Today marks the last part of ZAM.com's interviews with some of the top minds of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins. Next week we'll have a full hands-on preview of our initial thoughts on the game, but for now, you can enjoy our chat with Mark Darrah, Executive Producer of the Dragon Age franchise and all around guru when it comes to the theories of game development and how the industry is evolving. Read on for some great insights into the creation of Dragon Age and where it's going to be in a few years.
ZAM: We're here with Mark Darrah, the Executive Producer of the Dragon Age franchise. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?
Mark Darrah: I'm actually in charge of the creative direction of not just Dragon Age: Origins, but of all of the products associated with the brand. At the moment, it's just Dragon Age: Origins and the one released book, but this also includes more novels in the future, a pen and paper game being developed by Green Ronin, a comic book and any future expansions to come.
ZAM: When you were creating Dragon Age, is franchising the game something that you wanted to do from the beginning?
Mark: Absolutely. It's always been the intention of Dragon Age to establish a new IP, a new universe that we can build and show a new side to fantasy, a darker look at fantasy that allows us to tell a lot more stories. This is just the first game in a universe of games.
ZAM: You've already indicated that you're focusing on creating a social network for Dragon Age as well as doing all you can to encourage a strong modding community. Do you have anything planned for further game development in the short term?
Mark: There's the stuff we've already announced publicly, the Stone Prisoner, which is the Shale Golem additional character, and Warden's Keep, which is an additional area that's coming out right away. Additionally, we're looking at things that extend from post-release content. Everything from expansion packs in full-fledged retail packaging, all the way down to item packs and small missions, where you might have an hour or two of game play for two bucks or so.
Mark: Also, we haven't planned anything like this yet, but we could also release things like additional content for the end-user toolset. One thing we're looking into is potentially packing some of the user-created content into packages, and we can potentially throw in additional content with that.
ZAM: So you might one day develop on some user-created content?
Mark: We certainly wouldn't take it from them, but I think it's always interesting to see what the community can create, because they often come to game development from a different perspective. They don't have a lot of the pre-conceived notions of the industry, and they aren't taught about what "can't" be done. I think that there's a lot of power in not knowing that something is hard, and this lets them do things that we wouldn't do. So it's always interesting to see what the community can create.
ZAM: And even without multiplayer support for Dragon Age: Origins, you guys firmly believe you can create a strong online community?
Mark: I think so, I think that the modding community and the user created content can be a strong addition to the franchise and bring a lot to the project.
ZAM: In looking at the more creative side, like novels, can you tell us a little more about what's in the works, and what these additions bring to the Dragon Age universe?
Mark: There's already one novel out and another novel coming out around when the game comes out. There is also a pen and paper game in the works, from Green Ronin, and a comic book being created. We haven't nailed down anything past that, but I think strong fantasy property requires novels as part of its existence. It's just something that brings breadth to the space.
ZAM: While Dragon Age will probably be a big focus for the coming years, are there any plans for more original stuff to be franchised? I know you have Mass Effect and now Dragon Age. Are you planning to do anything else beyond that?
Mark: We don't have anything announced right now, but we're always on the lookout to broaden our portfolio, to appeal to as many people, in terms of narrative game play, as possible. I think we have a fantasy IP in Dragon Age, and we have a Science Fiction IP in Mass Effect, but I think there's a lot of opportunity for things in between that can support different types of games, although still keeping in touch with that narrative game play design.
ZAM: What inspired Dragon Age to be made? I know you guys are always mentioning Baldur's Gate II and Neverwinter Nights as big drawing points. Is there anything else?
Mark: Really, from a game play perspective, what we're trying to do is make a game that evokes the feeling of Baldur's Gate II, or Neverwinter Nights. But from an IP perspective, it's more influenced by the harsher fantasy aesthetic of something like a George R.R. Martin book, or some of the better Conan stuff. It's a darker fantasy, but we also want to keep that heroic touchstone, so there's that Lord of the Rings element mixed in. You're fighting an ultimate evil, which is something that you'd see in a Lord of the Rings novel, but there are all these politics and darker undertones, like you'd see in a George R.R. Martin space as well.
ZAM: Have there been any other games that you looked at when developing Dragon Age?
Mark: Certainly Mass Effect because we have easy access to the team there. I also think that the Final Fantasies have always been a strong role playing component on the console, so it's hard to work in the fantasy space on the consoles without considering them. More recently, games like Bioshock have taken a new approach to storytelling. They tell stories in a much different way than we traditionally do and I think that's been a really interesting thing to look at from a storytelling perspective. Obviously Fallout and Oblivion have also gone to a more open world style of storytelling. I think that open world exploration is something where there is room for a lot of different kinds of games, but it's important for us to be aware of what exists around us so we can learn through them and be inspired by them.
ZAM: I know that Star Wars: The Old Republic is being produced with hours and hours of voice acting, and this is definitely a key feature that everyone is looking forward to. One thing that I did notice with Dragon Age was that the voice acting was also superb. Do you think that, in general, BioWare is looking to make that one of your trademarks?
Mark: I think so. We like to focus on cinematic storytelling, and part of that is voice acting, which lends itself to strong characterization. I think it's very important for that to be able to tell a strong story if the characters you're interacting with have strong voices, strong appearances and they exist in the space in a realistic way.
ZAM: It seems as though a lot of games are moving more towards this open-ended storyline, with a lot of exploration and self-driven adventuring. Do you think that's the way of the future with gaming?
Mark: It's interesting because I think that, as games have gotten more and more expensive, the industry has gone both ways. I think you're seeing a resurgence, recently, of the lighter old style game play in things like Shadow Complex or other Xbox Live Games. I think we're going to see a renaissance in that sort of game in the next couple of years. But at the same time we're seeing more and more games becoming more about story as their particular types of game play are stabilized. First person shooters, for example, move towards deeper storytelling as they perfect their combat systems; open world games, like Grand Theft Auto, also begin to develop stronger stories as they polish the game's controls. I think we're going to see a division, where you'll see one set of games turn to a more pure focus on game play, and other games capturing a narrative storytelling aspect as they polish their signature game styles.
ZAM: You mention that companies usually prefer to stabilize their 'signature game styles' before expanding upon the storyline depth. Would you say, then, that BioWare is really looking to focus on your signature multi-character combat system, like Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic?
Mark: That is what we're focusing on right now. As well, I think that storytelling is a strong component of our games, and there are interesting opportunities for us to look at, in terms of storytelling, within different kinds of game play. There are a lot things that aren't being done anywhere by anyone right now, but a story, a narrative, can still be told, can still exist, and I would like us to look into that. For the medium term, at least, we'll be focusing on this Dragon Age, Mass Effect tactical group style of game play.
ZAM: Do you ever get frustrated with the sheer amount of depth that needs to go into every game you make? Do you ever wish you could make, say, a game like Qbert or other simpler games?
Mark: Yeah, but you remember how a game like Qbert, or even a game like 24, which was basically a puzzle game, had a narrative and told a story. I think that's something that BioWare could do, we're capable of working within that space, but it's just something that we don't currently do, and I think it would be an interesting place to experiment.
ZAM: But no plans to experiment at the moment?
Mark: At the moment nothing right now. We still have to finish Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age before we can start expanding too broadly.
ZAM: And I don't think there's anybody in the world who's complaining! In closing, could give any more hints as to where Dragon Age is going to go from here?
Mark: There are certainly a lot more stories to be told from a role playing perspective in this franchise, but I think that Dragon Age is also a universe that can export a lot of different games, like RTSes and more action paced games. Nothings planned in that space at the moment, but I just think that this is a universe that can support every kind of game.
ZAM: Excellent, thank you so much for answering our questions, and good luck with the launch of Dragon Age!
Mark: My pleasure.
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom