BioWare’s Mike Laidlaw on Dragon Age: Inquisition

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At PAX Australia, Stevivor’s Steve Wright was lucky enough to sit down with fellow Canadian and Creative Director at BioWare, Mike Laidlaw.

Together, the pair discussed the game’s new Frostbite engine, character customisation, crafting and more. We drop you in mid-discussion:

Mike Laidlaw, BioWare: There’s a lot of staff [at BioWare] from [Steve’s hometown of] Saskatoon. Our lead UI guy – or, no? Is he in Winnipeg?

Steve Wright, Stevivor: We’ll take him cause he’s close enough, like [NHL legend] Gordie Howe. Anyway, on topic: Dragon Age goes open world in this new iteration – what are the ramifications for this series as a result?

Laidlaw: It’s huge. We wanted to go back to something that we did even in the Baldur’s Gates; I remember in BG 1, you walked to the right side of the screen, and you loaded on the left side. And that was cool! Sometimes there was an ogre there, sometimes there was a temple or a dragon; you didn’t know what was there – and it created a sense of wonder.

Now we have an engine that natively did maps that have people running around underneath jet fights; that means we can build big spaces. Technically, we couldn’t before. So now, we can build something that allows for a crested hill and a temple just over that; it’s something that allows for real, raw discovery.

The challenge has been how to keep it all narratively focused. That’s, in large part, why the Inquisition is central to the game; you’re out there, spreading the good word of this new, fledgling organisation. And with all these things you’re doing, people are noticing or you’re pushing back your enemy; that all builds your rep in a way. That gives you a cool freedom to build that rep however you want. You end up not having to play the whole game to win, but you can if you want to and that’s cool.

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Stevivor: Is this really the type of game that BioWare wanted to make with the first go-around, but perhaps was limited to making due to technology of the time?

Laidlaw: It really is. The combat system is a harmonisation of the best parts Dragon Age 1 and 2. It has the responsiveness of 2 but the tactical feel of 1. It stays true to what I think is central to the franchise: character. You have complete control of customisation. Race choice is back. Everything works really well together.

It’s been challenging, but it’s paid off. You have to iterate and change and we’ve got a really strong foundation for the future.

Stevivor: Have you learned any lessons from past games in the franchise and applied them to Inquisition?

Laidlaw: Oh, yeah. It’s better to not offer a choice than to trivialise it. Don’t dangle something in front of a player and then have it not matter in the end.

One big thing we went through – both in art style and design philosophy – is that you need to understand why your fans are buying this particular game, and celebrate those differences. We’re not a stealth shooter. No one buys Dragon Age to play a stealth shooter, but you do buy it for party, epic story, tough choices and tactical combat. We’ve put all those together and extended them.

If parties are our thing, multiplayer is a very easy jump; now, four of you become the party.

Stevivor: Has the Frostbite engine been a challenge to work with? I understand its power, but I’d assume that BioWare will want a lot out of it that’s quite different than what DICE might have in mind.

Laidlaw: Not challenging in the sense that Frostbite itself is challenging, but more in the fact that we have to build systems to do what we want to do. Frostbite really wasn’t designed for all of the dialogue that we want to pump through it. Our team has tooled up full toolsets and pipelines; we’ve done this before. Our goal was to figure out what we’re changing and what we’re not.

Our main challenge was that our processes needed to be reset; our combat guys used to be able to go and do something straight away, but they didn’t have anything to work with originally. They had no encounter to build, and no combat system; that created a lot of wheel spinning, so we had to be patient and fight to keep morale up. We were saying, ‘trust me, this is going to work in like, three months, man’.

It was immensely rewarding to make it good. We’ve got a ton of veterans and new guys as well; people coming in from racing games bringing in stuff we’d never considered before that proved to be absolutely invaluable.

Stevivor: How many of those from Saskatoon? One hundred percent?

Laidlaw: *laughs* Not that much. The Saskatonians are more of our old-school BioWare. We started in Alberta, so we tended to draw in Canada’s Prairies first.

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Stevivor: PAX – and PAX AUS especially – is about diversity. Without going into #gamergate, BioWare has always been a strong supporter of minorities – homosexuals, women and more. Would you like to speak about how Dragon Age continues in that tradition?

Laidlaw: I think, for us, a lot of it comes back to the narrative. We’re trying to tell stories that are broadly appealing and kind of universal. We want them to resonate with more than just your typical gamer.

We simply want to recognise that if you want to be a black character, be in a straight romance or a gay romance – whatever you want to do — it’s all good. We start with the notion that characters are people first. Characters aren’t just purely gay; they’ll have opinions and political notions. Characters who only have one job to do in a story feel flat and meaningless; people won’t connect with them. I always want people to be engaged with characters and respond either in a positive or negative way.

We’re not perfect with it, but we try, and we always listen to our fans and our conscience.

Stevivor: If you get feedback about characters – Dorian, the gay mage as an example – do you even retool them? How do you manage that feedback?

Laidlaw: They’re done by the time they get announced. We don’t build characters to ‘that’ spec. Dorian specifically is homosexual, and a guy, but he’s also got strong views on blood magic. He’s got some conflict with his dad. He’s also really good with fireballs. He’s more than just gay.

With feedback, if something is fundamentally wrong, or representation is poor, we’re going to take that feedback and head to our writing teams and other teams and say this is where we need to go grow.

Stevivor: Has it been difficult to work with the narrative in an open world game that allows such diversity in characters?

Laidlaw: It’s immensely hard, but less so when you keep your theme in mind. Our game has themes of leadership and discovery, and to some extent, faith. All those things come together. Leadership comes back to the Inquisition, which is a beautiful wrapper that makes things relevant.

If you’re doing something, something interesting has to happen to blow your mind. Our designs had to be purposeful; otherwise, things would feel pointless. You spread the Inquisition’s influence by discovering landmarks… it’s like the newest XCOM reboot. Everything you do was to fight the aliens. Everything was purposeful. That’s what we’ve aimed to do.

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Stevivor: What about Dragon Age have we missed, or that you really just want to talk about the put the spotlight on?

Laidlaw: I think I’ll share one of the things that I’m most proud of with the game. It works for all players. We fundamentally set out to make a crafting system that hit a specific goal. Previously, our crafting was all about alchemy; you couldn’t make your own weapons.

With this game, I wanted to make it so that I could wear any armour in the game – if I thought it was cool enough – from the start of the game straight to the finish. You can customise your look and you can experiment. You can min/max stats, you can use different combinations of materials; gamers who love their numbers and gamers who love their looks can all find something in this system.

It’s complicated, but it flows. I’ve had multiple people who say they never craft come up to me ‘cause they want to talk about the fire axe they’ve made. You can craft your weapon and even give it a silly name if you want. Fans who dig in to it will find it very powerful and very personable.

Stevivor: Mike, thanks so much for your time, and enjoy Australia!

Laidlaw: Thanks! I plan to.

Expect our preview of Dragon Age: Inquisition from PAX AUS soon. We’ve previously previewed the game at E3.