PAX 2011: The Future of DRAGON AGE Panel

Game Review: DRAGON AGE 2

What the future may hold for the Dragon Age franchise was the topic of conversation in the late night but still packed Unicorn Theater at the Penny Arcade Expo 2011 in Seattle Saturday night. BioWare Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw hosted the panel, and he was joined by a long list of Dragon Age staffers including Executive Producer Mark Darrah, Art Director Marr Goldman, Lead Writer David Gaider, Senior Producer Alain Baxter and the creator of the Dragon Age pen and paper role playing game: Chris Pramas.

Laidlaw began with a respectful note to the audience that he and the panel can’t go too deep into the future of the franchise which is still in development, but instead will discuss the themes of the series and where they as designers are looking to go. Using a PowerPoint style sideshow Laidlaw discussed four key points that are being examined by the developers for potential changes.

The first was combat, and Laidlaw recognized concern among fans about where the fighting system in the game was headed and advised that they are not going the Devil May Cry route and instead likened combat evolving to something similar to a drawn up play in professional football. He reported that combat in Dragon Age is about “Preparation, Positioning and Teamwork.” Meaning what is important is making yourself ready for battle, organizing yourself when combat begins and having party members complement each other’s skills in battle with “flair.”

The second point was the scope of the game, and to illustrate that he used slides portraying the amount of the Dragon Age world that the events of the first game took place in and compared it to the relatively minuscule portion that comprised the whole of Dragon Age 2. He then teased another highlighted map with added comment that showed a playable map area north of Kirkwall that was at least four times the size of the play area of Dragon Age: Origins with no overlap with that game.

Next was customization, and Laidlaw’s slides showed that they don’t want characters that are all look-alike “Stormtroopers” and instead want more customizations, teasing a new companion inventory screen that depicted the ability to customize a companion’s armor load-out and explicitly told the audience that: “follower armor is coming back.”

Finally, after calling up and complementing the dozen or so Dragon Age cosplayers in the audience, the last topic was “Action and Consequence.” Laidlaw explained that the true ill of the world of Dragon Age is not monsters but human fallibility. He describes the future of Dragon Age to be: exotic locations, making friends, making enemies and dealing with the consequences of one’s actions. The final slide representing those consequences was of a hooded women with a long staff walking away from a burning home or farmhouse and it drew a chorus of “ooooohs” from the appreciative audience.

The floor was then opened to questions. The first was a fan asking if “the Warden” and Hawke will ever meet, and the panel came to a consensuses that it all depends on if one of them will be the player character again, and if it is neither, that would make it more likely, they also added that the story of the hero of Dragon Age: Origins was done, but Hawke’s was not.

The next question was on the scale world map, and the asking fan claimed that it could only be represented by an MMO-style title, and doubted that a future Dragon Age game could handle it. In reply the panel implied it could be done in a real game, that they could show the breadth of the world without having to show every little detail.

Laidlaw then suddenly closed the floor to questions and began to speak about how the Dragon Age franchise is expanding beyond the video games: into the pen and paper RPG and even an animated project being worked on with Funimation. After name checking internet and television star Felicia Day and her involvement in the upcoming Dragon Age: Redemption web series, Day herself appeared and made her way to the front to great applause. Day brought with her a premier trailer for Dragon Age: Redemption and screened it exclusively for the live audience. Little details of the plot of the web series were apparent, but there was plenty of action with an elfin Day and a small band of allies doing (gory) battle with foes, some arboreal chases, magic, shape changing, castles, dungeons and witty dialog. After the trailer, Day described her sixteen month work on the project, writing it in close consultation with the Dragon Age producers to make sure it was something everyone could enjoy and getting the over 100 effects shots done.

Back to questions, and on a request for a behind the scenes art book, Laidlaw described how they were working with a lot of external partners, so an art book is a possibility.

On the Qunari and the possibility that they are a parallel to a real world group of people, Laidlaw said Dragon Age is about holding a mirror to the human condition and understanding other people’s points of view, and that the more you learn about people the more you understand them.

One fan asked, referencing the Dragon Age prose novels, how many kids Merrill has. Gaider responded with a laugh that Merrill has at least two.

On Anders’ personality change between the two games, Laidlaw replied that Dragon Age is about that world, and its changes. That people change and evolve, and each character has their own story, they might not change the way you wished they did.

When asked if Dragon Age will become the new standard that all fantasy will someday be measured against, over the works of Tolkien, Laidlaw expressed that that is the goal, and that they are working to expand the world in other media and they hope to compete with works like Tolkien and the Harry Potter franchise on their level.

A game mechanics question was about the rerun of passive bonuses for having certain allies in your active group, and it was confirmed by the panel that that feature will indeed return.

Peals of laughter erupted in the hall when one gamer’s question about why they couldn’t have sex with Varric and how that fact broke their heart was phrased as "Why did you Hawke-block me with Varric?". The panel laughed too, chiming in that a fan’s broken heart brings pleaser to Mike Laidlaw, before confirming that players will ‘see more’ of Varric.

On customization, a fan asked for a mage knight class, and Laidlaw said it was a possibility, the idea of a close range mage casting spells in melee is appealing to them.

A gamer suggested Dragon Age adopt co-op play, but Laidlaw said the engine is not designed for it. It’s appealing, but they are not focusing on making that happen.

Finally, the last question was if combat in the next game will be more like Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age 2? Laidlaw doesn’t see the two game’s systems in opposition and wants to make sure that they are not designing fights, but instead designing encounters. As fans left, questioners and cosplayers were awarded signed & numbered Dragon Age lithographs.

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