Dragon Age: Inquisition - it's all about ambition
Producer Cameron Lee talks to Independent.ie about the challenges of making the third instalment of the franchise
FOUR years in development, Dragon Age: Inquisition was supposed to take only three. But the massive scale of the project confounded developer Bioware, despite its reputation for sprawling role-playing epics such as Mass Effect.
Chastened by the vocal reaction to the first two instalments in the Dragon Age series, the team at Bioware were determined this time to match fan expectations. They even delayed the final release a second time, pushing Inquisition back from last month to November 21, committing to squash as many last-minute bugs as possible.
Inquisition roots its fiction in the same medieval fantasy universe as its predecessors, telling the story of a mysterious prisoner who just might be the saviour of the world. It mixes magic and combat with DA’s tactical overview, enabling you to pause the action and direct the actions of your party.
Producer Cameron Lee, one of the leads on the Inquisition team at Bioware in the Canadian city of Edmonton, is sanguine about the protracted development schedule.
“The first delay of a year was really about ambition,” the quiet-spoken Australian explains. “Can we make the game of the size and the ambition that we wanted to make in the time that we originally had? We looked at the time that we had and said: can't do it. We need an extra year.
“That was fantastic because it allowed us to do things like more playable races, bigger worlds and more diversity in the environments. We have bigger stories and more options in terms of exploration and the activities you can do in the world. So that was really beneficial.
“The second delay was only about four to six weeks. That was around, essentially, bug-fixing. We know long it takes Bioware to finish games based on how many bugs you have and when you need to ship. You need to ship a quality title, of course, but you can only fix so many bugs and so we needed more time. We wanted the game to be as polished as possible for the player.”
But the rescheduled release pushes Inquisition further into the Christmas bearpit, where it comes up hard against a raft of blockbusters, including Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. Lee, however, isn’t bothered and the Bioware team had no problem going toe to toe with the marquee titles.
“We wanted the game to come out in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he says. “Bioware is used to shipping games in more about February time but we didn't want to do it this time.
“Originally shipping in October, that was a really interesting window. There were a half-dozen odd titles coming out on the same day. So we thought, let's move it because we need time for that polish. We moved out of that busy window into a window that was not so busy. And then we've seen is that other titles got delayed as well and they're all pushing back into the same window.
“But we're not worried, they're different games, different experiences. If people want a Dragon Age game, a big fantasy RPG that they can get involved in, it's very different from a Call of Duty game. I think there's enough room there for multiple franchises.”
Obviously, Inquisition benefits from being a horse of a completely different colour compared to other giant franchises competing for gamers’ attention this Christmas. It’s an action RPG but much more tactical and deeper than twitch shooters such as CoD.
Like Skyrim – a comparison that Bioware is at pains to avoid – Inquisition’s single-player storyline will take maybe 30 to 40 hours to complete but the associated side-quests run into hundreds of hours of gameplay. Lee believes they’re not just making all that extra content for a small minority.
“It really depends on the players,” he says. “A lot of people in the studio are up to 70 hours and that's enough exploration to finish the story and get a feel for the side content and quests. You can do it much quicker if you go through it or you can take 150 or more hours, particularly if you're playing on a high difficulty level.
“There are lots of people who do that. There are people who play games for hundreds and hundreds of hours, whether it be RPG games or other games, multiplayer games or MMOs or strategy games or games like Civilization, which you can play for hundreds of hours.
“So it's up to the player how much of the story they'll see versus how much of the world they're gonna explore and the backstory and all the nooks and crannies.
“Bioware has always done different classes, different races, different content. You can romance different people, you can do different side quests and experience different content depending on what decisions and actions you take.
“What is important to us is that the world is deep and reacts to the player. Bioware tells stories in which the player has the ability to make different choices. In Inquisition one of those choices is how much do you explore or not explore. We create this big, meaningful world that people get lost in and that's the sort the place we want the player to have the option to explore.”
Inquisition marks the debut of multiplayer in Dragon Age, though the coop missions have no link to the single-player storyline. Lee sees MP as complementary to the main game, enabling immersion in a macro version of the giant battle waged in the single-player story.
“It's different but connected,” Lee says by way of explanation. “There is no connection in terms of levelling up or items transferring across.
“In multiplayer you play an agent of the Inquisition whereas in the single-player game you are the equivalent of the leader of the Inquisition.
"So in the single-player game you have the ability to send out agents on missions throughout the world. You have a big war table, with over 300 operations where you can command your agents.
“In multiplayer, you're actively taking on the role of an agent of the Inquisition. So when you go into the one of the missions with your friends, you get an overview by one of your Inquisition specialists as to what's going on and what you need to accomplish as a group. Then you fight.”
Dragon Age: Inquisition is released on PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3 and X360 on November 21