What BioWare Has Learned

Okay, I originally started writing this earlier in the week after receiving several queries, in regards to Dragon Age 3 – Inquistion. So, I didn’t know when I began writing this that Ray and Greg were retiring from BioWare.

So I want to start this post with wishing Ray and Greg good luck in their future endeavors. Without Ray and Greg’s passion for game development there never would have been a BioWare and consequently I probably never would have entered game development. For ten years I worked and learned and thrived in an environment that is really impossible to describe. It was Ray and Greg who made that possible.

If you would like to read the official BioWare announcement on their departure, including links to blogs they each wrote on their reasons, click here.

Anyways, back to the original purpose for this post. The question I had been receiving was: “Do I believe that BioWare learned anything from Dragon Age 2?”

My answer?

Yeah.

Now, before I get into things I should note that I don’t know anything at all about Dragon Age 3, so I can only comment on what I’ve read online. Specificallly, Mark Darrah’s post, announcing the game.

I think it is clear from how this post has been written that BioWare has learned that they need to be more upfront on who is working on their titles, to help mitigate the idea that BioWare has lost all its original staff. Mark makes it clear that he is a gamer and that he has loads of experience with traditional gaming. Mark was with BioWare from the beginning, well before I started. In fact the first office I shared was with Mark and he helped train me (even though he was in the programming dept and I was in design, there was a lot of overlap in the early days)*.

So, rebuilding some connections, between the developers and the fans is important and BioWare knows it and they show it with this post. And, of course, I’m hardly the only outsider to notice the specific wording of the post (i.e., check out Erik Kain’s observations on the announcement).

I don’t believe this announcement is just lip service, to placate the fans. Everybody working at BioWare wants to make great games. The problem is that the definition of great varies vastly, not just among the fans who will play the game but even within the studio. There’s a constant push and pull, a tug of war between this idea or that idea. Clearly there has been acknowledgement from BioWare over the past few months that they may have been pulled too far in one direction.

This realignment won’t be easy. It also has to be recognized that Dragon Age 2 sold well (and given its hurried development, probably was not an expensive game to make when compared with the first; hence it was probably more profitable) and many gamers enjoyed it. There may in fact now be two fairly differing audiences that will have be served. Doing this in a single title is incredibly difficult and I don’t envy them the challenge.

Anyways, in my opinion, BioWare has listened and has learned, but has a very challenging time ahead, to build a game that will satisfy their wide audience.

On a side note, I have also noticed clamoring for a return of “co-op” in BioWare titles. I’m torn on this. Great story and co-op that feels right is incredibly difficult. I’ll admit that I actively championed removing multiplayer from previous BioWare titles. Though I’m a huge gameplay fan I feel it is incredibly difficult to craft the kinds of stories that BioWare does while also developing top of the line multiplayer. Playing on the studios strengths, it always made sense (to me) to lean towards the single player experience. I’d be really impressed if BioWare can pull off the kind of story experience many players are yearning for (with loads of customization and branching plots) while also allowing co-op that doesn’t feel tacked on.

Okay, I have to go now. Need to finish my writing for the day before I head off to pick up the kid from school.


*”I should mention though that I’ll never play co-op Baldur’s Gate 2 with Darrah again. He was always wandering off and attacking things and getting the party into all kinds of trouble.”

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Indy Alpha, BioWare-Brent Year 5 (Fall 2003 – Summer 2004), BioWare-Brent Year 9 (Fall 2007 – Summer 2008), BioWare-Brent Year 6 (Fall 2004 – Summer 2005)

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  • Laurie Tom

    For what it’s worth, I liked Dragon Age II a lot.  Maybe what bothered
    other people just didn’t bother me as much.  I thought it still had a
    good story and I liked the change of pace in that it wasn’t about saving
    the world.

    I think Mark’s post should help placate a lot of fans
    and do something to rebuild the trust that was lost.  Though I enjoyed
    DA2, probably less than half the people I know who played both games
    finished the second one, even if they finished the first.

    It’s
    only anecdotal evidence, of course, but I guess I’m saying, even if it
    sold, it doesn’t mean it was as successful from the perspective of a
    player’s enjoyment, and that’s the trust that needs to be rebuilt if
    fans are going to buy DA3.

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thanks for the comment, Laurie. 

    Yeah, I agree that  Mark has done a good job… though the communication needs to continue. I wonder what it was about DA2 that stopped your friends from finishing it? I can understand why players stopped with the first Dragon Age, simply because of its length. But from what I’ve heard DA2 isn’t nearly as long. I’d be curious if BioWare has any data tracking on this — I know when we were playtesting DA1 we had hooks, to let us know where players went and how far they progressed. I wonder if there’s a particular point in the game that derailed it for them.

    Current score: 0

  • Hannah

    I personally stopped playing Dragon Age 2 for the initial disappointment when comparing it to the original game. That, and the repetitiveness of many aspects of the game. I (respectfully) disagree with the first comment  as I love plots where there’s too much on the line for everyone to be fighting with eachother (like coming together to save the world from the bigger evil). I am also personally not a fan of games with political plots, though I doubt that was a big issue for most people who played. I did realize later, when I began to play again, that the game wasn’t as horrible as I first thought, though it still doesn’t hold a candle to the first. :)

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thanks for the comment, Hannah

    Current score: 0

  • http://www.facebook.com/thorimat Марко Миловановић

    I cannot help but being skeptical about the DA3, now that Ray and Greg left. I mean, first you, Mr. Knowles, than Drew, and now Ray and Greg. All the good people are leaving Bioware. How can anyone expect anything good to come out of it? I didn’t like DA2. Actually , the only thing from DA2 I liked was new crafting system. Nothing else. Anime style combat, pointless and disappointing story, armor and weapon models design, not to mention enviroments design. All awful and boring. And multiplayer? That is one thing I will never understand. Multiplayer in an RPG. How can you role play if there is another guy that wants to do things his way? Absurdly.

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I think skepticism is good. I’d certainly suggest waiting for reviews of DA3 before checking it out, especially since you did not enjoy DA2. It very well might be that BioWare isn’t making games you’ll enjoy anymore.

    That said, there’s many, many, talented people still at BioWare, including most of the writing staff, some of whom have been there since near the start of the company. The vast majority of people, especially in the design department, that I trained and worked with, are still with BioWare.

    Current score: 0

  • Anton Kirillov

    BTW Brent, how do you feel about all this criticism Bioware received after DA2 and ME3 were released? Will it hurt the company in some way? Can it help  in the process of market research? It really didn’t look like constructive criticism at all and was more like pointless bashing.  

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    There was a lot of criticism that was intentionally abusive and probably not entirely useful.

    That said, I’ve been pleased with the way most criticism of DA2 and ME3 has been presented by commenters on this blog. I think there’s been really good points raised — you can read them if you search dig through the posts here on the ME3 ending and the Dragon Age 2 demo. I totally understand the criticism, though in many cases I think it could have been presented differently. I don’t agree it was (always) pointless bashing, at least not the initial complaints. A player has the right to be disappointed when s/he buys something that isn’t what they were expecting.Only loss of sales will hurt the company and both DA2 and ME3 did well. *IF* players stop buying future BioWare titles, then yes, I suppose the company would be hurt. If this happens though it is not because people complained about the games but because people stopped buying games they didn’t enjoy anymore.

    Current score: 0

  • Laurie Tom

    It’s been a while since DA2 came out, but I seem to remember them saying a combination of things about not liking the new art style, the combat changes, and the lack of the isometric Baldur’s Gate style view.

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thanks, Laurie. The lack of the Baldur’s Gate view was definitely disappointing to me.

    Current score: 0

  • http://www.facebook.com/thorimat Марко Миловановић

    Oh, i’m aware that many good people from Bioware’s origins, are still employed, but does anyone out there asks them anything? I mean, do they still have something to say or have they been turned into working drones? 
    I keep dreaming someone will found new company to continue where Bioware left off, and all the folks that leave Bioware will go in that company and begin anew. Ah, well, heres to hoping! :)

    Current score: 0

  • Steve B

    Many different things to say after quietly visiting here (aka ‘lurking’) over a period of years.

    First. Dragon Age: Origins was wonderful. DA:O repeatedly infused my life with joy as I played, replayed, and replayed the stories, dialogs, places, characters, and interactions you and your team created. DA:O felt like it was made just for me. It was, and is, a world of opportunities and promises: opportunities to finish building characters and places; and promises that I could shape DA:O’s characters, stories, and conflicts in my own way. Each time as I reached the end of my journey, DA:O fulfilled its’ promises. And at the end of those many journeys, I stopped and looked at what I had made. And smiled…

    I said I had many things to say. I still do. But not at a cost of diluting the many thanks for your work.

    I’ll be back.

    Steve B

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Steve,

    Thank you very much for the kind words.

    Take care,

     Brent

    Current score: 0

  • Andrew

    Hey Brent,

    First off, I know you hear this a million times a day but thanks so much for Dragon Age:Origins. It truly is my favorite game and everything about it is amazing.  You and your DA:O team that you worked with really made a masterful peace of art. As you can see, DA:O really has a special place in peoples hearts and all of us will always appreciate you for that.

    Now I’m curious, since you didn’t work on DA2 at all. Did DA2 take a major turn story wise from what you had planned if you had been able to make DA2 the game you wanted to? If you don’t know much of the story on DA2, basically it’s a prelude to the Mage vs Templar war. Were you planning on continuing  the Warden’s story as well as the Grey Warden’s as an organization?  I loved how the story went in DA:O and I’m sure you and David Gaider had something planned that was entirely different from where DA2 actually went. 

    Andrew

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Andrew,

    I’m glad you enjoy DA:O! Always great to hear that.

    As for the story, there were no definite plans. There was the _thought_ that we’d probably head off and start exploring other areas of the world — there’s many interesting nations and areas in the world that were only hinted at in the first title. So I had assumed that the game would take place elsewhere. And the initial discussions about story did hint at something different. 

    Obviously I can’t say anything about what those other ideas might have been given that they still might be used. The Grey Warden theme and the possibility of the Warden’s return were being considered though. But nothing was written in stone… we were too busy on the first game to go into any real details.

    Current score: 0

  • Mordi

    I think the biggest mistake Bioware did with DA2 was that they named it DA2. They made sure fans would think it’s a sequel to DAO when in fact it was not. It felt more of a spinoff then a proper sequel. 

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Agreed. A different name might have changed player expectations.

    Current score: 0

  • Jim

    Two other reasons why I believe people stopped playing DA2 was the scale and the repetitiveness of the quests: Kirkwall, the city where the whole game is set, is as big as Orzammar. I love Orzammar but spending 40 hours in the same environment gets boring fast. Also the quests got old fast. Most of them were: ”pick up stuff, get stuff back to owner for credits”. Why am I doing this ? Why is this important ? There were similar useless quests in Origins, like the Mages Collectives guild, but at least it was disguised as being fun: I was part of a guild! And if you completed all those useless quests, there was a final quest where you side with or go against the boss of the guild. It made it seem important.
    Overall, presentation, I think, is really important: whether it’s the design of the world or how the quests are presented.

    that’s my 2 cents anyways. I ”only” completed 2 playthrough of DA2 (6 of Origins).

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thanks, Jim. Always interesting to hear reasons why games didn’t appeal to particular players.

    And yes, presentation is really important. I have trouble with some games when everything feels too artificial and contrived. Obviously all gameplay situations are artificial and contrived, but I like to see some work done on masking it, to the player.

    Current score: 0

  • Pandas Kill

    “Great story and co-op that feels right is incredibly difficult.”

    Why do all game designers always have the same opinion on this topic? A lot of players would be perfectly fine by just **playing together**. Only one of them needs to make the decisions. We are big boys, we can agree that we just want to play as a group of friends, even it it means only one of us can make the decisions.
    Maybe it’s because you guys try to come up with “auto match-making” systems where you throw 5 random people in a game and let them play. This sucks. This is not what RPGs are about.

    To go back to the example of DA: O, I would have been perfectly fine with just replacing Morrigan or Alistair in the game, while my brother was playing the main character.

    Don’t tell us how to have fun in co-op.

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    You are correct, a lot of players would be fine with just “playing together” but there’s still issues even then. This is certainly not “opinion” but experience.

    - what if the dialog is long… is the other player really okay with just sitting there for several minutes? [our experience with the Baldur's Gate co op feature suggested otherwise]- In this example where you are playing Morrigan or Alistair, what happens when (due to story reasons) they have to leave the party? You now have to play another  character; not the character whose abilities you’ve improved and developed.And then there’s more issues on the other side of the fence… does having multiplayer mean less game resources (i.e.., memory) for art and design? Maybe fewer areas cached in memory (longer area load times) or smaller areas or areas with fewer objects/creatures. Maybe all the battles have to have fewer combatants. Or all the creature models less detailed.So having the possibility of multiplayer play starts influencing how areas can be designed, even how the story is developed. Most of these issues are small issues with small solutions but cumulatively they do increase development costs and time.

    Current score: 0

  • Steve B

    Easy friend. Brent isn’t promoting a game, a game type or company. He’s not even currently in the game business. He’s not grinding his own or anyone else’s ax.

    Please take a few minutes and read Brent’s comments on the “we are smarter than they are” syndrome that can lead game developers to ignore customer/fan input (found here:  http://blog.brentknowles.com/2010/06/10/you-are-not-smarter-than-them/). I think you’ll find you’re ‘preaching to the choir’.

    You might want to look at Brent’s comments on “great story and co-op” in a light comparable to looking at comments of an automotive designer on difficulties of combining off-road capabilities and street racing capabilities in a single vehicle. He’s not saying customers wouldn’t want that vehicle. He is saying that properly incorporating both capabilities in a single vehicle would be difficult.

    From my standpoint I think you might see a part of the answer to your question if you were to use DA2 in your example. Consider that DA2 was was developed under difficult time and budget constraints. Consider also that adding co-op to DA2 would have added some cost to the project, and that the developer would have wanted to offer you a co-op product meeting the minimal requirement so that your brother would have wanted to play.

    What would you have cut from DA2 to get the minimal co-op capabilities? Would the cuts decrease the story content of DA2? And what about other customers? Would they willing cut parts of the game to have co-op?

    Famous quotation from Cicero; “I would write shorter letters if I had more time.” Which is say, sorry for the length here.

    Steve B

    Current score: 0

  • Pandas Kill

    See, I like that extended list of arguments that make sense and around which I can wrap my head. Those are all good arguments that I can be sensible to, unlike the usual one.

    Note: When I said “replacing Alistair or Morrigan” I really meant with your own character. It would be great have been great if you could have used your current character (in a solo campaign) as the one you’ll play in MP. Just down-level it to the level of the main character’s.

    I always said that DA: O was great, but it could have been awesome if I could see my friends coming online, and “invite” them to my party – or the other way around. I understand that is a Big Feature and takes a lot of development time, but as a player I sort of miss that. Neverwinter Nights’ MP was similar to this as I recall. Just don’t dismiss it as “it screws up the story telling.” (here I’m talking to the people still in BioWare, not you Brent :).

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    No worries. I realize lots of people have fun with co op and it sucks when it doesn’t make it in. It just has a cost. Given time and effort and commitment it is certainly possible.

    (as a side note, many fans of the BG series feel that with Neverwinter, BioWare significantly sacrificed story  in favor of multiplayer.)

    Now, off to find my morning coffee…

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Great clarification, thanks Steve.

    Current score: 0

  • Steve B

    I’m back. Had a lot of things I wanted to say but I’ll try to keep it short.

    Brent, you’re gifted. Not only that but you’re dedicated and productive. I spent some time at one point with an entrepreneur who told me he looked for a single quality when hiring people. Enthusiasm. He said the word defines itself; En means within, and thus or thuse is taken from theos, or god — roughly, carrying god within. He said people with enthusiasm invariably inspire others and make things work.

    I’ve read a bit of what you’re written here. And I’ve felt your footprints in some BioWare games I’ve played. I believe your management capabilities are, simply put, special. Just as you are managing your own time and talents in your life of writing to successfully promote producing something real, with quality and value, I firmly believe you brought that same result to other individuals, and to BioWare teams in the past. You helped and inspired others to produce at their best, I got games I love. Individuals on your teams found a bit of themselves that became more than just a dream in games they helped create; games they will always be proud of.

    Somewhere on this, or your other, blog, there used to be some comments on why you left BioWare. Maybe it was just in an answer to someone’s post. But I think those comments are gone now, perhaps disappearing when you dropped your other blog on software for writers.

    From what I recall, you made brief but meaningful comments about the costs of game development and the abiliy of game companies to both produce great games and pay employees a salary commensurate with their contribution. As I recall, the result was an unsolvable equation. My impression was as you left BioWare, you understood their needs and decisions, and they understood yours. Both parties felt a void, but neither blamed the other. Things are as they are.

    You probably know where I’m going with this; if not, you probably wish I’d go on and go there.

    There have been interesting developments in game development just over the past few weeks. The equation has changed.

    There’s a new game out, Torchlight 2, that’s being offered on Steam at a price of less than half the price of a typical AAA game even though the developers say it falls within that category. The developers say the $19.99 price is “as viable and profitable” as selling the same game as a $60.00 box game. They have no publisher cost, meaning they’ll make a greater profit from each $19.99 sale than they would have from each $60.00 sale under the old system. See http://www.vg247.com/2012/09/18/torchlight-2-price-is-as-viable-and-as-profitable-as-selling-a-60-box/

    There’s also Obsidian Entertainment’s Project Eternity currently on Kickstarter, which reached its initial goal of $1.1 million in just over one day. The game seeks to revive the classic PC RPG. Obsidian was shocked at the positive financial response on Kickstarter. In essence, they’re finding that they’re able to fund development costs without a publisher, based on game “pre-ordering” achieved by Kickstarter. Here again customers get the game at a much lower cost — $25 — with the developer getting sufficient profit to make the project a “go”.

    You have the skills, experience, and reputation to make this work for you, and a team of talented and lucky individuals. It’s a special time.

    You may, or may not, have already reached your answer how these developments might impact you long before I started writing this. But I saw a couple of hints on your blog, that you spirit might wander to the land of game development from time to time. You said you started replaying a strategy game from long ago. You also wondered whether your children were maturing to a place where they need fewer hours of your days.

    You’ve got a writing career that’s working, and is likely to get better exponentially as a function of time if you keep at it. (That’s just how growth curves work, once past the early ‘failure’ stage, and you’re past that.) Then there is still your family; less time for them, whether you’d have to move etc.

    Thing is. You have truly incredible management talent and skills. You are capable of building the answer to the questions and opportunities however you can conceive it in your mind. You’re as special as the heroes central in your games and stories. You might for example build your own game company a mile or two from your home. (If you build it, they will come.)

    And what of the future? Potentially great environment for starting a game company today. But what happens in 5 years? 10 years?

    If you go that route, your management talents will take you and others across all of those bridges. There will be survivors no matter what the changes. If you build it and stay at the helm, it will survive.

    I believe you’ll be successful on whatever path you walk. I think we’ll all benefit one way or the other, (games, stories, novels, movies); but I’d love to play another of your games. 

    Thanks and Best Regards.

    Steve B 

     

     

    Current score: 0

  • Not My Goodies

    I am a huge fan of DAO, and of you. I think you and the other developers at Bioware have done an excellent job of making games that stretch the medium as far as storytelling and character development are concerned, in ways that other non-interactive mediums can’t. What I’m trying to say is that if games are art and not just toys for children Bioware has gone a long way towards proving that to a large audience. RESPECT. 

    The question I’m about to ask, I don’t really expect an answer. I know you weren’t really involved in DA2, but I can’t imagine getting a satisfactory answer asking Gaider. 

    Why does DA2 show such contempt for its audience? Why do the political machinations boil down to a Hightown for rich people, and a Lowtown for poor people? Why do the female love interests boil down into virgin/whore stereotypes? Why did they put giant stripper tits on an old lady? Why do they pander to the fanfic writers and cosplayers and not, you know, adults who trusted Bioware to be somewhat mature in their storytelling? 

    I don’t care about the multiplayer or if they’re rude to their customers or even if they recycle environments or even if the gameplay is bad. Have they learned that we’re not all contemptible neckbeards whose primary motivation for gaming is finding imaginary boyfriends to write sexy fanfic about and selecting an outfit for Dragoncon?

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Steve,

    Wow. Thanks for the comment. Very much appreciated.

    Yes, I do think about getting into game development from time to time and there might be a point in the future where I dive back in. We’ll see. Certainly, as you pointed out, the landscape has changed… a lot (i.e., Torchlight 2 is as slick and polished as any publisher published title I’ve played). 

    We’ll have to see. I’m going to do a bit of contract testing for a studio in the next while, so we’ll see if that reignites the spark.

    Again, thank you for your kind words.

    Take care,

     Brent

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thanks for stopping by.

    As you say I can’t really answer the question… I haven’t played DA2 so I can’t speak as to whether I feel the game itself is simplified or not. If it is, I’d lean towards blaming the very short development phase. It is also possible that energies were spent on other areas.

    The think with DA:O is that we had a really, really, really, long time to tinker with the world and the story and the character interactions. There were constant technology changes that necessitated story changes. There were mandatory story/area/character reviews. There were art cuts and art additions and all kinds of things that I think, in the end, while frustrating, also gave us the time to really develop the plot/character side of things. 

    What I’ve learned is that a developer’s first attempt, no matter how talented the developer is, usually benefits from a second and a third revision. I know I function like this, as a writer. I might create an okay first draft but if I push myself to do a second draft, it is better. There’s diminishing returns after too many revisions of course but if a developer doesn’t have time to do any revision work, it will probably show in in the final product.

    Take care, 

    Brent 

    Current score: 0

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  • Tluedeke

    Can’t wait until you rejoin a game industry that comes to its senses, Brent.  I wish you the best of luck, and have admiration for the moves you’ve made based out of  principle.  You have brought much enjoyment into my life with the games you have helped work on – most recently DA:O.  You guys had vision, and I continue to marvel at it after many years….

    I’ve bought Bioware games for probably since the beginning (I’m 44 years old).  Every couple of years I cycle thru BG2, Icewind Dale 1/2, Planescape Torment, NWN, etc.  They are a brilliant synthesis of story,  strategy, and escapism.   The engines Bioware designed have spawned other great titles (e.g. NWN2, KOTOR).  The modding community has taken the offerings, and expanded them into places that have reinvigorated the games.   DA:O was a wonderful game – highly frustrating at times, until I realized it was making me **think** (e.g. why am I failing this important, story-forwarding battle so badly??).

    To be blunt, the betrayal of DA2 cannot lightly be suffered.  They turned a classic title into a brain-dead, totally-EA-sequel, console-kiddie, button-mashing disaster.  To call it an insult gives it far too much justice.  And I’m not entirely sure they appreciate the implications, since consoles outsell PC games 10:1, DA2 sold well, and appealed perfectly to the console kiddies.

    I will not buy DA3 or any other Bioware title until I hear reviews indicating that they have stayed true to what they have become renowned for.  Not to punish those Bioware employees who worked am hours to put out brilliant games that enriched our lives, but to those Italian-suit-wearing, “I need my marble floors repolished” EA stockholders that view a console sequel-sequel-sequel [you get the idea] DA17 is a fabulous idea.

    However, if you show up someplace, I will seriously consider whatever product they offer, because you have proven yourself to me over and over..

    Respectfully yours…

    TPL
    Thomas Luedeke

    Current score: 0

  • http://blog.brentknowles.com Brent Knowles

    Thomas,

    Wow. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed some of the previous games I’ve worked on!

    Take care,

     Brent

    Current score: 0