Eurogamer: BioWare hasn't done a fantasy role-playing game since the original Neverwinter Nights. That's a very long time. What's it like being back?
Mike Laidlaw: Oh, it's awesome. Part of the running joke behind the title 'origin' [is its multiple meanings]. It's the origin story, as well as it being the start of an IP but it's also about us as a company going home. It's back to this big, epic sweeping fantasy. It's an IP we got to build ourselves, so we could say, "So, what are elves like? Let's mix that up a little." As much as it could feel like old ground, I don't think it does. It's a fresh take on a familiar space.
Eurogamer: Flipping that question around, how has the fantasy RPG changed since you last made one?
Mike Laidlaw: I think it's become more demanding in terms of the player's sense of the experience. I think Mass Effect would have had an influence here. Moving it away from the book and more towards the movie, having a more cinematic experience of dialogue, having a cool camera cuts and dynamic moments. That kind of thing. The approach we've taken is to say, "We're out of the Forgotten Realms. We're away from where we were. What could we do to make this intriguing to us?" And that's where the idea of the mature game, the dark fantasy comes in. Let's make this more compelling and challenging for people.
Eurogamer: The violence and lust from earlier, and entirely up front about it. The usual way critics describe trad-fantasy is twee. However... well, what would you say to someone who played Baldur's Gate and thought that, no, I quite liked this. I don't need it any more mature.
Mike Laidlaw: To my mind, what was very compelling about Baldur's Gate was that it was a fun cool tactical experience - how do I use these characters together? Which ones do I pick? It's all about the compelling choices. When do I drop the fireball. All those elements are still there. I'm not sure the level of maturity is the difference - but the depth, the experience itself. Does it all hang together on a single theme? Because I think our greatest failing could be it's just a standard oh-look-a-unicorn fantasy... also, this guy's head just popped off. For it to feel tacked on, and not part of the experience.
Making a decision early, deciding to make a mature game, to target an older audience, then knowing that all the way through... you play and it's like, "that's really challenging. I wasn't expecting that kind of motivation for these characters". That mixes up with, "I wasn't expecting to have that much sex". It goes into the same space. It works as one cohesive unit. It's kind of like having a blue period.
Eurogamer: BioWare does Picasso. It's interesting. If you look at fantasy fiction, you can easily draw a line between fantasy fiction where the lead gets laid all the time (say, Conan or Elric) and fantasy fiction where no-one gets laid ever (Tolkien).
Mike Laidlaw: The nice thing is that it's all player-driven, when you think about it. Is there sex in the game? Sure... it supports the concept. That's why I talk about lust. It's more about sexuality than just sex. Because otherwise that's childish. But it's really based on the player's experience. And some of your party really are quite cute and flirtatious. If you go I-am-not-interested-in-talking-to-you-I-have-a-dragon-to-kill, then that's cool. That's your game. But I want to make sure it reacts to that. That they react to that.
Eurogamer: And you've stepped away from the rigid mechanisation of morality?
Mike Laidlaw: We've de-mechanised morality. We've got away from the whole light-side/dark-side thing. Which works well in a really clearly defined situation like Star Wars, Knights of the Old Republic's mechanic. For Dragon Age, there isn't a morality slider at all. There's a deliberate choice not to do that.
Essentially, there's "is the problem solved?" and "how is it solved?" It's up to you whether you perceive how you solved it as good or bad. What we're trying to do is make sure every scenario where there's a choice is broken down in such a way that you can see both sides of an issue. That's when we're at our most successful. When we have villains that feel like people. When you go, "Oh - I see why he made that choice." Or you have situations where you know neither situation is really right, but neither is or really wrong. I'm going to have to resolve it one way or the other, and maybe have an extra long shower or two afterwards.
Mike Laidlaw is lead designer on Dragon Age: Origins, which is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in the second half of 2009.