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Gamescom 2010: Interview with Mike Laidlaw

Ausir August 21, 2010 User blog:Ausir

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And here's my interview with BioWare's Mike Laidlaw, lead designer of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2. Thanks for submitting all the interesting questions! Also don't forget to check out the interview with Fernando Melo!

Ausir: What do you think is the biggest improvement in Dragon Age 2 compared to Origins?

Mike Laidlaw: It’s tricky. We have the voiceover, the frame narrative as a new way of representing the Dragon Age story. The art style is very cool, more unique and fresh. But I would probably go with the combat improvements, because they’re such a fundamental part of the game. Dragon Age has always been about the struggle against whatever the odds are. The key thing is that the combat is more responsive. Once I charge into the combat, I actually feel like I’m actually doing stuff. I right click or press A and my character leaps into action rather than kind of shuffling forward awkwardly before beginning to fight. So this concerns every combat ability that we have. You’ll be able to execute better strategies, feel like you’re playing a game that’s paying attention to the way you’re playing.

Why did you choose to introduce a new protagonist in Dragon Age 2 instead of continuing the story of the Warden?

We’ve always perceived Dragon Age as essentially the story of the world rather than any individual character. The characters that you play are always going to be characters that have an impact on the world, but to me there is much more potential than just a single character. And to be frank, quite a number of people have a Grey Warden that’s dead, so that makes it a little complicated to continue the story. We could have done that, we actually had ways of brining the character back, and so on, and so forth. But we decided it would be better to keep the focus on the environment, on the world, on the nations. And certainly to honor and reference the stuff that you did in Origins, but to tell that new chapter.

To what extent will the save games from Origins influence Dragon Age 2?

I think you’ll see a significant influence, we’re looking at a number of factors, who’s in charge of Ferelden, etc. There will be parts that might even influence things beyond Dragon Age 2.

Will the choices in Awakening and other DLC have any impact?

Yeah, absolutely.

Can you tell us more about the changes to the character development system?

Sure. The one that we showcased today was that we moved away from the idea of ability chains. You had to pick ability 1 to get ability 2, and so on, and so forth. We changed it into a tree, so there are multiple paths. You can build your character without feeling that you have to pick abilities you don’t really want. Beyond that, you can also do upgrades. If you are particularly fond of, say, fireball, you can actually enhance it, to make it more powerful, more effective. You can make a character that is very specialized or one that is a more broad-ranged generalist. Each of these is a valid style of playing.

Will there also be more customization options for your character’s appearance? All the ones in Origins are making a return. And there’s actually quite a few more face shapes. When you change the base shape, you suddenly take all the permutations and the number becomes huge. I think the people will be happy with the level of customization.

What do you think are the advantages of having a more defined character instead of giving the player more choice in terms of races and origins?

It’s actually a production question, really, because origin stories take a lot of effort and for the course of this game we wanted to make a game that spans such a broad period of history that we realized that we need to make the game as reactive as possible to the point that it’s the most reactive game to the choices you make that we’ve ever made at BioWare. So simply realizing that to do that right would take a lot of effort, we decided to put that effort into the middle part of the game, making sure that Hawke’s decisions have a huge impact on the story. Having just one origin is what made it possible.

How much were you influenced by the fan feedback to Dragon Age 2?

The first thing we did with Dragon Age 2 was to start looking at forums, reviews, focus groups, to see what the key areas were that needed improvement. So starting with that point we focused on the three things we wanted to improve – making the visual style more distinctive, making the combat more reactive, and while there wasn’t much negative feedback on the story, we didn’t want to rest on our laurels, which is why we went with the frame narrative.

Some changes seem to have been influenced by Mass Effect. Do you think that Dragon Age 2 will appeal to fans of Mass Effect who weren’t that interested in Origins more than the first game?

I wouldn’t necessarily say “fans of Mass Effect”. It’s a fantastic game, by all mean, but the question is: “why are they a fan of Mass Effect”? Is it because of the full voiceover, or because it’s a cover-based shooter set in the future. We’re not going to have cover nor science fiction, so we probably won’t win them on that note. But in terms of things like hearing my character’s voice, it might have more appeal. In general, though, I think that Dragon Age 2 will appeal to a broad audience, simply because it does have the depth and the tactics that RPG fans love, it has the story that people have loved for years in BioWare games. And even though the depth is there, it won’t hit you in the head the first time you’re playing. You can ease your way into the game. The game is not very complex in the beginning, but the overall complexity increases while you play. We’re hoping to let people come in, engage with the game, and then realize “wow! I’m playing a tactical RPG because I love how awesome the action was!”

Will we see horses in the game?

No. Here’s the thing. If you are going to do horses, you would have to do them right. And at this point, keeping the focus on the story and the frame narrative means that we really have to pick and choose our battles. I would never say horses are off the table. I think they’re really cool, the combat would be awesome. But you have to do it really well, it has to be what the game is about. So if you ever hear about Dragon Age: Chevalier or something like that, we’re going hard on horses. It’s always been under consideration, but I always think that if it’s going to be done, it has to be done great.

Will we see more lands and continents of the Dragon Age world in the future?

Absolutely. There will be visitations to other environments for sure. A lot of people want to go to Orlais, understandably, it sounds very cool, but there’s also Par Vollen, Rivain, lots of other lands to explore.

Will we be able to explore the whole Free Marches in Dragon Age 2?

I don’t think you’ll find every single nook and cranny. There’s a fair number of different city states there. By keeping the focus on Kirkwall, we can provide a better view of one segment of it. And a very representative one, since it’s one of the major cities. But I wouldn’t say that the whole thing can be explore, since once you do that, there’s no going back, and we want to keep some mysteries.

We know that the Qunari will play a bigger role in Origins. Will we also see some new races?

I really can’t comment on that, you never know. There might be some surprises.

Can you tell us anything about the Qunari from the trailer?

I can’t really say much for now. I’ll say only that based on the outfit and some of the markings on him, you can tell that he’s someone of import. But beyond that, I can’t tell you anything.

Will there be as many companions and romance options as in Dragon Age: Origins? Or maybe more?

There will be a whole range of companions for you to choose, but we can’t discuss that for now. There will be romances too, but we’ll also tell you more about that later on.

We actually have a question here from one user about the possibility of Flemeth romance.

[Laughs] Well, I’d say that this would probably be an unlikely option.

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