Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Hanako Understands the Problem with Dragon Age. Bioware Doesn’t.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 24, 2011

I got riled up about this article.  I was planning a big retort, though I still feel kinda bad commenting on a game I feel I’ve barely played.  But that was kind of the point. I was one of those people who quit only a few hours in. And my reasons were almost the exact opposite of what Bioware thinks they were.

I was preparing to rant on how the stats and stuff were what kept me going a good hour after I’d gotten bored, as it promised potential that I’m sure is there, based on reports from other players.  But apparently I’m not alone, and Hanako (Whiner) already hit the nail right on the head.  So rather than repeat her, I’ll just point you to her short rant:

*Miming Overhead Whoosh* at I Whine About Games

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Bioware put all this stats-reporting crap into their game, and then interpreted the data exactly the way they wanted and expected to see it.  At least that’s my take. Maybe their stats are all console-based, and they are discovering console players are suffering an allergic reaction to seeing numbers on the screen, and are throwing the controllers down in disgust the third time they get to level up.  I dunno.

What I do know is that I’m losing faith in Bioware.

Filed Under: Design, Mainstream Games - Comments: 23 Comments to Read

  • Peter said,

    Put me down as another “starting to lose faith in Bioware”, at least as a game developer. I played the demo and couldn’t shake the feeling I was playing Dragon Effect 2. This isn’t *entirely* a bad thing – ME2 was a fun movie, despite being a terrible game, and I got the feeling there might be a decent story in DA2 once you get past the awful game.

  • Robyrt said,

    I think Bioware is just trying to find some way to use their metrics at all. Everyone that collects this data finds that most gamers don’t last more than 3 or 4 hours into anything, even Portal, and that most players will just hit Next Next Next on any startup “Choose Your Class” type screens, and that most players will pick the most paladin-y choice in any “moral choice” system. What to conclude from that, nobody really knows.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I couldn’t agree with Hanako more.

    I like Dragon Age well enough. Hell, I’ve played through it in its entirety twice. But yeah, players weren’t quitting a few hours into the experience because of stats or some kind of insane number fear. I guess all those shooter fans playing Borderlands are scared of the stats and experience points they accumulate and build?

    No, Dragon Age suffered because of one big thing – PACING. Almost all of the “origin stories” that started the game are exciting and fast paced, some more so than others. Things are happening and happening fast, and you are making decisions left and right. Then comes Ostagar, and it is, aside from an awesome CUTSCENE and one battle in the tower at the end, BORING as hell. Suddenly Bioware slammed on the brakes and you aren’t making decisions anymore, just reacting to other characters actions – characters that you know will be irrelevant in just a little while.

    Then, if you manage to make it past Ostagar, you have to put up with a boring and sleeping little town with more characters that will not matter in 30 minutes. Pacing at this point is dead in the water, you’re just floating in the current with no wind in your sails.

    If you didn’t fall asleep through all that, the game finally opens up and lets you choose where you want to go and start making decisions again. Each of the three adventure sites are fairly exciting, but then in the dwarven one, they make you take a time out from the exciting story and action to wonder a maze of tunnels that look identical. Same with the elven site, where you must wonder lost in the woods for the obligatory amount of time before you get encounter the interesting stuff.

    The game really doesn’t nail its pacing perfectly until you get to the last third of the game, when the plot and action sings and everything you do is exciting and gripping. But hell – the getting there is a pain in the butt.

    When I got ready for my second playthrough, I dreaded Ostagar – to the point I almost decided not to play again, as working through the crap to get to the golden nugget center seemed like too much of a chore.

    So, to Bioware, Square-Enix (Final Fantasy XIII), stop making players play through a dozen hours or more of tutorial before letting them loose! Just because you are allowed more game time than other genres doesn’t mean you need to take it!

    And I am not sure how I feel about collecting player metrics and designing games around them – I feel like all that will do is create games that “everyone likes, but no one loves”. For people to be passionate about something it has to be polarizing to an extent – otherwise you have the very definition of bland.

  • Tom said,

    The original article doesn’t sound that bad to me; reminds me of the in media res beginnings to Morrowind and other Elder Scrolls games in which you customize the character slowly by playing the tutorial part. I guess I’ll know soon since I had to pre-order a copy for both me and the wife.

    I think, though, to pick up on Robyrt’s comment, that this is one of the great things about indie games. A smaller budget and a lower expectations can give you the freedom to make the game you want to play without feeling like you need to appeal to the widest possible audience.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    I never understood the point of Ostagar-as-a-tutorial. I’ve already done the tutorial in the origin story, why do I need to do it again but at 1/5 the speed and with long walks between the NPCs. Gah.

    Funnily enough the demo shows that they got the tutorial right this time. So they’ll probably think it was the getting rid of character creation, not that, if people carry on playing. It’s not long enough to see if the combat/character stats are just simplified or also dumbed down. Looks more like the witcher’s branching skill system than the ME(1 or 2) ones though.

    DA2’s demo is a lot more like ME1 than ME2. Which is definitely a relief based on what I’d heard. I thought marketing were supposed to make the thing they’re selling sound better than it is, not worse :s

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, I haven’t played the DA2 demo yet, so I’m not judging what they did with that. I’m sure it’s cool.

    Designers have been dodging the stats thing for years. I mean… hello Ultima IV! I think one of the developers of a 1990s era Ultima (I think it was Ultima VII or VIII) didn’t actually do anything in the code. They just left it in for the people who liked to see numbers go up.

    So that’s been an issue designers have been wrestling with for almost as long as commercial CRPGs have been made. There’s never been a great answer. You go too far, you get Bioshock – still a good game, but not an RPG.

    The annoyance I get with these kinds of tests is that they are not A/B splits. Which means there’s no control group. Granted, it can be hard to do A/B tests with an informed audience. But what happens is (for example) a company produces a cool game for the XBox and the PC, but sites crippling piracy rates for the PC, so they weight it down with draconian DRM. I say, “Screw it, ” and don’t buy the PC version, and I’m hardly alone. Suddenly they then say, “See, nobody bought the PC version! What did we tell you, the platform’s dead!”

    No, the platform’s not dead, only the publishers’ brains are.

  • Xian said,

    I was one of those that quit after a few hours. I got to the waves of undead attacking Redcliffe at night with my fighter character. I had a very difficult time getting through that, and was generally bored with the game by that time.

    A couple months later, after continuing to see the high acclaim some people were giving the game, I decided to give it another go. I chose a mage this time. Of course this meant I had to go through the boring Ostagar part a second time. The mage was much easier to play, I got through the Redcliffe undead waves the first attempt, where my fighter had to go through it quite a few times. I ended up completing the game, but I have to agree that the beginning just kinda fizzled – the initial character introduction story was good, but after that it didn’t pick up again until much later in the game.

    I agree with you about the DRM putting many off of PC games. I just bought Alpha Protocol after the recommendation from people on this blog. Sega had recently released a patch to remove the limited activations. I just completed Risen on Monday. It also had limited activations. At first I was pretty adamant that I was not going to buy anything that had those after being burned on Bioshock, but I have since softened that to I am not going to buy it at anywhere near full release price. I got Risen on a holiday sale, and Alpha Protocol is down to $10 on Amazon.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Didn’t you get the memo from the other game designers? Players are stupid, fragile things and if you put in anything requiring conscious thought they’ll hate you forever.

    This is also demonstrates the pitfall with “metrics-driven design”. Collecting all the datain the world is meaningless if you can’t get the right information out of it. It seems they drew the wrong conclusion (or the conclusion someone had already jumped to) based on data.

  • McTeddy said,

    I don’t know if I agree actually… (Well, no longer loving Bioware I do agree)

    My evidence is looking at their past success. Mass Effect 2 was a game that reduced an RPG into a shooter… yet it was heralded as the greatest game evaaar!

    They’ve come to realize that (As brian so kindly pointed out 🙂 ) Players are stupid fragile… etc.

    The dumber they make the games, the more money they seem to make. They’ve come to realize that by targeting the masses they no longer need to satisfy those of us that loved them in the past.

    Bioware no longer cares. They get paid oodles of money making action games. That’s not a problem… thats business.

    NOTE: I do not approve of said business tactics… nor mean this to support their actions… I only speak as the devils advocate.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    This brings to mind the beginning of Fallout 2, where you had to go through the rather awful Temple of Trials as a tutorial section.

    To make this feel even more tacked on, the starting village was a tutorial section all of it’s own! The difference there being that those starter quests are all optional.

    My main problems with DA:O are quite similar to NWN2 (and ME for that matter), in that it felt quite linear and had little replay value. If anything they both felt a little long, so the good bits were separated by sections of repetitive battles and such.

    Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and with less free time on my hands, but I don’t feel “cheated” by a shorter game provided it gives me a good and entertaining experience. If I see people saying that Game X will take 80+ hours to complete, all I can think of is how many of those hours will be me wandering, fighting trash mobs and trying to find the good parts…

  • a-p said,

    “Yeah, I haven’t played the DA2 demo yet”

    Here’s some gameplay footage I saw linked on the Codex:


    To me, that is just unbelievable. I don’t know how that’s even a game. How could someone play that and decide to buy it, or even pirate it? What’s the draw?

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    DA:O has tons of replay value – in the plot sections, with all the multiple options and interesting character bits to explore. The gameplay? Meh. I eventually just went for cheat codes and made all the monsters (except interesting battles) blow up on sight so I could get ON with it. _If_ I play the sequel, it’ll be after the same are available. 🙂

    I’m one who would be happier if they really WERE writing interactive movies instead of making me slog through waves of blood in action that is less fun than they think it is.

  • BenD said,

    As primarily a console player, I resent the part about how maybe the data comes from consoles and console gamers can’t cope with numbers.

    Do you really want to get in on that hot action of LOLing at console gamers because they’re so dumb? I thought better of you. I’m surprised because this is the first note I can recall seeing here that sounds so much like the usual sneeringly superior PC gamer blog.

    Defending the strength of your platform shouldn’t really involve trying to undermine the users of others.

    (Note: if the numbers are too tiny to be read on a tv set, that is a separate problem – one that should be addressed in the console version of a console/PC title.)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    It’s not a question of intelligence so much as tastes.

    I have an allergic reaction to first-person shooters on the console. I enjoy them (in moderation) on the PC, but I can’t stand them on consoles. Drives me crazy. Aiming with the controller is not a natural act, and the “auto-aiming” that’s all but a requirement on console doesn’t feel right – but I can’t play without it.

    But while it didn’t come out quite right, my sarcasm was directed more towards the marketers / designers who lump the world into “console gamers” versus “PC gamers” and assume console gamers are all alike and can’t stand anything hinting of the more cerebral pace that apparently all PC gamers love…

  • Menigal said,

    Ug, Bioware. I went off them a long time ago and stand by my statement that the last really good game (not occasionally interactive movie) they made was the first Baldur’s Gate, but I used to have some respect for them. However, that’s gone down with every game they’ve released.

    They’re not making games for RPG fans. They, like seemingly everyone else in the mainstream gaming industry, are going for the mass-market gamer; the gaming equivalent of the people who happily listen to nothing but top 40 pop music and watch Simon Cowell’s latest venture without even questioning whether they want to. Essentially, the sort of person who wouldn’t have played video games 10-15 years ago.

    Those of us who did play video games 10-15 years ago are just more aware of the changes that come with the industry sliding into the marketing-led, customers-are-stupid paradigm. And unfortunately, since Bioware has this reputation as the king of the RPG, other companies tend to follow their lead.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I gave up on DA after a few hours of play because of the brain dead AI controlling my party members. The combat was far too frustrating, with me having to constantly monitor all my party members. I don’t have a problem with doing this in a turn based game, one of my favourite games is King’s Bounty, where you have to do everything. But having to constantly over ride the idiotic AI controlling you party is annoying.
    The last Bioware game I completed was KOTOR, which was okay, but not great. Everything after that has been downhill, and I’m not even looking at DA2.

  • Noumenon said,

    Dragon Age Origins didn’t have you pick your statistics until you first leveled up either, did it? I’d like to know whether people were quitting just after the origin story, or when.

    I remember Ostagar quite fondly, because of the cinematics — the Helm’s Deep type battle, the betrayal, snarky Alistair, and the extremely affecting Grey Warden ritual. I also remember wandering around finding priests praying before the battle and soldiers on guard and it really setting the stage for anticipation of the battle to come.

    I’m starting to feel like I have bad taste in games for saying these things though…

    I like repetitive combat because it lets you explore all the little abilities you get each level, and stuff like “maybe I’ll try using a trap this time, I never do that.” Final Fantasy X had really repetitive combat with just different skins on the same random monsters, but by and large it took all of those combats to really get killing things down to a science.

  • Peter said,

    …wow. If you haven’t already, go read the Gamasutra interview with Mike Laidlaw at http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6297/the_rise_of_dragon_age_ii.php?page=1.

    Highlight (lowlight?): “For me, I guess, fundamentally, there are more people who are ready to play RPGs than realize it. These are people who will play FarmVille. These are people who have shot enough people in the head that they’ve leveled up in Medal of Honor. They’ve gained XP and have received awards as a result. That’s an RPG mechanic. They’ve played [Grand Theft Auto] San Andreas and they’ve run enough, and gotten buff enough, that their endurance is a higher. They’ve leveled.

    So I think there’s more people out there with RPGs, and then it’s honestly on RPGs to try to figure out how to take the mechanics that people are actually loving in other genres and say, “No, no, no. We had those years ago, but we understand that they kind of were scary.””

    “Ready to play RPGs”? RPGs “kind of were scary”? Words fail me.

  • Demiath said,

    Never heard anyone complain about the Ostagar parts before – which I personally found to be entirely acceptable as far as introductions go – so I’m not really sure what to make of it (…now, the Deep Roads are something else entirely!).

    As for DA2, I find most criticisms of what we’ve seen of the game so far to be unimaginative and lazy (“premature” goes without saying, the game hasn’t been released yet). As a long-time RPG gamer I’m very excited about what Bioware is attempting here – i.e. to retain the Baldur’s Gate-esque tactics of DA:O while making the gameplay faster and more responsive and also allowing hack’n slash players to take a decidedly more action-oriented approach.

    To me, this truly sounds like the best of two worlds and if it doesn’t work this time around (or if this particular game falls apart in unrelated areas such as story-telling or pacing etc.), it’s still a great idea worth pursuing in the future. I’m so sick and tired of the constant dichotomy between “old school” RPGs and modern action-heavy RPGs, but what if we don’t have to choose? What if a single game can encompass both play styles simply by virtue of having a better, more inclusive design philosophy at its core? Granted, it probably won’t give me back my beloved turn-based combat systems in mainstream releases (although D.W. Bradley’s Wizards & Warriors was onto something with its unique slider-based continuum between turn-based and realtime), but it’s still a way forward in more ways than one…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I actually kind of agree with that Laidlaw quote. Not that I think of RPGs as scary… but it wasn’t too long ago that I jumped into playing a couple of old-school RPGs without reading the manuals first, and I gotta admit I was a wee bit confused and intimidated. I really do believe that we need more “entry level RPGs.” This is a good thing. I mean, I thought Aveyond was a terrific entry-level RPG.

    BUT… my problem is that the industry seems so fixated on appealing to everyone BUT the role-playing game fans. They want new gamers. They want hardcore action gamers. They want… well, okay, they don’t want the RPG fans to LEAVE so they’ll throw them some bones here and there, but otherwise they just figure, “Well, they’ll gripe and complain, but they are going to play the game anyway *because* it is an RPG and will have a great story and production values which will knock everyone’s socks off by the glitz of it all. So who cares?”

    I’m not saying that this mentality produces *bad* games. Just not games that scratch the RPG itch for me. It’s like I’m really in the mood for quality Chinese food, and I keep getting taken out to have pizza instead, because “everybody loves pizza.” I love it too, and can’t complain about the pizza, but I’m still craving Chinese.

    Maybe I’m just too jaded now, but every time I here RPG designers talk like these guys are about hiding the intimidating RPG parts from an RPG, I end up reading it as code-words for “We want to make an action game with a big story.” I wasn’t always like that. I mean… again… Ultima VII remains my favorite CRPG, and that game was probably more action-RPG than DA:O, Mass Effect 1, or the Diablo games.

    But nowadays, I get defensive about that. Because at every turn, designers are effectively declaring war on a major subset of the genre that I really enjoy, and while not denouncing them outright, they are certainly laying down subtext that this type of experience is somehow bad or unworthy.

  • sascha said,

    Well said Hanako! Well said! I think Bioware somehow completely got the wrong information or the player base they’ve tested this on weren’t RPG players. DA feels bland, removing stats makes it feel even more bland!

    I gave up playing DA after 2-3 hours because the whole world felt pre-defined and scripted, because NPCs dialogue was too long and full with irrelevant blather and because the main plot felt so stereotype (Orc hordes overrunning the country, uh oh wait, where did I see that before? In like, 5273 other movies/stories/games/whatnot!).

  • Xenovore said,

    The biggest issue with Dragon Age and its ilk is the complete lack of player choice. Not only are you railroaded along a scripted path littered with cutscenes, but you are not allowed to create your own character — you’re thrown into a predetermined role and just expected to like it.

    I did watch my friend play the Dragon Age 2 demo and, while it was fun to watch for a bit, I had absolutely no desire to actually play it. It just looked so fake, so contrived. Don’t get me wrong, the visuals were really good, but the whole thing just came across as hokey. For example, the vast quantities of blood spraying everywhere and splattering everything — that was particularly distracting; especially when the characters entered a conversation (which seemed to always be right after a battle). I’d see their blood-spattered faces and I’d think, “What? Really? Nobody’s heard of a thing called a ‘towel’ in your little world?”

    Really though, that’s neither here nor there. The most egregious issue with Dragon Age et al is that you are forced to to play exactly the way the designers decided. It’s like wanting to paint a painting, but you’re handed a coloring book instead. “Stay within the lines!”

  • DaveR said,

    Most people made warrior type characters. As it happens the warriors don’t actually have anything to do in the game other than stand and swing sword. Maybe Bioware should try and make a fun game for all classes?