Interview – Mike Laidlaw, Creative Director of Dragon Age Inquisition
Bioware recently made the long, loooong trip to PAX Australia to give fans down under an early look at Dragon Age Inquisition. Expectations are high for the developer’s latest epic RPG, and nobody is more aware of this than Creative Director Mike Laidlaw. He sat down with Tash to talk about romances, crafting, and beard growing contests. No, really.
Tash: So we are just a few weeks away from launch now. After spending years developing the game, and now being so close to its release, what kinds of emotions are you feeling?
Mike: Trepidation, relief, exhaustion, jet lag, and pride.
Tash: In that order?
Mike: No, not in that order. That’s just what came to mind. The jet lag’s pretty overwhelming. So the trepidation comes in, and it’s pretty minor because I’m pretty damn happy with the game. But you’re always like, “I hope we didn’t f*ck something up.” You always, always… as a creator, it’s like… Samuel Beckett couldn’t go to his plays, right? Same thing. Except he was a little crazy.Pride. An enormous team has put an enormous amount of time… I think we could’ve built a pyramid… into making something, and when I play it, I’m like, “Yes, I am thoroughly enjoying this experience!” Despite the fact that I know all of its intricacies, and I can see all the warts and everything. So I come away going, “Wow!” And this is the thing. I was talking to Mark, one of the tech designers, and he was out there going, “Mike, Mike… we built this.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know, man! Crazy.” So seeing the team be able to play it, and for a lot of them, this is the first time that they’re seeing all their parts come together in a way that I kind of had to… “No, trust me, guys. This’ll work out.” And seeing that makes me so happy. And relief is largely just… “Oh boy, that’s a biggy.” And, you know, eventually it had to end, and I’m glad it did. If you push on it too long, you lose perspective.
Tash: So one of the criticisms of Dragon Age 2 was that no matter what choices the player made, they couldn’t really change the outcome of the story in a meaningful way. Do you think you’ve adequately responded to that criticism with Inquisition? Will players be satisfied with the number of choices they can make in the game?
Mike: I would say yes. I think that within the gaming space, we can’t offer all possible outcomes. I think it would be unrealistic to ask for that. Some people will. Let’s be fair. But what I think is important is that the choices that you offer pay off. If you’re going to go through the effort of saying, “Oh you could do this or this,” it should have a meaningful impact. So Inquisition takes a number of approaches. There is content which is exclusive to other content. If you’ve done X, you can’t do Y, which can be incredibly powerful. And then many choices have echoes. So there’s the immediate impact, and I think choices are very powerful when they have an immediate impact. But then if that impact keeps being felt, and you’re reminded of it, you’re like, “Wow, that was a big deal.” So we’ve tried to do both in equal measure. Some of that is like, you’re Qunari, and then thirty hours later, someone’s like… “Oh, you? No, no, I don’t approve.” And you’re like, “That’s really cool, just being mentioned.” We have story elements that are exclusive, and then we also… I don’t know if you got far enough to see the war table? Did you see the… when you went to the Hinterlands, did you do any of the operations? Did you see the second thing you can do on the war table?
Tash: I don’t think so.
Mike: Well, there’s this amazing draw to… “Let’s go explore!” Because, seriously, I don’t know if you want to spend time in the GUI, especially at this event. But when you go back to the war table, you will actually find a whole series of operations that take real time to complete. There’s one in there… what did you play? Qunari?
Tash: Yeah, Qunari.
Mike: So if you play Qunari, there’ll be one that’s a message from your mercenary captain going, “Hey we’re kinda in a rough spot, and we never really got paid for that gig that we were doing.” And you can actually send agents or soldiers to go bust them out of that tough spot. And you wouldn’t see that if you were playing an elf. There are over 300 of those kinds of operations. They form chains, there’s quest lines, stuff unlocks based on them, and all of them taken together form this secondary echo of reactivity. So it’s all these big choices you’ve made, and then some stuff happened in the game. but then also, now you’re getting messages from the Count du Whatever about… “what the hell were you doing?” And you have to appease him. So you have all of these ripples through the pond, and I think that’s where the game can shine.
Tash: I’m always going to ask a question about romances. One of things I love most about Bioware games are the romances. And in Dragon Age, the party members knew about the relationship you had. It existed outside of the cutscenes. That type of thing made the romances feel a lot more authentic. Is this something you’ll be continuing to do in Inquisition?
Mike: Yeah… because it’s works! There’s nothing more satisfying to me, as a player, than an unexpected callout of something you’ve been doing. Probably my favorite example is… you won’t find it for all of them, but for many of the romances, you’ll actually have certain combinations of followers who will start teasing you, in banter, while you’re exploring. So you’re in the middle of the desert, and they’re like… “So, heyyyyy” about it, and you’re like “Ohhhh…” And it’s funny because you actually feel that natural human blush response. “Ohhhh, they busted me.” And it feels great, and that kind of stuff to me is really endearing. It creates moments. There’s often some sort of serendipity, like just as you walk by the waterfall, they bring up… “So how’s all the sex?” And you’re like, “Ohhhhh, oh what are you doing?” It’s funny, and in a way, we form those narratives. That was not a trigger. It just happened to happen then. There can be some really funny moments that just happen because of that. I also think it’s really good when you’re like, “Hey man, what’s up?” And you’re flirting with a guy, and he’s like “No! You’re with… no!” And suddenly these characters have morals, and their own will. It’s pretty powerful. So, yes.
Tash: Excellent. I’m very happy about that. So between interviews and live streams, you’ve done a lot of talking about Dragon Age Inquisition.
Tash: But is there any aspect of the game that you feel hasn’t been talked about enough?
Mike: So we’ve covered a fair amount of it. I think, probably, the thing that’s tough to get across… and I’ve seen this even on the team, because probably there’s only about ten people who really worked on the crafting system, specifically the armor and weapon crafting. So it was funny. For years, it was like this black box. And the tech designers we’re like, “I’m putting iron down. I don’t know what it does, but a guy named Jeron told me to put it here, so I’m putting it here.” And only in the past few months have people finally been able to realize the potential. We had a couple goals. One was to make you feel like you could experiment. Not in the… “oh, I’m making alchemy here!” sense. It’s more in the sense of, “well what happens if I do this, this, and this? Oh wow, I can get really awesome cold resist gear.” Like, “maybe I should collect more of that stuff.” Almost like giving yourself a quest. Like, “I’m gonna go fight the lightning dragon, so I should probably get lightning resist gear…I’ll be the desert.” That’s cool. So the experimentation of, “So if I mix these materials, this leather with this metal to make this suit of armor, it’s going to be very effective for this, and I can put these arms on it, and then upgrade it with these boots, and I’ll put this hilt on this sword,” it feels super personal, and you feel really excited when you’re doing that. But also, it has an impact on the appearance. So you can basically make the “I really like that set of arm and glove combination” and you can make them just as effective as that other arm and glove combination. And suddenly, you’re upgrading specific types of armor along specific visual themes because you want to min/max, but you also want to look awesome. And maybe you want to use the same armor from the beginning of the game because you just think that’s a really cool suit of armor, and you can do that too. So I think we’ve talked about it, but it’s funny because I’ve had so many designers come up and go, “OK so I’ve been messing with the crafting, and ohhhh my lord, I can’t stop. Look at this amazing bow I made!” So then you get into runes, and you’re enchanting them, and they’re glowing, and the writers are calling me over… “Look at this axe!” “Yes, that is an impressive axe, Patrick. That is an impressive axe.”
Tash: It’s always Patrick.
Mike: “I use it to kill dragons!” Sylvia and Patrick have this arms race of escalation… “It’s on fire AND it’s lightning!” And I’m like, “Well, I didn’t know you could actually do that, and it probably breaks the game, but good on ya!” So that’s the thing… it’s almost hard to talk about because people are like, “No, it can’t be that.” But it works pretty well, so I’m excited to see people get their hands on it. And the thing is, you don’t have to do it. There’s tons of cool loot, and purple drops, and all kinds of rare things… the Hat of Whatever. But sometimes, the fact that you made it and gave it a silly name makes it that much more impactful. I’m looking forward to people sharing it because it’s the kind of experience you have when you’re playing a game, and you’re like… “Look, I did this awesome thing!” And somehow, you haven’t spoiled the game, but you’ve talked in detail about multiple systems, and how they interact. That’s one the joys of open world, right?
Tash. Definitely. Very important question. Does the Skyhold have a hot tub, and if not, could one be added with DLC?
Mike: So, we’re gonna wrap this one before we worry about DLC because everybody’s quite tired. And no, it does not have a hot tub. Given magic and enchanting, yes, a hot tub is absolutely within the realm of possibility. However, one of the credos I have for Dragon Age is that there is no power without a cost. Ergo, it would probably take the sacrifice of something very tender and lovable in order to maintain the hot tub. So you’ve got to ask yourself, “are you prepared to do that? Just for bubbles?”
Tash: I would be prepared to give it Cullen.
Mike: And that’s the thing. It’s really about choice.
Tash: Exactly. Second to last question. Who would win in a beard growing contest, Oghren or Blackwall?
Tash: You put yourself above them?
Mike: No, no, I think dwarves naturally have that thick lushness. The problem with Oghren, as I see it, is that he’s just not good at the maintenance. So even if it is a lusher beard, it’s going to tangle up in itself, and he’s not going to care. Blackwall? That guy spends a lot of time with a comb with every morning. You know it. He is in there, conditioning probably. So I think probably Blackwall. At least in terms of end result.
Tash: And final question, which I suppose was inspired by our playtime that we had tonight. I noticed that Varric has some very impressive chest hair going on.
Mike: It’s next gen.
Tash: I’m just wondering if anybody stepped in and did some sort of modeling for that?
Tash: No? It’s all freeballing?
Mike: You gotta shoot from the hip some days, and I think Varric would approve of shooting from the hip, so that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It’s all our talented, sourceless character art team.
Tash: Thank you very much, Mike.
Save Game like to thank Mike Laidlaw for taking the time to sit and chat with us. We couldn’t be more excited for Dragon Age Inquisition, which launches on November 18th for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. We’d also like to thank Joe for transcribing this interview, and not dying of jealousy.