Dragon Age: Inquisition Update

From Mark Darrah, Executive Producer of Dragon Age: Inquisition

As you may have heard, we’re holding back the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition until November 18, 2014. We appreciate the enormous support we’ve received from all of you to get to this point, and while this extra few weeks may not seem like a lot, I know the game you’ll play will be all the better for it.

Since we began working on Dragon Age: Inquisition almost four years ago, our goal was to create the best Dragon Age experience ever. It was that goal that motivated many of our decisions: moving to Frostbite, bringing race choice and customization back, improving tactical camera, building a team of characters whose relationships evolve based on your actions, and most importantly, crafting an epic, nation-spanning story that both draws upon past games and takes you to many new places in the realm of Thedas.

I’m privileged to be a part of a team that has been working very hard to surpass every measure they’ve set for themselves. That has meant completing huge amounts of game content, fixing bugs both big and small, and improving the overall experience. This last bit of time is about polishing the experience we want you to see. Ensuring that our open spaces are as engaging as possible. Strengthening the emotional impact of the Hero’s choices. And ensuring the experience you get is the best it can be in the platform you choose to play on.

Thank you again for your patience and support!

Mark

Mark Darrah: An Update on Dragon Age: Inquisition

The Xbox One and PS4 are out, and the dust is starting to settle at the start of a new console cycle. As a result, now is a good time for us to start talking to you, our fans, more about where Dragon Age: Inquisition is at.

What have we been working on? Dragon Age: Inquisition has come a long way in the last three months. Today, I’m going to share with you some of what we have been up to since PAX. That way, when we dig in deeper a little later on, you will be up to speed.

You may have heard some talk about a “Holiday Build” for Dragon Age: Inquisition. So, what is this? These types of builds go way back in BioWare’s history. Effectively, they are builds we create around the holiday break that are packaged in a way that allows the team, and other parts of BioWare, to play the game in as complete of a state as we can get it.

In this case, our Holiday build is focused on these areas:

1. The main storyline completely playable from beginning to end: This allows the story to be experienced in an interactive state, and lets us get pacing and spacing right.

2. All of the gameplay systems working together: This means that you can experience the game as it is intended to be experienced, with each feature feeding into another.

3. Starting VO recording for large parts of the game (More on this later).

4. Getting music in (More on this later).

5. Making sure that each class has a distinctive feel: Making sure that the party is a necessary and exciting part of combat (More on this later).

6. Getting our tech locked down: For example, here is a tarnish shader going in.

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7. Getting a lot more content a lot further along: Things like Trees:

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Dead things:

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Outfits:

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Faces:

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And, of course, areas:

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Areas form a huge part of the content in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It is very important to me that the game cover a large variety of locations. Not only does it expand the possibilities of our storytelling, it also gives us an opportunity to show a lot of different things. In a game that places a lot of emphasis on discovery, this is very crucial.

Part of this process is about getting the areas into a state where they can be fully critiqued. Let me show you an area shot going through this process (can you guess the area?):

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As you can see, an initial screenshot is critiqued and altered to show the goal for the area. This gives the level artist the specific direction needed to take the area to the next level (so to speak).

I’m skiffing off of a lot of topics here today, and I promise we will be back to talk in more detail about some of these topics. For now, though, I wanted to restart the conversation.

Hopefully you like this format. If you have any specific topics you would like us to cover in greater detail, let us know.

Thanks, and happy holidays!

Mark

MarkDarrah

The Effect on Us

Femshep (1024x1024)When he began working on the ending of Mass Effect 2, lead cinematic animator Parrish Ley felt like a fraud.  There were so many issues to sort out, he didn’t know where to begin.

By the start of the Suicide Mission, there were hundreds of player choices to account for that resulted in thousands of possible scenarios. As work on the mission progressed, it was like trying to unspool a spider web.

“It was the kind of thing where you think, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Ley said. “It was a complex piece of branching narrative. We wanted to make sure it felt right for the players who did it, but at the same time, under the hood there were a lot of things running.”

Because they couldn’t say for certain which characters the player would have in their party, how many of them had completed loyalty missions, or which ones might die, even the most basic questions like who would deliver what lines became a nightmare.

Unfortunately, in situations like this, there’s no real Eureka moment or a silver bullet to take the beast down. In reality, there’s a group of people in a room who’ve missed a couple showers and skipped a few meals, working on the problem over and over and over until it’s solved.

“It started out utterly broken to the point where it was totally unplayable and we looked at each other and thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. We’re not going to be able to ship this game. This is crazy,’” Ley says. “And we would play it and go back to our desks and work on it. And every day it would get a little bit better, and a little bit better.”

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While players remember the emotional moments and intimate scenes, it’s often the hours that went into crafting them that stick with developers. Creating games is an intensely personal experience, says lead level designer Rick Knowles. You help a game develop over months and years, forging it into something you’re proud of.

“As developers, we’re also gamers, and I feel privileged to make games we want to play,” Knowles says. “I think we’d feel we failed if we built a game that we didn’t want to play.”

How you end up can often be miles from where you start out, he says. This was the case with ME3’s multiplayer. The original idea was to have a co-op mode. But the more they tried to hammer out the dents, the worse it felt.

“It took a very long time to settle on a model that we felt worked well. We tried out different layouts, different creatures, different settings,” Knowles says. “We were very conscious from the beginning to not just make a straight-up multiplayer experience. It had to have some narrative context.”

They addressed this by creating objectives, which gave weight and purpose to each mission. And though the stories are smaller and more contained, Knowles and his team built internal narratives into each map that would later inform design decisions. This is why the hazard version of Firebase Dagger features a sandstorm, for instance. It doesn’t just make the map more difficult; it makes sense in the context of downed satellite dishes.

Earth DLC BannerBut while you could put a lifetime of hours into developing a game, eventually it has to ship, and developers then must sit back and watch as players take over and experience it.

The day ME2 launched, Kris Schoneberg and her fellow level designers crowded around a computer screen, watching a live stream of an early playthrough. They were eager to see how the player would react to certain plot points, and how they would handle the challenges the team had so lovingly devised.

“They got to the Warden Kuril boss fight in the Jack mission,” Schoneberg says, laughing. “And I watched the guy just die over and over again, and I thought, ‘I’m sorry. I hope you’re having fun.’”

Patrick Weekes, a writer on all three games, had a similar experience on ME2. “I was watching a playthrough of a super-renegade player doing Tali’s loyalty mission. He was about to finish the trial, and after all his renegade decisions, I really didn’t want to watch him break Tali’s heart. Then he pauses the playthrough, goes to the chat box, and says, ‘I don’t know what to do, guys. I don’t wanna hurt Tali.’ Seeing that something I was part of connected with a fan deeply enough to affect his decisions made me realize how special this series really was.”

As time goes on, the series becomes more and more the property of fans, and they begin to develop their own ideas about what makes and defines Mass Effect, says executive producer Casey Hudson. And while this can at times cause resistance toward new ideas, ultimately it’s a sign that the characters and stories the developers created are resonating.

“You can have characters in a story, but that’s kind of different from building memorable characters that transcend the story,” Hudson says. “These characters that we have in the Mass Effect series, people want to takes these characters further out of the story and see them in comics and books and they want to know more about these characters.”

SquadDLC is among the many good ways to tell new stories, says producer Mike Gamble. Here in these smaller, more contained adventures, the team can take more risks and explore ideas that just couldn’t fit into the main game.

It also gives members of the ME team a chance to get back together with old friends, Gamble says—a big part of what made the series great in the first place.

“When we first start to make games, we have everyone from different departments each with an idea of what the game looks like,” he says. “Being able to work together for a long time, you start to develop trust, and those walls go away and you can drive toward a singular purpose.”

While the Citadel DLC was a farewell to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy for fans, inside the studio, the developers said their own goodbyes.

“We were sad when Shepard’s story was over. There was definitely a solemnness in the room,” Schoneberg says. “The last thing I worked on was the party in Citadel, and the party ends with a group photo. I manipulated my save file to show the guests I’d have on my game at home. When that last screen came up with that group photo, I got a little choked up and a little teary eyed, because I realized, ‘Well, this is it.’”

Weekes has a different memory of the party. “I’d always told fans that the one thing we’d never do was a cocktail party, because how could you handle that much conversation? How do you let the players feel like they’re chatting with people and moving around in a natural way with so many possible permutations? And then on Citadel, our lead, Mac Walters, said, ‘I think we need to do a party,’ and sure enough, he and Kris and some of the other writers actually came up with a structure that made it work. It’s just one more time that people on the team proved me wrong and did the impossible to make something really special.”

Though that party in Citadel may mark the end of Shepard’s story, it’s far from the end of Mass Effect. As the fourth title in the ME universe begins its development, the team is carrying forward all the things that made the Shepard’s trilogy so memorable.

“It’s the idea of exploring a vast universe: going out and seeing amazing new things. It’s scale: seeing new planets, new species, and having choices that matter. Because it’s a story, and one that you care about,” Hudson says. “It’s going to continue on, and the things people love about Mass Effect they’ll see even better in the next generation of games.”

A Look Back at GamesCom

A few weeks ago, my lead sent out an e-mail to ask if any team members were interested in attending GamesCom in Cologne.  As I’d never been to a big games convention—or to Germany—before, having the opportunity to go to GamesCom was exciting: visiting a new country for a little bit, and being at the largest games convention in the world.  It turns out that GamesCom is pretty cool.  :)

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There was always something fun to do while we were there.  At the convention, we usually had a little bit of time to wander the convention floor to check out other games, and we had the chance to play some pretty fun demos.  (Titanfall is awesome.  :) ) The sheer number of people at the convention made it pretty crazy to just walk around the halls. When I got back from the trip, I read that around 340,000 people came to the convention.

During the rest of the time, we hung out in the BioWare Community Lounge and got the chance to talk to fans.  As a developer, it’s not always easy to see how people respond to the games that we make other than the reviews posted online and reading the forums.

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Meeting fans at GamesCom allowed us to meet and hear from fans directly, and the amount of passion that people have for our games is amazing.  Some really cool Mass Effect and Dragon Age cosplayers came to the community lounge, and they looked awesome!  It’s great to hear that all of the hard work we put into our games is appreciated, and I’m excited for fans to see everything we’re working on for our upcoming games in the future.

-          Justin Yong, Software Engineer (Mass Effect)

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The Dragon Age Keep

Hey, it’s me again,

In Dragon Age, choices matter. It has always been important for us that our fans have complete control and freedom in shaping their Dragon Age world. The decisions you make, the foes you vanquish, the relationships you forge. It’s all important and needs to be honored. Many of you have been wondering how your choices from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II will be supported in Dragon Age Inquisition. Today, I’m here to give you information on exactly that.

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I’m excited to announce the Dragon Age Keep. Within the Keep, you’ll be able to customize a Dragon Age historical world state to your exact specifications. How did you modify your Warden and Hawke? Who were your companions? Who did you choose to romance? Who rose to power, and who fell in defeat? What legacy did you leave?

Within the Keep, you’ll be able to customize as much or as little about the world of Thedas as you wish. Then you’ll be able to import your saved world state into DAI at the start of a new game. Have you lost or corrupted your save files? No problem — remake your world state on the Keep, and preserve it for the future. For those folks new to the Dragon Age franchise, the Keep will serve as a great way to understand the people, places, and events that shaped the world leading up to DAI.

I’d like to give some history on how the Keep came into existence. Very early in the planning of DAI, we began to think about how we were going to address the issue of importing save game files. We were dealing with a brand new game engine, plus the next generation of consoles. It was a priority that our fans be able to have their decisions carry forward, regardless of their past or future platform.

We realized that in order to make this work, we’d have to look into a cloud-based solution. Moving to the cloud allows players to take their unique world state into any platform (present or future) and even other media. For existing fans, an advantage of being in the cloud is that (if you are ok with spoilers) you can fully explore what-if scenarios, and become aware of events and consequences in our past games that you may not have known were possible.  You can then fire up the previous games and go exploring for those moments.

Even if you don’t go back and re-play the previous games, you can still establish that scenario as part of your world state, and import it at the start of a new DAI game to see the consequences of your actions.

What about actually importing your save games? We are continuing to investigate ways in which save files from previous games could be used to populate the initial world state of the Dragon Age Keep. We’ll provide more information on this in the months to come.

An additional benefit offered by moving to the cloud is being able to fix issues in plot logic, which historically we have not been able to do because of client side complexity or platform holder limits. Under the hood, the Keep has a logic validator which ensures you’ll always have a valid world state free from errors and conflicts.

Choices in our games are immense, and on occasion subtly perceived.  In some cases, the consequences of decisions you’ve made in a past game won’t reveal themselves until some future story.  Handling all these permutations is complex. Really complex. Tracking all possible prerequisites and potential knock-ons, even just to create the simple acknowledgement of a choice is very detailed — and prone to error.

As an example, an import from DAO to DA2 brought across something in the order of 600 different data points, most requiring complex logic solving to answer correctly the question of “how did the player settle this choice at the end of the game.”  As a result, some current save imports are buggy, which is our fault, and something we’re committed to fixing. Permanently. The Keep allows us to do just that. Users of the Keep won’t have to suffer with these types of logic inconsistencies any longer.

Starting today, you can visit the Dragon Age Keep and register for its beta, set to kick off early next year. We’re eager to hear your feedback and get your impressions before it launches publicly in 2014. The Keep will be available to everyone a few months before DAI gets released, in order to give fans plenty of time to experiment with scenarios and make their history exactly how they want.

More to come soon, and thanks for reading.

Mark Darrah
Executive Producer
Dragon Age