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Dragon Age 2 characters explain its recent acclaim, says dev

Former director says Dragon Age 2 was ‘the first BioWare game to put characters first,’ explains how constraints affected the fantasy RPG game's development

Dragon Age 2 'fashionable to like now becase it puts characters first'

Just as news of Dragon Age 4’s full title arrives, a former series director’s deep dive video talks about how the once-maligned Dragon Age 2 “is very fashionable to like now because it’s the first BioWare game to intentionally put the characters first.” Mark Darrah, former BioWare project director on the RPG game, has released a video in his ‘Memories and Lessons’ development series talking in depth about the fantasy game’s rushed development and the achievements he’s most proud of the team for.

“Dragon Age II is a game that is about constraints,” says Darrah in the hour-long video posted to his ‘Old game dev advice’ YouTube channel. Following the closure of BioWare’s acquisition by EA in 2008 just before Dragon Age: Origins shipped, he explains, the publisher was eager to release BioWare’s MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic as a competitor to World of Warcraft. According to Darrah, that game’s pushback out of the 2011 fiscal year left EA “pretty mad at BioWare” and insisting that a game was shipped to “plug the hole” for that financial year.

This led to the decision to rework Dragon Age II’s design, which was originally planned to be similar in scope to what Dragon Age: Inquisition would later become, into a game that could fill those needs. While some work from what was originally a second expansion pack for Origins was rolled into the project, says Darrah, he is uncomfortable with language suggesting the game was “built out of an expansion pack,” because almost no assets or levels had been created beforehand and he feels it minimises the team’s accomplishment of building the game in less than 15 months.

Characters are “BioWare’s secret sauce,” notes Darrah, and they are fast to write and rarely require too many rewrites. A character-driven story also doesn’t place as many demands on time-consuming aspects of development such as level design and asset creation. He also addresses the controversy around Dragon Age II’s heavy asset reuse, saying that it’s “hard to defend” the amount present in-game and how identifiable it is. Darrah emphasises that he does “believe strongly in asset reuse, and that games should be doing it more than they do now.”

Reusing the city at different times was part of the game’s design and not hidden from players, says Darrah, and he considers the generic warehouse levels acceptable because the focus is on the events or encounters which take place in them, not the areas themselves. However, he says, the reuse of cave assets is a notable problem. The player visits several ostensibly distinct caves over the course of the game, but Darrah points out that the cave design was too specific – with very unique and identifiable features such as a cave-in that made the environment reuse stand out. It’s “rubbing people’s nose in the fact of the reuse,” he explains.

The game originally had a different name – Dragon Age: Exodus – which Darrah feels would have better set expectations. Executives eventually insisted on the Dragon Age II branding, he says, which set fan expectations for a game similar in size and scope to its predecessor. Marketing also set series fans up for knee-jerk negative reactions to the game’s faster, more action-oriented combat by emphasising it during promotions, adds Darrah. As more distance grows from the initial release, he says, players have come to appreciate the game’s strengths, such as the character work.

You can watch the full development deep dive, including a more spoiler-heavy discussion about the game’s ending, below:

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If this has you thinking about revisiting Dragon Age II, we think it’s one of the most accessible RPG games. Otherwise, be sure to keep an eye on our Summer Game Fest coverage in case of any more news on the upcoming Dragon Age: Dreadwolf.