was being burned. In Origins, this is where you met Sten and Leliana. Once it was burned, you couldn’t go back. Here’s where the two plots separate. Now they travel to the Free Marches, which is a new area of the world, where the rest of the story takes place.
Dragon Age as a franchise is more about the impact you’re having on the world, so that opens lots of options. And we’re starting to see a lot more of the world, you have books, machinima, DLC, all of them are grounded in a common world, they’re all part of an integral storyline. The interesting part is that you’re going to be making these kinds of impactful decisions and customizing the world of Dragon Age. It’s going to be interesting to see in the future how that plays out.
Can you tell us more about the frame narrative that you’re using in Dragon Age 2?
I think it’s going to be one of the more interesting things in the game that we hope players will really enjoy. I think BioWare traditionally created very linear stories, with lots of options but still linear. With the frame narrative, it introduces a really interesting payoff for players. Origins took me over a hundred of hours to play it. My payoff was really after these hours, when I got to see how much of an impact my choices have made. With something like the frame narrative, it’s a literary device where the story is being told within another story. This is where we have two characters in the future that are trying to understand how Hawke went from leaving Lothering with nothing to becoming the Champion of Kirkwall, an influential figure to the entire world of Dragon Age. You as the player know that’s how you are going to end up, and the interesting part is that you’ll be able to make decisions leading up to it. How Hawke became the Champion is where you come in. The frame narrative allows us to step out of the player experience, and now you have the narrators already responding to the things you did. So you no longer have to wait for the end of the game to see how these things turned out. You can already see the impact in the world that you already made. I think this will be a much more rewarding experience for the players.
Will the narrative be a back-and-forth into time thing? Like you start at Kirkwall, but then there's a flashback, and you play in Lothering, another hole in time, and you're travelling to Kirkwall, etc., or will it work in a more linear way (start in Lothering, travel to Kirkwall, etc.)?
I think at this point we’ll leave it to the players to discover that. We don’t want to make too many drastic jumps, as the point is not to confuse people, but it is going to be told in a way that makes sense. It will be very clear to you where things are being exaggerated. Varick is kind of a natural storyteller, and much like today, if you were to ask someone about a particular legend, like King Arthur, you are going to hear about myths, legends. Of course the truth is probably that the character became a legend over the years, and I’m sure the story got bolder and bolder. It will be fairly obvious when that’s happening. That’s when the other character, Cassandra, who is really trying to dig up exactly what happened, will step in and call bullshit on him. And this will give you an opportunity to actually experience and make that influential change – this is actually how it worked, these are the characters that you interacted with, the followers, etc.
Hawke is called the Champion of Kirkwall. Does he actually have to be a champion, on can he also be a bad guy?
“Champion” is a very interesting word, because that’s the legend. People see the character as that, he is known as the Champion of Kirkwall. How he or she got there? Again, you control that. You could have gotten there, just like with Origins, with any means necessary, you could have been very diplomatic about it, very aggressive about it, very under-handed about it, use power and force to get your way. But in the end, the one truth that you know is that you do become a champion somehow, and in the process of doing that you will change the world forever.
Will it be similar to DA:O in terms of gameplay hours?
It’s a good question, and we don’t have a good answer for that yet. The game is still in development. It’s pretty playable now, but there’s a lot of polishing going on. The one thing that you do have is that the middle part of the game is more of a focus. In Origins, the focus was the origin story. So there were lots of options there, and then you had a more centralized middle of the game, and then a single ending, a conjunction at the end. In Dragon Age 2, everyone starts off fleeing Lothering, but then in the middle you’re going to see a lot more options. Like with Origins, a lot will come down to how the players want to experience that. I myself am a completionist, I don’t like leaving an area before I finish all my quests. That’s going to be something that will very much influence the timing. '
I have lots of questions from the community about returning characters, especially Morrigan.
For now we can officially confirm only Flemeth. You will meet other characters. The interesting part is that it’s not your Warden character that will meet them. If you played Origins, you are going to have a unique perspective on the characters you are going to see again, but the fun is going to be in how your character, Hawke, interacts with them. And the choices and changes you’re making in the world will have an impact. But we’ll leave it for the players to see. Maybe we’ll talk more about it closer to launch.
Flemeth is again voiced by Kate Mulgrew, right? Can you tell us anything more about the voice cast?
Right. We’re probably going to make an announcement with all the actors closer to launch. One thing you can expect is the level of quality we always have in our games.
In the trailer Hawke is using the weapon as a warrior and also seems to be using blood magic, does that mean we'll see some sort of fusion of classes?
Very much like in Origins, you can customize Hawke as much as you want. You had a look at how the new ability tree looks. You can either go very broad, like in Origins, or customize the abilities, so it’s a deeper system than in Origins. And a lot of that will influence what Hawke can do. What I can say about the trailer is that a lot of it is, of course, symbolic, showing what you can generally expect in the game. There’s a lot of hidden things in there, and a lot of surprise. Much like with Varick’s stories, there’s an element of truth in what’s in there, and it will be up to players to discover.
The appearance of the Qunari has changed, they have horns now. Can you tell us more about that?
This was very much intentional. In fact, the concept art for the Qunari has not changed since Origins. There’s a good reason for Sten and some of the other Qunari that you’ve met not to have horns.
Will we be meeting any new races?
There’s definitely new creatures, you’ll see characters from other lands. We’ll probably reveal more much closer to launch, like with Origins.