Dragon Age: Origins is billed as the spiritual successor to the Neverwinter Nights series, a nod of the head to older times of single-player RPGs when they were entirely anti-social rather than an opportunity for gamers to meet potential partners, form communities or sell extortionately-priced characters.
We catch up with the game's director and executive producer Dan Tudge to see what it's all about, how gamers have reacted so far, and where he sees BioWare's attempt at creating an online community going.
Prima: How do you think Dragon: Age Origins was received after its unveiling at E3?
Dan Tudge: Our fans are definitely very excited; they've been waiting a long time for a fantasy RPG from BioWare and we definitely showed them what they wanted to see.
Prima: What about people expecting something immediately exciting like Mass Effect - do you feel they've been mislead?
Dan Tudge: Well we've always said we were going to deliver a core fantasy RPG experience for our core users; this is like we mentioned at E3 of really returning to our roots. This was really the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, and honestly I think we really delivered on that.
Prima: What are the revolutionary bits in Origins? To us it looks quite similar to Neverwinter Nights.
Dan Tudge: The actual Origins stories are actually your first two hours of gameplay, where you actually play your origins. And the choices that you make within your origin stories really change the lens on the way you perceive the world and the way the world perceives you. What's unique there is not just selecting your class, your character - although you are doing all of that, but you're actually playing your origins, playing the birth of your character. Honestly, rather than just selecting your character class, you're actually role-playing your character right from the very beginning and creating that character.
Prima: What about game mechanics, what haven't we seen before?
Dan Tudge: I can't really go into the full details, but a subtle Origins example is something that I found very emotionally compelling. I was playing one of our origins stories and I actually had a situation where I had a very, very close friend within my origin... And to become a Grey Warden I had to make a difficult choice and had to leave my friend behind to what I felt was certain death. Playing through the game several hours later, I was actually doing a dungeon crawl underneath the city and I came across a prison area, and one of the individuals in one of the prison cells was my friend that I left behind, and I was actually elated because I had the opportunity to actually save him. Now I had picked any other origins he would have been some non-discreet player, but to me he was my friend. So it's a very subtle thing but very emotionally compelling.
Prima: How dramatic will your choice of origin be on the game? Will it all come to the same point sooner or later anyway?
Dan Tudge: I'm not, obviously, going to give away any spoilers, and you'll see much more at Leipzig about what we're doing with origin stories.
Prima: Are we right in thinking Dragon Age: Origins is not based on Dungeons & Dragons?
Dan Tudge: Absolutely it is not, yeah. We're based entirely on our own rule-set. We spent a lot of time developing the Dragon Age universe, and really the rule-set within the universe, the fiction within the universe, the characters, the people that inhabit it, the creatures... Dragon Age: Origins is really just the beginning, the first entertainment that we can put in the universe. We've got a lot of great plans for the universe.
Prima: Can you tell us a bit about the rule-set and system in Dragon Age: Origins and how levels, character customization, feats, spells, combos, etc. will work?
Dan Tudge: I talked a little bit at E3 about the spell combos, which is a feature I'm really, really excited about, where you can actually use spells to interact with each other. We hope this encourages a lot of exploration and experimentation. I've often used two mages in my party, which is really awesome because we can sort of tag-team spells together. Obviously, as well, all the classes have talents and skills, and all of those through leveling up can be grown.
Prima: What sort level cap and overall length can we expect from Dragon Age: Origins?
Dan Tudge: Like we said before, this is very much an experience for our core users, and really it's not going to be a short, little game. We don't have an exact length, but this is something that has been built for core fantasy RPG gamers, so we're going to give them a lengthy experience.
Prima: Are we talking, as a rough guide, something similar to a game like Oblivion?
Dan Tudge: Well Oblivion is such a different animal so that's not probably a great comparison. If we're using our past games as an example, then obviously the Baldur's Gate games were extremely long, but with the level of next-gen content those days are almost unachievable now. But we're certainly trying to really use Baldur's Gate and make Dragon Age: Origins a spiritual successor.
Prima: What do you say to arguments made by Warren Spector that long games are dead, or dying - that we should expect to be able to realistically finish games we start?
Dan Tudge: It depends what type of game you're playing. Our fan-base - the core fantasy RPG fan - are looking for that meaty adventure. Maybe they're not as long as they were back in the days when you thought of your own maps - I've certainly got great memories of that - but those days are gone. But certainly a nice, good, lengthy and meaty RPG with a great story-driven experience is something I think fans are dying for.
Prima: You touched on the difference between Dragon Age: Origins and the openworld environment of Oblivion; can we expect your game to be more enclosed and scripted?
Dan Tudge: The main difference there is the story-driven experience. Dragon Age: Origins is a very, very emotional and gripping game that really is heavily affected by your origins stories and the way you play those. That story-driven element is really what separates us from a lot of the other openworld-type RPGs.
Prima: How deep will the relationships between characters in Dragon Age: Origins go?
Dan Tudge: The relationship within your party is something that I think was a key pillar in the Baldur's Gate series, and is something we've definitely taken to heart in Dragon Age: Origins. A large chunk of our story is dedicated to the interplay between the characters in your party; that will be a very big component. Dragon Age: Origins is also the biggest story we've ever created.
Prima: How do you go about creating such a gigantic fiction from scratch?
Dan Tudge: The fantasy team at BioWare are huge fantasy nuts so there's been inspiration from everything: obviously D&D, we're big fans of Lord of the Rings, I'm a big fan of Conan, and a lot of dark heroic fantasy. We've really taken a lot of inspiration from everywhere - any good author does. We took our time, we took a lot of inspiration, and a lot of the things we have never seen but really wanted to see, we worked in.
Prima: What sort of things?
Dan Tudge: The dark, heroic element; the matureness, the grittiness of the world, of the characters, the lore - that's what really sets us apart from a lot of other fantasies. So much fantasy, especially in videogames, has been high fantasy. Our setting goes really deep: into the world, into the characters, and there's a lot of realism within the creatures and encounters.
Prima: Having had all of this creative freedom, why did you stick with fantasy?
Dan Tudge: Oh! It's one of the things BioWare does best. Quite honestly, we've got a huge group of fantasy fans here. Myself, out of all the projects, working on a fantasy RPG is a dream come true. I don't think we could get away without doing a fantasy RPG at BioWare. And really, honestly, it's where we started, right? It's our roots, it's where we got our... really what gave birth to the BioWare that everyone sees today.
Prima: Could you give us an example of something dark and gritty from Origins?
Dan Tudge: Some of the moral choices you need to make, there's a lot of choices that really aren't right or wrong, but they're hard, they're hard to make. And you don't come away thinking I role-played that as a good character, or I role-played that as a bad character, it comes across as a deep choice. And that really reflects the world and that sacrifice that needs to be made in order for the better good or for your better evil. The choices all the way through are a really good example of the darkness, the grittiness.
And obviously if you saw any of the footage from E3, the combat is a great example - it's definitely the bloodiest and goriest combat BioWare has ever done.
Prima: Are you worried that might push the rating up?
Dan Tudge: We've actually been looking at every single territory and where their bar is and been very aware of what needs to be done. But that being said, we're not pulling any punches, we're not shying away from the maturity rating.
Prima: You mentioned the grey moral area there; one thing BioWare has done in preceding games is have quite a clear good and evil divide and rewards for getting to the top or bottom of each path. Is there a similar system in Dragon Age: Origins?
Dan Tudge: There is a system that we've built around that, which I can't really get into. But you mentioned the grey area and there are obviously some good choices and some evil choices: we saw at the E3 demo I chose to kill the prisoner and take his key when I could have chosen to help him. But a lot of the choices are really treading down that line of difficult choice with no right or wrong.
Prima: Going back to something like Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age: Origins seemingly a PC-exclusive: are we going to see a toolset?
Dan Tudge: We did mention that we were coming to console in the future...
Prima: Something we were going to ask you about. Can we have a straight answer, is Dragon Age: Origins itself (rather than an unspecified game in the series) coming to consoles?
Dan Tudge: Yes. Dragon Age: Origins will be coming to consoles in the near future, yes.
And with regards to the tool-set: obviously we're leading with PC and we believe Dragon Age: Origins is a really strong PC title and we really want to give the PC the love that it needs. Definitely we will be having a Dragon Age toolset that will be available to the community, to anyone who wishes to build their own adventures within the Dragon Age universe.
Prima: Do you see Dragon Age having the same sort of online community that Neverwinter Nights did?
Dan Tudge: Definitely we will have that community, but it's going to evolve as well. We believe, especially with the PC, that community is a huge part of what we're doing online in Dragon Age: Origins, and the Dragon Age universe as a whole. We've a lot of plans to not only bring the users into the community through the tool-set, but also through a lot of initiatives we're taking within online activity: downloadable content, both pre-release and post-release; free content, paid-for content; online achievements. There's going to be a lot of community and online involvement outside of just the tool-set. But the tool-set will obviously be a very big part as well.
Prima: Are all of those ways to battle the PC pirates?
Dan Tudge: It's really a decision to love the PC community. Obviously piracy is a really big concern for any PC developer and we're going to, obviously, protect our software. But our online initiatives are really about building that online community - supporting that Neverwinter Nights community and growing it.
Prima: Will Dragon Age: Origins have something like a Dungeon Master to lead online games?
Dan Tudge: No, we've actually gone in a bit of a different direction with that. The Dungeon Master experience was something that actually Neverwinter Nights was built on the back of. With our [Origins] tool-set we've really given the user the opportunity to create their own adventures within the universe, and adventures to share with their friends. It's a bit different, but other than that I can't really give you any details.
We're definitely going to be talking about the tool-set in the very near future.
Prima: You said that Origins was coming to consoles; we imagine you mean after the PC?
Dan Tudge: Yeah; later in the year as Greg [Zeschuk] mentioned in his press release.
Prima: So consoles in 2009?
Erik Einsiedel (BioWare PR): Well we haven't announced any details about that yet, so plans for consoles haven't been finalised yet.