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28 Interviews

Interview: Dragon Age: Inquisition tips the scales

By Connor Sheridan on Tuesday 22nd Apr 2014 at 1:00 PM UTC

Dragon Age: Inquisition would have been an eponymously monstrous task even without a once-scorched twice-shy fan base.

But BioWare least of anyone is willing to ignore its missteps. So here's a quick overview of the plan: bring back everything fans loved about Dragon Age: Origins, resolve the arching story that took form in Dragon Age 2, learn from Mass Effect 3's triumphs and failings, and make the first huge RPG to run on DICE's Frostbite 3 engine. It's enough to turn any warden's hair grey.

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BioWare's Cameron Lee

But Dragon Age: Inquisition producer Cameron Lee was optimistic when we talked about what the upcoming PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One game will do to bring BioWare dialogue wheeling into the future.

He told CVG how players will shape the Inquisition and in turn the world, how it will balance a strong narrative thread with more room to explore than ever before, and what weary fans hoping for a "return to form" means for BioWare.

He also addressed whether players can expect to romance a certain crossbow-wielding dwarf, but you'll have to read on to find out about that (potential) love connection.


CVG: How will players lead the Inquisition?

Cameron Lee: The war table itself is a mechanic in the game. It's one of the mechanisms by which you lead the Inquisition, you issue orders to the Inquisition, you send your agents out there to do the different types of missions, and rebuild parts of the world.

It's also where you trigger and start a lot of the story and critical path plots. The game is very much a mixture of overworld exploration and critical path stories, the directed narrative. So ordering the Inquisition and controlling the Inquisition is how we allow the player to decide where they want to spend their time on that.

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How do you preserve the ability to tell a gripping story when you let people wander off the path?

It's one of the challenges of this type of game. You could spend dozens of hours in just one location. But there are a couple things we do. The story itself, the overarching story is talking about particular themes and we reflect those themes across the entire game world. And when you make changes both in the game world and in the strong narrative areas, they all have impact, they all flow together and connect.

As an example, if I decided to save or bring the mage faction into my Inquisition at the expense of something else, I would start to see more mages in my forces around the world, patrolling worlds and things like that. But I would also start seeing another faction become an enemy faction and start to cause problems throughout the world. That's the kind of linked narrative you can do.

The vast majority of side content throughout the game, even in the wilderness areas, is themed for you and your Inquisition. It's a mechanism by which you can grow your Inquisition and strengthen the Inquisition's influence. It's not like, 'Go and save the kitten out of the tree'. It's more like, 'We've got an opportunity here to collect ancient elven swords for our soldiers.' So let's go into the dungeon and do that.

How will the open world change based on your decisions?

There are lots of small not just decisions but actions, physical actions that the player can take, that have small impacts throughout the world. There will be hundreds and hundreds of those.

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Then there are the big, epic, sweeping changes, like if you decide to bring the mages in rather than the Templars. That has dramatic consequences to the world and your Inquisition.

Then there is emergent behavior in the world. So if I came into the forest area of the game and started slaughtering all the bandits in that area, other factions can start to come into place. Then if you kill all of those a different faction comes in, and you can have different relations with those and take different sides.

There's a lot of dynamicism in the life of the world as well as the meta-story and factions. Then there are other areas where you can physically change the world. There's a moving battlefront, so as I move to the battlefront I can start to take over guard towers, bring my soldiers forward, set up barricades, push back the enemy defenders.

Then eventually I can take the castle, and if I do that I can get this mission on the war table to send my Inquisition in to repair this big bridge. By doing so now I get access to another part of the area that I didn't have before.

That's also the kind of dynamicism you can create, and that's in the player's control. There's a variety of those aspects and areas in the game. We don't want a static world. When we look at RPGs going back a number of years, our games, other games, you're given a world. And, sure, you can make changes to the story, you take actions that affect some of the NPCs.

"Even though we don't want to hit people over the head with everything, we want to be clearer"

But generally they're still relatively static. And not all of your decisions have a consequence. We've been guilty of this as much as anyone else. We see part of the future of RPGs being about making your world not just a stage any more. It's about a world that can shift and change and be modified by you as a player rather than a static world. That's one of the things we're aiming for with this game.

Did the Spectre clearance decisions in Mass Effect 3 influence the design of the war table?

That aspect as well as the galaxy map and the readiness level and stuff like that. We looked at all those sorts of things. None of them were something that was to the degree that we wanted it to be, and all of them had some level of problem. So we didn't take aspects and just manipulate them and manoeuvre some parts around.

We wanted a system that was far more fleshed out, far more part of the world and part of the story around you, and that reacts and changes. But we also recognized that you don't want to make a decision and then, five hours later, a random little thing happens that you may or may not even notice.

We've been guilty of this in the past, where there are so many decision points and so many actions you can take in a game, and so many of them have a consequence whether it be major or minor. But you very rarely notice unless you're really paying attention.

Most people don't notice. Even though we don't want to hit people over the head with everything, we want to be clearer. And the war table is one method by which we can do that.

Another example of this kind of thing is, if I decided to recruit someone into my Inquisition, I can make them an agent of the Inquisition. Now that does a couple things. One, it unlocks a couple advanced perks for the Inquisition. But it can also open up specific missions on the war table which are continuing the story of that particular agent. So it's more direct, and there are direct rewards.

Will there be any differences between the new-gen and last-gen versions besides graphics?

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Our goal is for there not to be any differences. We've already pushed as far as we can on the Gen 4 stuff, on Xbox One and PS4, so we're already at that point. When we look at how we bring it down to Gen 3, it's a challenge we know we have to solve and we're starting to think about it. But mostly it's going to be visual elements and immersion elements.

In terms of gameplay, there might be a situation where the creature count in some combats is lower in Gen 3 than it is on Gen 4, that's another good way to do it. Creature counts for us are high costs, given how much AI and how much animation in the combat abilities they might have.

You might see that, but our goal is not to have to do it. We think we can probably turn the knobs on the visual stuff far enough for the Gen 3 for us not to impact gameplay.

And it certainly wouldn't have any impact on the story or the areas you can go to, or anything like that.

Have you considered adding timed dialogue options like in Telltale's games?

Yes, we have certainly thought about it. And in fact we have done that in this game a little bit. There's a variety of different conversation types in this game, compared to the previous ones where everything was one type of conversation.

One of the new things we're the bringing in is the ability for the player to get involved in conversations that are happening around them. You know how we have a lot of party banter? If that's taking place, there are multiple instances where you can get involved in that and start talking to them. Some of that is timed. If you walk into a town and people are calling out to you and giving you opportunities to get involved in a conversation, again those things are timed.

We're trying to bring in a more realistic conversation feel in that sort of a sense. But definitely for the more strong narrative story aspects, that's more of the traditional dialogue wheel.

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Many are hoping this will be a "return to form" for BioWare. What do you make of that?

For me it's slightly different, because I joined BioWare when we started Inquisition. So I wasn't here for the previous Dragon Age games or the Mass Effect games. But I have a perception as a player of BioWare titles as well. So I think when people are referring to as a return to form there's probably a couple aspects.

There are people who aren't happy with the Mass Effect 3 ending, and people who aren't happy with DA2 for a variety of reasons. We've absolutely looked at all of that. We've recognized things that we didn't do well, and various areas that we did do well. But really, my job as a producer is to represent the players, to make sure that we're making a game that the players are going to love.

So I'm well aware of the types of things that they would like to see. A lot of the Dragon Age people in particular want to be given choices that will actually have a big impact. We absolutely will do that. We guarantee that that's going to be the case on multiple fronts and at multiple times throughout the game.

"We spent a lot of time on making the party's abilities and synergy more important to combat"

They also want us to bring back more complex and deep combat. Obviously the tactical cam is one of those things we're bringing back. But even when you're not using the tactical camera, it's still going to feel like a challenge you need to overcome. You've got to be thinking about how to use your party. And we spent a lot of time on making the party's abilities and synergy more important to combat. The party needs to work together to overcome the challenge of the combat.

A lot of people wanted a bigger, more epic and sweeping story, a larger game if you want to think about it like that. And this game is far bigger than Origins ever was. Not only just in the story, and in the breadth of the world, but if you want to speak in terms of development time, [laughs] there was a long time spent on this game and a lot of effort on it.

I think those things are all things that people are talking about when they talk about a return to form. And, of course, don't have colored endings, right? We certainly don't have colored endings.

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Cassandra is a confirmed love interest. Is Varric?

I'd better not answer that because if I do, David Gaider, the lead writer, will punch me in the face. So I can't answer that.

I know the answer, but I'm sorry guys. Let's put it this way: Varric loves his crossbow so much... So I don't know whether Varric would be able to let go of his love of Bianca.