The annual East Coast Game Conference -- a 1500-attendee attempt at GDC-style development gatherings -- welcomed Mike Laidlaw of Bioware for its keynote today. The Bioware Creative Director has been tasked with oversight of the company's Dragon Age product line, drawing from his experience to discuss world design and storytelling at the conference.
Laidlaw's presentation spanned behind-the-scenes aspects of the development process, including unique considerations taken into account when producing a more open-world title. Throughout the keynote, Laidlaw made playful jabs at Bioware's own shortcomings with Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, often referencing the Hinterlands and player defiance for migration.
Usability and Player Progression: Heat Maps to Study Map Exploration
Among Bioware's deployed technologies to determine usability of Inquisition, a heatmapping system was implemented during play testing to analyze where players adventured. This system was used primarily internally during company playtests and tracked where players physically traveled on each map; as the first semi-open world Dragon Age title, Laidlaw considered this approach critical to understanding player tendencies in exploration.
The heatmap quickly highlighted regions where players would get stuck, backtrack for several minutes, and eventually disengage or otherwise exit the game. This utility also assisted in underscoring pacing problems where players might spend too much time – like the Hinterlands – and provided actionable enhancements to gameplay prior to finalizing the title. Some regions of the game's large world were almost never touched by the team, leading to troubleshooting of why that happened and how it could be resolved.
That's not always a bad thing, though, as Laidlaw pointed out.
A slide shown during the presentation offered this quote:
"I feel like these nooks and crannies need to make me feel like a designer is waiting here to leap out and hug me."
The point to this, the engaged crowd was told, is that players should be rewarded for wanderlust and exploration. If a player decides to diverge from the game's crit path to take-in the environment – perhaps to trek to a barren beach, even with no enemies in sight – that player should then be rewarded with something non-critical that shows appreciation. “It should feel like a designer 'got there first,'” Laidlaw indicated, noting that it's important for players to feel engaged by the game's creators.
These planted assets are often referred to as “easter eggs” in games, though that phrase wasn't used in the Bioware keynote. The example provided drew upon the gaming world's most coveted object: The cheesewheel. A block of cheese was placed far away in the environment, hidden away from the critical progression path – nothing special here, just a giant wheel of cheese on a table. Then, Laidlaw told us, the game's Art Director said “We're makin' a shield. We're doin' it.” Just a month from certification, in under an hour, the team added a usable cheese shield as a playful reward to keen-eyed players.
Power is a Separate Currency [from Gold]
Learning from previous titles, Bioware decided that gold and power should be regarded as separate currencies.
Quests that required collection of substantial amounts of gold would deter players from actually spending that gold and shopping, detracting from an important, core gameplay experience into which designers invested heavy resources.
Transitioning into Dragon Age and its sequels, Bioware decided that power should be awarded in part through story and that gold should enable fulfillment.
Why Jumping is Important
“We thought we didn't need it [before],” Laidlaw said of jumping before conceding “we were wrong. Sorry.”
Laidlaw referenced Knights of the Old Republic, an RPG that – although it lacked jumping – had a button allowing a flick of the player's lightsaber. This twirl was “something to do while you were running,” described as the “most boring aspect” of any game. The Bioware Creative Director noted that this has been taken into consideration for future titles, and that any semi-open world game demands a mechanic that can be executed during boredom.
It's a natural tendency to do these actions while running and exploring, although not necessarily immersive by nature. Sit any player down in front of an MMORPG and you'll observe them jumping within seconds.
On Console Limitations
Dragon Age: Inquisition faced hardware limitations on the PlayStation and Xbox, with Laidlaw noting that dynamic time was impossible at a desirable level on consoles: "Xbox 360 and PS3 hardware -- coupled with what we're doing visually -- are unable to handle that data."
As a PC gaming site, we're all familiar with untapped potential in gaming hardware due to limitations – API overhead is the most common, but console ports are among the most noticed form of throttling hardware capabilities.
Bioware entered DA:I development with lowered confidence as a result of Dragon Age 2's mediocre reception, with confidence further dashed by a transition in both hardware and software platforms. The game's engine and available consoles were all changing at the same time, the team was venturing into relatively unexplored gameplay mechanics, and Bioware felt as if it was “building the car while driving down the highway.”
“It was a big game,” Laidlaw concluded, noting that development often followed a path of “here's a stone – try hitting things with it and see what breaks.”
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.