Dragon Age: Origins won't tweet, but the new single-player game will network console and PC gamers in unusual ways. That's because the game's creators at BioWare believe that solo role-playing games should no longer be lonely experiences.
"One of the things for us that was really important and we're clearly seeing it on PC games — and coming across to consoles — is basically having a social experience of some sort," Dragon age's online producer Fernando Melo told Kotaku in a phone interview late last week.
"That has traditionally been the domain of a multiplayer experience."
Not anymore, according to BioWare.
The company wants its solo adventurers to converge, to see each other's stories in words and screenshots. And all of this is supposed to happen automatically as soon as a player saves the game for the first time.
The PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Dragon Age: Origins will all connect to Bioware's new "Social" website, which will collect data from player's games. The type of data gathered differs between the console and PC versions, but all will share some features. Players of any version of Dragon Age will be able to link their copy of of the game to BioWare's site. The Social site requires users to create a free account. Once the game and the site are linked, a record of the player's accomplishments in the game and the status of their ever-evolving character will appear on the Social site.
The most basic manifestation of that appears in the player's character screen. Below, you can see the character I started on the Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age this morning (Or log on and check it out, if you prefer). His face, portrait, items and attributes all reflect the choices I've made for him as of the last time the game saved:
Sharing stats and updating an online avatar version of your character isn't itself a feature that would amaze avid users of something like the Halo-tracking Bungie.net. But Melo and his team have more elaborate plans than that.
"One of the things we started to look at was the way you could share your story," Melo said. "That really ties to the core of the game. The game radically challenges based on the decisions you're making along the way and the party members you have with you. We were trying to figure out how to create these water-cooler moments that people could talk about without spoiling it for people...we wanted to have a way that complements that instead of random [forum]threads."
To help players share their stories, the data-tracking will also snatch details on what the player has accomplished in the game. Those details will be listed as the character's adventure log on the Social site.
Melo hopes that a future iteration of the service will present the narrative accomplishments as if they were chronicled in a personal journal, which is a far cry from the team's earlier scuttled concept to have player's characters tweet their accomplishments for the world to see.
The event-tracking isn't live yet, but BioWare provided this screenshot taken from the game's internal servers, to show how the basic launch version will work. Each event is supposed to be expandable, providing more text to explain how it fits into the character's adventure:
For console gamers the networking and sharing ends there. But PC players will have one more element pulled into their online chronicle: screenshots. Dragon Age will automatically pull an in-game screenshot for any major achievement the player has accomplished, including boss kills. (Tests of this on the console produced unacceptable slowdown, Melo said). The PC version will also support the manual uploading of screenshots. These features are intended to make the player-character's chronicle more vivid. BioWare provided a sample of how this will look as well.
Melo said he expects player's chronicles on the Social site to be radically different. And he hopes players will look at each other's and be excited by the differences. "You'll have the ability to see a friends' character and go, 'That's a cool helmet, how the hell did you get that?' Or 'You completed this quest and I didn't even see that.'" The joy will be discovering that these nooks and crannies even exist. Melo said that some are deeply hidden, such as a sequence that gets a player thrown in jail if they fail at a certain kind of combat — and then have 52 ways to extricate themselves from the predicament.
Players should expect all of these tracking and sharing systems to change over the weeks and months following Dragon Age's release. Melo's team will take over most of the work related to Dragon Age: Origins following the game's release and plan to support and improve the game's features as part of BioWare's commitment to offer two years' worth of downloadable content. One example of a possible patch, he offered, could be the eventual integration of a web browser into the console versions, which would allow players to access the Social site from their Xbox 360 or PS3.
Every experiment has its exploded test tubes, of course. The character-tweets-his-adventures idea didn't work, in part, because Melo's team realised that players backtracking via earlier save files would wind up with character Twitter feeds that listed events out of time sequence. Plus, the tweeting could have gotten out of hand, which is what the Uncharted 2 developers discovered before the game was even released to many people.
"There is definitely a danger of spamming to the point where [people]just get turned off by it," Melo said. "What we realised is that it's kind of an odd catch-22. If the game is super successful, chances are you're going to annoy people." BioWare's solution has been to have data shared through the company's Social site, so that the many updates a player might be exposed to regarding your friends' Dragon Age characters would appear only on a site the player opted to join and visit. Players can opt out of any of these Social features.
The Dragon Age connectivity plan doesn't shun Twitter, though. One of the concepts BioWare is testing but won't have ready for launch involves larger community-driven events. Melo offered an example of the full-player body of Dragon Age being challenged to kill a set number of enemies in a finite period of time. That might be tweeted.
BioWare also nixed early plans to provide branches for a single player's adventures, demonstrating the different ways a gamer may have had executed their adventure. User testing indicated that that was too confusing. The more streamlined version, Melo said, will only display a player's character as of their most recent save. So, if a player goes back to an earlier save file and plays from there and then saves, their character on the Social site will reflect that moment in time.
Game developers who connect their players like this may get a happier consumer out of this, but it also seems like such a project could have been engineered to cultivate a more honest one. Anti-piracy isn't directly the drive, though, Melo said. "We wanted to make this very clear this is not a DRM solution. The win was taking a playbook from Valve by adding additional value for players...Our benefit is more indirect in terms of feeding the community and getting them engaged with Dragon Age as a franchise." And happier customers, he noted, are an effective added sales force.
Solo playing of Dragon Age need not feel so solo thanks to all that Melo and his team have planned. With luck, BioWare has finally figured out how best to get players of its famously branching decision-filled games exposed to the multitude of variations within, without consulting a guidebook. And if they can pull it often without annoying anyone through Twitter, that's even better.
Said Melo: "This is the wild west we're in the middle of trying to figure out."