BioWare on Dragon Age II – “we’ve hit a bit of a sweet spot”

BioWare’s Fernando Melo talks us through the action-strategy balancing act, rogue identity crises, sarcastic death yells, self-conscious narrators and (of course) saving the world.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, February 9, 2011

When I interviewed Robyn Therberge a few months ago I asked her whether BioWare had considered releasing two, entirely separate Dragon Age games – one for console and one for PC, drawing on the same universe but tailored much more completely to each platform. She couldn’t “speak to that” at the time – can you?

It’s hard to say, actually. Really a lot of that stuff is dictated by your feedback, by the fan feedback, and a lot of the usability sections we sit on and watch people play, we prototype new features and see how they react to it – and if the PC demand and the console demand are divergent that may make complete sense.

Right now I think, with DA2, we’ve hit a bit of a sweet spot. It’s enough of an action game that it works really well on consoles, and for PC players that want to play it that way, but there’s also enough tactics and depth on the PC side, because we haven’t taken away any of that. PC players won’t feel alienated or stamped down or whatever – I think once they get on it they’ll realise just how much like Origins it actually feels.

Tactical cameras are still there, ground rings are still there, damage figures are still coming off the characters – all the stuff they really enjoy from those games is still there, and there’s actually as I say even more depth for tactics and abilities and so on.

The storytelling in Origins was quite “block-built” – you approached people, the camera switched to close-up, you picked your dialogue options, you returned to the field. Is there more of a sense of flow this time round? Are the transitions more organic?

This is very core to what we do. There’s a lot of investment, on both Mass Effect and Dragon Age, on what we call digital acting. And Dragon Age, because it’s on its own engine, its own tools, in a lot of ways was kind of catching up a little bit, and I think with DA2 we’ve progressed again. We’ll always be improving, there’s never going to be a stop point. But I think we’re a lot closer to creating those drama moments a lot better.

I think one huge improvement is that there’s a player voice now. I think that was one key thing that was really missing in terms of the dramatic moments in Origins – you had two characters going at it, and then you had your character wanting to say something, and you just had a nod or barely even a moment, because there’s no voice. And it completely broke down the drama of the scene, right?

Whereas now, you can see the emotion in the character come out, depending on how you choose to response, but also it builds over time – how you play Hawke, if you’re always choosing for example the sarcastic option, there are a lot of situations where we don’t bring up the [dialogue] wheel just so you can say “OK”. If there’s only one line, Hawke just says it, it’s just part of the scene, so it flows more naturally.

But the interesting part is that his tone will change depending on how you’ve been selecting your emotions from the wheel. So Hawke will start to embody the kind of character that you’ve been playing – even in combat, with the shouts he or she has.

You’re saying Hawke will kill people sarcastically?

Yes exactly! Or a response, right? That’s the kind of thing that I think makes it feel like it’s more your character, that you’re actually the one breathing life into it. How we do story was one of the three things we wanted to adjust, combat being one of the other. Storytelling in terms of the frame narrative was another, the fact that we give you two fixed points as a player.

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