ECGC Conference: Keynote Speaker — Mike Laidlaw

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At a 2:00pm Keynote session in the East Coast Gaming Conference held in the Raleigh Convention Center, Mike Laidlaw spoke to the attendees about …

ECGC Conference: Keynote Speaker— Mike Laidlaw

The ECGC conference will be held on April 19,20,21st next year 2016. Be looking for that.

We began with a the trailer for dragon age inquisition.

What is a creative director? What is it that they do? They are responsible for All games, all creative products, our spinoff animated series, comics, and anything related to Dragon Age. Every item must be coordinated so they are in the same world and follow canon. For the games things are different, but every aspect of the game must gel with everything our readers know from comics, fit with every animated episode, and match up to every idea already placed about the series.

Dragon Age Inquisition was ambitious. Our initial idea: Let’s run on 5 platforms at once and use this as the new game plan, OH, and let’s also use a brand new engine. The game would include everything that you’ve come to know and love about the series, but also include massive use of exploration, a new facet of getting lost in the world.

Agenda:

inspirations for open world gameplay
open world content
the power system

Throughout the agenda, we must always fulfill this razor: “the challenge: immerse yourself in a vast world of companions choice and consequence”

Inspriations:

Who else is doing it well? It’s good to be inspired by other games, but you cannot rip them off note for note. Then you’re just copying. And that’s obvious to everyone. Every 2 weeks Our team would pick a game and play through it. They’d discuss what the game did well, and what they did not. Communication is key. If there isn’t a shared vocabulary, things begin to fail.

  • SKYRIM: incredible freedom of space and role. the joy of cresting a hill and finding something cool “down there”
  • SID MEIERS PIRATE: the power of theme. self-directed goals & multiple vectors of success. Multiple playthroughs are often required to make everything work through.
  • FALLEN LONDON & SUNLESS SEA: the power of abstraction and allowing players to create their own connections. If something is not supposed to be available yet, the note which springs up might say: “Has the player met constable bob?” vs. Connected: the constables.
  • XCOM-ENEMY UNKNOWN: Example of a counter-objective: EU added more story to the xcom formula. Story beats reward for gameplay. Story brings more story rather than achievement bringing more story

Strategy1: Multi-region open world.

Advantages: Strengthen each region with its own narrative. Create diverse, distinct visul palettes.

regional narrative:

We sought to answer the following questions: what the overall feel of this locale? Why would I, the inquisitor, come there? What is special about it? How does my presence here advance the inquisition or hinder its foes?

Emerald grove- A wonderous forest. A band of refugees here have information for you and at the end of the day you cut off supplies to foes, and gain an ally.

We repeatedly ran into the problem that the first 5 or 10 minutes people didn’t understand what to do. A character sets the first camp, lets you know what to do, and where to go. This narrative character seem contrary to your role in the story, but keeps the theme strong.

Diverse palettes. You needed to move from region to region with no visual trouble. A series of choices make the game fun is what is seems from the outset. However, a series of compromises are what the builders will experience.

Strategy 2: shared content strategies

Content for the levels consisted of three major types:

  1. Placed, crafted content.
  2. Shared, systemic content.
  3. Designer hugs.

Systemic content used shared libraries of assets for consistency and ease of maintenance (pre-fabs could be placed, but our team could alter each instance). One update to the search system would allow all objects that reacted to that system to instantly respond to the changes without touching individual instances. In effect, one edit would allows for many updates, instantly and simultaneously.

Designer hugs: nooks and crannies of exploration that gives you a fun, neat reward. Big games that allow for an open area, and have neat effects will generate a buzz. It rewards you for making the right choices.

Strategy 3: Reviewing content.

Issues with in-room content reviews:

  1. long play length of area.
  2. Reviewing one path/perspective.
  3. out of context issues.
  4. directing player experience.
  5. content was at different levels of completion.

The best way to circumvent these issues was to ask open ended questions to the team. We took those focus testings to the team and their ratings. By offering what they COULD do, players wanted to reach those goals. The team used inhouse heatmaps to see where people spent time on each level, where fights happened the most, where people died. This allowed them to tweak the areas, distributions of bad guys, and power levels.

Areas for improvment- plots

Open area plots were sad and lame. It was new to them and new to the team. The company budgeted lots of time and writing for plots, however,the quests very, very simple with little or no trouble to complete.

Variety

There was several systems. The systems appeared repeatedly in several sessions. People came to expect them, to prepare for them, and to be bored by them.

Jump

Put the jump in the game. Seriously. They put banter in the system to help keep the game live. However, players were more engaged by the ability to jump while moving.

POWER

How can you make it so that as a player you can progress the story without doing exactly as you’ve been asked to do? The Advisors within the game are smart, but help you understand that you’re still making the decisions. They took a complicated GUI and added bickering and resonance to the gameplay.

Operations were the core objectives, things that must happen.

Power had been earned, so it could be used to open new areas. Any area you opened should have enough power to open another area, so that you never achieved a zero-sum power solution. Power mechanics allowed you to continue buying and getting awesome armor, wtc. without hoarding. It allowed for a fluid economy. The open world idea allows the spoilers will not occur if they share the experience.

Completionist players had far, far too much power. And our team had to deal with that. As did the hinterlands pacing.

WHile it was a major struggle, looking back I feel:
It was a big game, the team worked hard, we did well.

Mike Laidlaw is Bioware’s Dragon Age Creative Director

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