The hype has fast been gathering around Dragon Age: Origins as quite frankly, it’s made by BioWare, who have a frequent habit of creating games that catch the attention of millions (not forgetting Fox News). While Mass Effect 2, the last effort from the doctor-run dev team was likely best described as a Space Opera, this time round it’s back to their roots as they create a bloody, epic and dark fantasy tale.
We grabbed a precious few minutes with BioWare co-founder Dr. Greg Zeschuk and asked him to shed some light on what the company’s been wiling away at.
Prima: Dragon Age: Origins is looking like a fairly grim game, and Mass Effect 2 is quite a bit darker than the first one - is everyone at BioWare feeling alright?
Dr Greg Zeschuk: Well, we've been with EA for a while. No, it's a funny thing. I think that why they are that way is interesting. Certainly, in the case of Dragon Age, it was to set it off thematically from the traditional perception of fantasy. People have been asking us, "Why have you been doing these more aggressive sex-and-violence trailers?" and a lot of it is to point out that fantasy isn't necessarily - I'm stealing this from a journalist in the US - it's not all "flutes, lutes and men in tights".
I think that was one of the things holding fantasy back. Obviously, Peter Jackson managed to break through that with the Lord of the Rings, and for us it's been that we've made a game that's very sophisticated, so it seems natural to follow that with very mature content. Also, it's typically our teams that really set the tone. Ray [Muzyka - co-founder] and I have very high-level goals, but the teams work on the moment-to-moment game, so the work they do is what translates into the experience that fans have most directly.
Prima: When you take a dramatically different take on fantasy, as you have with Dragon Age, is there a worry that audiences might not get their heads around it properly? How do you feel the response has been so far?
Dr Greg Zeschuk: I think it's going to all come out in the product itself. It's hard to say what people are thinking. Generally the feedback's been favorable and people seem to like the game, but the litmus test is how many people end up buying it. Then the key thing for us is if the whole world fits together nicely, if it's contextually appropriate, and all the activities are unified with what the world seems to be. It's a very hard game to demo and show. Back when we were pitching the good old Baldur's Gate stuff, you'd get people who would sit at a kiosk and literally play it for an hour, and you didn't have: "15 minutes! Go! Show us Dragon Age!"
Prima: You announced Dragon Age roughly seven years ago, and the team has apparently mapped out over 5,000 years of history for the game. Can you say a little bit about that process?
Dr Greg Zeschuk: That early announcement was about keeping people on focus that we're actually still working on PC, not just on console, because we'd done a few console things and we were like, "Hey, don't worry PC folk!" Typically at BioWare we've always got a couple of things going that aren't public, that's why we can be coy in interviews. Sometimes they see the light of day and sometimes they don't, so the reality is that Dragon Age was probably announced much earlier than we would normally announce it, because after that early prototype we went to a very intensive period of probably two years' pre-production, kind of conceptualizing the world and writing the history and all that stuff.
With RPGs you have to fill out the richness of the world before you can really create the game, because otherwise there's nothing to hang the story on: no context, no terminology. If there's no political system that's clear, then you can't really make politics part of the game. Someone making a driving game doesn't usually thing about that stuff, whereas we actually - whether it's being foolhardy - that's one of the things we really do focus on.
We love all those complicated elements. The team sits down and thinks of ideas and we work on it and document and document until the team finally has a source book. One of my favorite things I ever read at BioWare was this huge source book for Jade Empire. It was, like, 150 pages: very much like if you ever read any of the Dungeons and Dragons source books. That's basically what it was. Once that source book is compiled, typically it will have the culture, the politics and the history of the world, and if there's gods in the world, who they are, and all these things. And every team member has to read it when they join the team, so they familiarize themselves with the context. Where it's used is providing the richness, and I think the thing that really makes the world successful is the consistency.
For example, I was playing Dragon Age on the airplane, and so I'm having to find the ashes of this dead god in the game, and I'm there at this temple and priests have been chanting and one of my characters - this irreligious character - makes some snide comment about the god that is contextually appropriate, and it just ties together so well. If you didn't have that depth, it would be, "Go get this thing and bring it back." It's like the classic fetch quest from an MMO: get me five pelts. But if the pelts have an important meaning in the world and the creature who has them is mythical in nature and has special powers and they've been around for this long and they've played this part in the world, that makes it a lot more worthwhile to get those pelts.
Prima: It sounds like method game design.
Dr Greg Zeschuk: I think it is. It's more interesting that way, and I think that's why maybe we take a little longer than some developers and we do spend an awful lot of time in pre-production. It's because, once the writers are armed with that information, the world gets that much easier to build, the quests are that much richer, you don't see things as a deluxe FedEx quest. No, it's actually a really interesting quest to solve all the mysteries of the world.
Prima: Does graphics and animation technology influence this too? It seems that you can tell slightly more complex stories now: there's a mixture of humor and fear in Dragon Age, and all of these things which would have been harder to get across when you didn't have digital actors.
Dr Greg Zeschuk: Exactly. You start to see the story in their faces. I just did this one other quest where it was really neat: I kind of knew what the story was, but I'd kind of forgotten how it went. We prototype a lot of our games on the Neverwinter Nights engine, and I'd played this sequence on the Neverwinter Nights version but I couldn't remember who the good guys and the bad guys were in this particular scenario. Then, to be playing in the final engine with the lighting, digital acting and the recorded dialogue: it was awesome. I noticed this one guy was acting kind of shifty, kind of weird, and I wondered if he was the baddy, and lo and behold, a few twists later... It was amazing. It was subtleties in the digital acting which made me suspicious of his motivations. I compare that to the 16 pixels of Baldur's Gate: that was compelling at the time, but this is so much more compelling.
Prima: And is this kind of thing affecting how you approach story from the very beginning?
Dr Greg Zeschuk: Absolutely. There's a very specific thing when Casey [Hudson, executive producer on Mass Effect 2] was talking about Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. He was chatting about this very concept - using facial expression instead of lines - and he said that when we started writing Mass Effect we had yet to actually finish the conversation system, and really we didn't reach the pinnacle of digital acting until the very end of the Mass Effect cycle, so you couldn't go back and go, "Oh, we don't have to say I'm really angry, we can just make this guy look angry!" But it was too late. So now we're able to use that: you can convincingly make a character look happy and, you know, the big gross emotions. But I was actually really impressed with this suspicious guy from earlier, I was like, "Wow, that's pretty subtle." In Baldur's Gate, you'd have a bracket saying "So-and-so looks around suspiciously," and now you're actually paying attention and thinking, "That guy's acting weird". That's a real improvement.
Prima: Not if I'm playing it and I've got Asperger's, though. I'd have no idea why someone had just double-crossed me.
Dr Greg Zeschuk: "He just screwed me! What's going on?" Well, we could have special subtitles for Asperger's players.