I actually don’t think Dragon Age II was all that terrible. Or rather, I fully understand that elements of it were very, very bad (it had more caves than Ron Gilbert’s The Cave, for instance; and not on purpose), but others were incredibly fascinating. Party members lived their own lives, themes like racism and security-vs-freedom got the spotlight, and your choices really, really didn’t matter all that much. Was it a game whose budgetary and time constraints hung about its neck like a noose, leaving only gasping wisps of potential? Absolutely. But those limits also shaped it, so it was interesting to see a less powerful BioWare craft a narrative about, well, powerlessness. After discussing the baffling impracticality of sexism, Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider and I talked about the ups and downs of Dragon Age II and how they’ve ultimately guided Dragon Age III to a very different place.
RPS: You’ve been writing at BioWare for a very long time.
Gaider: 14 years. I think that’s a long time.
RPS: BioWare has its thing that it does with most of its games. Big, epic adventures. A number of different archetypes show up in different games. For instance, HK-47 and Shale were quite similar. After doing that for so long, are you worried about your writing becoming stale?
The worst thing is to ignore feedback and work entirely in a vacuum.
Gaider: Ah. Occasionally you’ll start writing something and you’ll realize that you’re feeling déjà vu. “I’ve written this before.” That’s happened sometimes, especially if you’re hanging around in the same genre like I’ve been. Different genres rest on certain themes that are going to come up again and again. But if you recognize that’s happening you can do something about it, if it’s something that’s worth having something done about it. I know that in our forums, every now and again someone will come and say, “You have these archetypes that come up again and again.”
Well, there’s nothing wrong with archetypes. As long as those characters are doing something different, the fact that you can find some similarities between them is unimportant. As long as there is a difference. As a writer, I can recognize that. The bad thing would be to unwittingly repeat yourself and have someone point it out to you afterwards and you say, “Oh. I wasn’t aware of that.” You should be aware of it.
RPS: You mentioned the forums. BioWare is a company that seems very tuned in to what people are saying about their games – even if you don’t always manage to please everyone.
Gaider: Yeah, it factors not as much as some people would think, but more than some others would think. If you aren’t getting feedback from somewhere like a game forum, then where are you getting it from? The worst thing is to just ignore it utterly and work entirely in a vacuum. Even with the input from the fans, the feedback from the fans, at some level you have to make what you think is right. With something like the forums, their opinions are all over the place. Often when a fan will speak on a forum they speak as if everybody on the forums agrees about their concern and they all think exactly the same thing. I’ve never found that to be true.
Ultimately, if you’re doing something that you think is right, at least you know one person thinks it’s right. The worst thing to do would be to act entirely based on what you think the fans want, even if you don’t agree with it personally. Chances are you’re not going to please anyone that way. We do try to keep abreast. We have to mentally compartmentalize and put that aside. “We’ve heard what they said…” It’s like they’re a voice at the table. They say, “This is what we want.” We say, “Okay, we’ll take that under consideration. We’ll talk about it.”
RPS: It’s an interesting time to be doing that, especially with Dragon Age III. You’ve directly solicited feedback. You’ve said, “What are you looking for out of the next Dragon Age game?” That’s happening at a time where Kickstarter is emerging as this big thing. It’s create much more directly collaborative development, because people are putting their money into it. Developers are saying, “You have a stake in this now. What do you want? We’ll actually do what you say.”
Gaider: The Kickstarter market is definitely more niche-oriented. The niche isn’t a bad thing. It’s a segment of the audience that is intensely interested in this particular thing. They don’t have to worry about going broad and having mass appeal. They don’t need it. They’re doing smaller teams, smaller budgets. That’s something that they can do that’s very strong. That’s a strength that they can really work from.
RPS: What I was wondering, though, is because there’s a trend in that direction, are you worried that fans might get especially outraged when, inevitably, you don’t include all their requests in Dragon Age III?
Gaider: It could happen. Our fans, like I mentioned before, don’t agree on any one thing. You have some fans that are intensely interested in having one thing happen and a big group that are invested in having another thing happen. There’s no way we could possibly make everybody happy.
If somebody, in the long term, is finding that we’re not making games that make them happy, then it’s a good thing that there are things like Kickstarter out there that are servicing different elements of the fanbase. Not that we would want to drive people away by any means, but that’s why we’re soliciting some feedback and why we’re probably going to be doing more of that as we go forward. I guess you could say that the fanbase is a little polarized on some issues. It’s not that we’re trying to say, “We’ll please everybody,” but we’ll listen to their concerns and try to make the best game we can and see if we can’t bring some elements of those disparate parts of the fanbase a little closer together. That’d be a nice thing to try. Although, like I said, you can only go so far.
RPS: It’s an interesting spot to find yourself in, definitely.
Gaider: Interesting in the Confucian sense, yes [laughs].
RPS: A lot of people, when they look at what you’re doing now, still expect it to be in the exact same place as what BioWare was doing back in the late ‘90s. Whereas what you’re making now is clearly for an audience that’s much bigger. A lot more people are playing these sorts of games.
Gaider: We have much bigger budgets, so we have to have a bigger audience.
RPS: Straddling that line between wider audiences and RPG diehards, where does your focus end up? As a writer, what gets top priority?
Gaider: The main concern over the story is that we have to balance the interests of long-time fans in the story. We’re talking about people who have played Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II coming into Dragon Age III, but we also have to keep in mind people who are coming to Dragon Age III fresh, who have no previous experience. That’s the biggest thing we have to concern ourselves with.
When the team looks at the concerns of various groups, they’re keeping in mind the biggest concerns and trying to address them as much as possible. We can’t possibly address everything. Even the things we do address, eventually we’re going to have to say, “What is our primary goal here? Is it to, say, solicit the long-time fan who maybe wasn’t happy with Dragon Age II? Or are there things we can do with that feature that could mollify them and make them feel like they aren’t being excluded from continuing? So they don’t feel like we’ve abandoned them.” There are things we can do. Once we start showing Dragon Age III, people will be able to see what we’ve been playing with – some new ideas we’re bringing to the table, some old ideas we’re bringing back. They can judge for themselves.
RPS: You’ve done a lot of BioWare-type adventures and stuff like that. Has there ever been a point where you’ve said, “Okay, I want to do something that’s not a hero’s journey, that’s not that sort of progression and build-up”? On some level, was Dragon Age II – with its narrower focus and less earthshaking choices – that game?
Gaider: It was something to try. We did mix up the formula on purpose. That was one of the parameters that I was given by Mike Laidlaw. He wanted to do something a bit different with the framing narrative and the time jump. The problem we ended up with is that some of our ideas we had were just bigger than the time we had and the content we needed to support those ideas.
Would we do that again? Possibly. I think we’d want to be more careful the next time we tried to go that far outside the box. “What do we actually have time to support?” Even so, I think we did a pretty good job. We had a lot of positive response to varying up the whole… The typical hero’s journey where you start off with humble beginnings, become a hero, save the day, save the world. I think it was good to do something different. We had a story that was about failure as much as it was about epic success.
RPS: I was going to say, for Hawke things just kind of sucked all the time.
Gaider: [laughs] Yeah, it certainly was different. I think DAII was ultimately a little more linear than DAO just by virtue of its construction, but I don’t think that the nature of the storytelling we tried inherently limited that. That was more related to how much time we had on the project. The less time you have, the fewer alternate paths you can put in. But I think if we were to try that again, we could approach it from a more holistic standpoint, looking at what each variant, each story element we haven’t tried before. How much is that actually going to require from us? Is that a check we’re willing to cash? I think that would be interesting. I would hate for us to look at what we did in DAII and think, “Some parts of that worked really well. Some parts of that didn’t. Everything that didn’t, we’re not going to do anymore.” I think that would be the wrong path to take.
RPS: I think I enjoyed it more than a lot of people. I found the story fascinating, even though choices felt very limited. It was almost a narrative about powerlessness. The fact that you were a guy or girl tossed into these terrible circumstances and you just had to react and deal with it. It wasn’t so much about Shepard-style heroics. It was kind of an un-epic.
Gaider: It wasn’t shaping the course of the world.
RPS: Yeah, you were just sort of surviving. Is that what you were intending with that story?
Gaider: Yeah. The themes that were going on in Dragon Age II weren’t about heroism, necessarily. That wasn’t a theme. It was about freedom versus security, which I thought was a good, timely issue. How much freedom do you let people have versus how much security is necessary for people? Like the mages versus templars. That had more application than just that, that struggle between the need to have a secure society versus the struggle for individual freedom.
We had family as a big issue we wanted to focus on. That came up a lot in the game. Maybe we had too many themes going on? I guess it’s arguable. Every time we finish a story, there’s always things we look back on. “Would we have done that differently knowing what we know now?” It was the same after DAO, as successful as DAO was. There were some things that ended up happening in that game that just… We went in a direction of habit as much as we did out of a conscious decision to write the story in that way. So I think that thinking about the methods and elements more should help us in the long run.
RPS: That was another thing that took a lot of people by surprise about Dragon Age II. A lot of the themes were pretty relevant. I think that’s more the purview of sci-fi in a lot of cases: “Let’s take these themes that are present today and abstract them into the future.”
The themes that were going on in Dragon Age II weren’t about heroism.
Gaider: I actually don’t like that. People put fantasy as a genre into a much smaller box than something like science fiction. I don’t think that necessarily needs to be the case. I think there just hasn’t been a lot of fantasy that’s been done that way. The sort of fantasy you get tends to follow the same sort of “epic ancient evil threatens the world” thing almost out of habit. I don’t think that fantasy needs to be inherently limiting in the types of themes it addresses. I’d like to see us vary it up.
The mistake a lot of people make, and we see this a lot, is that they always assume that the last thing we did will be the next thing we do. Which is never the case. We always look at something we did the last time and want to try something new. The chance that, from one game to the next, we would do exactly the same type of story… It just doesn’t happen.
RPS: Even so, are you going to elaborate on any of Dragon Age II’s themes in Dragon Age III?
Gaider: We have some balls that are up in the air. We can’t just let those go. Those are things we need to deal with that we left up in the air after the end of DAII. We can’t just move on to something completely new. We can’t just jump across the continent and suddenly we’re dealing with something else entirely. There are things we have to address. But we probably will move on to new overall themes. We will try different narrative elements.
RPS: Thank you for your time.