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UPDATED David Gaider on Player’s Propensity for ‘Optimum’ Choices in Dragon Age 2

SPOILERS ON A MAJOR DRAGON AGE 2 QUEST AHEAD:

A bit late on the uptake, but I just recently came across a post by David Gaider in which he explains the rationale behind the Dragon Age 2 quest “All that Remains”. Those who have played through the quest know the inevitable outcome: your mother dies. Not just any death, either: a particularly gruesome, unnerving death at the hands of blood magic. The remark by Gaider is as follows;

“The problem wasn’t that “everyone picked to save her”. It was that everyone thought they had to save her, and would reload/re-do the quest until the got the outcome that was perceived as the most optimum– even if the result when Leandra dies is more dramatic and has more of an impact on the larger story.

The quest isn’t about saving her, after all, it’s about putting a more personal face on the darker side of magic and the repercussions it can have on innocents.

If someone doesn’t like it, that’s fine. Up to you. But DLC is created to add content, not to skip it– and, no, there is no material anywhere to make this easy to implement. Dialogue after Act 2 assumes that your mother is dead. Period. Sorry, but that’s simply the way it is.”

All That Remains is one of the few quests whose outcome cannot be influenced and, personally, as someone who ended up having my sibling die on me too, shocked me to the core. I lost everyone, and it was my fault. In that sense, I can recognize that Bioware was effective in their intended outcome: to take away the ability to save everyone as an attempt to elicit a reaction.

It’s something that they’ve been toying with for a while, to be sure–for example, the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2 had the possibility of not only losing vital crew members, but also the possibility of Shepard himself dying. The big issue with that was that the way to avoid such a fate is easy to figure out: maintain a good relationship with your party members, make sure to get all their loyalty missions and, pick the roles that made the most sense for them in the final stage.  I ended up saving everyone, and, while I can’t fathom the idea of losing some of my favorite party members, I still recognize that the impact of such a loss would have probably made the game more memorable.

You can’t have it all. You can’t always get that optimum outcome, even if everything suggests that you might. Shit happens.

Still, this brings up some interesting things to reflect on. There is definitely an ‘optimum’ mindset that frames the way gamers play games. In a way, it makes sense: why would you try to get the “bad” outcome when you can get the “good” one? Or are people willing to take the “bad” outcomes if it means that it will result in a more intriguing premise?

Update: seems I missed this earlier post by Mary Kirby, where she lists alternatives that they considered earlier in the development of this quest.

    • Sacrifice a follower. Your romance, if you had one. Or whoever had the most frienship.
    • Make the player become a serial killer. You’d have to murder a number of innocent and sympathetic characters in order to restore your mother to life.
  • Let Merrill sustain the spell (possibly costing her attribute points) and keep Leandra in her horrible patchwork zombie state in a back room of your mansion. “

Truths and Consequences

Developers love talking about making their games full of moral choices with consequences, but that’s a crock of shit: no one makes games with consequences. I’d even say moral choice is an illusion, like a linear world designed to feel open: most moral choices are choosing between being a petulant child and being a noble savior, and even if they open different branches of plot, they do not effect real change, or real emotional depth.

The fact is, in the environment gaming is now, there is no such thing as a moral choice. They cannot exist. Video games of the moment place morality on that superficial spectrum and ask, “Are you a paragon, or are you a renegade?” It doesn’t matter which one you choose, so long as you choose one: there will be no major changes, regardless of what you choose.

This is the realization I get as I replay Mass Effect 2: nothing matters. You have a number of options, but there is no reason to think about them. They are superficial, meaningless choices designed to make the player feel good about themselves regardless of whether they are good or evil rather than insightful plot branches. Being “evil” is never the wrong choice, and being “good” is never the right choice: they are just paper thin moralities for the player to cling to in an attempt to streamline character development.

Patricia wrote about Don’t Take It Personally, Babe a few days ago, and I wanted to take that game’s concept of choice and run with it. Specifically, the choice of whether or not the player gets with Arianna. It’s possibly the moral choice I spent the most amount of time thinking about ever, and this got me to thinking (once I chose to begin a relationship with her): why was it? What did it have that the litany of choices in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Bioshock, inFamous, and countless others lacked?

And there’s something. There’s definitely something.
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A Sense of Place

Do graphics matter? Bethesda answered this question a couple days ago, saying if you claimed they didn’t, you’re a liar, and your pants are probably on fire.

Well, I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m not going to say it that way. Graphics don’t matter, but visuals do matter. More important than any technical achievement is a narrative achievement, giving the game a sense of place and the player a sense of belonging. More than any horsepowered pyrotechnics, this is the most important step, and why, to go to Bethesda’s back yard, I think The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind is a prettier game than its bloom heavy sequel, Oblivion.
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A New Trend in Pre-order Incentives

EA has been an interesting case when it comes to game marketing over the past year or so. Both of the BioWare games, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, completed under EA ownership, have come with the incentive to buy the game new with day one DLC in the case of DA and the ‘Cerberus Network’ updates in the case of ME2. EA has also been doing something similar with its numerous sports properties with its one-time activation code to use online multi-player features. These experiments have clearly been about mitigated used game sales, but what about pre-order strategy? Read the rest of this entry

The Mixed Messages of Dragon Age 2

No game has ever inspired such vicious debate, such polarization, as Dragon Age 2. As the sequel to the enormously popular Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Awakenings, there are some big shoes to fill, and only so much game to fill them with.

Generally, in pre-release, there aren’t a lot of dissenting opinions on games. Previewers are not, generally, reviewers: they have little room to assert how much they dislike a game, because if they do, they’re stuck not getting any work. Generally, previews are separated by degrees: a good preview is one where the previewer says that a game looks good, the bad preview is where the previewer stops short of making predictions and (usually) emphasizes an upcoming review.

So this makes the absolutely opposite coverage coming from two respectable gaming sources, Destructoid and Rock Paper Shotgun, so utterly baffling. For the record, if I had to name two sites as the best, most noble and independent of publisher pressure games sites on the web, it would be those two. Both pretty frequently provide pre-release information on games, and both don’t generally stray too far from the noble paradigm.

With Dragon Age 2, it’s different. Rock Paper Shotgun is decidedly pessimistic, beyond what any preview would possibly say. Even the trailer designed to reassure long time fans missed the mark with them, as they still found reason to be skeptical. On the other hand, you have Destructoid, who’ve recently launched the most marketing speak tinged preview of a game I have seen outside of Gamespot, and this from a blog that rarely does that sort of thing.

Who’s right? Who’s dead? Why the hell is this game that few of us have played so god damned divisive.
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Rampant Dragon Age Skepticism

Someone could call me a Dragon Age 2 skeptic. I was a pretty big fan of the first Dragon Age (though nothing compared to either of my fellow DA:O fanatics, Patricia and Graham), but I’m not a massive Bioware devotee. I like good games, not Bioware specifically. I’m worried about Dragon Age 2 because trusted folk on the internet have said, “We’ve played it, and this game is a bad console action-rpg with morality attached.” Bioware has released almost no official gameplay footage. All word out of Camp Bioware has been worrisome.

Well, here’s this dev diary, to assuage our fears. And by assuage our fears, I mean confirm all of them. Basically, if you liked Dragon Age for the deep, tactical combat and for the ability to have shades of gray discussions with people, you were playing it wrong. The deep, tactical “chess” like combat is apparently a negative. Well, no, not a negative, they say, but something “people didn’t like”, which is most definitely a negative. They’ve made a new experience, which people who wear armor to conventions like. Why shouldn’t you?

Deep down, my concern for DA2 was never the story. Even with a voiced protagonist, I’m pretty sure Bioware know what they’re doing on that front. I mean, even Jade Empire, forgotten Bioware game of myth and legend, did some neat story based stuff. No, where I was skeptical was the gameplay. Both Mass Effects succeeded in spite of their gunplay. Knights of the Old Republic, even, ran pretty shit. Origins represented the first time they got combat right, a mix of tactical ideas and visceralness. But then they ran into the problem. The problem that everything has to be more physical and more real, because if not, then console players won’t be happy.

Basically, I watch this video and I hear, “PC gamers? You’ll buy this anyway, because you are good, loyal consumers. What we want is the person who plays Gears of War exclusively!” which, while I good business strategy, makes me question your desire to make good games and not just make scads of money.

My mild skepticism is turning into rampant disgust at Bioware tearing the heart and soul out of a great game, and I don’t know if anything they say can fix that. Because I think that’s what they’re doing.

Mass Effect 3, By The Numbers

In light of recent discussion regarding metrics fetishism, I’ve tried to parse Destructoid’s newly revealed Mass Effect 2 statistics with some perspective. We all know these numbers aren’t just random trivia: they will be part of the basis for changes in Bioware’s game development. Some numbers of note, along with complete speculation for what these numbers might mean or imply, as well as questions they elicit. I will state in advance that I will happily take being proven wrong on some of these speculations–designing solely by the numbers is stupid. But, let’s indulge in this thought experiment for a second.

  • 82 percent of players play as a male character

Despite Jennifer Hale’s critically acclaimed performance as FemShep, the likelihood of us seeing any marketing campaign giving FemShep the limelight is slim. This, too, holds true for other Bioware games: we see Garrett Hawke’s face plastered everywhere, not…whatever FemHawke’s name is (I don’t even know her name!) One part perpetuation of our little boys club, one part “catering to your audience.”

Moreover, it may influence how much effort is put into love interests–the vast majority of players are maleShep/maleWarden, so the love interests need to cater to them. I can’t be the only one that feels like the females in Bioware games get slim pickings for love interests, while the males get highly eroticized, completely idealized versions of women (who are literally perfect–like Miranda).

  • Garrus is one of the more popular choices for squad members

This one is a toughie: does Bioware bring Garrus back as a party member by virtue of popularity? Does Garrus even warrant the attention of three games? Do they take this, and instead of bringing Garrus back they form an archetype around him, since he’s proven to be a favorite (and we all know Bioware loves it some character archetypes)? Do they bring him back simply for fanservice, but don’t make him a party member (think of how they handled love interests from 1 in 2)?

  • 50 percent of players have fully upgraded the ship by the end of the game

Where some RPG aspects of the ME franchise were stripped back, streamlined, or removed, the upgrading of the ship was one of the only new additions with an RPG-like aspect. So, here’s another toughie: what does Bioware do with a stat like this? Do they keep building more systems which are governed by the same principles (upgrading vs resource management), or do they see that sort of thing as a waste of their time because only half of the users took complete advantage of it? Sure, we might not see ship upgrades in 3, but the numbers attached to the “success” of the ship upgrade system may influence how other mechanics work–most likely, in regards to their complexity. The issue here would be evaluating the statistic in a wider context: just why did only half of all players fully upgrade their systems?

  • 14 percent of all crewmembers die at the end of the game

I’m glad to hear that, for the most part, players tend to experience at least one death in their suicide mission…but then again, we must also remember that this 14 percent only applies to half of all ME2 players, since only half ever finish the game. Anyway, experiencing the death of a crewmember is paramount toward showing just how dangerous the mission actually is. After all, just how much of a suicide mission is it if most players manage to get all the crew back? Still, this means that most players only had one or two characters die out of about a dozen: does this mean Bioware made the suicide mission too easy? Do they think players actually get the gravity of the situation with that number of casualties?

This statistic is interesting to think about in the scope of ME3, if only because 3 will be when (ideally) everything falls into place. Players will, hypothetically, engage in situations that are equally high risk, if not more so. This statistic may be useful in determining to what degree Bioware molds the experience. To what extent do they give players control over their fate? How do they balance their vision and message for the game with player control? 14 percent can either be seen as a failure to properly balance player control versus vision–the player has control over too much of the system–or a success, because most players experience a death no matter what they do.

  • 36 percent of players choose the renegade option at the very end

A statistic like this might dictate how Bioware chooses to unfold the story. Yes, they will probably not issue a ‘canon-choice’ but if an overwhelming number of players choose the paragon option…well, what do you do? Do you put an equal amount of effort into crafting the consequences for both options, despite the fact that one will hold the most relevance to most people? Do you cast the importance of this choice aside because of how uneven the turnout is?

And then, the real biggie: only 50 percent of all players have finished ME2. This is probably the trickiest of them all, and perhaps the most controversial of the stats. You’ve got to wonder, just what is causing this? Disinterest? Difficulty? Both? All one can hope is, they don’t take this as an opportunity to make the game further streamlined, if not easier.

We’ll have to wait until ME3 is released to see just how much, if at all, Bioware worships the numbers. If 2 is any indication, it’s probably quite a bit.

Dragon Age 2 Round Up: Changes Keep RPG Alive, ‘Final Verdict’ On Combat/Controls, Morrigan/Flemeth, More

Been too long since we posted something on Dragon Age, hasn’t it? Not enough new information floating around, but I scoured the Dragon Age 2 forums and have come up with a trove of new info on Bioware’s upcoming RPG title. Enjoy, in bulletpoint form.

“Consoles:

  • Press A to perform basic attack.
  • Open radial menu and press A to issue attack order, character will auto-attack.
  • Non-controlled characters will behave based on tactics.

PC:

  • Right click to issue attack order, character will auto-attack.
  • Non-controlled characters will behave based on tactics. “

While it’s a shame that the title will adopt a system akin to Fable’s, I’m glad that I have the option to not button mash to make something happen continuously. I’m sure I’m not the only one that finds button mashing tedious, and the ability to auto attack plus the pausing via the radial menu means the game will retain the necessity for tactics. And speaking of the radial menu and tactics, another tidbit: the radial menu will now has a couple of new tricks up its sleeve meant to increase complexity and strategizing, according to gameplay engineer Seb Hanlon.

“DA2 supports pause’n’play to allow you to carefully consider your positioning, basic attacks, and ability use for all your party members. On the PC, it plays much like Origins, though with faster, more expressive, less hesitant movement and animations, and better hit presentation. On the console, we’ve made it easier to play tactically by improving the radial menu (for example, it no longer automatically closes after issuing a command) and adding the ability to give move-to-point orders to your party members.”

  • There are some incoming changes, UI wise. Like Mass Effect 2, when you look at an equippable item, you will not see hard numbers. Instead, you will see a number of stars denoting its effectiveness relative to your level. Mike Laidlaw describes it as follows:

“The stars offer an at-a-glace indicator of the weapon, armor or item’s usefulness compared to your current level. An item that used to be five stars at level one will slowly drop off to none when you’re in your teens. The goal there is to make it easy to tell what’s above and below the curve for your current character.”

The purpose is to  have “at-a-glance information clear and easily digestible, while having another layer underneath that lets you dig deeper and get neck deep in the statistics,” a philosophy that will be followed by things such as character creation, skill trees, and so on. Fortunately, us stat junkies can still get our fix–you can ‘inspect’ items to see all the hard numbers…but the fact that we have to press an extra button to see the relevant information is a drag: can’t they find a way to relay the information easily without initially hiding it? The answer is simple: the changes that are occurring, aren’t really for me. We already know that the combat changes are meant to attract the Fable/Borderlands crowd (….???), but changes to the UI–such as these, but also the streamlining of companion’s gear (actual “armor” will update on its own, but we can equip other items to them) are meant to bring Dragon Age 2 to a wider target audience. Mike Laidlaw poses the UI changes as follows–though I believe you can probably assume this is the sentiment behind all the aforementioned changes.

“Have you considered that it might, just maybe, help someone who has never played an RPG before understand the concepts of equipment and stats at a high level, and then encourage them to go a little deeper into the stats themselves and maybe start to love a genre for which you apparently have so much passion? That, maybe, just maybe, they might become an RPG fan that helps keep the genre alive, and maybe, just maybe, even more robust than it is today because it’s got a larger fan base than it currently does?”

It’s all to keep the genre alive. It’s dying, don’t you know?

  • Moving on to the narrative side of things. First, let us revisit our my favorite duo, Morrigan and Flemeth. Bioware has said it time and time again, but just in case you weren’t convinced, have Mike Laidlaw state it once again: “The answer’s always the same: “We’re not done with Morrigan’s story.” Of course, what he means by this is still unclear: it may be less of “Morrigan’s story” than it is “Flemeth’s story,” since the two are quite…intertwined. Maybe even the same person, depending on your choices. And, don’t think Bioware has forgotten about your choice regarding the possession of Morrigan. We already know that Flemeth meets Hawke & co before the fall of Lothering, and that she tasks them with a mission–ie, after the warden has met Flemeth, but before Morrigan asks him to slay Flemeth. On the subject, David Gaider says the following: “As to how that ties into what the Warden might or might not have done in DAO regarding Flemeth– well, you’ll just have to see. But we certainly don’t ignore it.” The plot thickens!

And that’s it for today’s roundup.

 

How to take a good game and make it boring

We’re finally getting actual gameplay footage of Dragon Age 2: The Search for More Money, instead of overblown, exciting cinematic trailers. And, if what we see here is any indication, Black Isle Studios and Baldur’s Gate are rolling over in their respective graves.

I mean, just watch it. The combat looks scarily like Fable, with each face button corresponding to a move. The conversations are *exactly* Mass Effect 2, where you are given three choices: the noble, upright hero, the “just the facts” neutral, or the pushy guy with no time for this shit. It’s like they took Mass Effect and Fable, shoved them together, then set them in a universe where blood was thick and viscous and stuck to fucking everything.

I make no secret that both Dragon Age and Mass Effect are two of my favorite modern franchises. Bioware can do very little wrong, as far as I’m concerned (what they did wrong rhymes with Yade Hempire, and even that was neither this nor that). The problem is, Dragon Age: Origins was a fantastic game, wholly unique from Mass Effect: they were two different, brilliant franchises. Now, it appears we have two games that present their story in the same way, differentiated only by the setting. And that, my friends, is sour, because the more tactical combat of Dragon Age: Origins deserved a sequel to flesh it out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still keeping an eye on DA2, if only because Bioware deserve some benefit of the doubt. It’s just that this is not the direction I think anyone wanted the franchise to go. And maybe it’s awesome. Maybe Bioware do know more than we peons do. Hell, they probably do. But it’s still a shame to see the classic style of DA:O disappear in the space of one game.

Do You Know Your Bioware History?

I don’t. I think that makes me a phony of some sort, considering the uneven coverage of Bioware here at Nightmare Mode, but you know what? Fuck you Holden Caulfield. I’m learning my history right now. And you can, too!

There are probably a lot of things you don’t know about Bioware. For example, not only was it founded by three doctors…its first title was a non-RPG about giant mechs? Hey, there’s even some snazzy infomercial music, too. Watch, below:

Wait, there’s more! That’s just part one…there’s a part two, a part three, and a part four.

It’s also interesting to note how hardcore Bioware seemed to be in the past about its RPGs. Nowadays, fans can’t seem to agree about whether or not they consider certain newer Bioware games to be RPGs at all, or rather other genres with RPG elements. Regardless of what you think, looking at their history, it’s pretty clear that they are no longer quite as hardcore about it as they used to be: but then again, with the exception of The Old Republic, they’re not really developing primarily for PC anymore. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything, but it’s interesting to think about.