Earlier this year, EA and Bioware released Dragon Age II on the PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and Mac platforms. The game has since stirred up tons of controversy and talk, with fans of the first game and new players both citing numerous faults in the game’s methodology of presenting its story, characters, and gameplay. Dragon Age II’s predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins (henceforth referred to as DAII and DA:O, respectively), was a slow-paced game with lots of exploration, a wide-spread story, tons of decision making, and an almost entirely customizable character. DAII eschewed this idea in favor of a more set in stone protagonist and storyline, with less obvious choices like in the first game and more intention on telling a specific story. However, I’m not here to review DAII (though I personally enjoyed the game). I’m here to talk about EA.
The clarion call of many of DAII critics is to blame EA for rushing the game’s development. Development on DAII began right around when DA:O’s ended, in October or November of 2009. The game was released in March of this year, leaving it with roughly a 1.5 year development cycle. While this certainly isn’t unheard of, it is widely considered that things like DAII’s environment reuse, lack of decision, incomplete-feeling storyline, and reliance on DLC to promote itself were a result of the game’s “short” development cycle. Many claim that EA is a money-mongering conglomerate, who cares only about pumping out franchise games to make as much money as possible, and to not let hype die down.
However, making this claim seems to be missing a lot. While people are in fact capable of correctly identifying how a development cycle effects the development of a game, they are ignoring the history of the franchise and the required synergy between developer and publisher that it takes to produce a “Triple A” game. So let’s step back and see what I’m talking about.
The year is 2004. The place is E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo, if you’re not savvy). Bioware is announcing a brand new game simply called Dragon Age. A spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, it seems like a standard 3D, isometric RPG for PC’s, set in their own unique universe, promising Bioware levels of choice and decision-making. The game is mostly shown behind closed doors, with previewers mentioning trailers that we are unable to see today. A few screenshots exist, but most of these days are lost. The next year at E3 2005, the game is mentioned again, with mentions that the game looks to move beyond PC and establish itself on other platforms. Despite this, not much else if anything is shown off, and we continue to be able to not see much of the game. Considering that most games have a 1-2 year development cycle, this is troublesome. Gamers eagerly await E3 2006…And nothing. E3 2007? Nope. Only finally at E3 2008, a long four years after its initial announcement, are gamers treated to…Dragon Age: Origins? Where’d that subtitle come from? And why does the art direction look so different? What happened?
Oh yeah. We missed where in 2007, Bioware was bought by EA. This important move made all the difference at E3 2008. Granted, it’s just a guess, but think about it. After 3-4 years of development at E3 2007, Bioware had NOTHING of Dragon Age to show. No new screenshots, no videos, trailers…Nothing. Doesn’t this seem strange? While RPG’s are large, a game company regularly working should be able to pump out enough content in a few years to have things to show off. Isn’t it strange that just a year after being bought by EA, Dragon Age is rebranded with a subtitle and has plenty of content to finally show off?
It is clear that EA had executive meddling in the development of the Dragon Age franchise. They seemingly ended what appeared to be a cycle of development hell and pushed the game to be released in 2009. Not only that, but they also extensively marketed the game, developing plenty of ads, DLC, and ways for the game to be noticed. Without EA’s meddling, I can almost guarantee you I would never have noticed DA:O and sought it out to discover how much I liked it.
Now, you might be thinking, so what. They helped push Dragon Age forward. What’s the big deal? The big deal is Duke Nukem Forever.
Yeah. I went there.
Games shouldn’t be developed for too long. We can prove this. As a game is developed for a long time, jobs change hands, companies are bought and sold, ideas are started, lost, and brought back again, and game components need to be stitched together. Having been developed for more than ten years, Duke Nukem Forever was a jumbled mess, filled with ideas that were developed anywhere from two to probably eight years ago and missing its audience by a generation. If the game had been developed in a decent time frame, it could’ve been a tight experience. But it fails at that, and has paid for it heavily.
DA:O was closer to this than you all think. Go play DA:O again. I’ll give you a minute.
‘Kay? You good. Now, tell me, how many dialogue trees seem to go nowhere? Go talk to Jowan. How many options do you really have with him? Three? How many are presented to you? How many wind up being dead ends? The answer is several. The reason why is that Jowan was once intended to be a companion. There would’ve been several ways to get him to come along with you. These were removed midway in development. Several points like this exist throughout the game. While the game is a solid experience, there are bits and pieces that occasionally seem out of place, and the game’s tone can occasionally fluctuate. This is because it is clear the game was suffering too much development hell before it’s re-branding, and even afterwards, EA’s pushing forced Bioware to put together a lot of pieces that didn’t fit well together. However, DA:O still managed to come out.
Once again, you’re probably wondering what the importance is. Simply put, everything. For starters, DA:O wasn’t that popular. The game won awards and had good reviews, yes, but the vast majority of people I meet haven’t played it. DA:O made most of its money via DLC packages, and much of that was because of EA. After DA:O, EA needed to keep the franchise’s momentum going, and prevent another situation like DA:O. See where I’m going now? EA’s push to have DAII released when it was makes a whole lot more sense now. See, they weren’t just grubbing for money. They knew that without their push, the game could fall into development hell and too many variables changed. By enforcing more deadlines and strictness on DAII’s development, the game would be a tighter experience that would hopefully feel intricate and woven together.
The problem was is that the world didn’t get the memo, because EA and Bioware wouldn’t let them. When approached by DA:O fans, EA and Bioware were practically required to talk the game up as a great continuation to the franchise, and play up its similarities, despite it being a very different kind of game, and a very different direction for the series. DAII wasn’t intended as an open-world, make tons of choices game, instead as a tight story with some minor variation in the characterization and some immediate choices. It was meant to push the universe and franchise forward, create and provide for problems outside of the finished conflict from DA:O, and ensure that people knew this series was being fully backed by EA. However, fans went into DAII expecting a widespread story and world that would rival DA:O’s, but what they got was a different direction.
Whose at fault? The guys at marketing. DAII is a totally different game from DA:O, to the extent that it’s mostly cosmetics that let me see the connection between the games. For starters, calling it Dragon Age II was dumb. They should’ve continued the whole subtitle thing, and then they could at least claim it was some kind of other idea within the same universe, and maybe people would’ve reacted better. But I digress.
So, what’s the point here? Is my only point to claim that EA didn’t ruin Dragon Age and to get you to stop yelling at them? No. See, railing on a game for having a short development time is stupid for a lot of reasons. For starters, short development times are better! Companies can focus better, have a single goal and try to innovate that one goal, and produce a quality experience. Plus, faster development means more games, which means more money, and as an eventual developer, I want my company to do well in the business. Lots of games with short development times have proven to be fantastic. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood were both developed in about a year, and were great examples of using their predecessor’s technology and assets to produce a brand new experience that is tons of fun and has loads of content. While DAII didn’t succeed entirely at this, it’s short development time certainly wasn’t hurting it.
It seems to me like the developers and publishers were at odds with DAII. Some people wanted to make the game this tight experience, while others were intent on adding tons of new stuff and building a giant RPG. If they had combined their plans more intuitively, the game could’ve come out at roughly the same time and been far better received. Instead, it was partially developed and marketed as being identical to DA:O in terms of style and genre, which is simply not true.
It’s important that developers and publishers learn to work together. It’s important that publishers know when to push games to completion to ensure they do well, and when to let the developers create masterpieces. If both groups work in synergy, this industry would be faring a lot better than it is, and games like DAII would be more celebrated. While we can’t blame EA for DAII’s faults, we can certainly hope EA and Bioware synchronize better on their future projects.