Interview with Mike Laidlaw, lead designer for Dragon Age: Origins
Interview with Mike Laidlaw, lead designer for Dragon Age: Origins
conducted by Eric Farand
During our visit to BioWare's studios in Edmonton, we got a chance to talk with Mike Laidlaw, the lead designer for Dragon Age: Origins. The following is a transcript of our interview with him.

RPGFan: When did development start on Dragon Age: Origins?
Mike Laidlaw: I think we're at 6 years now. Of course, when you're dealing with a new IP like Dragon Age or Mass Effect, or even Jade Empire, there's a bigger lead time than when you have like source books and other materials so you need a small team to kinda establish the vision, goals, history, the world, etc. You basically need something to build on or else the internal consistency breaks down. So, in terms of real hardcore development, I'd probably say about 3 years of a full team working on it. It is a massive game, it's a big, big project but you know, when we decided to return to fantasy, we decided to do it right.

Bosses are pretty cool.

RPGFan: So, how big is the dev team working on the game?
Mike Laidlaw: At its peak, I think it was in excess of 180. I mean, that wasn't for that long, that was pretty much for the "all hands-on deck, let's do this" period. There's always a period like that when a team just swells and then it shrinks back down and people begin to move to other games or working on the console version and such.

RPGFan: Now, this is the first time that BioWare releases a console version of a game at the same time as the PC version. It's also the first time developing for the PS3 console. How difficult was it to juggle all these new elements into a development cycle?
Mike Laidlaw: Pretty damn hard! It's a lot of work. I mean, the thing is, it's a lot of work to fit something this big into a console quite frankly. The other thing also is that you don't have the luxury of adjusting according to how well the first version was received, like "oh, people didn't really like this part so let's tweak it for the console version". This time we're firing up a little blind. But, the nice thing is that as a company we have the experience of Mass Effect moving to the PC and Jade Empire moving to PC so we've kinda learned those lessons of how the reviewers reacted to these ports... and we've called in guys from Mass Effect and asked them what they'd do given our situation and we went back and forth with discussions, did some focus testing, etc. To be honest, this is actually one of the advantages of working with EA is that they have usability labs, focus test access and things like that which we didn't really have when we were just working as BioWare so it's very cool to see that and very challenging but at the same time I think it's really worth it because our goal is to make a landmark in fantasy RPGs and if you're gonna do that, you gotta aim high, aim at the whole audience if you can.

RPGFan: What are some of the influences for Dragon Age whether it's from other games, movies, books?
Mike Laidlaw: Obviously, Tolkien, the godfather of fantasy, you have to go with him and then you could go back to like Faerie Queen and stuff like that too if you wanna go into some of the darker and older stuff. I mean, when you look at Tolkien, you kinda have the establishment of things like Elves and Dwarves and kinda like the high fantasy archetypes, so for us we thought: "how can we turn a lot of those on their heads, how can we do it with a modern sensibility?". And that's where I think George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is a great example and increasingly you see kind of these modern darker fantasies that come out where they're a little unrelenting and a little more willing to kill off characters... so we made those same decisions, we're prepared to have a world that's literally teetering on the brink of destruction and it is a dark place where betrayal is a commonplace thing, it's not just unicorn and ponies (laughs). So, that was certainly a big influence and of course innumerable fantasy books and elements of Dungeons & Dragons were influential too and certainly Baldur's Gate II in terms of the feel and the interface. There were a lot of other influences here and there but I think those are pretty much the big ones.

Okay, I think he's definitely dead this time.

RPGFan: How long do you expect the game to be for both an average player and for a completionist?
Mike Laidlaw: I would say the average player will probably be 70 to 80 hours and the completionist will be around 100 to 110 hours and that's one playthrough. Now, the REAL completionist is then going to want to try the other Origins stories, see the alternate endings to a lot of the open world stuff, make different choices, political alliances, go with different armies, so we've talked about it having like 800 hours of gameplay or something like that.

RPGFan: You've talked about the Origins stories, so how many are there in total and how long are each of them?
Mike Laidlaw: It depends how you play them. If you're kinda like rushing through them, you could probably get through them in about half an hour or so since they're not terribly long but there's a lot of stuff to explore like a lot of the early establishments of the world and stuff. For example, when you're an elf, you've got people who come to visit because it's your wedding day and you chat with them, learn some stuff, talk to you dad some more, talk to your cousin, all these extra elements that are kinda there because we like to have an experience that you can customize. If you want to know everything, you can and if you just want to get to the parts where you're kicking some butt, that's okay too. You have the option to go either way.

You'll be seeing plenty of those dialogue choices.

RPGFan: Now, yesterday Matt was joking about Dragon Age kinda being like a single-player MMORPG, so are there any possible plans of eventually going for an actual Dragon Age MMORPG?
Mike Laidlaw: I would never rule that out, I mean especially with the expertise we're getting in developing Star Wars: The Old Republic and with Dragon Age, the IP is fully owned by us so it's possible. I wouldn't say it's something we're pursuing at this exact moment since we're keeping the team focused on finishing Origins but yeah, I never rule anything out.

RPGFan: So, in that sense, I assume you guys are seeing Dragon Age more as a possible series like Baldur's Gate more than a one-time game like Jade Empire?
Mike Laidlaw: Yeah, we're not closing the door on sequels. I think we've got some early plans that are pretty cool that suggests more things we can do with it. The other thing for us is that we see this as an IP more than just a game, I mean, we already have the first novel out, we've got a pen and paper role-playing game coming out, that's the beginning of expanding things and that's really exciting to be a part of.

Xbox 360 stations set-up for our visit.

RPGFan: How would you compare Dragon Age with previous BioWare titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire? Which ones would it be closer to?
Mike Laidlaw: Well, it's a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate is what we've always talked about as being in terms of what it's closest to and Neverwinter Nights is also in the same space. We were trying to evoke a lot of the feel that you got out of the Baldur's Gate experience so that's not just the fantasy setting but also some of the more tactical elements of the gameplay and having a slightly larger party and having the banter and the interplay between them as you explore the world which was one of my favorite elements of the Baldur's Gate series. I mean hearing Minsc and Edwin snipe at one another, having the paladin and Viconia almost coming to blows over the fact that she's a Drow, I mean that's awesome! So we wanted to have that same kind of feel for the player because to me that's the one layer of icing that drags you right in to the storyline. I mean, these people are "people" you know what I mean? They're becoming more than just people that carry armor and hit things for you. So, a party-based fantasy RPG is where it comes close to Baldur's Gate and certainly Neverwinter Nights but a shocking new experience puts us more into the Jade Empire-Mass Effect space where it's like this new IP, a new world to explore that you don't know anything about...

RPGFan: And maybe more cinematic too...
Mike Laidlaw: And more cinematic definitely yeah. So, it's elements of everything we've done in the past all coming together into one grand massive vision and I'm really proud to have been a part of it.

RPGFan: Was the music done internally or was it outsourced?
Mike Laidlaw: It was outsourced, we actually had a composer come in and we've worked with him before but I'm not sure if we've announced his name just yet (Editor's Note: Inon Zur is the composer). Great guy to work with, came up and talked to the development team about each of the different areas. So, yeah, music composed specifically for the game and for the moments the game has. I love it.

RPGFan: So, on top of stuff like books and pen and paper RPGs, are you guys also planning on releasing the soundtrack for the game?
Mike Laidlaw: I'd love to see that, honestly the music is sitting in my iTunes right now and whenever I'm writing or just chilling out, it's just brilliant to listen to because it's so... lyrical and epic in scope...

RPGFan: Yeah, it has a movie feel to it.
Mike Laidlaw: Yeah, that's exactly it. It really does. It's not Hans Zimmer but it has that same kind of Gladiator feel so I really enjoy listening to it and I think people would like it too.

Nice interior design at the BioWare offices!

RPGFan: What are some of the differences in terms of control between the PC and console versions? How did you manage to like tone it down from the PC?
Mike Laidlaw: Well, we took a giant hammer and... *laughs*, no, actually the challenge for us I think was getting that long quickbar from the PC version with tons of spells and abilities and getting that to a point where it's still really quickly accessible even though you only have about a few buttons. So we ended up creating a hybrid where you have 6 abilities mapped that you can quickly get to and we have a radial menu that you can bring up and access everything else that you can do, every action you can possibly take. So, those 6 main actions (abilities, spells or items) can be mapped by the player to quick one-button access while the rest is accessible in a few more button presses. So, yeah it's a little slower than the PC version but it can easily be customized so you have your more important spells or abilities at your fingertips.

RPGFan: What ESRB rating is BioWare aiming for with Dragon Age since there's a lot of blood, violence and possibly even nudity?
Mike Laidlaw: It will be a Mature game, and we pretty much knew that from the ground up.

RPGFan: So no pressure from above to tone the game down to achieve a lower rating?
Mike Laidlaw: No, obviously no one wants to slip into AO (Adults Only) but hitting MA (Mature) I think is really valid space because there are a full generation of gamers, of which I'm definitely a part of, that are cresting into their 30s, you know, long time gamers who really like RPGs. And you know, I think they're ready and I hope they're hungry for something that's a little more mature and challenging than what they've dealt with in the past. Something that is darker and that will shock some of their notions that they've carried forward in their long history of playing. If Dragon Age delivers to anyone the same experience I had when I was first playing Fallout or playing Planescape: Torment, you know, those classics, then I'll feel like we've done our job.

We'd like to thank Mike Laidlaw for taking the time to talk to us and BioWare for their hospitality during our stay.