Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Keep On Keepin' On

Now that the Dragon Age Keep is in open beta, I can do something I've wanted to do for months: talk about Dragon Age Keep! I was lucky enough to be a beta tester for the Keep, and it's been a real treat to see it evolve over the months. If there are still any bugs with it, it's all my fault!

I'm kidding, of course. I was just happy to be a tiny cog in the big machine responsible for making the Keep. It was really interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at things as they came together. It also strongly reinforced my impression of BioWare as a company that's particularly good at listening to its fans and making decisions based on feedback. Some aspects of the Keep changed, dramatically or subtly, in reaction to the experiences we had.

Er... before I get any further along, I should probably offer a précis about what the Keep is. I've previously written about the challenges in continuing an RPG franchise across multiple games, and the different approaches various companies have taken to solve this. So far, there have only been limited continuations in the Dragon Age games: from Origins to the Origins DLC to Dragon Age 2. These have worked by fairly conventional means: you import a saved game, which copies over your character and/or plot flags, and then the next game is updated to reflect what happened in the previous game. This is an idea that players love in theory, as it validates the importance of playing the game and makes them even more excited to see how their upcoming decisions play out in future titles. However, in practice bugs inevitably arise. Perhaps the first game's programmers didn't anticipate a particular action as being significant; as a result, the sequel's developers won't have plot flags available to read. Sometimes information is just stored the wrong way, making it impossible to determine which of several scenarios occurred.

BioWare ended up coming up with a really neat solution to all this: just bypassing the saved game system altogether, and letting players declare for themselves what had happened. I was initially surprised by this approach, but it makes a ton of sense. One major advantage for obsessive players like me is that if, say, you want to try importing a game where all the major NPCs have been killed, you won't need to spend 120 hours replaying through all the games and suffering the emotional trauma of betraying your friends. Instead, you can just declare what happened. Likewise, if you really liked one particular game but wish you had done one thing differently, you don't need to reload an ancient savegame and replay everything from that point: just fudge the record in the Keep, nobody will mind.

Furthermore, the Keep is also far more forgiving to people who wish to game between different platforms (there isn't really any way to transfer a save from an XBox 360 to a PS4), and also to those who may not have gone all the way through. Dragon Age: Origins was extremely popular, DA2 less so, and it's quite conceivable that many players picking up Inquisition will have played the former but not the latter. Thanks to the Keep, they'll be able to accurately portray all of their decisions from the first game, and can just accept a default world state from the second one (which the Keep will automatically make compatible with their actions in the first game). Or, if they want, they can do some extra reading, decide what they would have done if they had played DA2, and then take the time to configure that correctly.

When I first heard of The Keep, I was imagining something that looked like an Excel spreadsheet or Gibbed Save Generator: a set of fields and drop-down boxes, where you would declare things like "Did you kill Zevran?". When I was admitted into the Keep beta, I was blown away by what I saw: something they call the Tapestry, fitting the pseudo-medieval art motif that's become a hallmark of DA's art style, filled with gorgeous representational art of the major events over the course of the first two games.

I didn't have time to feel surprised by the graphics, though, because I was already amazed at just how much information was in there. I'd had a vague idea that the game might track, say, a dozen or so choices from each game; instead, there were easily a dozen choices in Orzammar alone. And these weren't just the big, earth-shattering decisions, either: also seemingly obscure choices, like whether you completed a minor sidequest to find ironbark for a Dalish craftsman, or fed a hungry prisoner.

Reading through the accompanying documentation, I realized that this didn't mean Inquisition was going to track all of these hundred or so plot points. That was a bit reassuring, since it will help maintain the surprise from not knowing which decisions will and will not prove to be significant in Inquisition. BioWare had elected to include as many relevant choices as possible in the Tapestry, hoping that they would not only set people up for the third game, but would also be the basis for continuity over the entire future of the franchise. So, even if Bevan's family doesn't reappear in Inquisition, that choice is recorded in the Keep such that he can reappear in game four or five and pass down the legend of the Warden's actions.

We Dragon Age fans are a passionate lot, and much of our early feedback centered around choices that we had felt were important but weren't included in the Keep. Like I said before, BioWare has been great at paying attention to what people are saying (using actual statistical data rather than hearsay! I love it!) and prioritizing their actions based on that. I felt elated to see a bunch of my suggestions find their way into the tapestry (MINI SPOILERS follow in the bullets):
  • How you dealt with Kitty and Amalia in Honnleath. For me, this was the moment when I fell helplessly in love with the game, with the vast and nuanced range of potential reactions to a chilling situation, and it's one of the best ways to calibrate the moral character of a Warden.
  • Whether the Warden ever accepted the Power of Blood. This provided an immediate gameplay benefit in the game, but the lore around the Power was quite distressing, and I loved the idea that, decades after that choice, profoundly negative impacts might arise.
  • The Warden's dealings with Avernus and Sophia. Much like the Kitty situation, this is another fantastic way to express the particulars of your Warden's moral code.
  • Whether the Warden acquired Flemeth's grimoire, and whether they lied to Morrigan about it.
  • Whether Leliana confronted Marjolaine, and if so, what was the result of their encounter.
  • The fate of Bella in Redcliffe.
  • Whether the Warden assisted the Architect.
  • The fates of Vigil's Keep and Amaranthine.
  • The state of Merrill's clan.
I'm not saying that I'm solely responsible for these! While there was a lot of chatter on the private testing forum, BioWare had a great beta feedback tool set up within the app that they encouraged people to use, and they made it pretty clear that they were looking at the numbers of people who wanted particular plots to determine their priorities, and not just who was noisiest on the forums. I thought that was fantastic! I've heard before from various BioWare representatives about how, uh, unrepresentative we fans can be. Since we're the only ones who bother to take the effort to write about the game online, we're already really invested in the property; and since we are talking with other fans, we walk away with certain impressions like, "Everyone plays these games multiple times! It's very unusual to not recruit all companions! Most people play as female elves who romance Alistair!" when, in fact, the majority of players never finish the game once, several characters like Isabela are often not recruited at all, and (you guessed it) human male warriors who romance Leliana are far more common, despite being under-represented in the online community.

Beyond adding plots (which is no small effort, seeing as bespoke art is necessary for each individual choice), the Keep team also made some much more significant overhauls over the months of beta development. One major change was a massive and gorgeous infusion of color, reversing the generally monochromatic (but still beautiful) style of the early Keep. This was a common request, and one they made happen. There was also a fantastic marketing reveal around the ISS, a really cool interactive story mode (narrated by the dulcet-toned Brian Bloom!) that talks through the major story points of the series, letting you click to select which decisions you wish to make. This has the effect of setting up the "big choices" from your play-through, after which you can use the Tapestry to fine-tune the minutiae to whatever extent you want.

I'll be really curious to see how the Keep is welcomed by the world at large, and Inquisition players in particular. I know that I've paid really close attention to the details, partly because I want to be a good beta tester and partly because that's the sort of player I am. I imagine a lot of other players will be the same way; others will just care that their Warden and Hawke are basically correct and not worry about the rest; and others won't bother with the Keep at all and will dive right in to the game. None of these are bad, and I'm curious how popular each faction will be.

Anyways! The Dragon Age Keep is now in open beta! It isn't completely done yet; they're still fixing a couple of (now mostly minor) bugs, and may add some more stuff before the game goes live, but absolutely anyone with an Origin account can now sign up and start tinkering around with it. I'm sure most fans will be delighted to have something to occupy themselves these last few weeks before Inquisition launches!

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