No more hype: Dragon Age II has landed and the reviews are in. "An enduring classic?" asked Eurogamer's Dragon Age II reviewer Dan Whitehead. "Not quite." He might as well have said, "An enduring classic like Mass Effect 2?" It's BioWare's own fault; if Mass Effect 2 hadn't been such a thunderous realisation of what Mass Effect started, perhaps we wouldn't have expected the same from Dragon Age II. And then there are the people miffed because they really liked Dragon Age: Origins and why did BioWare have to go and change it? I want Baldur's Gate II, stamp stamp.
A tricky position for Dragon Age II lead designer Mike Laidlaw to be in. So, what does he think? Is the criticism fair? The post-mortem interview is here.
Eurogamer: What's the mood like out there?
Mike Laidlaw: We're just very happy to see it out. What we're seeing is something not really a surprise to us: we're seeing a bit of polarisation. It's not radical, it's not like people are bursting into open warfare about things, thank god. We knew going into Dragon Age II we were making some changes. I wouldn't necessarily say changes to make it more accessible, but to make it present itself in a different way. We knew it carried some elements of risk. Some people are reacting to that, and it's fine - it's actually good. I'd much rather make a game that challenges people and doesn't just rest on its laurels.
Eurogamer: Are you happy with the reviews of Dragon Age II?
Mike Laidlaw: I am. What we're seeing is a pretty wide range; I've seen perfects, I've seen less than perfects. There are some things I think that are certainly fair criticisms: the re-use of the levels is something we knew was a bit of a risk, but we wanted to make sure there was more content rather than less, so re-using some of the spaces and coming to them again was certainly one we were careful about and tried to re-use as artfully as we could. When we look at reviews and certain concerns that gives us really good, solid feedback to work from in the future. When I see reviews that comment on the way the story is told or interactions with the followers, those are very, very positive, and I'm extremely gratified.
"... honestly our goal as a studio is to try and aim more for 90 per cent ..."
Eurogamer: I've seen scores as low as a 6/10 - what do you think when you read those?
Mike Laidlaw: Well it's hard to know exactly what's going on with scores that are really, really negative. One possible culprit could just be a change backlash, i.e. this isn't Origins and I wanted Origins 2. There may be some degree of what I would honestly say is emotional investment in the Origins story, or in the way Origins was presented which is leading to a stronger than average reaction of disappointment. That's understandable, and if anything that really is a compliment to the work on Origins. I'm not sure it's an entirely fair assessment to say all games must be like the previous game. I think we would have seen just as much negativity if we just, as I used to joke, stapled two Archdemons together and called it a super blight. It boils down to a game that challenges a fair amount of convention: it doesn't tell the usual fantasy story or present the usual fantasy combat, and in doing so it does run the risk of someone going, "Wow, this is just too different and I cannot handle it."
Eurogamer: Is Dragon Age II better on PC?
Mike Laidlaw: I wouldn't say so. We actually did extensive work to make sure the experiences were much closer aligned. I would say the gulf between the two was quite significant in Origins, simply because the consoles were tackled second as opposed to concurrently with the PC. There's some amazing visual work on PC - a high quality texture pack and DirectX 11 - and one that nicely scales to the PC's stronger hardware. In terms of the way it controls and the way it plays: the game's are quite identical, it's just that the interface is different.
The console experience doesn't fight itself as much as it did in Origins. The targeting is smoother than Origins was by miles. The console versions now have options like being able to pause and say, "Move to Point", so you can position your archers. There's a greater degree of parity between the two. Our goal was that it was always going to be personal preferences; you were going to get a great experience on whichever platform you chose to play.
There's this strange perception that because the combat is faster - characters leaping into place or charging forward - it's an inherently console thing. We designed that because we thought that the ability to whirl around and snap off a fireball at a guy who's charging you, rather than shuffling in and launching it usually a couple of feet behind him, created a much stronger sense of responsiveness. To me that benefits the PC players and the console players.
Eurogamer: What do you say when people accuse Dragon Age II of being a console game?
Mike Laidlaw: There may be some element of... I guess it's fear that if the PC has certain capabilities and they're not being used 100 per cent of the way then the game must have inherently had things removed because of that. I can understand that. I paid a fair amount of money for my gaming rig and I love to be able to crank it up and push it up. But the simple truth is that PC gaming has never been a platform of a single hardware spec. You've always had to support both lower-end and higher-end PCs. You don't want to design a game that cuts out everyone except the guy who bought his computer this month.
Origins had this legacy of being designed for PC. That was an early and strong opening message when it was first announced in yesteryear, back when we were working on Jade Empire, which was for console. There's definitely a sense that if you didn't design it for PC only then there's some sense of abandonment. Our goal was always to design a good game and move some sliders, as it were, in terms of how fantasy RPGS are typically presented, both from a story and combat standpoint. Doing that is not really a platform-specific choice.
Eurogamer: Did Mass Effect influence the evolution of Dragon Age?
Mike Laidlaw: Having technology in proximity for the conversation system certainly had an influence on Dragon Age. We decided for Dragon Age II that we wanted a voice for the player fairly early on and so there was an obvious... Well, what would be the best system we have - readily accessible, easily transported, writers who are familiar with it? And all of that made that a very simple thing.
In terms of other elements of Mass Effect influencing it: I wouldn't say so. They're very, very different beasts - a cover-based shooter set in space is going to be very different than a 'fantasy control four players at once with a heavier tactical bent' kind of game. We certainly looked at the work Mass did and all of us played it several times, but I wouldn't say it had a direct influence other than the way we're doing the writing and player voice-over.
Eurogamer: The Metacritic score for Dragon Age II (at the time of writing) is 82 per cent. Is that in-line with expectations?
Mike Laidlaw: It's a little bit lower than we were expecting. We knew going in that this may not sit around the same spot as Origins on all platforms (86 for the 360). There's been, I would say, more strongly negative reviews appearing on Metacritic than I expected. I'm a little surprised by the 6/10s and they have a fair amount of weight early on. If the Metacritic isn't where we want it to be, and honestly our goal as a studio is to try and aim more for 90, then our next step will be to, very easily, go through those reviews, go through fan feedback, especially over some time - as opposed to the day-one initial response - and look at that in a measured way and say, what didn't work, what did work, where did we go too far, where did we not go far enough, where was there just an inherent dissonance, and try to refine the experience and try to move forward for any future products.
Honestly, it's always a learning process. Dragon Age II comes out of some things we'd identified for Origins and anything we do in the future is going to come out of this response to Dragon Age II.
Eurogamer: One stronger criticism levelled at Dragon Age II was that it was designed by committee; it tried too hard to appeal too far and wide, and in doing so it lost a sense of self. What do you say to that?
Mike Laidlaw: Dragon Age II was designed by just the senior, core team. Honestly I don't feel it's a game that's been designed to appeal far and wide and so on. If it were, there were choices we could have made that would have taken it much, much further. We would have probably simplified down to a single character, maybe with companions; probably looked at doing some even deeper changes to inventory management, making sure that... You wouldn't want to confuse people with enchanting or anything complex like that. Really what we wanted to do with the game, just talking about first-principles, was to look at elements of Origins that were over complex and needlessly so and see if we could pull those out in a clean way and didn't take out what I always saw as core elements of the experience: strong, character-driven stories, and the idea that the combat should be a party working together, especially at higher difficulty levels.
Dragon Age II certainly made some changes but holds very true to what us as a team sees as core tenets of the series. There's certainly refinement to do, there's learnings to be had, but I don't think it loses as much of the personality as it certainly could have.
Eurogamer: Mass Effect 2 was a tour de force and, to an extent, Dragon Age II has been cast in its shadow. Why do people consider Mass Effect 2 a better game?
Mike Laidlaw: If I were going to point at something and say 'well this is the shadow', it's really the shadow of Origins. And with Origins it was the shadow of Baldur's Gate II. Back in the day we certainly drew that comparison ourselves. There's nothing wrong with that: you should absolutely be compared to other projects within the same series for sure. But the expectations that Origins created were of a more traditional, classic style of fantasy story and a different pace in the combat, even though I think the fundamentals are still the same.
Eurogamer: Should people let go of the idea that Dragon Age is a reincarnation of Baldur's Gate?
Mike Laidlaw: I would say get rid of the idea it will be a re-hash. Getting rid of Baldur's Gate is a terrible idea, it created some really fundamental elements of what we've done with Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. It's never going to be the same game every time out. We see Dragon Age as a story about a place and a time, not just a singular story that continues through games.
Eurogamer: Imported saves don't appear to do much in Dragon Age 2. Will they be beefed up for Dragon Age 3?
Mike Laidlaw: Well the intent was to make sure it was used in a way that makes sense for the story we're telling. We had access to virtually every possible state or piece of data that came out of Origins, but what we realised over time was there were elements that we were including that felt honestly shoehorned in. It was the obligatory cameo and so on that didn't make a lot of sense. The big thing we wanted to achieve with that import was that there was a degree of homage paid, that the world still had the appropriate information regarding who is the king of Ferelden, who is in charge or Orzammar and so on. But in order to create earth-shattering new story-arcs or huge, huge changes to the game from the import really does run the risk of alienating people who didn't play the first game and were maybe turned off by it.
I've certainly seen a fair amount of feedback that says, "I couldn't play Origins, I thought it was too slow, the story was too plodding, too typical, and Dragon Age II is awesome by comparison!" For those people we don't want to create this swathe of content that is closed off and exclusive. We really honestly were driven by what felt right for this story; would Hawke know whether or not the Warden had worked with the Mage collective in Origins? Well, I mean, we probably could have made that work but it would have felt extremely artificial. In the long-term, the information that's included in the end of Dragon Age II does include information from Origins, including stuff that was only referenced very lightly - it's still encapsulated and carries forward into the Dragon Age II save.
Mike Laidlaw is lead designer of Dragon Age II.