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An Insider's Look at BioWare, 2000-2009 (RPGCodex interviews Brent Knowles)

Durante

Member
Read the full article here.

Pretty in-depth, with lots of information about Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights and its expansions, and even Baldur's Gate.


A small subset of quotes from answers I found interesting (questions in italics, any bolding is mine):

Though a smaller game from a content point of view, Mass Effect still felt like a big game (for many players, at least). The player voice and cinematic treatment made it extremely attractive. It became more difficult over the years to argue for doing anything markedly different from what Mass Effect was doing. It was a project that struck much closer to its schedule, did very well (ratings and sales) and had the wow factor (the Silent Protagonist of DA: Origins never had the appeal that Shepard did, whether in company meetings, publisher proposals, or on press tours).

Basically, a voiced protagonist, and the cinematic elements required to pull that presentation off properly, makes it extremely risky to attempt an asset heavy game like Dragon Age: Origins.

In my opinion, Electronic Arts had no real influence on Dragon Age: Origins. At that point there had already been so many delays that nobody sane would have considered adding any more hurdles to the project. Yes, there were perhaps some misdirected marketing messages, but the game itself… there's nothing that changed that I can remember that was prompted by Electronic Arts.

I know marketing groups have always had problems with tactical party-based RPGs. They are not as sexy as first person shooters, for example, and it takes a skilled marketing team to brand and sell games like these.

The NWN original campaign was the game that introduced for the first time the now quite familiar BioWare "go to the four places to find the four starmaps" design pattern. Can you tell us a bit about how that pattern came to be? If that sort of design was only used as a last resort because you guys didn't have time to put together something less artificial, then it's kind of ironic that it became a company hallmark.

Yeah, I don't think this was intentional or remember why the pattern stuck, other that it is a very easy concept to implement and even easier to explain.

I suspect part of its popularity also stems from it becoming a useful way to separate a large plot into discrete chunks that can be assigned to different development teams. It also lends itself well to giving the player some choice in the order they complete a playthru. That said, I don't remember ever actually sitting down and saying "all games should be made like this"… but yeah, I guess it sort of happened.

Baldur's Gate 2 was an amazing game. Its puzzle-like encounter design, its rich assortment of magical items that were so much more than just plusses and minuses, and its epic mage duels are all unparalleled to this day. 14 years later, people still talk about character builds and party compositions, and share strategies on how to defeat iconic foes like the Twisted Rune, Firkraag, and Kangaxx. No other game has ever been as successful in delivering that essence of high level Dungeons & Dragons gameplay. What we'd like to know is - who was responsible? Who pushed for this stuff? And how did he (or they) manage to do such an incredible job?

James Ohlen and Kevin Martens… the lead and co-lead respectively, had a huge influence on this. They were very focused on the high-level details and spent a lot of time testing the content everybody was creating.

BG2, like HOTU, was also a fun project to work on. BG2 had a functional game engine (as opposed to an engine-in-development) and (many of) the designers were more experienced with it, so they knew what worked and what to avoid. Even brand new designers like myself were given areas to "flesh out". We were able to take characters from our old pen and paper campaigns and create little plots for them and it was very creative and organic. And certainly we made a mess of things at times, some of the plots, especially the Drow ones were horribly complicated and hard to troubleshoot!

But all of us were given semi-free reign to take things as far as we thought we could. I had a lot of fun working with the combat system, for example, and tried to pull in all the tricks I remember that had been used while playing pen and paper during high school. And all the team members were doing this, within their own areas of responsibilities.

As well, because the game content did not have to be locked down too early (for voice over and cinematics), we actually had more development time. With AAA titles nowadays, it becomes harder to tweak content in the late stages of development.
 

Labadal

Member
I read the interview and thought it was a very good one. It's always interesting when we get to read stuff like this, even if there were some non-answers in there as well.
 

Purkake4

Banned
I know marketing groups have always had problems with tactical party-based RPGs. They are not as sexy as first person shooters, for example, and it takes a skilled marketing team to brand and sell games like these.
They actually have to put some effort into it? My heart bleeds for those poor people.
 

Arulan

Member
I'll comment on your obvious bold-hinting. ;)

I've said this before, but it's quite obvious that the production values associated with AAA design, specifically full voice acting come at a steep cost, and I don't mean solely with budget. Writers have less time to work with, and cannot further edit their work past voice recording deadlines. This heavily impacts the quality of the writing, and as evident by budget constraints, there is less of it. It comes as no surprise to me that the indie RPGs of 2014 featured much better writing than anything to come from the AAA industry. Voice acting should be seen as a compromise, and a lot of time it's best to opt for partial voice acting to allow for higher standards in writing.
 

dreamlock

The hero Los Santos deserves
Thanks for this. I'm not very familiar with RPGCodex, but they do seem to make some very good questions in this interview. I'll give it a read.
 

Sendero

Member
It's a given that AAA high budget lends to have very rigid development paths, which means that major last minute improvements or changes are out of question..which is exactly the point where the issues become more obvious.

But the part that resonated with me, is that on BG2, they let individual developers (even new ones) create their own mini quests/fights and characters to "flesh out" areas. Internal game jams have shown that giving a bit of freedom to your low-level creators can produce awesome, potentially game changing results.

This should be a thing, at least on non tight AAA games.
 

Purkake4

Banned
It's a given that AAA high budget lends to have very rigid development paths, which means that major last minute improvements or changes are out of question..which is exactly the point where the issues become more obvious.

But the part that resonated with me, is that on BG2, they let individual developers (even new ones) create their own mini quests/fights and characters to "flesh out" areas. Internal game jams have shown that giving a bit of freedom to your low-level creators can produce awesome, potentially game changing results.

This should be a thing, at least on non tight AAA games.
I think AAA has pretty much become the domain of cookie cutter games with little risk.

At the same time we're getting A-ish games by professional studios that are technically competent and innovative while having a lower budget and cost. A good example would be Divinity: Original Sin.
 

Terra_Ex

Member
Well, nice to have final confirmation that Mass Effect's disgraceful dialogue wheel. voiced protagonist and shiny cinematic focus is what caused BioWare to homogenize their entire product lineup and chart a new and unfortunate direction for DA that favours flair over substance. Thank god for the KS successes gaining the traction they have over the last few years but it's still sad to think about what DA could have become if they'd built upon what were supposed to be its founding principles.
 

adj_noun

Member
I'll comment on your obvious bold-hinting. ;)

I've said this before, but it's quite obvious that the production values associated with AAA design, specifically full voice acting come at a steep cost, and I don't mean solely with budget. Writers have less time to work with, and cannot further edit their work past voice recording deadlines. This heavily impacts the quality of the writing, and as evident by budget constraints, there is less of it. It comes as no surprise to me that the indie RPGs of 2014 featured much better writing than anything to come from the AAA industry. Voice acting should be seen as a compromise, and a lot of time it's best to opt for partial voice acting to allow for higher standards in writing.

It's probably not feasible today, but there are times I wonder what kind of Bioware RPG we'd be getting today if the voice acting was axed.
 

Arulan

Member
It's probably not feasible today, but there are times I wonder what kind of Bioware RPG we'd be getting today if the voice acting was axed.

They don't have to axe it completely, but do partial voice-acting for important lines. More importantly however, I think BioWare suffers from design problems, and a lack of focus more than they do writing. Perhaps a better presupposition would be what if BioWare had never made Mass Effect? Would they have still chased the streamlined route? Would EA have still bought them?
 

-tetsuo-

Unlimited Capacity
It makes me sad that Bioware will never even enter the same realm of quality that they did with Baldur's Gate 2. New age of AAA games won't let them.
 

Skux

Member
I'll comment on your obvious bold-hinting. ;)

I've said this before, but it's quite obvious that the production values associated with AAA design, specifically full voice acting come at a steep cost, and I don't mean solely with budget. Writers have less time to work with, and cannot further edit their work past voice recording deadlines. This heavily impacts the quality of the writing, and as evident by budget constraints, there is less of it. It comes as no surprise to me that the indie RPGs of 2014 featured much better writing than anything to come from the AAA industry. Voice acting should be seen as a compromise, and a lot of time it's best to opt for partial voice acting to allow for higher standards in writing.

There's just no way you could have a half voice acted game. It would feel cheap and unfinished.

(the Silent Protagonist of DA: Origins never had the appeal that Shepard did, whether in company meetings, publisher proposals, or on press tours)

Not to mention the players. I started playing the Dragon Age series over the holidays and in Origins you never feel like your character actually exists in the game universe.
 

Arulan

Member
There's just no way you could have a half voice acted game. It would feel cheap and unfinished.
We're not talking about a new concept here, plenty of older RPGs, and now indie RPGs do this and they do not feel cheap or unfinished.
 

JayEH

Junior Member
There's just no way you could have a half voice acted game. It would feel cheap and unfinished.



Not to mention the players. I started playing the Dragon Age series over the holidays and in Origins you never feel like your character actually exists in the game universe.

A bunch of JRPGs (and Japanese games in general I guess) do it and it feels fine.
 

HK-47

Oh, bitch bitch bitch.
We're not talking about a new concept here, plenty of older RPGs, and now indie RPGs do this and they do not feel cheap or unfinished.

I wish Dragonfall had Torment style voiced dialogue.

Maybe someday HBS will have the budget to do that.
 
Not to mention the players. I started playing the Dragon Age series over the holidays and in Origins you never feel like your character actually exists in the game universe.
Although this is true, I don't think the voiced protagonist approach in DA: Inquisition solves this issue. The character still remains a blank slate that is easily overshadowed by the more colorful and developed secondary characters. I would say that the cinematic, fully voiced and animated presentation simply doesn't go well together with the notion of the main character as an avatar of the player.
 

Arulan

Member
I wish Dragonfall had Torment style voiced dialogue.

Maybe someday HBS will have the budget to do that.

It's still shocking to me that we now have RPG developers whose work to look forward to again. We have Hairbrained Schemes making Shadowrun RPGs. Larian Studios is back to work on two new RPGs using the D:OS engine. Almost Human Games who have already released two excellent dungeon crawlers. inXile entertainment whose upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera should be fantastic. I could name dozens more, but the point is that a lot of these developers have already released a successful and excellent RPG, and some have even took that experience to make an even better sequel. If they continue this course the future of the genre looks very bright incline. :)
 

ntropy

Member
We know that Dragon Age was originally going to be a PC-exclusive, at least on launch. What had to be changed when it became multiplatform? For example, were there ever any plans to have a traditional grid-based inventory, rather than a console-style list-based one?

My memory of this is foggy but I think we talked about a grid-based inventory and may have even played around with it, but I'm fairly sure it was a list-style inventory for much of the project.

Much of the streamlining (in interface/ability progression, et cetera) that happened was not done to accommodate consoles. Early on we had some team members in high positions who wanted things simplified and others who wanted it more complicated. There was much discussion, across all features, on how to accommodate wider audiences while remaining true to the BG2 spirit. Compromises were made, right from the very beginning of development.

So, specifically, I don't think the inventory system changed to accommodate console, I think it was the other way around. A whole lot of the game mechanics and interface mechanics ended up working okay for console interfaces and therefore it was decided that it was not going to be a prohibitively expensive port.
2f07s79.gif
 

Staf

Member
Interesting read, but quite depressing reading about the decline of my once favorite developer and the sacrifices they made for cinematic presentation and voice acting. Fortunately the indie market is stepping and delivers RPGs who puts less value on those elements.
 

Grief.exe

Member
It's still shocking to me that we now have RPG developers whose work to look forward to again. We have Hairbrained Schemes making Shadowrun RPGs. Larian Studios is back to work on two new RPGs using the D:OS engine. Almost Human Games who have already released two excellent dungeon crawlers. inXile entertainment whose upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera should be fantastic. I could name dozens more, but the point is that a lot of these developers have already released a successful and excellent RPG, and some have even took that experience to make an even better sequel. If they continue this course the future of the genre looks very bright incline. :)

Prior to this Indie/Kickstarter revolution, what would we have to look forward to from the RPG genre? From Software? CD Projekt? Obsidian? The list was growing increasingly short.

Thankfully, we have a bright future to look forward to with these new companies in the fold.
 

Arulan

Member
Prior to this Indie/Kickstarter revolution, what would we have to look forward to from the RPG genre? From Software? CD Projekt? Obsidian? The list was growing increasingly short.

Thankfully, we have a bright future to look forward to with these new companies in the fold.

And with Obsidian Entertainment, it felt like they weren't in complete control of their own future. They were struggling for quite some time, and in a lot of ways had to accept the realities of the AAA market. I don't know how Feargus Urquhart did it to be quite honest, but props for keeping Obsidian independent and afloat to continue making great RPGs.
 
It makes me sad that Bioware will never even enter the same realm of quality that they did with Baldur's Gate 2. New age of AAA games won't let them.
It's easy to blame the "shackles of AAA development" but the reality is that Bioware simply isn't as good as people think they are, they had some really good games in the distant past, nowadays they occasionally have one or two characters with clever/interesting dialogue but overall their games don't really push the envelope and their plots are basically the same cookie-cutter saviour bullshit because Bioware just isn't THAT talented.
 

Nordicus

Member
I think the high level design behind Dragon Age matches up fairly well with early plans (though this is almost ten years ago and my memory of it may not be entirely accurate). A big change I do remember was a move from a High Fantasy setting to a more realistic world. I do not remember when that happened exactly but that was a fairly significant shift. But it happened pretty early on.
I, uh... ohkaaaaaay?

Maybe it's just me, but I think Dragon Age: Origins is still very high fantasy
 

thebloo

Member
I, uh... ohkaaaaaay?

Maybe it's just me, but I think Dragon Age: Origins is still very high fantasy

From Wikipedia:
High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than the real, or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or "real" world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

DA:O leans towards low fantasy.
 

Durante

Member
One thing I had to think about when reading the article is the step from Shadowrun Returns DMS to Dragonfall (DC). Knowles talks about how important it is for an RPG to work with a "complete" engine multiple times during the interview, for all of Baldur's Gate (2), Neverwinter Nights and its expansions, and even DA:O. It seems like you can see the same thing happening with Shadowrun.

As such, I can't wait for Larian's next game on the D:OS engine, and I'm even more annoyed that Ubisoft didn't let Limbic go right ahead with M&M XI.
 

Noaloha

Member
There's also something to be said of instances where devs are, increasingly it seems, breaking away from the AAA companies to start their own projects. I have to assume a lot of that boils down to the individuals within these bigger studios being as jaded with the 'safe, profitable path' as many (well, "many" is probably the wrong word -- a minority, with a taste for the less accessible, let's say) of the consumers are. Case in point of relevance here, Arnie Jorgensen, Alex Thomas, and John Watson leaving BioWare to form Stoic and develop The Banner Saga.
 
One thing I had to think about when reading the article is the step from Shadowrun Returns DMS to Dragonfall (DC). Knowles talks about how important it is for an RPG to work with a "complete" engine multiple times during the interview, for all of Baldur's Gate (2), Neverwinter Nights and its expansions, and even DA:O. It seems like you can see the same thing happening with Shadowrun.

As such, I can't wait for Larian's next game on the D:OS engine, and I'm even more annoyed that Ubisoft didn't let Limbic go right ahead with M&M XI.

Ok, having read this I can't wait for the Pillars of Eternity II kickstarter. Glorious times ahead indeed :-D
 
There is a dream plane filled with demons. Thats as high fantasy as it gets

It ain't high fantasy as long as you keep the elves down where they belong! Filthy subhumans.

One thing I had to think about when reading the article is the step from Shadowrun Returns DMS to Dragonfall (DC). Knowles talks about how important it is for an RPG to work with a "complete" engine multiple times during the interview, for all of Baldur's Gate (2), Neverwinter Nights and its expansions, and even DA:O. It seems like you can see the same thing happening with Shadowrun.

As such, I can't wait for Larian's next game on the D:OS engine, and I'm even more annoyed that Ubisoft didn't let Limbic go right ahead with M&M XI.
Is this not demonstrated multiple times in game development by well everything? Early attempts are always far inferior to the later titles. Whether it comes from experience as a creator or knowledge of your tools and what they let you do, or simply the confidence to attempt something more ambitious or creative. There are multiple good reasons for why this would be the case.
 

Enduin

No bald cap? Lies!
Ok, having read this I can't wait for the Pillars of Eternity II kickstarter. Glorious times ahead indeed :-D

Forget that. A lot of us have already dropped an extra $20 for the PoE expansion. So hopefully we get some Throne of Bhaal/Mask of the Betrayer level shit and not some tiny ~5 hour quest but some serious 20+ hour long semi-sequel going on.
 
Forget that. A lot of us have already dropped an extra $20 for the PoE expansion. So hopefully we get some Throne of Bhaal/Mask of the Betrayer level shit and not some tiny ~5 hour quest but some serious 20+ hour long semi-sequel going on.
Right, I totally forgot about the expansion, even though I put in an extra $20 for it too, lol. Well, it's been more than two years since the kickstarter, after all.
 

Arulan

Member
As such, I can't wait for Larian's next game on the D:OS engine, and I'm even more annoyed that Ubisoft didn't let Limbic go right ahead with M&M XI.

Do we have any information about how well M&MX did financially?

Is this not demonstrated multiple times in game development by well everything? Early attempts are always far inferior to the later titles. Whether it comes from experience as a creator or knowledge of your tools and what they let you do, or simply the confidence to attempt something more ambitious or creative. There are multiple good reasons for why this would be the case.

Eh, there are too many things involved to make an accurate statement. With Mass Effect and Dragon Age, BioWare becomes a great example that experience isn't enough. The shift to a different target audience has had severe effects to the overall design of each installation. The dramatic shift Bethesda made between Morrowind and Oblivion can also serve as a great example.

Ok, having read this I can't wait for the Pillars of Eternity II kickstarter. Glorious times ahead indeed :-D

It isn't certain how they will proceed but I got the feeling they wanted to use Kickstarter as a funding solution for new IPs, like the new one Chris Avellone is working/lead on. For sequels I believe they would like (ideally) for the profit of the previous game to fund the sequel, but it isn't sure how they will go about it. I'm not opposed to funding sequels though if they choose to go the Kickstarter route if it can expand their scope.
 
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