Over a dozen senior video game directors, designers and programmers pack the theatre space inside BioWare’s unassuming Edmonton studio to watch, and re-watch, footage of their next game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
With only a few precious weeks left until the E3: Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles — the world’s largest video game trade show — the team is busy perfecting a slice of its highly-anticipated fantasy role-playing sequel for all to see.
It’s a highly collaborative atmosphere in the room, says Dragon Age Executive Producer Mark Darrah, as designers call out issues which are then assigned to project leads who work to make sure the demonstration is close to flawless by the time it’s shown live on stage to the hundreds of video game journalists in Los Angeles, and thousands more fans watching online.
“You’re trying to get everything perfect so it shows as well as it can. One of the things that we found is it’s actually quite difficult to show a role-playing game in that kind of setting,” says Darrah. “You kind of really want some time with it to let the story pull you in and sort of ‘live’ with it.”
BioWare’s presentation during publisher Electronic Arts’ press conference on June 9 will be crucial for the team as they showcase Inquisition’s still under wraps narrative, a strong hallmark of the best-selling franchise.
“This is the first time we’re really going to deeply show one of the critical paths in the story, showing you the consequences of what’s going on in the world,” Darrah says, adding “it’s time for dragons to come out in all their glory at E3.”
Scheduled to hit shelves on October 7, Dragon Age: Inquisition returns players to the fantasy realm of Thedas just as peace talks between the warring mages and templars are rocked by a cataclysmic event. The player is cast as the leader of the Inquisition, a team of fierce warriors that seeks to restore order to the land.
Creative Director Mike Laidlaw says the E3 showing will allow BioWare to hone in on relationships in the game as “there’s a real appeal to feeling like there’s this team that kind of has your back but often doesn’t have your back very well…”
“That’s one of the core things we’re exploring in Inquisition. What’s it like to be the leader? There’s a lot of emphasis on you deploying troops and giving orders and listening to advisers, so feeling more like a commander who’s making a call.”
Inquisition is the biggest entry in the series, as any one of Inquisition’s many open-world regions could house all the areas found in 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins and 2011’s Dragon Age II. The regions provide variety in both experience and feeling, says Laidlaw, as players will travel from snap-frozen valleys to a perpetually-dark bog with sunken castles and ancient ruins.
“Each of those have their own distinct mood and feel and as a player, what I think it does is provide spaces that are really big and allow you to find ‘little stories’,” he explained. “If you get fatigued in a forest, you can travel to a blistering desert in another region.”
The Frostbite 3 engine gives the game a hefty graphical boost. Technological advances allowed BioWare to design several new systems to spawn everything from creatures to campsites, said Laidlaw. Spaces will also “evolve and react to your presence,” added Darrah, as players defeat enemy troops, rebuild bridges and seize areas for the Inquisition.
“This is kind of the game we’ve wanted to make all along,” said Darrah. “We’ve wanted to have big spaces for players to explore but we just haven’t had the technology, both from a hardware perspective but also a software perspective.”
In development for the better part of the last three and a half years, Inquisition is the “next generation of BioWare games,” said Laidlaw, bringing together new ideas with the studio’s strong experience in developing beloved role-playing games.
Close ties to the University of Alberta allow BioWare the “pick of the litter” when it comes to hiring talented video game designers who are willing to work in Edmonton’s cold weather.
Mike Laidlaw, Creative Director on Dragon Age: Inquisition, says roughly a third of the technical designers on his team are University of Alberta graduates who were hired after submitting a portfolio and completing an internship.
“They’re incredibly valuable, well-skilled additions to the team,” said Laidlaw. “The city has been hugely accommodating. I think it’s really quite pleasant to have the studio here.”
Edmonton’s summer festival season and “amazing river valley” are big attractions for staff but more “weather sensitive” developers from video game hub cities like San Francisco, CA; or Austin, TX, who arrive for a job interview in the dead of winter “tend to wonder what hell-gate they’ve arrived at,” joked Laidlaw.
For other developers, the bad weather can be focusing, he said.
“To some degree, having cold weather and long evenings kind of makes you say, ‘Well, I’m working on a videogame, I’m pretty passionate about what I’m working on and it looks kind of terrible outside so I think I’m going to stay and get this thing done’.”
Dragon Age Executive Producer Mark Darrah said he’s from Edmonton and knows the city’s strong technical background has allowed them “the pick of the litter” when it comes to local talent.
BioWare staff often lecture students taking computer science courses at the U of A. Computers and Games 250 challenges teams of students from different disciplines — usually two from computing science, a creative writer, an artist and a musician — to build a game using BioWare’s old Neverwinter Nights engine.
BioWare was founded in 1995 by doctors Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip, who graduated with medical degrees from the University of Alberta and promptly began to develop video games rather than pursue medicine full-time.