BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk talked to me about “Dragon Age” recently. I had just seen an E3 demonstration off-site from the “big” gaming trade show. I witnessed one of the most impressive cutscenes I’ve ever seen — an epic clash of armored heroes and grunting orcs that could make Peter Jackson jealous. And I played a few minute’s of the game’s borne-from-“Baldur’s Gate” tactical combat.
Then we talked. About why this game exists, how it relates to “Baldur’s Gate,” whether they’re trying to emulate Peter Jackson, why the lead character doesn’t speak, how moral choices work in this game and lots more.
A super-sized Q&A follows. Learn more, because this game is shipping fairly soon: early 2009. On PC. But what’s that he’s suggesting about console versions way down at the bottom?
Multiplayer: Where did the idea for “Dragon Age” come from?
It’s harsh. Really gritty, very realistic and filled with surprising situations that you see don’t see high fantasy characters in.
Greg Zeschuk, Co-Founder, BioWare: The idea really came from the work we did o the original Baldur’s Gate and this is almost a spiritual successor to that game to “Neverwinter Nights.” When we finished on the “Neverwinter Nights” series, we said, “Let’s take the things we’ve learned, the knowledge in creating all those great games, and make our own fantasy world — with some twists. We call it dark heroic fantasy, where the old sort of high fantasy with elves happily sashaying across the countryside and happy Hobbits — the world of “Dragon Age” is effectively the reverse of that. It’s brutal. It’s harsh. Really gritty, very realistic and filled with surprising situations that you see don’t see high fantasy characters in.
Multiplayer: You just mentioned Hobbits, and when you showed some of the action scenes I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to some of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films. How much are you guys trying to mimic the action we see in those movies and how much are you trying to not be like that action?
Zeschuk: The reference point of the “Lord of the Rings” films as probably the pre-eminent visual representation of fantasy and what those big battles would be like certainly played a role in what we built. I think a lot of what it comes from, funny enough, is what we did in tiny pixels back in the “Baldur’s Gate” days. When you pull it back to what we have now with all the technology — animations and mo-cap — it just looks that way. That’s the surprising outcome of just creating a game based on [its] principles.
Multiplayer: As the player, what’s my motivation in this game? Am I saving the world? Why is my hero doing what he’s doing?
Zeschuk: One of the things we think is pretty unique about “Dragon Age: Origins” has to do with the “Origins” appendage to the title. Origins is a return to BioWare’s roots. But also, the origin stories are personal individualized experiences players get to start the game. Doing something in that origin story [determines] in large part what you’re trying to do in the world. There is a story arc that everyone goes through, but it is personalized and quite different depending on how you go through the origin.
Multiplayer: And how long do you play those before you dovetail with what everyone else is playing?
Zeschuk: We’re not talking too much about the origin stories and how they work. There’s a nice chunk to enjoy.
Multiplayer: You guys are always big on choice in video games. That’s one of the fundamental things that BioWare does. How does choice function in this game and how does it differ than it did in “Mass Effect” which is a lot of people’s last point of reference for BioWare?
“Dragon Age” is similar to our other games in the sense that you are making a lot of choices. They’re big. They’re impactful.
Zeschuk: We always think of choice as one of the key things we do. The concept of non-linear fiction or narrative that branches is one of the things that sets videogames apart. We believe it is fundamental to making it an emotionally impactful art-form. “Dragon Age” is similar to our other games in the sense that you are making a lot of choices. They’re big. They’re impactful. I think we may have amped up the emotionality of it a little bit. We feel players will have a very personal experience with the game. .. Because of the way the game works you’re going to have a different feel depending on how you started and the choices you made [in the origin].
Multiplayer: You guys are known for having one major twist in your games — as in “Knights of the Old Republic” or “Jade Empire” — or having one really powerful decision moment like a Wrex decision moment in “Mass Effect.” Is there going to be a pivotal twist in this game? Are you guys look to have more or pace them differently in this game?
Zeschuk: I don’t want to disclose too much about the potentially twisting and turning story. Perhaps — we joke about this among ourselves — the twist is that there is no twist. That might be it. In this case I think some are personal, some are big. Some will surprise the player. There are a couple of things we know already… It’s interesting. When we built a game like “Dragon Age” or “Mass Effect,” you don’t know how it’s going to play out. You write the story and you create the cinematics. It’s almost like a movie. You do the first edit and see how it works. Maybe this part needs more action. What we’re seeing right now is that we’re in the middle of it. We’re pulling all the levers to get it to really have the impact.
Multiplayer: You wouldn’t talk about the “Origins” part of the title. Will you tell us about the “Dragon” part of it?
Zeschuk: I think dragons have been confirmed and I think that’s all I can say about dragons.
Multiplayer: You can’t say if we’re riding dragons or fighting dragons?
Zeschuk: Well, not at this point. I think we’ve given a good sense to people who have seen that game that it’s got the classic sense of tactical combat. And we’ve got big creatures. So maybe there will be big creatures in your battle sometimes.
Multiplayer: If people’s last point of reference for BioWare is “Mass Effect,” they may recall the quality of the voice acting and the fact that you could even choose the gender of your character and have a separate voice track to listen to. Also, the conversation was triggered by mood and not knowing the line that the character would deliver. In “Dragon Age” it seemed that your lead character has no voice and you’re literally selecting what line you say next rather than picking the emotion. So how should people interpret that you guys have undone some of the things you did in “Mass Effect,” and why is there a difference?
When we looked at “Dragon Age” we sat back and thought we wanted the player to reflect their own inner voice. This was a very conscious decision.
Zeschuk: So the way the voice and the voice of the protagonist works: Our belief, and the reason we make a wide variety of games at BioWare (we actually have a quite a few in development), they come in different flavors. “Mass Effect” is incredibly cinematic and flowed a certain way based on the protagonist’s voice and the way we did the dialogue system. When we looked at “Dragon Age” we sat back and thought we wanted the player to reflect their own inner voice. This was a very conscious decision. It actually harkens back to our roots and it’s actually what we’ve done in all our games up until “Mass Effect.” And things like “KOTOR” have been pretty well-loved by the fans. [smiles] There’s a lot of choices in this game about how you portray yourself and how you experience it. We wanted players to have an additional sense of — even though I’m picking a line — I’m the one saying it in my head.
Multiplayer: One of the things that stood out to me in the demo was the armor. It looked very impressive and detailed. I’m wondering what the priorities are for armor and armament that your team is rendering in these games.
Zeschuk: I’ve noticed the same thing. It’s a callout to the “Dragon Age” team that they’ve done a spectacular job creating a world that looks kind of beefy: It’s solid looking; it’s real looking. That extends to the armor and weapons… I think there are a couple priorities. Typically for a lot of our games, particularly “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age,” we do a lot of face-work because you’re coming in close and you see the face. It’s astounding how much time is put into that. The surfacing and the detailing you see on the armor, a lot of that has to do with the materials systems. They’re a really big thing that’s happened this generation that didn’t really exist before. It used to be very simplistic. [A game artist would say]: “It’s flat, it’s maybe getting a little specular highlight.” I have to say that, back in the day when I was programming, it was really simple. You had a picture. You had to put a picture on the screen. You weren’t creating things out of ones and zeroes that look so realistic.
Multiplayer: The only language I heard in the game was English. But before I started working at MTV, the last story I did for The New York Times was an interview with a guy named Wolf who had created the language Tho Fan for “Jade Empire.” He had told me how he had created four different languages for “Dragon Age.” He said the languages all connected to each other. Are you guys using them?
We found way back working on the original “KOTOR” that having alien languages was a nice development trick, until you had human guys speaking Hutt-ese and you’d be like: “That doesn’t work.”
Zeschuk: I think they are a subtle background thing. We found way back working on the original “KOTOR” that having alien languages was a nice development trick, until you had human guys speaking Hutt-ese and you’d be like: “That doesn’t work.” We try to create them now. The amount of pre-production we do now for our games is enormous. The amount of story is too. With “Jade Empire,” I remember looking at this one book. It’s literally book-sized: the geography, history and culture of the Jade Empire. It’s like those classic [“Dungeons & Dragons“] things, those huge guides to worlds. So these things are often created to fit the world together and the team builds off them. How they end up in the game really varies.
Multiplayer: This is your way of saying you’re not using Wolf’s languages?
Zeschuk: I think there are elements, but it’s not an out front thing. They are used.
Multiplayer: This is coming out on PC early next year?
Zeschuk: Yeah, we’ve announced to folks that it’s coming in early 2009, which baffle folks. Typically we show our games many, many times at E3 over and over again. And we’re not [this time]. We showed it once a while back and went dark on it purposely to get the technology and the game going. It’s not that far off. It’s very exciting.
Multiplayer: And how are you feeling about putting this type of game on the PC? How are you expecting the market to react to this? Do you think many people will have systems to run this? Do you think it competes with MMO’s in any sense because “World of Warcraft” is fantasy as well?
Every time one of our games gets reviewed we hear people saying “Why don’t you go make another ’Baldur’s Gate’ game again.” So we said, “Okay, that’s it. Now we’re doing it. Enjoy.”
Zeschuk: On the system specs side, we haven’t finalized specs. The engine is quite robust and is able to scale down. That was one of our focuses, particularly because we have tactical combat with four people and up to 20 enemies. We’re trying to make sure it can crunch down. I don’t think system specs are going to be a big challenge for it.
The market is interesting. People are always decrying the death of the PC market. But the reality, especially if you look globally, is different. People tend to look in their back yard and say, “Oh the grass is brown. There must be no rain.” Whatever. If you look around their yard everything is just fine. They just forgot to water it. So, the PC market in North America is very different. It’s not like it was five years ago. Games that have connected elements, games that fulfill something in which a lot of people work together and do stuff [are still popular.]… Every time one of our games gets reviewed we hear people saying “Why don’t you go make another ’Baldur’s Gate’ game again.” So we said, “Okay, that’s it. Now we’re doing it. Enjoy.”
Multiplayer: And what can you say about “Dragon Age”’s future as a PC franchise? The word “Origins” implies there’s going to be more. And what can you say about its future on consoles?
Zeschuk: Any time we undertake something we have a goal of creating franchises… PC for now is what we’re focusing on, but there is a console future for the franchise. We haven’t really talked about what that’s going to be, but one thing we’re focused on, as folks probably have seen in regards to “Mass Effect” on the PC, is whenever we do a platform choice, we’re very definitive and very specific. We don’t splash it across all the platforms. Like in the case with “Mass” PC we worked really hard to make it even better than the console version. The PC gives us more tools to do that with. That s the approach we’re taking with “Dragon Age” and other games at BioWare.