Dragon Age II Q&A with Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw

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2009’s standout RPG Dragon Age: Origins catered to console fans and PC enthusiasts alike by evoking the classic style of Baldur’s Gate while still providing a visceral story-telling experience. For the sequel, Mike Laidlaw’s team at BioWare wanted to bring that style even farther into the current generation by increasing the action and “streamlining” dialogue choices. Of course, Laidlaw calls “streamlining” a dirty word in RPG terms, he doesn’t see action and ease of play as being counter to the tenets of classic RPGs. Dragon Age II is coming out next Tuesday March 8th on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Even though it seems Dragon Age II is coming quick on the heels of its predecessor (released only 16 months later), Laidlaw said that the PC version of Origins was finished more than a year before its release. While other teams completed the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions so that they would release simultaneously, the design team was already working on a second iteration based on what they learned the first time around. And now that the team has the tools and the process down to a science, Laidlaw said that we can expect them to crank out content fairly quickly. That means a buttload of DLC is coming down the pipe as we speak.

Other than removing auto-attack to make combat more active, and expanding spell combinations for mages into combos that work across all classes, what are the changes that we can expect in the sequel? I sat down with Mike Laidlaw this week and asked him about combat, crafting, and how the story-telling differs in DA2:

(For more information on the framed narrative of the dwarf Varric telling the story of the Champion of Kirkwall, see Susan Arendt’s comprehensive preview.)

Greg Tito: One of the complaints of Dragon Age: Origins was that the difficulty was tuned pretty high even on the normal setting. I’ve played about 30 hours of Dragon Age II so far for my review on normal, and I haven’t really had a full party wipe yet. Do you think that you might have tuned the difficulty down a little too low? How hard was it to try and get the challenge into the “sweet spot”?

Mike Laidlaw, Lead Designer of Dragon Age II at BioWare: What we did is we used an approach where we tried to develop essentially rules for the players, in terms of what our expectations were. So when we threw quality assurance and testers and focus tests at it, we knew what our expectation was. Our goal with the game really for normal is that you as a player should be playing one character optimally, whether that be Hawke or you focus on one of your followers. You’ve got one character that you’ve buffed up, got the right combination spells, you’re playing them well. You shouldn’t see huge instances of party wipes. You should be able to get through the game feeling like you’re challenged but if you’re smart you’re able to get through it and survive. You might lose a person or too, and there’s certain boss encounters where it might take you a couple of tries to figure out the tricks and evaluate how that is.

To me, that’s a fair expectation for normal, it presents the player with difficulty to keep them interested but without it being frustrating and fist punching our controllers. Then for hard and nightmare, our goal is to move up to hard, our expectation is the player will be playing the whole party effectively. You’ve been building your talents to work together and so on and so forth. As a result, the game for hard becomes quite a bit more challenging because we’re expecting you to be not 4 times efficiency but quite a bit more efficient.

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For me, I did feel Origins normal was pushing too hard on the high side and no one wants to set their game to casual unless they’re comfortable being here just for the story, and that’s fine. But as a player, I don’t feel I should be able to pick what’s arguably the default difficulty and get my ass handed to me again and again. Hard is there. Nightmare is there for absolute ass handing. But that kind of was how our balance was done – through methodology and expectations.

Greg Tito: The crafting system in Dragon Age II is a lot more simple than the first game, almost deceptively, but it still rewards exploring the countryside or the back alleys of Kirkwall. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys devised the crafting system?

Mike Laidlaw: Looking at feedback, looking at the way people interacted with the crafting system, the result was typically that the level of frustration the crafting system engendered in Origins almost made it not worth doing. There weren’t a huge pile of rewards for you there, there was access to potions which, you know, “Woo.”

But what wasn’t there was this sense of cool aspirational thing, this thing where, I’d found a recipe and I hadn’t yet found enough stuff or whatever, as well as the element of fiddliness, which is, “I have 42 elf root, but to make this potion I need to combine 48 elf root in 15 different ways.” Which, I really think it dragged the game down a little bit in terms of the overall speed of interacting with it and so on.

I’m pleased to hear you say “deceptively simple” instead of “overly simple” because as a player I do like exploring the world, I like looking in those nooks and crannies, and finding something that has a permanent, long-term benefit for me instead of a short term, “Ooh, I found a single elf root that will be gone in seconds,” is a lot more rewarding. So our goal then became a mechanic that drew you into the corners, sometimes drew you into tougher fights or side content, which is always fun when you get a reward for doing that and then had a sustained reward system tied to it.

The nice thing is that it establishes a base. A base that we can certainly make more complex in the future, but it kind of shifted the paradigm to something that I think is a lot more rewarding as a player to dive into, to go, “oh wow there’s some really cool stuff at the higher levels of this, I’m glad I’m paying attention.”

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Greg Tito: It seemed like Dragon Age: Origins was much more of an epic fantasy along the lines of Tolkien or George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, whereas Dragon Age II you could say is a sword-and-sorcery personal story of one man’s rise to power. Was that an intentional departure or did you guys think about that as you were crafting the story for the second one?

Mike Laidlaw: We did, actually, quite a bit. There were two reasons behind that change, because you’ve exactly nailed it. One is a piece of epic literature, which is Origins, and the other I think is much more personal, much more intimate and almost a family piece, the idea of the extended family and the extended home. The sense that it’s not just your house but Kirkwall becoming home. The new adopted family of your party and companions.

We want to do two things, I think. First off we wanted to make sure that we established that, since we were doing some pretty fundamental changes, ones that we were trying to put in context of, “it must feel like Dragon Age, but not entirely be Dragon Age.” The story that we’re telling here, one where Varric is providing narration, narration that is inherently established as a little bit, perhaps, exaggerated, is that it was a perfect introduction to the art style changes that our art director wanted to do to support the story, and to look at the story from a personal standpoint.

To say that there’s a tension between wanting to know the ending, wanting to know, “How do things turn out?” and “What happens to the Chantry?” and so on. Versus wanting to know the details so the ending makes sense. It’s like reading a mystery novel, where you could just look at the ending and find out whodunit but it doesn’t matter unless you walk the road. That presented for us, I think a different kind of storytelling, a different kind of challenge. Something that we hadn’t really done before and that, I think has elements of intrigue to it that we couldn’t do if the story were just about, “there is your big enemy, go kill it,” which is Origins.

I think it creates a diversity in both the way we’re telling the story, the kind of stories we’re telling. And it also, I think, sets a note for the franchise, which is, “Dragon Age is not about one character, it’s not about just Wardens and the Blight, it’s about a world, and about a time, and about the way that world evolves and changes over the different iterations of Dragon Age. Because if I had my druthers, in the future we’ll take a look at the changes that happened in II, and explore them and the ramifications of them, which would again be a different kind of game, I think.

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