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Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening Interview

It’s not often you get to spend a decent amount of time with a top BioWare producer.  We were lucky enough to catch Fernando Melo, the lead producer and franchise leader on BioWare’s Dragon Age.  In this exclusive interview our Tim talks everything Dragon Age you can think of, and also discuss how and why BioWare are a critically acclaimed studio.What can you tell us about Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening, to start with?The biggest thing about Awakening is, it’s more of what people loved in Origins. It’s built on top of what we did in Origins. We’ve been working over it for just over a year, in parallel; the same team, the same group, the same writing team as well. You can expect a lot of the same fantastic story-writing, the richness of the world, the new characters that you’re going to get a chance to meet. It’s set about six months after the end of Origins, when the Blight has ended. Normally what happens at the end of the Blight is that the Darkspawn kinda go away – this time, they haven’t. There’s something that’s keeping them out. They’re more organised, there’s rumours of a sentient Darkspawn that talks and thinks. There’s a real characterisation of evil that’s masterminding or strategising against you, as opposed to just dealing with creatures, like we did in Origins. There’s a real sense of evil around that which is kinda cool. New characters that you’re going to get a chance to meet, as well, which are some of the things that people really loved. So yeah, in general, just more of what you loved in Origins.Awakening’s not marketed as a DLC pack, or a sequel, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen expansions I was beginning to think the time for them was over. What led to the decision to make a full expansion rather than something else?To be honest, it was a lot of the fan feedback that we got. As soon as Origins launched, the first thing we got asked was “When are you going to do a full expansion?” and that kinda got us thinking. We had already started some work towards Awakening anyway, and that’s really helped validate that decision. I don’t know if it’s so much that the time has passed – one could probably have said before that for something like Dragon Age, an old-school traditional RPG, maybe those times were kind of gone. Certainly, Dragon Age has been really successful. We’re really pleased with lots of awards that we got and the Metacritic for it, and people have really taken to it.Fundamentally, I think that as long as you’ve got a fantastic story, that’s what matters. With Awakening, we wanted to tell a really new story. Six months afterwards, there’s a lot of events that are going to be happening, there are very big, epic changes that are going on with the world, and you’re right smack-dab in the middle of it. Choices and consequences was another thing that people really enjoyed about Origins. It wasn’t like you made little decisions – they were things that you really had to think about. In some cases, we heard from fans of spending 20 minutes at a decision point because there’s no easy solution to it, right? And Awakening has a lot of those, as well. You fundamentally feel like you’re going to be making something that is going to impact the world, and I think that’s really what it was all about. There’s no easy way to do that with DLC. DLC has a very specific purpose.Dragon Age is a universe – we treat it as a big canvas. It’s got a timeline; there’s a set amount of time the “Dragon Age” takes place in. There’s a geographical limitation – the physical world that we live in – but within that, there’s huge amounts of storytelling that we want to tell. DLC allows us to very quickly tell little snippets of stories and fill in certain bits, or foreshadow things to come in some cases, but really for something like this – we want to unveil a new area, we want to really talk about some very big, big changes that’re happening in the world – there’s no better way to tell it than a really meaty expansion.The mainstream appeal of the game surprised me. As you said, I thought the time for hardcore RPGs being big, mass-market things was over. Were you surprised by the response that Dragon Age had as well?Yeah, I think we’ve been really pleasantly surprised, obviously. We always believed in the game – it’s a game that we’ve been working on for many years. It started shortly after we completed Neverwinter Nights; it’s been many years in the making. I think we always believed in the game, we always wanted to make this kind of game, but having that kind of validation where it’s not just the PC press or gaming press in particular, but mainstream press…! We hear about Dragon Age now in TV, news, newspapers, and other media where I never would have expected to see Dragon Age, typically. It’s absolutely amazing, and for the team, it’s such a huge boon for them. We’re really, really pleasantly surprised. I couldn’t honestly tell you that we were expecting that for sure – definitely not. We always strive to hit a certain quality with our games, and in particular with this one, we didn’t really pull any punches in terms of the storytelling or who the audience was for it, but what was really surprising is, as you said, hitting the more mainstream audience. We start to see people that are blogging on business sites and they mention Dragon Age, and relationships, and all these other things that I keep seeing cropping up, and it’s crazy! It’s fantastic. [Grins]There is one thing I’ve been wondering, before we get onto the specifics. You’ve talked about the mass appeal, and a lot of that likely came from the fact that Dragon Age is on console as well. I did note, though, that the PS3 version of Awakening is only coming out as a downloadable version, as opposed to the PC and 360, which are getting boxed releases. What’s the reasoning behind that?It’s a really good question, and to be honest with you, I don’t know that I have a good answer. This was a real surprise for us. Originally, just like in North America, we wanted to do both retail box and a digital version. We then heard back from Sony that there’s actually a limitation from their perspective. They don’t do both. Basically, ultimately, however that decision came about, we ended up doing a digital version for Europe as sort of the preferred method by the powers that be, as it were. So it’s one of those things that I think we could have supported, and it just kinda didn’t work out in that case. But it certainly wasn’t for lack of want.Alright, on to Awakening specifics! Awakening’s set in a new area called the Ameranthine. What can you tell us about it?Ameranthine is set in the north of Fereldan. Fereldan is where Origins took place. It’s a little bit north of that on the map. It’s a relatively small Arl, or region. One of the really cool things about it is the geography is really quite varied – you’ll find lots of different kinds of things. I’m not going to spoil it in terms of different areas that you’re going to get a chance to see, but you will find lots of really cool, very spooky, very dangerous areas, of course. It is the world of Dragon Age, after all. [Grins] But also, we have the actual city of Ameranthine which you’ll get to explore. Vigil’s Keep is the new seat of power for the Wardens. As the Wardens, you’ve been given the Arl. The region of Ameranthine is now for the Wardens to administer, which has never been done before in terms of the history of Dragon Age. So that’s going to be something that, from a storytelling perspective, it’s a new kind of layer. You as the player are going to have to manage that relationship. Like every other choice, it has its consequences. If you choose to, you can invest time and energy and money towards dealing with what’s happening in the keep, or, of course, you can go off adventuring. You still have to figure out what’s happening with the Darkspawn and there’s lots of things that you need to go and do for that, so I think it’s going to give a lot of interesting twists and a new perspective that we experimented on, a long time ago, with Baldur’s Gate in terms of managing a keep.That was the comparison I was going to make, actually! Anyway: there are a lot of new characters in Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening, but can we expect to see returning characters from the original game?Yeah, absolutely. There’s actually quite a lot of characters that come back and do cameo roles, depending on the choices that you made. You may not get a chance to see all of them – it really depends on some of the choices, and where you left off with your relationship with them, when you import your Warden character in from Origins. If you start off as a brand new character, then you’ll only get a chance to meet some of them, and again, their predisposition to you when you encounter them really depends on how you left your relationship at the time.{PAGE TITLE=Dragon Age Expansion Interview page 2}Are we going to have the ability to get some of these old characters back into our party again, or are they just in there for the cameos more than anything?With Awakening, there’s one character that does join your party. All the other ones are there in terms of cameos. They serve a very specific role in terms of where they fit in the story, but they do not actually join your party. That means in terms of romances and other things, you will not be able to continue pursuing those with those characters. That doesn’t mean those characters don’t exist – they’re very much still in the world, and they’re still there, and at some point you may get a chance to meet them.Romance was quite a big thing for a lot of players in Dragon Age. It was done differently to how it was done in other BioWare games, with the relationship meter. This isn’t getting such a big focus in Awakening. Why not? As I said, a lot of players really enjoyed it.Overall, probably the biggest thing that we got back was story. That’s really what I think drove Origins to its success, is that the story’s accessible, the richness of the world, and the characters – and of course, the characters that you love, and you love-to-hate. [Laughs] We certainly have the love-to-hate part!In terms of actually building romances, one of the things that we realised fairly early on is that it wasn’t going to work out with the kind of story that we want to tell in Awakening. It wasn’t going to work out very well to try to fit in romances. So we had a decision point very early on in the development of Awakening as to whether we put something in because every BioWare game has had these relationship moments in there, and we really opted to break the mould a little bit with Awakening and rather than try to potentially feel like we shoehorned something in, or tacked on a sort of fling or romance thing just to say we had it in there, we actually opted, because it didn’t fit in very well, to not do it. Again, it’s not that these characters didn’t exist or that these relationships didn’t exist – they’re still very much there, and one day you may get a chance to find some closure for that, but it wouldn’t be in the timeframe for Awakening.If that was an early decision, how long ago did you actually start working on Awakening, or start thinking about it?Awakening has really been in development for over a year. It started off in parallel with the ending of Origins. Pretty much once the PC version was kinda wrapped up – we continued to do bug fixes and improvements on it – the majority of the technical side of the team had moved on to doing the console versions, and really, that’s when the writers began in earnest to tell some of the stories for DLC and for Awakening, and that’s kinda where it sprung from.Was the story of Awakening something that you had in mind throughout Dragon Age? Do you have the future of the franchise planned out, to some extent?Pretty much. I don’t know that everything would materialise in terms of expansions or sequels or DLC or what-have-you, but… Dragon Age, as a universe, was something that we invested man-years of development up front to build a really rich universe. As I mentioned, Dragon Age is a time-span. We have a geography that things fit inside of, which is the world, and we pretty much know the key events, the key individuals. We know the key catalysts for things that are going to make changes in the world. Really what we’re trying to do – through the combination of DLC, expansions, and so forth – is really put you in those places where you get a chance to make those kinds of decisions. You get to make these impacts into the world. From that perspective, we have a lot more storytelling already that we can do. How much of that will come out, and in what forms… David Gaider’s books have been doing great, we have potentially other things that we could do as well. That’s really the whole point of treating Dragon Age as a true franchise, is that there’s lots of possibilities for how we can tell all those little pieces and really unveil what is a much, much bigger picture than what we’ve seen so far from Origins and Awakening.So when we’re playing Awakening, will we think back to Origins and think “Okay, I can see where that was going now?” Will we see loads of little hints hidden away in the original game as to what happens in Awakening?Absolutely. There’s clear causal effects as well – you can clearly see an effect from decisions that you’ve made. There are also much more subtle things, where you’ll realise “Oh, okay, this is what they were talking about. I can now experience that.” And not just with Origins. You can already see some relationships with the books. If you’ve read those, there’s a lot of that which shows up in Awakening and in the DLCs as well. Really, again, all of these pieces are already in place in the fiction of Dragon Age – all we really need to do is paint in a way that you can experience it as a player. That’s kinda what we’re trying to do with DLC and with expansions.That was one of the things I loved about Dragon Age in particular, actually. It was such a well-developed universe, and the codex, I think, was a big part of that. There were… 250-odd entries in there? I know a lot of players who I spoke to went through and read every single one, and tried to track down everything. Can we expect about as much from the codex in this?There’s definitely a lot of stuff in there. I don’t know if it’s as big as Origins – I don’t know many things that are as big as Origins, to be honest! [Laughs] But it certainly has a lot of meat to it, it has a lot of context to it. The codices are a great way for us to fill in a lot of gaps, and the writers love to use that as a way to foreshadow things, and tie in little loose pieces, and drop subtle hints of things. So it’s great for fans that appreciate that, but at the same time it’s not so in-your-face that we always have a lot of players that may play it once, and they just want to experience Dragon Age and they’re not really into reading the 250 codex entries. And that’s perfectly fine as well. One of the things that I really love about how the franchise is structured is that all the DLC pieces, the expansion, Origins itself, the books – they really do connect. It’s kind of funny because, in a way, what you as a player are seeing at the moment is some sort of abstract parts that don’t quite line up just yet. It will come. There will be a time where you’ll start to see the pieces really start to fall into place, and a lot more direct connections can be made. We’re only really starting to scratch the surface of that with Awakening now.Can we take that as an announcement of more expansions and sequels to come, then?I don’t know about that! We certainly have made no secrets about the fact that we’re continuing to support the franchise with DLC. Beyond that, we’ll have to find out later on.{PAGE TITLE=Dragon Age Expansion Interview page 3}Being that Awakening is an expansion, and expansions don’t tend to be as big as the progenitor game, how long can we expect Awakening to take before we get to the end and have to wait for yet more?That’s a really tough question. It keeps coming up all the time, and I don’t think there’s a good answers to it. I think one of the things that we learned with Origins is, we don’t have a good way of using hours as a reflection of what’s in there. Certainly, we saw people that said that they finished the game in 30 hours or less. We saw people that took over 100 hours, so the range is huge, and depending on whether you replay it, and all these kind of things… Awakening is cut from the exact same cloth. There’s a lot of stuff there. It’s bigger than most games these days. I think what would be safe to say is that, like with Origins, I don’t think anyone is going to be disappointed with how much stuff is actually in there.We’ve talked about how Awakening is a continuation of Dragon Age. It continues on the story, it expands on more of the world – are there any major improvements in there? Anything in there you wanted to get into Dragon Age or wanted to improve upon from Dragon Age that you really wanted to get out there?There are some subtle changes that we’ve made. Some improvements where we’ve kinda tightened things up a little bit. There are some minor features, like we added Runecrafting, where you can make your own runes, you can add them to armour instead of just weapons; there’s the respec ability so with the higher levels you can now completely respend all of your points so that you can try out some of the new specialisations in there, but really, the focus was on story. It’s not Dragon Age II. It’s an old-school expansion. It’s added on to Origins, it’s built off of Origins. The same great combat, the same systems; everything else that is there, we really didn’t want to spend time ripping apart anything or rebuilding something or trying to add in some killer feature of some kind or anything like that. It’s really kind of tried-and-true on top of Origins, and where the effort went into was creating a fantastic story, which is what fans were really asking for and what they really loved from Origins.There are some things that crop up with playing the different versions of Dragon Age. Have you thought about improving the console interface? On the PC you’ve got the toolbar on the bottom and masses of abilities at the touch of a button, but on consoles it’s a bit more difficult. Have you put any thought in how to improve upon this?Well, there’s a lot, and it really comes down to what the future holds for the franchise – whether it’ll be just DLC or something bigger. I think one of the things that we really realised with Awakening in particular, but towards the end of Origins on the consoles, you’ll start to see that as well: as you add more abilities, as you add more spells, the way that you can quickly access some of those becomes a little bit more cumbersome. You often will have to bring up the control wheel and select some of the other abilities or spells that you have, so I think it’s something that we definitely will have to take a look at as we continue to expand the game. What that actually means, I don’t think that we have a specific plan as to how we’re going to tackle that. There’s lots of ways we can do it. Not just from an interface perspective – we can redesign some of the systems to make them a little more streamlined, as well. So we’ll see where that ultimately goes.Would you consider voice control?At the moment, I don’t think we have any plans to do that, but we’ve certainly seen a couple of games recently that have used it pretty well, so who knows? That could be a possibility in the future. Don’t quote me on that, though! I don’t know! [Laughs] We’ll see how it goes.Awakening adds in a load of new trees for each of the individual classes, as well as new specialisations. How did you approach the creation of these new abilities, both in terms of the lore, and in terms of the gameplay impact?The new abilities in particular, the specialisations, are something that we’re really happy with in Awakening. I think one of the best things about it was that we were able to kinda rebalance the classes once again. Every base class has an additional chain of abilities – for Warriors and Rogues, there’s additional chains there; for Mages, there’s two new chains of spells. In addition to that, every base class has two new specialisations which brings with it new spells and abilities as well. I think one of the things that we realised towards the back-end of Origins as you start to get into higher levels is that, really, Mages just completely dominate the battlefield. They’re really, really powerful with the kind of spells that they can wield.In some ways, Warriors and Rogues started to take a little bit of a backseat. Even if that was your hero character, you still ultimately ended up wanting to micromanage the Mages a little bit to get an upper hand in some of the bigger boss battles and more difficult challenges that you faced. With Awakening, we spent a lot more time really giving a little bit more love to Warriors and Rogues in particular, and trying to make them really cool, really powerful, and be able to master or dominate the battlefield in their own right once again. I think we’ve accomplished that really well. For me, personally, I always love playing Rogues, and it was one of the things I loved to see – the new specialisations and talents for Rogues that really allows me to want to keep playing and controlling my Rogue, even in the toughest of battles. I think that was something that was a huge achievement, and I really hope that people will like that.{PAGE TITLE=Dragon Age Expansion Interview page 4}Would you like to take the franchise outside of Fereldan?Oh yeah, absolutely. The intent is to try and colour as many of those areas in as possible. Whether that’s through actual gameplay or whether that’s through books or other mediums, we’ll have to wait and see how that actually pans out. One of the things we’d love to do is that as people dive into the franchise, dive into the world of Dragon Age, is make sure there’s lots of things there for them to want to explore and continue learning. So for sure, we’ll do more stuff, but whether it’s in game form or otherwise we’ll wait and see.Going back a few years, one of the features that Baldur’s Gate II had was multiplayer. This is something we haven’t seen crossing over in RPGs so much – you’ve just got single-player RPGs, and you’ve got MMOs. Would you like to see a bit of a return to multiplayer? While it’d be difficult with the story focus, Dragon Age focuses a lot on micromanagement…I think Dragon Age as a franchise could absolutely support lots of different genres, or a game that is tailored specifically to multiplayer. I think something like Origins or Awakening – the way those games are made in terms of how they tell stories and RPGs, I don’t think it would work for that, which is why we haven’t really pursued that. In the future, will there be a multiplayer game set in Dragon Age? I have no idea. I know personally and from a lot of people on the team, we would love to do something like that, but really, right now we’re focused on telling the stories within the world to help colour that in and help people make their first jump into that world. I think once we’ve established that, then potentially we could look at other genres or other gameplay mechanics such as multiplayer and things like that.Is the MMO genre somewhere you could take Dragon Age?Absolutely, the franchise would support something like that. There’s enough material there and there’s enough richness to the world that we could do it. Whether we want to or whether it’s something that we would consider doing, time will tell. Right now, we have lots of stories already that we want to tell! [Laughs] There’s certainly a lot of work to go around in terms of doing that, and then we’ll see what the future holds.To close it off, then: what are your favourite things about Awakening?My personal favourite thing is, again, that the writing team has done an amazing job with the story. I think we’ve really improved on some of the really subtle things like specialisations, how Warriors and Rogues work. Some of the level art is some of the best we’ve done so far, in my personal opinion. If you enjoyed playing Origins, I think you’re absolutely going to love what’s in Awakening. I think you’re going to be surprised by how much stuff is in there.I’m sorry, I lied to you. I actually have one last question: when are we going to get a fantasy RPG that doesn’t have giant bloody spiders in it?I don’t know. We seem to have fans of spiders, so it might be awhile!


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