23 February 2011

Creating a Social RPG

At the recent Guardian Gamesblog Live event, a trio of top designers from EA openly answered a number of questions pertaining to their upcoming releases and gaming in general. One of the attendees was Mike Laidlaw, lead designer on Dragon Age 2.

He spoke in great detail about the Dragon Age franchise and his personal opinions on the future of RPGs and video game narrative. Many interesting points were raised and Mike’s passion and enthusiasm for video games as a storytelling medium was made abundantly clear. Some of the comments he made about the direction of future RPGs were very interesting and I would like to address them here.

A real standout point of the talk was Mike’s declaration that he felt RPGs are an inherently anti-social experience (not that you would be slammed with an ASBO for playing them) built around spoilers and a single player’s experience of the story.

Take Mass Effect as an example, how frustrating would it be to have a 30-hour experience laid out ahead of you for someone to, in effect, ruin it with a spoiler. The impact of huge sections of revelatory story would be instantly diminished, thus reducing the quality of the player’s experience. Therefore, as Mike rightly says, it creates a strong tension when trying to talk about the game. You have to tread carefully to avoid divulging important story information whilst trying to show enthusiasm for the game, which ends up making a dull and awkward conversation.

The effect of the ‘spoiler’ is certainly something I have experienced when trying to discuss RPGs with friends. Sticking with the Bioware theme and my incessant need to ramble on about Dragon Age: Orgins, I continually struggle to recommend it because of the impact specific story events had to me, personally. The unrelenting enthusiasm I have towards the game’s climactic sequence is completely lost on almost everyone else I discuss it with. This is simply because they have not played it themselves, do not understand the effect – as they are without the 55 hours of back-story I have played through – or a combination of the two. (Some simply do not care, and that’s impossible to prevent from a design standpoint). My gushing is responded to with blank stares by uninterested gamers or belittling remarks by the video game uninitiated. To them my epic tale of redemption, sacrifice and elves is intangible and solitary; a thing of a nerd sat in his room, playing in dark.

Music, movies and theatre can all be shared experiences in the moment and discussed again and again in the future. It doesn’t even have to be limited to entertainment though; the amount of times a conversation between me and my parents has been about the myriad of activities we undertook in Las Vegas. We’ll never forget flying over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter, the relentless ‘crack’ of the guys handing out escort advert cards on the street as they slap them across their hands as you pass and the instant community spirit created around a craps table. On a less extravagant level, a rollercoaster ride with friends is a shared experience; with the thrill of every drop, sign of fear at every ‘manly’ scream or laugh at every embarrassing ride photo. We rarely get these universal discussion points from RPGs.

Therefore, I’m left with this incredible emotional experience that I cannot share with anyone, which as wonderful as it is to me, entirely perpetuates Mike’s anti-social theory. In a sense, maybe this isn’t really an issue at all? There’s already a huge amount of social video game experiences out there; from Just Dance to World of Warcraft – overall quality notwithstanding. Nevertheless, could you imagine how incredible it would be to share a play through of a game on a similar scale to Dragon Age: Origins with another person? You could argue that MMORPGs already offer this, but with their constant content reset none of your actions ever feel truly permanent. To be able to speak with a friend years after the fact and say:

''Remember that time we brought down the Archdemon and saved Ferelden?''

''Yeah, that was fucking awesome!''

To be able to hold the conversation for hours with the same levels of enthusiasm is something I long to do. If anyone can do it; I’m sure Bioware can.

To hear more from Mike Laidlaw, check out the full interview below.

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