Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I’d like to start looking at what makes Triple-A games so successful and whether there is a lesson to be learned for designers of flash games and casual games.

I’m going to start with DragonAge Origins, because that’s what I’m playing at the moment. NOTE: Spoilers ahead if you’re not at least a few hours into the game.

It’s just another fantasy game. You know, elves, dwarves, humans, spells, you know the routine. But if it’s just another fantasy game, how come it’s up for RPG of the year?

I’ll pick out three things about this game and the first is pedigree. That’s right, DragonAge is made by Bioware and to Bioware fans, that already means the game is expected to be good. Bioware has developed (note, I didn’t say mastered) the art of crafting an excellent RPG experience. That means finding the right balance between a great combat system, a compelling story and character development. Bioware uses what has worked in previous games to make their current games better and that’s smart.

Speaking of a great story, that’s the second point I like about this game. The story is dark fantasy and takes chances. A standout point for me was becoming a grey warden – you went through the ritual of drinking demon blood with two other apprentices, but none of the other apprentices made it, they died in the ritual. I just thought this was a great twist and brought home the point that a lot of characters are going to die, including ones you have formed a bond with. And you can’t ignore the story and skip through the dialog because you will screw yourself up. DragonAge can be unforgiving.

The last thing and the one I wish to focus on is choice. Bioware obviously figured that giving gamers choice is a large part of what makes their games successful. So in DA:O, they give you a choice from the very beginning. If you haven’t played it yet, there are six different ways to begin the game. The story has a customized feel to it all the way through. Playing as an Elven Mage, I was constantly coming across dialogs and situations that I obviously wouldn’t encounter if I was playing a dwarf or a rogue.

Bioware has always specialized in branching conversations and they’ve taken it a step further here. You’ll find yourself having conversations that last for a good five minutes! And somehow they’ve made it interesting enough that you WANT to engage in a five-minute conversation with a computer-controlled character.

I think I spotted a trick, though. Many of the conversations have only two outcomes (for example, settle the issue amiably or fight) or even one outcome. But there are many pathways to get to these two outcomes. In other words, they are giving you the illusion of choice. Why is this a good thing? Because it lets you play the way you want to play and act the way you want to act. Here’s a made-up example:

Baddie: Are you threatening me?

Option A: That’s right.
Option B: No. Can’t we talk this over?

Then, no matter which option you have chosen:

Baddie: The time for talking is over! *trigger fight scene*

Okay, so my example is lame! But it shows the illusion of choice. If I want to play the good guy and settle it peacefully, I’m still satisfied because I tried that path. In my ‘real job’, I develop e-learning courses, and we use these types of branching dialogs with limited outcomes extensively. It gives the learner or the gamer a sense of control.

So when was the last time you played a Flash game and felt you had a sense of choice? In fact, when was the last time you played a Flash game and engaged in a dialog? An audio dialog is a stretch for an online game, but a text dialog or at least pop-up speech bubbles would help the player have more of a sense of interaction and immersion. Early PC games were full of these things. We’re starting to see more flash games with an actual story. Let’s take it to the next level!

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