The (Dragon) Age Old Problem…

Dragon Age 2 Fail

BioWare are now asking the community to provide feedback on the future goals and directions of Dragon Age as a series. Oh dear. When you have to throw your creation out for the hyenas to pick over, there is a serious problem. But there is a solution, if BioWare can stomach it…

So, I guess it’s official. Dragon Age is in a spot of crisis.

BioWare have resorted to fielding a series of questions to the userbase of Dragon Age, in the hopes that the resulting feedback from players will give them some ideas, concepts and impressions on how to make the next game better. You know what? On paper, that sounds like a step in the right direction.

Of course, everything works on paper and most of that tends not to work in practice, and of course, it’s showing. Users are submitting their feedback and not all of it is constructive.

The problem that strikes me is why they feel the need to ask at all.

The critical backlash (that I was a part of) back when Dragon Age 2 was brand new detailed very much what we did not like about the game – I admittedly went very strong with this line; “Dragon Age 2 is very much that most un-BioWare of things… a half-arsed job.”

I will stand by that assessment of the game too. Not because I hated Dragon Age 2, by all accounts it was a pleasing if underwhelming little action-adventure game. But the cut and paste maps, endlessly repeated. The lack of character depth, where all the emphasis was on ‘relationships’, effectively creating a system where you would set up groups that didn’t conflict with each other. The lack of journey in what was ostensibly a tale about exile and finding your feet – all these things made the game look and feel rushed, unfinished and unrefined.

But all of that has been said before – repeatedly, like the cave maps in Dragon Age 2. If BioWare wanted meaningful feedback about the game, they need only read the reviews for the game, which all made fair and reasoned points that the game was too small, too shallow and a bit too… well… gay. I say that without prejudice, because I don’t mind gay relationships in a game at all, but as a male character I did feel like every character – with particular emphasis on the guys – were only interested in my awesome mage staff of epic power. I guess Hawke just oozes sex appeal and can turn men, women and demons to his dark and twisted bedroom ways.

And if BioWare wanted really meaningful examples of how to fix the game, why did they bottle modding toolkits for the game? Of course, we know the reason why – this would have conflicted with their DLC and item pack plans. But what mods have been made – mostly cosmetic changes, with some balanced items – showed that the community would have been willing and capable of forgiving all its flaws for the chance of making it better.

It’s lucrative too, because not only would the userbase have ostensibly finished an unfinished game, and kept it alive for a much longer period than it did, but it would have given BioWare practical and sensible concepts and solutions for what it DID do wrong. For many, the attitude has been “BioWare, this is broken, fix it!” – when it could have so easily been, “BioWare, this is broken, I fixed it.”

Words are messy, and of course it is easy to see the consultation is both evidence that Dragon Age 3 is on the cards and an attempt to get some positive public relations out of the mess that was Dragon Age 2. But what went wrong with Dragon Age 2 is obvious, and it has been trotted out repeatedly by many people across the internet – and an awful lot of it might have something to do internally with BioWare right now.

BioWare have just fallen from grace. Their games lack polish and refinement now, with an awful lot of emphasis on relationships – normal, gay, transgendered and beastial, almost to the point of cheapening how ground-breaking it is to see games be so liberal and liberated about sexuality. There’s too much emphasis on characters and companions and not enough growth, variety or depth to the wider world and story. The companions and the relationships you build with them should be the wine you drink alongside the main course – the games main storyline should be the real meat course, with the ending (or choice of endings) as the dessert.

If BioWare need to ask the community to remind them how to write stories and characters INTO stories, then there are far greater problems at BioWare than it would first seem. This is entry level stuff – the basics, if you will, of telling a story. Characters should grow and change and develop, but unless they ARE the story, it isn’t worth spending half your tale appeasing their every whim. Sometimes all you need are the basics – a few stock characters, a big ancient evil awakening and a journey across deserts, through forests and across snowy mountain passes.

That is how they could go about Dragon Age 3. A return to the very roots of the RPG genre, to firm the foundations and build upon them. The problem BioWare have is that now we have Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma, Kingdoms of Amalur and The Witcher 2 – huge, deep RPGs that have also had huge budgets and are huge, expansive, exploratory experiences with a real sense of journey and self-improvement.

The sad truth is for Dragon Age as a series, the ship has sailed… and sunk. If they haven’t already learned from the mistakes they made, then no matter what the user feedback, they will repeat the same mistakes again on a fundamental level.

And in that case, the series may as well just stay buried. It does no-one any good to continually make a mess of things.

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