If you are a fan of Bioware games, you probably tuned into EA’s Twitch stream on Thursday, hoping for an update on the next installment in the Dragon Age series. If so, you might have come away at least a little disappointed. All we got were three pretty backgrounds and the vague indication that an announcement might be coming next June.
So, what’s the hold-up? Dragon Age 4, or whatever it ends up being called, was announced in 2018. Even before that, it was pretty obvious the series wouldn’t end with Inquisition. Heck, Inquisition’s Trespasser DLC might as well have ended with the words “To be continued,” and that was five years ago.
What have they been doing all this time?
They were wasting time, money, and good ideas from the sound of things. According to Kotaku, Dragon Age 4 entered pre-production pretty much as soon as Trespasser was out the door. As most of the Dragon Age team frantically attempted to salvage Mass Effect: Andromeda, a small group began work on Dragon Age 4 under the codename Joplin.
At the helm were creative director Mike Laidlaw and executive producer Mark Darrah. They were determined to learn from the mistakes that plagued the production of Inquisition. Namely, this meant having a clear, unified vision that the entire team could work toward. This was helped by Bioware’s recent experience with the Frostbite engine.
And that was the big one. Frostbite had been purpose-built for use in DICE’s Battlefield series of first-person shooters. It was almost comically unsuited for anything else. Bioware had to spend a significant amount of time implementing basic systems like saved games and a third-person camera. Dialogue assignment became a twisted nightmare of awkward workarounds as the engine fought with them at every turn. It wasn’t until the last few months of development that they had finally gotten it under control.
But none of that was an issue going into Joplin. They had an engine that worked and a clear plan going forward. The new Dragon Age was going to be nothing like its predecessor, replace the sprawling but baren sandboxes with tighter, more densely packed zones. The plot would follow a group of spies infiltrating the Tivinter Imperium, the mage-dominated empire far to the north of the Dragon Age world.
There was to be a heightened emphasis on player choice, with areas that would change in response to the player’s actions. Planning heists and infiltrations were to be a large part of the game, and there were plans for a mechanic around bribing or intimidating NPCs. Bioware hoped to maximize replayability with multiple endings and the risk of non-standard game overs for those who wandered too far down the wrong path.
Sadly, this beautiful game was not to be, with Laidlaw’s team reassigned to help push Andromeda through the last few months of development. Then came Anthem taking most of the team and any hopes of Joplin seeing the light of day.
The project was ultimately scrapped following the return of Casey Hudson as Bioware’s general manager. Joplin fell victim to the desperate scramble to get Anthem into a functioning state. Laidlaw, who had been part of the Dragon Age team since the very beginning, left Bioware soon after as the studio entered a period of radical restructuring.
This brings us to the present, and a version of Dragon Age 4 codenamed Morrison.
Unlike Joplin, Morrison was intended from the beginning to feature a live-service component. Whether that means micro-transitions, a multiplayer focus or something else entirely remains unclear. It’s been theorized that live service could take the form of drop-in co-op or post-launch content, but those are only the best-case scenarios. While there is precedent for those models working in past RPGs, that’s small comfort for anyone desiring a traditional Bioware role playing experience.
If there is a silver lining, it comes in the form of Mark Darrah. He had worked with Laidlaw on Joplin and continues as Dragon Age 4’s executive producer. Darrah has worked on many classic Bioware titles, including Jade Empire and Baulder’s Gate. He’s also apparently recruited a “dream team” of veteran developers, many of whom worked with Bioware during their 90s heyday.
And as far as general managers go, there are worst choices than Casey Hudson. He had been with the studio for sixteen years, until his departure in 2014, and was very much part of the “old Bioware” that fans miss. As Kotaku reported last year, he is both aware of and committed to fixing the company’s issues. The above article also notes how most of Bioware’s problems began, or at least became serious, after Hudson’s initial departure following the release of Mass Effect 3.
His return to Bioware could mark a return to form for the troubled studio, but for now, we’ll just have to wait and see.