computer games games design

Dragon Age 2: When Designers go Bad…

Courtesy of Tom, I played the DA2 demo a few days ago. It’s the first Bioware game I’ve played that was so inherently dull and boring I lost all interest after 10 minutes. This rarely happens to me with any game, let alone one from a mega-studio like Bioware. I suspect, in fact, it’s just a really bad demo – the real game is nothing like this. I hope.

Intensely detailed (intensely sexualised) player-characters, but otherwise a depressing art-style (grey on grey with a backdrop of de-saturated blood – i.e. red-tinted grey – and an overcast sky of … multi-hued grey. Oh, and the enemies use a single-hue pallette too: grey).

There was some classic Bioware-ism in the intro itself – sounded and felt like NWN redux – same focus on narrative, but with an engine so badly broken it miserably failed to lip-synch (in a way that no other studio has done so badly for more than ten years), and the eyeballs appeared to have been sucked out, and replaced with ill-fitting glass bearings.


That kind of amateurism on the engine anim/renderer worked OK with something as rickety as NWN and even NWN2 – but now Bioware has a major Uncanny Valley problem: all other parts of the character models are intensely detailed textures, with oodles of shaders to give realistic skin textures, bright detailed eye irises, etc. And then the armour goes and interpenetrates the main character *in the pre-made intro movie* so badly she’d be dead of blood-loss before the scene was over (seriously – she’s got 4 inches of metal digging into her chest – medical EMERGENCY!)

But the worst part is simply this: the game had no depth, no sense of player agency, and no reason for you to care. Characters were randomly dropped in your face with zero explanation of who they were or why they were there, and you were expected to give a flying monkey’s – but since they were all immortal, and overly whiney, I found it hard to. Then they’d randomly disappear with no explanation other than a brief cutscene implying that “everything you just did was a waste of time HA HA! start again from scratch”.

Original? Hell no!

(I compare this against NWN2, whose opening sequences I remember well. Exact same idea, but pulled off with less over-dramatization, and a lot more clarity. Even though the NWN control-system meant it was often viciously confusing for the first few minutes unless you’d played NWN-1 before)

This has never happened to me in an RPG, except the truly dire ones. Same trick (again) was used in Assassin’s Creed 1, and lead to a lot of misery among players – but the joy of AC often kept people playing. At least until they got bored of walking everywhere.

But most people I know never appreciated this device existed until / unless they’d achieved a moderate mastery of the game. I.e. you had to play the game for 3+ hours and then *start again from scratch* in order to really appreciate this conceit. It was a nice idea, but I suspect overall a fail (note: just how differently AC2 approached the issue) – people got bored and dropped the game. But even that was given to you with decent narrative explanation – and believably.

Dragon Age 2 tries the same trick, but does it less cleanly, and smacks the player in the face, with no excuse given. Just: “I’m a game designer. You’re the less-important people who buy my works of art. Sucks to be you.” This is the antithesis of most good game-design. Also: not original. In fact, these days it’s almost a cliche. Sure, Bioware were one of the first major studios to do it, but … AC1 + AC2 + AC3 continue their worldwide domination, with bajillions having experienced life as Altair, Ezio, et al … so this is no longer a niche way to start a game.

And then I found this recent interview with the Lead Designer. I also found a bunch of players complaining that Mike Laidlaw may have missed the point when trying to “fix” Dragon Age with his sequel.

(giving me flashbacks to the fail that was Ultima 8, and the designers belief + claim that “Ultima 7 wasn’t good because you could bake bread – don’t worry, we’ve taken that out”…leading to horrified reactions from players: No, you really don’t understand: baking bread is EXACTLY what made Ultima 7 great)

In the interview, Mike is apparently “excited” by the use of narrative to replace / control the game. I’m not quite sure why; this is nothing more than what NWN2 did, many years ago (from the same studio!) – only it worked more in hand with the player back then, less against them. And without the gratuitous breasts-and-faces-covered-in- … *cough* blood *ahem* … shots.

(I’m not complaining, I’m just saying: the art direction on this project clearly had *someone* who was determined to get facials (of the pornographic kind) inserted into a live computer game. It’s funny, but it’s not subtle, and it’s hard to ignore – especially with heaving bared breasts, straight out of the old D&D covers where over-excited artists were depicting all women in “suicide armour” – holes in the most lethal of places, more a fashion statement than believable chain-mail)

In practice, it seems suspiciously as though Bioware has set a frustrated Author to design the game. The narrative conceit is OK if you wanted to watch a movie, but it takes away so much from the “game” aspect of the game that anyone looking for … game … ends up disappointed. And, as noted – the graphics engine is FUBAR.

A second opinion

So, Tom is a professional author (books), and until recently was a commissioning Editor for a major international political and literary magazine. To use a horrible phrase: he breathes words. Always has. And he really hated DA2’s start, because of all this failed narrative. I was zoning out at this point after a 20-hour day, but it seemed he was saying something like: this narrative is NOT inventive, it’s obvious, pointless, badly written, and would have been better off being left out entirely.

In summary

For me, there’s two major fails: the intro gets in the way of the game … and then does the one thing that an RPG is never allowed to do: invalidates everything the player has done to date.

When my characters started levelling up, I found I couldn’t care less. I’d already had my characters taken away from me once, with no choice in the matter (not even an illusion of choice). I’d spent several minutes with them auto-killing everything in sight, and now I was offered a bunch of bland and meaningless figures, all of which had LITERALLY no relation to anything I’d been doing up to that point in game … plus some bugs in the mouse-control for the level-up screen meant it took 6 clicks just to get to the screen. Level up was presented as an optional (and irrelevant) aspect of the game. There was no indication it would make an iota of difference.

Compare this with Diablo (the first one – go way back, to when Blizzard was a tiny company by today’s standards). See how exciting and in-your-face and *immediately relevant* they made every level-up. Despite IMHO achieving exactly what Mike claims the DA2 team were aiming for: “You get to an RPG and fire it up, and … it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game,”

Mike – please go and play Diablo. I think you’d enjoy it. There’s no stats at all, until you need them.

Oh, and the colour-scheme for DA2’s level-up screen, I believe – and I’m not making this up – was light grey text on a dark grey background.

Apparently, Dragon Age 2 is “The Game Of GREY!”. Certainly, the demo has convinced me (sadly) not to play again unless forced. I’m sure there’s a good game in there … somewhere … if you can get past the boringness. Maybe someone will hack it and provide a way to skip to the fun parts? More likely (I hope) the demo just isn’t representative of the real thing. Or, if not … roll on NWN3…

10 replies on “Dragon Age 2: When Designers go Bad…”

Wondering. What was your thoughts about DA:Origins? Asking cause as much as people are praising it I found that it really bores me (I’d say I’m about halfway the game now). I guess I got to that point where I don’t have enough patience for RPGs anymore or something.

By what I’ve been reading about DA2 so far (the disappointments mostly) it seems I’ll enjoy better DA2 than DA:Origins. I guess something must be wrong with me. Meh. People have been saying over and over that ME2 wasn’t “really” an RPG and I just loved the game. So I guess I’m not really after RPGs after all and DA2 might be perfect for me.

Just for the record these games are to me something like a long action movie I can play with some beer so maybe I’m not the best person to have “AAA opinions” about them. As long as it keeps me awake until the next cutscene.

Not trying to make a point here. Just looking at what I’ll be playing soon and saying it seems I’ll have a better time with it than with DA:Origins based on the “bad reviews”. Funny eh?

“these games are to me something like a long action movie I can play with some beer ”

…is fair enough :).

But I’d hazard that’s a great way to get sold back to retail as 2nd-hand very quickly, and so greatly reduce the revenue of the game.

Would you say that’s fair?

(IME, the only games I’ve even considered doing that with were ones that played how you described. I kept them in the end because I collect them for future reference, as a game developer)

Yeah I guess that if games were to target more often people like me that they would probably gamble dangerously with their success.

I’ve came to accept long ago that the general opinion about games is generally different from mine as I think I don’t engage as seriously as most people with them.

That’s why when people say things like “not really an RPG” or “linear” that I suddenly become more interested in the game since I’m merely just looking for some stupid time wasting fun while most gamers might be more critical about them.

So my interest in negative reviews is just to make sure I’ll indeed find what I’m looking for but I wouldn’t advice anyone to build a business around people like me :)

Interestingly, played Civ5 as well, same evening, and Tom pointed out it was a LOT more accessible than normal Civ* – clearly designed to be easy for people to get into – even though it still has comparitively as much depth as previous Civ games.

Raised some interesting questions about the nature of game accessibility. My memory is that we have *always* been striving for it in games – and good game designers and developers are much better at accessibility than most graphic designers (including a lot of usability designers).

But these days it seems a lot of big budget games have designers who seem to have little game-experience paying lip service to these notions while failing to achieve the basics. Just a quick impression – I’m not thinking even on DA2 specifically here – needs more thought.

I also don’t think much of the DA2 demo, although for me I found the anims (especially the whirlwind staff) as as cringe-worthy as the storyline and gameplay, personally. Then there’s the *feel*: DA’s interface, for example, used parchment. That fit the concept very nicely. DA2? Looks more like ME. Wait, what? Sorry, don’t like that.

Also, frankly, D&D4th is…a pretty terrible base for computer games, afaik, unfortunately. Even if there was a NWN3… (Also, I hate D&D4th. Which is going to bias me)

As regard’s Civ’s, I’m still playing SMAC(X) “PBeM” (actually via a web forum). None of the Civ’s since have been convincing, afaik.

For the record, I thought the demo sucked as well, but I went out on a limb and bought it anyway (Bioware is my fav dev, not so much now that they’re one of EA’s mutated arms, but still…)

It gets better… Damning a game based on a demo is pretty short sighted, imo. There are lots of things I hate about DA2: The interface, not being able to ‘play dress up’ with my party members, the super-fast paced combat (at least they didn’t take out pausing combat)…

But the story is pure Bioware (which is a good thing, imo), the voice acting is excellent, and I’ve developed a like/dislike of certain characters, which are all good things in my book…

Anyway, I think you might like the game more if you gave it a chance, but this is just my opinion vs yours :)

I can believe that, thanks. There was an interesting report produced a year or so ago which concluded “games which have demos – on average – do worse in sales than games that do not”.

There was a lot of discussion about this, since it went counter to people’s expectations – surely, try-before-you-buy would lead to more sales? One of the biggest “possible” explanations offered by developers was: especially the games that marketing depts KNOW are bad tend to authorize demos – and, of course the public notices the game is below average from the demo, and doesn’t buy it.

But certainly … making a good demo which *sells* the game, instead of vice-versa, has been such an obvious and important skill for so many years now that you only expect weak studios to screw it up. For someone of Bioware’s credentials to screw that up would be very disappointing (their previous demos I’ve played – going back more than ten years – have always been good, IIRC).

Oh I don’t deny that I agonized for days as to whether I could get over my initial disappointment with the demo. In the end, I was on vacation this week, and needed something to play, so I took a leap of faith :)

I won’t say the game is all I hoped it would be, but it’s a lot better than the demo would suggest. Also, the ‘retelling’ of the stories keeps going throughout the game, so you get used to having to redo parts of the game over, and I think it adds to the story, and it’s made me laugh on occasion.

In the end, if you doubt the value of the game (and it was a bit of a hit, seeing a $60 price tag on a PC game) wait until it’s on sale in a few months, it’s a pretty fun game. I’m glad I bought it.

Just a minor point, but NWN2 was done by Obsidian Entertainment, comprised of former Black Isle Studio folks.

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