Q: You’re producer on Dragon Age: Inquisition. What does that mean?
Lee: My job ultimately comes down to representing the player and understanding what it is we want to make, what they want us to make, and then helping the team here to deliver on that. It’s also to make sure that we can support the team to deliver the best game possible – one that fits well with what our players and the market want. Ultimately it comes down to making a critically-acclaimed game. So no pressure, you know [laughs].
Q: So what do you think players want out of Dragon Age: Inquisition?
Lee: That’s the big question, and it has a very complicated answer. There are so many different segments of players that enjoy our game. There’s our hardcore fans that actually want the story and want the choices to matter – they wanna know that the choices they made in previous games pay off in Inquisition. They’re your really strong RPG players so they want deep characterisation, thoughtful combat…there is a whole suite of things they look for. They’re the ones that we know we need to satisfy.
Then there are other types of players like your potential players: people who may have played a few RPGs in the past, but they may not have played Dragon Age or tried a BioWare game. They generally want similar things, but they’re not quite as hardcore. They’re not casual by a long stretch, but they don’t care as much about the characters from previous games, ‘cos they don’t know them! It’s also about making sure we can embrace those people and bring them in.
Really, when you’re looking at making a game like this, what we’re trying to do is understand the similarities between those two groups and make sure we absolutely nail that, because we know that is gonna get 90 percent of what both groups want. So that’s the general premise we’re trying to push on – make sure that as many people can enjoy the game as possible.
Q: How do you strike that balance between enticing the new people in and not overwhelming them with new information, but still keeping veterans happy?
Lee: A lot of it is pacing. For example, when we go through our plot or level reviews, a great example is the prologue. When we do a prologue for a game, the first version we make is normally so heavy in lore and explanation, and that creates an experience which is not the best from a pacing perspective to bring new players in. They wanna feel immersed in a world and learn as they go, so you can’t swamp them with stuff. We go through this iterative process again and again and again: what can we take out of the forced conversation and put it in the side conversation? That’s going to give you satisfaction from both types of players.
We know these hardcore guys who want a lot of lore are probably going to go and talk to everyone they can in the world, so we streamline the core conversation. That’s the first thing we do. UI and HUD elements require a lot of attention too – how we represent quests, your followers, combat elements. They’re similar in that it’s an iterative process to go through where realistically, what do we absolutely need on the screen at any one time?
This game we’re trying to take the approach of removing as much as we possibly can from the HUD and UI without breaking the experience. And one great thing about the tactical cam that is back in Inquisition is that a lot of that core information you can bring up there. When you’re exploring the world and it’s this dark, dangerous cavern, you don’t wanna feel like you’re playing a UI, you wanna feel like you’re actually in the world, so we pull off a lot of HUD elements.
Q: You arrived at BioWare well after the first two Dragon Age titles had shipped. What did the team from the first two games think had to change, and what were they keen to keep? Was there any particular design directive in place?
Lee: When I came on board, the first thing I did was I played through the games and read through all the documentation of what we were looking at creating in order to provide some feedback. It was a great experience because I came in as a fan of the previous games (and all BioWare games), so I found it quite useful to talk to different groups. And different parts of the team had different concerns.
Certainly the combat team wanted to make sure they brought in a lot more depth to Inquisition. They wanted to make the combat experience more about how the party works together to overcome challenge, rather than previous games where if you are a warrior you can take lots of hits, and what you do is mostly individual actions.
The previous games had class combos with shatter effects and stuff like that, and we wanted to take that and expand upon it more and have not just the synergy between the party members, but also have combat encounters that required that synergy be used – encounters which can be approached different ways depending on what your party is set up to do and how you built it. Then of course we brought back the tac-cam, which was high on the priority list.
From a story perspective, the narrative team wanted to make a much bigger game than DA:2 and even DA:O. They wanted to go back to these sprawling epic kind of adventures, with a story that spans nations. They also wanted to make the impact of choices you make be clearer. So many BioWare games have choice points running through them, and they all have some sort of payoff somewhere, but often as a player you’d struggle to know that. It’s like, “Well, I made some decision three hours and two plots ago,” you know? So we wanted to make that a little more obvious. Not everywhere though – we don’t want to slap people over the head with it.
One big thing we wanted to do was the huge, open-world environments. The goal there was to provide a sense of exploration and discovery which BioWare games traditionally had a lot of, but which we’d kind of lost. Exploring these weird and wonderful places. We’ve made a massive world so we want people to get lost in it!
There are so many other things. Customisation is just crazy. The first two games had barely anything, but in Inquisition it’s just mental. You can make different swords and armour, but within that you can change the
grips compared to the blade compared to the pommels, you can use different types of leather. If I go and hunt a Nug, I can skin that and if I use that it looks and feels different to other types of leather. All materials have different properties which create a huge number of stats you can use to customise your equipment. You can also customise your stronghold to a huge degree.
Finally, the big ticket item was bringing races back. We wanted to come back to Origins in terms of letting players fulfil the fantasies they have. They like dwarves so let them play dwarves. They like elves so let them go for it. And when we made that decision, it was very easy to say let’s allow them to play as the Qunari, this big horned-type creature. So I was incredibly pleased when that decision was made.
Q: The tactical camera returning is good news, but how essential will it be? Some people felt that the combat in Dragon Age 2 was too one-dimensional.
Lee: Yeah that’s a valid concern. We’re starting to go through the balance path for the game now. The general principle that we’re taking with us is twofold: on normal difficulty, it should be very difficult if not impossible to play the whole game without using the tac-cam at some point. You are faced with many different types of combat encounters which behave differently and require different kind of strategies and thinking to overcome, so even if you aren’t using the tactical camera, you need to think about how to approach that combat.
If you aren’t using the tactical camera, regular re-evaluation on the fly is required regarding how to position and how to manoeuver, where to send your guys, which creatures to take out first, etcetera. So generally you’ll be using tactics all the time in real time. However, that can get very stressful! So we think of the tac-cam as a frustration breaker. Everyone has a different level of how much pressure they can take in live combat with the kind of encounters we provide, so the tac-cam is a great way to alleviate that pressure, because it pauses the game.
Anything above normal difficulty: by god you’d wanna be using the tactical camera! We’re trying to take an approach across everything from combat to the races, genders, classes, crafting, choice of story – all these thing we roll up into this premise of “play the game your way”. It’s not up to us to tell you how to play the game. It’s your game, do what you want in it. We’re gonna give you the world in which to play in and the tools to use. How you use ‘em is up to you.
Q: What can you tell us about the new protagonist and story?
Lee: The new player-character, The Inquisitor, survived this massive explosion. But it wasn’t just an explosion, you got knocked into The Fade [a metaphysical realm], and in that experience in The Fade, you are left marked. So when you come out of The Fade, some people think you were sent back by The Maker, and the relationship you have to The Fade is a double edged sword. You have the ability to affect this massive rift and breach in the sky that’s swallowing the world and threatening to suck it into space, so you have a connection to this event. But because of that connection, you’re also being hunted by the architect of that explosion, so there is a puppet master behind all these events.
There’s a really cool sequence at the end of our new trailer where you and your Inquisition soldiers are storming a castle and slaughtering Grey Wardens, which I think some of our fans are gonna find quite interesting. The whole story is really all about the threat to the world, the threat to you, and why you are special and different.
Q: I’m somewhat reluctant to ask this next question, but it’s a hot button topic right now…
Lee: I know exactly what it’s going to be!
Q: Resolutions and frame rates on different platforms?
Lee: Oh shit! No, I thought you were going to ask about something else! We actually don’t know yet. We build everything on PC so we know what it does on that. We’ve got it running on other platforms, but we’re too far away from that optimisation stage right now. I have no idea where we’re going to land. I know it’s easier to get the higher frame rates on the PS4 right now, but we’ll just do the best we can on each. If it means we ship higher on some than others, then that’s what we’ll do.
Q: What did you think I was going to ask you?
Lee: I thought you were going to ask about multiplayer, ‘cos everyone asks me about that. And my answer is always: “Yeah, Mass Effect did really well on multiplayer!”