By 2gion 2 girls 1 cup

Overcorrection

April 1, 2011

In an interview with 1UP, Dragon Age lead designer Mike Laidlaw explains why he prioritizes accessibility:

[...] if RPGs can’t evolve and can’t change — and I know people yell at me for daring to use the word “evolve” — but if they can’t change or experiment, then the genre itself is going to stagnate. Not only in terms of mechanics, like in rehashes and stuff, which I think we mostly manage to avoid, but the bigger problem is that if we don’t have RPGs that present a different type of experience, then we kind of encapsulate our potential audience to people who enjoy just that experience, and we drive others away.

In [and] of itself, that runs the risk of genre death — it becomes too referential or too reliant on people understanding that STR means strength which feeds into accuracy which results in damage done, and so on. You end up in a case where, the genre eventually burns out, or falls flat, or becomes too risky to take any risks in development, and so on and so forth, and that’s not something I want to see happen.

I mentioned in my last post that Dragon Age II’s changes have been polarizing, and I think this design philosophy is a big reason why. Rather than doubling down on making a traditional RPG, BioWare opted to aim for a broader market at the risk of alienating some of their more hardcore fans. It seems they accomplished both, though perhaps not in the proportions that they anticipated.

Given his goals, I think Laidlaw and his team accurately pinpointed what needed to change from Origins — the combat was indeed slow, the customization options were proliferative, and so on. Unfortunately, they were prone to overcorrecting these problems and lost some of Origins’s positive qualities through aggressive streamlining of its (perceived) negative ones.

One especially grating change, even for fans of the game like myself, is the frequent reuse of environments. Rather than creating unique dungeon layouts for each quest, Dragon Age II relies on the same handful of maps and varies them — or at least attempts to — by walling off certain sections, such that each trip to a dungeon reveals a particular subset of its tunnels.

Origins’ scope was so massive that it set expectations at an unsustainable level, so it’s easy to see the appeal of such a compromise. This was a poor implementation of it, though. For one, the scenery is actually too well-crafted; it’s very easy to notice when areas recur because of the layouts and landmarks are so memorable. (So ironically, as few environments as there are, it would have been better if the level designers did even less work.) Even then, the dungeon maps also look the same because they always reflect the entire area instead of the currently available subsection — an oversight that all but ensures players will notice the repetition.

The reused environments are emblematic of the worst of Dragon Age II’s streamlining: the changes whose damage to the game’s immersion outweighs their benefits to its accessibility and simplicity. Other select offenders: unusable items are literally labeled “junk,” and no longer have item descriptions or even artwork; enemy reinforcements inexplicably drop in from the sky during battles, or sometimes simply pop into existence; an entire class of quests consists of picking up a random item, immediately divining who it belongs to, and returning it for a meaningless thank you and a bit of gold.

One can imagine the arguments for these changes. Why waste time writing item descriptions for vendor trash? If we need multiple waves of enemies, what does it matter where they come from? It’s tedious to figure out whose doodad you picked up — why not just cut to the chase? As players, though, we don’t want to notice these things. When quests and items are abstracted to the point where they have no context, the fiction is that much more difficult to maintain. Or, put another way, Dragon Age II makes too little effort to hide its artifice and allows us to see behind the curtain.

All of that said, I think Dragon Age II hits nearer the mark than Origins with most of its changes, even when guilty of overcorrection. Battles were slow before, for example; now they’re a bit too fast, but still much improved. The cross-class combos and frequent adds make them more dynamic, and I still felt like I was playing tactically despite the flash and frenzy. This is one area where I thought the PR buzz quotes — “Think like a general, fight like a Spartan,” “Press a button and something awesome happens,” etc. — were sufficiently backed up by the gameplay.

Repetition aside, I’m also glad that the dungeons were smaller because it did wonders for the pacing of the story. It’s nice to have a lot of content, but Origins dragged sometimes, and not just in the infamous Fade sequence — I actually found many of the dungeons to be unnecessarily grueling. (It was the size of the dungeons, not their difficulty, that made me turn Origins down to Casual.) By contrast, nothing in Dragon Age II felt like it dragged; I thought most of the quests and dungeons were of appropriate length (with some that were too short), and the game itself, while still beefy, is shorter enough than Origins that it encourages more replayability.

Speaking of pacing, one of the more jarring changes in Dragon Age II was to the companion interactions. Origins offered a staggering number of conversation topics to pursue at the camp, but they were too front-loaded; it was possible to exhaust them with a dozen or more hours left in the game. There are some plot-related scenes that are meted out more gradually, but in general the exposition goes about as fast as the player wants it to.

Dragon Age II handles this by taking companion interactions out of the player’s control — companions are only available for conversation when they want to talk. This is, in theory at least, a more elegant solution. It ensures that they won’t run out of topics, and it makes the companions behave more like people than information receptacles. The three-act structure helps here, too; major character development is more believable when spread over a period of years, and the writers were smart about giving people room to grow during the gaps in the narrative.

The downside is that there is simply too little content now, both in terms of the number of “conversation quests” and the length of each one. I realize I was spoiled by Origins’s ridiculous scope, but I think Dragon Age II took this one a bit far. I was hoping for something closer to Mass Effect 2: fewer lines overall than Origins, but not so few that it felt sparse. (Certainly I didn’t hear about Garrus’ calibrations nearly as often as I heard about Merrill’s messy house.) It’s a testament to the quality of the writing that the characters are as strong as they are; I didn’t get as much time with them as I would have liked, but on the whole I found them more convincing than the Origins cast.

To summarize: the compromises in Dragon Age II are far more obvious than they were in Origins, and though it solved some of its predecessor’s problems it created new ones in the process. Meanwhile, the new design direction pulled it further afield from its roots, and they’ve scaled back my favorite part of the game. And yet, even with all of this, I still maintain that it’s better.

More on that soon.

7 comments

Just… completely agreed with everything, again!

I’m replaying Origins now and every area is just… I remember the Redcliffe segment feeling long the first time I played it, but this time it felt like a quick jaunt because the other areas are so much longer. It’s not just the Fade or the Deep Roads, either, the Brecilian Forest is just as bad. The Redcliffe section is actually one of the neater quests–why aren’t there more segments that aren’t just dungeon crawls?

So I think the reason the reused caves didn’t bother me as much as it did other people was that I was just so relieved I wasn’t spending four hours at a time in them.

The Act 1 random fetch quests were so weird. At first I was reading way too much into them because the first one I did, Hawke was like, “You seem to have… MISPLACED… this.” as if there were something shady going down. But no. Just a random fetch quest. There was even one about spectacular pantaloons, what was with that?

And I completely agree about the conversations with the companions. The quests were fine (and some of them were actually really great), but “quests” where all you do is talk were way too short. Most of them you literally only had one or two chances to respond, which is disappointing, especially when it came to the romances, where in the beginning it’s a lot more like Mass Effect’s sleazy pickup lines than the natural progression that happened in Origins. Especially when talking to Anders it always seemed deeply inappropriate. (But once Act 2 got rolling, it was great.)

Anyway, great breakdown. I’m not sure yet if I like DA2 better than Origins, but there were definitely times when I felt like DA2 was made just for me. Looking forward to the next post!

by Alex on April 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

@Alex
The pantaloons were sort of a rather elaborate in-joke in the Baldur’s Gate-series, guess it’s a wink to this:
http://www.gamebanshee.com/baldursgateii/pantaloonsenigma.php

by Oozo on April 4, 2011 at 4:27 am #

Ha! I figured it was something like that, but I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate so I didn’t get it. Thanks =)

by Alex on April 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

All game design philosophy sounds great on paper, but Dragon Age 2 had an extremely limited development window.

IF they were given a reasonable amount of time to implement and polish those sweeping ideas, DA2 might have been a fantastic game.

In the end, I felt it was an almost aggressively mediocre one. By aggressive, I mean I read a lot of interviews talking about how much they evolved, but when I finished I went, “Well, this supposed RPG was really Choo Choo: Dragon Age Action Express”. Action and graphics definitely evolved, everything else took a nosedive in my opinion.

I loved DA:O but crap like Witch Hunt and then DA2 means I will think long and hard before EVER purchasing another game set in Thedas.

ME3, which by all appearances has Bioware’s A-team working on it, will solidify their reputation for me. Will my choices actually matter this time or get handwaved away again (it’s Wrex!… or Random Unnamed Krogan), etc.

by RP on April 10, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

Dragon Age II (and Mass Effect 2) prioritise “accessibility” for one reason: EA. Being a public corporation means being obliged to quixotically chase after ever increasing profits. Dragon Age: Origins was a popular game, critically and commercially; but it’s not enough to just go back to the same audience and make a similar amount of money, it has to be more. You can try to do that in a positive way, but more often than not “dumbing down” is a reasonable label.

If you try to please everybody you end up pleasing nobody. As a result of all the damning things I’ve read about Dragon Age II (explicit and otherwise) if I buy it at all it’ll be a ‘GOTY’ at a deep discount. And Steam says I spent 126 hours playing Origins (doesn’t tell me for Awakening). I’ll be buying Witcher 2 full price, though.

It’s true that the RPG genre should move forward because there are so many legacy elements to them that no longer make sense, but I simply do not trust that Bioware can go about this in the right way after reading Laidlaw’s remarks and playing Mass Effect 2.

On the plus side, the recent info about Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they’re acknowledging how severe the “overcorrection” with 2 was (removing the entire loot economy, for instance), but I’ll be amazed if it’s as good as the first game.

by V. Profane on April 10, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

I’m gonna snip a bit of a comment I just left on the other Dragon Age post because I think it’s relevant here too: I’m not convinced that any of this has to do with EA. All developers, independent or not, have to deal with the reality of limited resources, the demands of publishers, etc., and I see no reason to assume that Laidlaw is being disingenuous about his reasons for streamlining the game. I don’t pretend to know any details about BioWare’s strategic planning, but I suspect that the release window for Dragon Age II had more to do with The Old Republic than any mandate from EA. I’d bet that EA’s strongest influence was in the development of the Facebook game Dragon Age Legends — but that’s just my conjecturing.

Also, you all may already know this, but Mass Effect and Dragon Age are driven by largely different design teams. So, for example, Mike Laidlaw is not a designer on the Mass Effect games, and his comments that I quoted above don’t necessarily reflect what that team is thinking. Of course, if you see the issues you bring up as endemic to BioWare as a whole, maybe that’s cold comfort. :-)

by Dan Bruno on April 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

I didn’t mean to suggest that EA are a special case; they have at least recently tried to innovate (most notably with Mirror’s Edge). I’m saying this is a problem inherent in corporate capitalism.

I don’t think it matters that much if Laidlaw (or any other lead) genuinely wants a wider audience for his work because he’s so proud of it, or because he wants the (nothing but) CoD and Madden/Fifa crowd to broaden their horizons, or if he just wants a solid gold toilet/appease his boss. It may go some way to mitigate the negative effects of attempting to broaden the appeal of something with inherent barriers to entry like a fantasy RPG, but it’s still unlikely to be pretty.

Incidentally, could there be a more corporate game than a wannabe WoW based on the most shamelessly exploited IP of all time?

by V. Profane on April 11, 2011 at 9:36 am #