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Dragon Age Inquisition – What Went Wrong?

Drgaon Age Inquisition Pasyages 5

On paper, Dragon Age Inquisition was everything that Dragon Age II wasn’t. It was huge, massive and epic. It had original characters, a road story and a traditional fantasy quest.

No one could accuse it of just reusing the same bunch of locations. The Frostbite engine brought Dragon Age Inquisition close to something resembling an open world (though still with no day and night cycle) and many of them were stunningly beautiful. Even more gorgeous were the interiors of castles and fortresses. The Elven and Orlesian art were particularly amazing.

There was also an epic story. You weren’t poking around doing fetch quests in the same city for 5 years. Instead you were doing fetch quests across a vast landscape. But there was also the traditional struggle between good and evil.

So what went wrong?

1. Icon vomit – EA decided that the future was Assassin’s Creed. So all games must be AssCreedified. Bioware didn’t suddenly decide to listen to fans. They were under orders to make their own Assassin’s Creed game. And they did.

Dragon Age Inquisition was much better than the Assassin’s Creed games. You never have to follow around eavesdropping on an NPC. But it was full of the traditional AssCreed icon vomit.

DAI went crazy for collectibles. Collect tiles, collect shards, solve puzzle maps, collect gears, collect collectibles, collect icons. Worst of all, the shards and gears were door keys. And door keys were a design gimmick that died with Doom.

Some of these were voluntary, some were required to gain access, but even voluntary icon vomit is still icon vomit, it changes how the game is played and gets in the way of the story. If your landscape is filled with icons to clear, it’s not a magical place.

2. Story fail – The original Dragon Age had a good balance between a personal story and the larger struggle. Dragon Age II mired players in a boring personal story with no larger struggle. Dragon Age III is all larger struggle.

DAI had plenty of characters but most of them felt bland and lacking in depth. The central character is defined by his leadership of the Inquisition. And that means constantly being complimented to death. Personal growth is meaningless. The choices are between being polite or rude.

Worst of all, DAI Mass Effects you, dumping you at the center of a huge organization (while still having to do all the work, including micromanaging it) with strongholds you can get lost in. It’s epic, but also epically boring.

Between the icon vomit and micromanaging all the social and political tasks of the Inquisition, Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel legendary. It feels like a job. CEO meets RPG.

Does anyone really want to play a game running an organization like The Inquisition?

And the story itself feels cut and pasted from a hundred other RPGs. It’s practically the story of Elder Scrolls Oblivion right down to rushing around shutting down portals to the demon realm. You’re even playing the “Chosen One”. Bioware throws in all sorts of twists and turns, but it’s not really enough.

3. None of It Matters – You can shape the Chantry or the Orlesian Empire, though you don’t much see the impact of that, and this time your choice between mages and templars actually matters. Somewhat.

The enemy is purely evil and insane. Even when it isn’t, you’re not allowed to talk your way out of misunderstandings. Instead you have to fight.

Bioware likes to pretend it gets gray areas, but all the story gray areas don’t change that you’re not allowed to play the game in shades of gray. Instead you go from pointless fight to pointless fight to cutscene. It doesn’t matter what’s in the codex if the only acceptable solution is to cut off the other guy’s head. That was the problem in Dragon Age II.

It’s still the problem.

The judgement scenes are a nice idea, but the original Dragon Age did it much better by just forcing you to confront the question of how to deal with nuanced villains. It made the game feel like a paperback fantasy novel.

Dragon Age Inquisition doesn’t feel like a story. It feels like a great engine with a lot of disconnected attachments that take you out of the story. And it gives you very little access or control over the story.

Dragon Age asked you to make personal decisions about how to save the world. Dragon Age Inquisition sets out to do the same, but somewhere along the way it again abandons player agency. Instead it flatters your ego and throws you into a simplistic story full of job tasks and fetch questions, pointless customizations and empty exchanges, instead of real decisions with consequences.

And it was a close thing.

Corypheus was always the wrong villain for the game. Solas was the right one. Instead he’s being reserved for a possible sequel. But Solas is the kind of personal nuanced villain Dragon Age Inquisition needed. Corypheus is the classic unhinged villain, a ranting egomaniac who wants to destroy everything to get his way. He has to be destroyed. But Solas wants to reshape the world while committing terrible crimes along the way.

A better game would have asked you what crimes you were willing to commit to stop him.

Unfortunately Dragon Age Inquisition wasn’t that game.

Mass Effect 3’s Three Endings

Now was that so hard?

mass effect 3 endings

mass effect 3 endings

There’s nothing all that great in the extended Mass Effect 3 endings. Lots of sad solemn music, mildly tinkered graphics and material that suggests the Bioware people are coming as close as they dare to mocking their audience. But all that stuff aside the three endings are… endings.

When you tell a story, it’s supposed to come with an ending. If you want to sell a game based on players being able to control the outcome, then your endings should be different, rather than exactly the same.

The three/four Mass Effect 3 endings actually clarify what happened and what effect your choices had. Even if you don’t think the effect is important, the “what the hell happened” part is.

The Destroy ending is straightforward. You destroy stuff. The end. Also Shephard might actually be alive in this version.

The Control ending looks a lot like the Synthesis ending, except Shephard is immortal and everyone in the universe isn’t a Borg. Also the Reapers make great construction equipment.

The Synthesis ending is everyone becoming a Borg. But it’s sort of neat in its own way.

The fourth ending is kind of interesting in its own way and dramatically the strongest. It also explains everything that came before.

It might have been better and simpler if there had been only two endings all along. The synthesis or the refusal. Become one with the machine or the cycle continues.

After Dragon Age II’s non-endings, it was nice to see players hold Bioware accountable over Mass Effect 3. With developers pulling Spec Ops: The Line type crap that gives players false choices and a miserable experience just to act out whatever the writers came up with, this is a reminder that the story has to serve the needs of the player first.

Bioware and Game Design Hubris

“Fundamentally, we don’t consider the player’s experience to be more important than the ideas we’ve had or the expectations” for the genre.”

A one sentence explanation for everything that Bioware got wrong with Dragon Age 2… and it comes from Obsidian, a company, which for all its faults actually gets what games are supposed to be.

There are good designers out there, but few of them understand the dangers of hubris. Every creative person confronts the gap between what he creates and how other people experience it. But many never adapt to it. Writers who refuse to read reviews and listen only to positive feedback. The producers of Battlestar Galactica and Lost who got so carried away by the toys they were playing with that they forgot to tell the story and give viewers what they wanted.

Bioware fell prey to it in Dragon Age 2, besides the consolization, it got too caught up in its own cleverness to realize that its story was muddled and unrewarding. It substituted its own ideas for player choice and it lost. And the players lost out.

Is Bioware Going Down?

Both of Bioware’s last two game releases, Dragon Age II and Mass Effect III have run straight into major fan backlashes. DA2 underperformed in sales. ME3 probably didn’t. The expansion for DA2 has been cancelled and Bioware has tried to backpedal. It’s also backpedaling from the ME3 ending which was just as lazy and dumb as the DA2 ending, except that to add insult to injury the ME3 ending was just set up to sell more DLC.

Then there’s Knights of the Old Republic which has a mixed record and is about to head straight for the tornado of Guild Wars II and some other next generation MMORPG’s, something which KOTOR isn’t. It’s not clear if KOTOR hit its numbers, if the anecdotal stories about falling server populations are true or if the leaks about the project costing 200 million are, but Bioware can’t afford failure on that front.

Bioware hasn’t lost the 1 percent, the reviewers and Penny Arcade, but it has alienated a lot of its fans, the flip side of passion is anger and there’s a lot of resentment over the company quickly cranking out consolized dumbed down games on an EA schedule. Its output has become low quality, heavy on marketing, self-indulgent cut scene oriented crap. And it only takes one major failure for EA to decide that maybe the studio isn’t worth it anymore.

Mass Effect 3 and the User Effect

How big is the split between reviewers and gamers getting? The Metacritic raids are a major sign of trouble. While reviewers are giving Mass Effect 3 the same sloppy kiss they gave Dragon Age 2, the user revolts on Metacritic are severely unfavorable. The huge gap between a 92 pro rating and the 3.3 user score says bad things.

I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 myself, so I can’t say which side is right, but the criticisms that I can see on Metacritic echo many of the problems with Dragon Age 2. That’s enough to get me to opt out of Mass Effect 3, even if I wasn’t still playing Skyrim. What’s strange is that the reviewers don’t really deny those criticisms, the discontinuity between the previous games, the lack of user agency, the pointless grind, weak graphics and the lack of a meaningful story. They just go on praising the game anyway.

After the Jennifer Helper hype, it doesn’t seem like Bioware can do wrong in the eyes of the pros, they will excuse anything the company does. I don’t know the industry well enough to make the accusations that some users are making, but the fanboyism really has to stop and until it does that Metacritic gap will go on haunting reviewers.

Exclusive Plans for Dragon Age 3 Revealed

Fans have been waiting for it by the dozens and ever since the smash success of Dragon Age II, EA and Bioware have been eager to reveal the work being done on the sequel.

dragon age“Dragon Age III will take the Dragon Age II experience to the next level,” Mark Laidlaw promised. “Everything you loved about that game will be even better here. Dragon Age II took place in a single city over ten years, but Dragon Age III will take place over twenty years… in one room.”

EA expects players to look forward to a return to the world of Thedas, or one room in it, to explore that room, to battle armies of enemies who suddenly appear in the room.

“We’ve made some challenging choices here,” Laidlaw said, “for example you can’t go left anymore, just right. And we feel that really expands the player’s horizons. Because it’s all about choice and telling people that they can’t go left challenges them, it makes them think about the nature of choice in their own lives.”

As before the player will take on the role of Hawke, a penniless refugee turned champion who is bound on an amazing adventure in a single room. Along with his companions, four of whom are gay, he will play a major role in shaping the future of the room, and romance his companions by clicking on options and then saying unpredictable, but sexually harassing things to them.

“This is about a story,” Laidlaw said, “that takes place over twenty years, that raises real world questions about terrorism, the environment and how tight my headband is. It will showcase a brand new engine that will make every corner of the room shine. And it will allow you to battle without even thinking about it. All you have to do is keep hitting a button and you will automatically win.”

Reviewers who are in no way beholden to EA have already given the game an average score of 94 before even seeing it and Bioware promises a special DLC expansion, The Unpantsed Prince, that ingame characters will constantly mention to you until you break down and buy it.

Bioware Sucks

Let’s get it all out there. Bioware sucks. Why?

1. Bioware has been making the same game since 2003. Further back if you count the development time. Kotor, Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are all the same game with different characters and settings. Sure they’re all good games, but they’re all the same good game. The same RPG lite approach, cutscenes, group of wacky characters you get to know along the way with different powers and engine that can’t handle you trying to walk on the grass. The same game since 2003.

2. The gimmicks are all old. The enemy who turns out to be a front for the real enemy. The mentor who turns out to be your enemy. The companions who turn on you forcing a showdown. The companions who make you choose which of them is going to die. The dark secrets of your companions. It was innovative in its time, but it’s all been done over and over again. Imagine Black Isle’s rep if it had just made Fallout, a game that played like Fallout but was set in a medieval fantasy land, a game that played like Fallout but was set in space, etc.

3. DLC, DLC and more DLC.

4. Pathetic attempts at social relevance. Remember playing Neverwinter Nights and finding a tribe of natives being attacked with poisoned blankets? That was embarrassing but Dragon Age 2 has material just as embarrassing. There’s a smart way to do social commentary and there’s the bonk you over the head with it way. Bioware goes the bonk way.

5. They’re not games, they’re interactive movies. If the earlier Bioware games were choose your own adventures, games like Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2 are just geared to showing you their cutscenes in between combat. Your choices are narrowly limited to sitting through what the designers want you to sit through. Bioware designers call that storytelling, but it strips away user agency for designer wankfests.

6. Consolization. Bioware is aiming heavily at the console market and stripping away the more interactive elements. Less customization and more handholding. A streamlined experience with no soul. Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 shows what happens when they try to adapt their formula to the console. The story goes by the wayside and the focus becomes on combat and cutscenes that mostly play out the same way whatever you do.

Dragon Age 2 Evolution or Devolution

as a genre, if RPGs can’t evolve and can’t change — and I know people yell at me for daring to use the word “evolve” — but if they can’t change or experiment, then the genre itself is going to stagnate. Not only in terms of mechanics, like in rehashes and stuff, which I think we mostly manage to avoid, but the bigger problem is that if we don’t have RPGs that present a different type of experience, then we kind of encapsulate our potential audience to people who enjoy just that experience, and we drive others away.

In of itself, that runs the risk of genre death — it becomes too referential or too reliant on people understanding that STR means strength which feeds into accuracy which results in damage done, and so on. You end up in a case where, the genre eventually burns out, or falls flat, or becomes too risky to take any risks in development, and so on and so forth, and that’s not something I want to see happen.

More of the Same from Mike Laidlaw. Dragon Age did not evolve, it devolved. An evolved game has more to offer. A devolved game has less to offer.

dragon ageIt’s not evolution when your choices in the game don’t matter. It’s not evolution when you’re stuck in the same bunch of levels. It’s not evolution when you can do less.

A page back Laidlaw admits that he didn’t have the assets to design original levels, so that assets had to be reused over and over again. Why were those assets available for Dragon Age, which had more available gameplay and content, but not for Dragon Age 2? They weren’t available because the plan was to dumb down Dragon Age 2, make it for less and orient it at a wider audience. Dragon Age was the investment is establishing the franchise. Dragon Age 2 maximized the audience.

Laidlaw keeps talking about the concept of the narrative framing, something that’s only interesting to pretentious designers. The user experience of the gameworld was badly neglected except for combat mechanics. That’s a devolution.

More Dragon Age 2 Apologia from Marc Laidlaw – Part 2

More of the same.

dragon age

What we tend to do when looking at companions is we start with who would be interesting and, honestly, who would make sense.

And then they came up with the least interesting characters and stuck you with them, then out of desperation went fishing for characters from Origins and Awakening.

Certainly, the main character having a stronger personality, one where you are able to provide sarcasm, [instead of] having you be the straight man and relying on someone else chiming in for the laughs.

That means you get the chance to either say something stupid or sexually harass a party member.

On first blush, it’s easy to dismiss the new people as nowhere near as cool as the old people. But what I see with Dragon Age II is that the characters, perhaps, don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves as much simply because they don’t have to, because we have more time for them to evolve and grow.

Wishful thinking much? They do wear their hearts on their sleeves and there’s nothing there. They’re boring one note characters.

The story arc around Aveline–to use one of our best examples–is more involved than any character story arc we had in Origins.

Are you kidding me? Aveline trying and failing to hit on one of her officers is more involved than a Golem on the loose trying to figure out its moral code only to learn that it began as a female dwarf? And that was only an Origins DLC character.

when you read a line of Origins dialogue for comparison, you see everything you could potentially say. In your brain, you’ve done the totality of that conversation. Whereas looking and saying, “Oh, I know that’s going to be a smart-aleck line, but I don’t feel it’d be right to use it,” you’re left with that temptation or that urge to pick it because you can’t tell exactly what you’ll say.

So the point of the new conversation is to give you conversation options without letting you know what you’re going to say. Why not also give you weapons with unpredictable effects?

The key driver behind it was the idea of unique visuals, being able to have Isabela stay Isabela instead of generic rogue put into the same leather armor your character is wearing. It lets us create a visual space between Hawke and the companions. And it gives the companions their own personalities [in the form of] unique body models and animations that are tied to how they idle

So Laidlaw is saying that they couldn’t create unique characters without fixing their armor in place?

It’s something that resolves one of the parts I really disliked about Origins where I’d see people’s screenshots with their badass team and they would kind of all look the same. Near the end of the game, everyone had the same set of suits of armor. It was kind of like, “Man, that’s not Morrigan if she’s not in those robes.” We ended up in this space where we decided to go with that visual style, and I think it’s something we’ll continue to iterate on in the future.

So Bioware gets its control freak on again. Pathetic. Controlled conversations, controlled outfits and tightly controlled choices.

The perspective we had for the tactical camera in Origins, with its extreme pull-up, created a very different approach for the way we designed levels. What it really created was restrictions on the way we designed levels.

But that’s okay because in Dragon Age 2, it’s all the same four levels repeated over and over again.

we’re quite happy with what we’ve done with Dragon Age II, and this is establishing a solid foundation that keeps a lot, in fact almost everything I want to keep about Origins, but still has tons of room to grow and, frankly, a more viable future for the franchise.

It’s more viable as a dumbed down console game, yes. Which is the real tell.

It’s one that’s more sustainable because we brought the world to a place that’s inherently more interesting than “Yay, we beat the Blight. Good for us!”

So hanging around the same city where hardly anything changes with no ability to explore is more interesting than traveling around a region and making decisions that actually matter? How does that work again.

That was always really the goal–to bring a fantasy property to life from nothing and to create a world and a space that makes people intrigued and curious to see more. They’re hungry to find out what happens next.

Not anymore they’re not.

We wanted to make RPGs, especially fantasy RPGs, accessible, cool, and interesting to people who have been playing RPGs for the last seven years and not realizing that every time they ate food or went for a long run in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, they were essentially grinding constitution.

To me, that represents a huge audience that may have disregarded RPGs, especially fantasy, as being too hardcore or too confusing. And making certain changes to make the game palatable without ripping out the mechanics that make RPGs so fascinating to a stats guy or what have you. It keeps this genre evolving into something that’s fresh and not stagnating.

So dumbed down RPG’s aimed at the console audience. How many pages did it to get to that one moment of honesty? Way too many.

More Dragon Age 2 Apologia from Marc Laidlaw

Make of it what you will.

What Dragon Age II does, or what I perceive it as doing, is take a lot of those gameplay elements–working together as a team, functioning as a combat unit, having a story that unfolds with choices (all of those core things that I see as principal to both Baldur’s Gate and, more importantly, to Dragon Age)–and tries to bring some newer ideas to the table (elements of responsiveness, elements of interactivity in the way those fights are coordinated) into what I think is a more modern setting and expectation.

If you understand what that means you get a prize. Dragon Age II really doesn’t have choices since its choices all lead to the same basic outcome. Fights are less less tactical than before. And more modern setting? A modern setting with dwarves, elves and magic?

We certainly knew there would be some friction between what Origins players have come to expect and what Dragon Age II delivers. But I don’t see the two in opposition to each other. I’ve talked to Origins players who said, “As soon as I moved it to hard, I totally see where Origins is again.”

Does moving it to Hard create a better story, better characters or a better world? Cause if it doesn’t, it’s not Origins. Dragon Age 2 isn’t New Vegas where another difficulty level changes the way you play the game.

First, we did want to focus in on a more personal experience–the experience of one person and not the avatar of an organization. To be quite frank, that’s a story we told before, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, we really wanted to challenge ourselves to not have you end up in the Jedi Order or a Child of Baal, what have you.

Instead you end up as the Champion of Kirkwall. So huh. The city is your organization.

But really, what I want to see Dragon Age II set up is a world that’s evolving over time just in the same way that Ferelden, as the Blight advanced, evolved through space.

And Dragon Age II failed to set that up. Kirkwall doesn’t evolve. All that happens is your home base is in a different location with more goodies and the Qunari quarter is blocked off.

So, in that respect, I think the narrow focus of Dragon Age II really does what we originally hoped to do, which is to say, “This is an event. We want to change the world.” As our lead writer said, we want to kick over the sand castle we just built to change something and to show that this is a dynamic space.

Why am I picturing Charlie Sheen reading those lines? Maybe it’s because it sounds like his brand of ‘dynamic space’ gibberish.

In the same way that Loghain is a comprehensible villain, such as it is, we wanted to make sure that we were telling the story of a descent into madness in a lot of ways. It’s driven by miscommunication, suspicion–human motivations rather than some sort of overarching evil.

Actually it’s driven by a nutter with a magical Lyrium idol. And another nutter possessed by a spirit from the Fade. Did Laidlaw even read his own game’s script?

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