**Editor Warning: There are some Dragon Age: Inquisition plot spoilers below.**
The Dragon Age series has had somewhat of an inconsistent past. The original Dragon Age: Origins began development around 2002 and was constructed as a sort of spiritual successor to BioWare’s well regarded Baldur’s Gate series. It was loved for its RPG mechanics, world building, story and characters and went on to establish the Dragon Age IP as a staple BioWare series. Its sequel, Dragon Age II, was more of a mixed bag. It was overall praised for its characters and tighter story focus, but changes in combat mechanics, less customization and repetitive environments ultimately hurt its appeal.
By contrast, BioWare took a lot of the feedback into account when developing the third game in the franchise which won a large majority of 2014’s Game of the Year awards. Dragon Age: Inquisition went on to fix a number of complaints from the second game by creating a sprawling pseudo open-world game filled with wildly varying environmental design, a return to a more strategic focus in combat, and deeper customization . While much of this was certainly a most welcome return to form, not all was perfect in execution.
Now, understand that I never really enjoy comparing games to one another. There’s always different circumstances surrounding each game’s development and not all games are created equal. Similarly, game designers have different goals in mind when creating their games. However, consumers are consumers and whether it’s fair or not, comparisons will inevitably be made. When games release and set new bars, subsequent games must meet or exceed those expectations in order to stay relevant. Let me just say that Dragon Age: Inquisition was my personal game of the year in 2014. Since then, a number of enthralling games including The Witcher III and Horizon: Zero Dawn have hit the market, setting new bars and new expectations for a AAA RPG. Those games are seen by a very large number of people as having exceeded Dragon Age in terms of the quality role playing experience they provide. It would be difficult to nail down a single reason, but it’s due to a variety of factors.
There are crucial areas that speak to an audience in the current games climate. I’m certain the talented team at BioWare Edmonton know this, but in order to come out of the gates swinging and be a standout success, the next Dragon Age must evolve in terms of design, presentation, marketing and more.
So what’s the first thing that completely immerses you when you start playing an RPG? It’s certainly not the menus. It’s the world itself. The way the world functions, the way it’s inhabited by NPCs, the way the environment and structures are designed in order to make that world feel like a living, breathing reality. Believability in a world goes a very long way in making me as a player feel like I’m not just a 3D object trudging through a game space. RPGs, and specifically Western RPGs have evolved to move past what we like to call a “sandbox” design.
Sandbox design is literally just that: a play space built to function like a sandbox. You have a set amount of space on a map that can be peppered with locations of interest to the player. When you take a step back and analyze it, that type of design feels a little archaic doesn’t it? It feels “gamey”, and the reason it feels that way is because it doesn’t feel natural. Dragon Age: Inquisition is broken up into a number of map “zones” that each come with their own set of enemies, fauna, structures, weather and more. The intention here is clear: craft areas that feel unique and varied, an obvious area to improve upon from the repeating environmental design of Dragon Age II.
While I admittedly enjoyed most of my time perusing these zones, there was always a feeling in the back of my mind that took a sliver of me out of the experience. Rather than believing I was exploring a realistic world, I felt as though I was moving from one point of interest to the next in a square map. Hidden collectibles were unraveled and dotted across the land as if to ensure the player visits every corner. Wildlife and NPCs unnaturally stayed in specific spots, weather in each zone remained static and there was ultimately no dynamism to make these areas feel alive. Again, I still liked running around these areas and seeing what was lying around, but I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t also admit that they felt like playgrounds for me to roll around in and move on from.
In order for the next Dragon Age to overcome this, BioWare needs to craft a world that completely sucks me in. The world of Thedas is vast with so many different cultures, races and homelands. It needs to reflect this properly. While playing The Witcher III, I never feel as if I’m exploring a typical game world. Forests, mountains, hills, swamps, seasides, rivers, roads and towns all flow in and out of one another with proper geographic insight. Each town feels like its own. Each patch of forest feels natural. Every farm designed with complexity. Every culture unique.
While there are monsters that only inhabit certain sections of that huge open world, there are others that roam the lands like deer and other animals. NPCs at least appear to go about their daily lives. I feel the next game must embrace a proper open world structure to convey the size, scale and sense of detail the lore requires. That might come off as blasphemous, so if not a true open world, then some form of design structure which allows as few instances as possible that take me as a player out of the game. Rather than creating 10 different zones, craft a singular map that spans a vast area. Implement systemic events taking place across this map and develop a real dynamic weather system. Instead of one weather pattern per zone, a real-time weather system creates a feeling of believability and progression in a player’s mind.
Instead of picking a zone from a menu and transporting yourself there, imagine trotting along vast, open Tevinter plains on your steed, cresting a hilltop and seeing a small village in the far distance straddling the shoreline. A long draw distance accentuates the feeling of a large inhabited world. Along the way you encounter a herd of wild camels and then a pair of vandals who just happened to randomly appear from a forest’s edge. You dispatch them. Continuing onward, you then see a trader riding his mule on his way to another town, pulling his cart behind him. You have the option to stop this man and perhaps barter, but you want to keep going. Closing in on the village, you see the sun starting to set and notice rain clouds begin to dynamically form above you. You dismount your horse and enter the village, watching NPCs that were going about their daily routine start to take shelter as the rain begins to pelt the ground. The skies change as the wind picks up and you decide to enter the village tavern.
That type of open world experience stirs something inside of me. It stirs a feeling of realism because life in reality is dynamic. Modern consumers have wholly embraced this type of world structure and Dragon Age must keep up, regardless of what it has been in the past. It’s time to embrace more natural, realistic systems as seen in The Witcher, Horizon: Zero Dawn and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
One other important bit here? Music. The music could almost be described as “sparse” in Inquisition. I’m talking about the zones, not cutscenes or action sequences. My ears would perk and a smile come across my face every time a small chunk of that great soundtrack began to play while exploring. Then it would stop not long after. Music enriches an open world experience more than people realize. It establishes a sense of place in that world and creates an aura to certain locales. My emotions as a player varied wildly from happiness, sadness, dread, wonder and mystery in The Witcher III due in large part to the music. That was sorely missing in Inquisition and that needs to be looked at.
All of this feeds into my next point; good pacing and more organic quest design. One of the most common complaints about Dragon Age: Inquisition was its pacing. There was a running joke in some online spaces to leave the Hinterlands (the game’s opening area) whenever you’re given the first chance. This was because many players weren’t aware they should leave and explore other zones instead of spending 20 hours clearing checkpoints and quest markers. This created a feeling of poor pacing and plot development and left a sour taste in the mouths of many.
It was understandable. I’m guilty myself of spending copious hours in the Hinterlands running from one map marker to the next. I eventually figured out that I should leave and come back later but my mind couldn’t help but feel compelled to stay in that square box and check off everything. It may be my own fault but it’s a tendency that a large number of people have. This needs to be rectified in the next game by creating a plot line that organically takes you across the Tevinter Imperium and Thedas in general with proper direction. There were some points where I genuinely didn’t know what to do next and that’s something you never want a player to feel.
Weaving into that is side quest design. Now, this is one area where I mostly agree with Dragon Age: Inquisition’s criticisms. A large majority of the game’s side quests boiled down to MMO-like activities which often times provided little payoff or reward, both tangible or in terms of narrative. I’d go as far as to say that this should be one of the biggest focuses of the next game.
It’s true that this type of side quest design feels like busy work or “fluff”. They need to feel well rooted in the world. As the leader of the Inquisition, it doesn’t make sense for the Inquisitor to take up a random peasant’s request to drop some flowers on his relative’s grave. To add to that, there’s no narrative reward. You pick up the quest, find the plant, go to the location to drop it off and then fight off a demon. There’s no context, no elaboration of the situation, no discussions with the NPC.
At the same token, as the leader of the Inquisition it was reasonable for the Inquisitor to gather ram furs for his or her troops in the field. I can see that. However, this example of a side quest left much to be desired. Imagine that instead of simply killing 10 rams and bringing them back to the soldier, a more organic scenario could arise. Arriving at the location where a herd of ram congregate, you notice broken arrows strewn across the field. Blood spots dot the area and you need to investigate what happened. After following a number of clues, you encounter a number of families surviving out in the wilderness during a harsh time of war. It turns out that they’ve killed the rams to provide clothing and food for themselves and their children. Without them, they’d likely die from cold temperatures and starvation. An emotional dialogue ensues and you’re given the choice of allowing the helpless families keep the furs at the expense of your soldiers, or, forcefully taking them for your army to operate at their best, abandoning innocents to their doom.
That’s just one example but it’s the type of quality players now expect from a AAA developer crafting an RPG. Non-linear choices are something unique to video games and that needs to a focal point. Side quests must have in depth narrative payoffs. Building on that, the zoomed out dialogue camera of Inquisition needs to be done away with. I understand the vision behind its implementation but once again, regardless of the game’s size, I expect up close conversations akin to The Witcher III and Horizon Zero Dawn. Those instances allow me to see small nuances in my character’s emotions, inflections in their eyes and changes in their demeanor. While a large number of conversations in Inquisition did incorporate that close cinematic camera, many did not. It’s just another aspect of immersion that was somewhat lost in Inquisition. I fully understand that it takes a heavy amount of work but that’s where the bar is set now.
Visual presentation is one of the key factors that establishes an RPG’s quality. Not to beat a dead horse, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is most certainly a hard lesson learned for BioWare. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I enjoyed Mass Effect: Andromeda. Despite all its hiccups, I had a great time with the core story beats, loyalty missions and conversations with my team. I can not deny that even though the game looked beautiful much of the time, there were a number of areas that made it feel rough around the edges.
Graphical glitches, disappearing NPCs and questionable facial animations for a number of characters were just a few of those sore spots. We may never know the details of what transpired internally but looking forward, those mistakes can not be repeated. There has to be a sense of perfection in reaching a high visual bar artistically, technically and in terms of animation. It’s the reality of our current industry and something consumers have a right to expect from a prestigious studio like BioWare.
I’ll get to areas like combat in a moment, but there’s a specific thing I want to commend the Edmonton team on and that is the desire to create a complicated antagonist. I was pleasantly surprised at the direction they took with Solas or the “Dread Wolf”. I enjoyed the core story elements of Inquisition but I agree with many that Corypheus was somewhat of a lame duck when it came to complexity. He was a typical power hungry villain ultimately bent on world domination.
It’s revealed at the game’s end that the real force pulling the strings is none other than Solas, or rather, Fen’Harel in Solas’ body. This creates an intricacy that’s no longer a simple good vs evil plot line. Fen’Harel wishes to restore the once unmatched position of his Elven kin to their former glory. Without going too in depth, the world of man will not survive the ordeal. Instead of transforming into the typical villain archetype, Fen’Harel deeply regrets it. He admires the determination of man, dwarves and qunari alike but the destruction of his people was partly his fault. The Trespasser DLC did a fantastic job in establishing his motives and what’s at stake for the future of Thedas. I grew to at least empathize with his feelings while at the same time become determined to find another way for a solution. You can see this type of characterization in the likes of another one of my favorite BioWare villains, Saren. He too felt that succumbing to a vastly more powerful enemy force as subordinates was preferable to all out extinction. It’s an understandable position to be in right? BioWare needs to hone in on this aspect of Fen’Harel’s character to avoid generic scenarios.
Most experienced players think of characters when they hear “BioWare game”. I firmly believe that characters and the interactions and relationships that sprout from those characters are the studio’s forte. It’s definitely one of my favorite aspects of their games and the Dragon Age series is no exception to this. A continuous improvement to writing quality and relationship dynamics has to happen to feel like an evolution from previous games.
BioWare games typically follow a similar formula to one another. You gather a group of squad members within the first couple hours, move through story missions that unlock a few more dialogue sequences through to the middle of the game, pick the romance options from dialogue wheels and move on to an end that results a climactic final love scene.
I’ve enjoyed this formula since the Knights of the Old Republic days but games have moved past that. Relationships with crew mates need to be integrated organically in the next Dragon Age. Create gray moments that allow us to make mistakes without making things obvious. I’d love nothing more than to see instances of my romantic interest randomly expressing worry in the middle of a mission or share intimate moments that aren’t predictable from a mile away.
I’m not only describing romance here. There are seldom many moments in BioWare games where anger, misunderstandings or death causes a loss of a team mate. Obviously the nature of a game’s story determines the outcomes of its characters, but loss leads to a whole slew of emotions running wildly in my head. There are all kinds of possibilities and ramifications that could follow and all of this leads to interesting story scenarios and characterization of my both my team and my created protagonist. I want to see a lot more risk in character building and storytelling.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about character building, or rather, character creation. BioWare games are almost special in that they’re one of the few major AAA RPGs left that allow the creation of your character instead of a story based preset protagonist. This allows for unique experiences for different players but presents a challenge in crafting a structured story line like The Witcher or Horizon. That’s for another day. I’m talking about the actual character creator. The system in general has grown a great deal since its early days.
There needs to be an overhaul in every way. There’s no simpler way to say this: give me more facial presets, more eye options, more nose options, more hair options and more customization. Mass Effect: Andromeda was a regression from Dragon Age: Inquisition and that shouldn’t be the case. I’d even suggest a feature that allows me to view my finalized character in a room or other environment with the ability to change lighting in order to make sure I’m happy with the results. I understand that accounting for so many variables is difficult but it once again boils down to meeting player expectations.
After all, our guys and gals have to look good when they’re out in the field destroying baddies. This is an extremely difficult subject for me to tackle because I see both sides. To say that combat in the Dragon Age series has fluctuated is an understatement. The team has worked tirelessly to establish an identity for how combat needs to function. Let me say that I’ve been a fan of BioWare’s games since Baldur’s Gate. I understand the love for CRPG design. I also understand the attractiveness of a more action oriented angle.
I think combat needs to evolve to a more real-time approach to appeal to the action RPG crowd, which, we have to understand, is the most influential RPG segment on consoles (and PC to an extent). I know, I know, Dragon Age has always been about strategic pause and play mechanics and I think that doesn’t necessarily need to be discarded. I think the ability to pause to issue squad commands can still be kept while at the same time developing combat into a more immediate form of attack.I’m envisioning a system where my team and I approach an enemy camp, pause to issue preliminary party commands while I charge in a more direct way. I could be swinging my sword in a Dragon’s Dogma/Witcher fashion or stringing and shooting my bow as Aloy in Horizon. I would still have access to specific powers and magic that the warrior, rogue and mage classes are known for but implementing that type of immediate, tactile feedback is a clear evolution of the mechanics. Holding down the right trigger for minutes on end to wack away at an enemy has become borderline tedious. Let’s be honest, BioWare will never go back to a fully strategy driven system. It just won’t sell as much in today’s climate, at least on consoles. You can’t keep straddling the line and trying to incorporate ways that attempts to please both audiences.
Combat encounters against dragons in particular need some attention. You can’t have a “Dragon” Age game without dragons. As the apex predators in the world of Thedas, dragons represent the ultimate challenge for the player. They possess an incredible amount of health, deal devastating attacks and have strengths and weaknesses unique to each.
Dragons in Inquisition felt like mere battle arenas. I enjoyed fighting them. I enjoyed coming across a dragon’s lair, hearing their ferocious roar and tackling each one in different ways. I also think more can be done. Perhaps more dynamic battles can be implemented given through the more real-time approach I touched upon above. With an open world in mind, imagine exploring the side of a Tevinter mountaintop with your crew. You see wild goats munching on plant life, hear the songs of birds echoing all around you as the scorching sun pierces your vision. You come into an outcrop and see a cave ahead of you. Without even knowing what lies ahead, you venture forth to see what you can find. The light change affects your eyesight as you hear the low grumble of some creature inside. With the camera moving into an over-the-shoulder angle for a more cinematic feel, two bright eyes light up in the dark distance.
A high dragon stands on its feet, this time speaking words in a deep, reptile-esque voice: “You dare enter my lair“. You quickly back outside preparing for a major battle. There’s history surrounding this dragon. There’s a story that unfolds over a series of events. The battle is more dynamic that previous games. A proper roll system can help ground the combat. An ability to jump on the beast and climb for unique, devastating attacks adds a sense of risk and reward. As a rogue or mage, I can aim for any section on the dragon’s body in real-time for specific effects. These sorts of systems are a massive improvement over holding down a singular button for up to an hour.
My point is that these creatures provide opportunities for more than simple arenas. They can expand the lore, create wildly unique scenarios and even dialogue options.
In the end, much of these ideas would be wasted without maximizing the effects of my last point: marketing. Marketing for BioWare’s latest release, Mass Effect: Andromeda was a little poor to put it lightly. First impressions are everything. Take a look at the first trailers for The Witcher III and Horizon: Zero Dawn. While the former had a whole controversy surrounding “downgrades”, the reactions and reception are the key. These trailers cemented both games in the minds of players as something to keep an eye on. They immediately established each one’s premise. They came out saying ‘This is what our game is about. This is the game’.
I’m of the opinion that a 1 minute reveal teaser a year or two out from release is more detrimental and not the other way around. No one wants to see a tiny snippet only to have to wait a prolonged period for the next advertisement. If necessary, wait until 6 months from release and drop a 6 to 8 minute monumental gameplay trailer/onstage demo just as Horizon or God of War did. This generates certainty both from the team and especially from consumers. Be up front and transparent. Show in-game quests through to completion. Show changes to the dialogue wheel. Show all the fresh character creation options. Show everything you can to instill a sense of confidence from would be players in your game. The solution is really quite simple: players want to see the game. This 35 minute gameplay demo of The Witcher III immediately sold the public on the game. Do not wait until the last minute to talk about basic systems.
The team at Edmonton have a tough road ahead. Since the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, AAA RPGs have jumped forward in terms of storytelling, customization and visual presentation. In order to meet these industry standards head on, the next game needs to acknowledge these changes in the wind and work harder than they’ve ever had to. The most important thing they can do is to take their time. In the meantime, I look forward to the franchise’s future and hope it turns out to be everything I hope it can be.
P.S.: Make scout Harding a squadmate! ❤