Fair or not, Dragon Age: Inquisition is often compared with The Witcher 3. Released just a few months beforehand, Dragon Age: Inquisition garnered Game of the Year awards and was generally praised by critics, but wound up drawing unfavorable comparisons to CD Projekt Red’s seminal RPG.
But The Witcher 3 had at least one major advantage over its competition. Speaking with GLHF for an article on USA Today, former BioWare GM Aaryn Flynn pointed out that CDPR’s decision to focus on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC benefited the project immensely compared to Dragon Age: Inquisition, which also had to work on Xbox 360 and PS3.
“I’d say the biggest compromise came from the fact that we had to ship [Dragon Age: Inquisition] on the Xbox 360 and PS3 at the same time as we did on the PS4 and Xbox One,” Flynn remembers.
“That crushed so much ambition because we didn’t have the team size or the time to differentiate those things, truly. So you had to kind of develop the lowest common denominator. And as that came in, that certainly beat out some expectations and ambitions we had for certain fun features in gameplay. In contrast, CD Projekt didn’t do that with The Witcher 3, a few months later, and I think their game was better for it.”
Released at the tail end of 2014, Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sprawling RPG based on exploration, relationship-building, and recruiting new characters to your growing headquarters. It was noted for the scope of its world, but criticized for its somewhat basic combat system and surplus of fetch quests.
Behind the scenes, Flynn says that BioWare struggled not just with fitting their massive RPG on previous-gen consoles, but with EA’s proprietary Frostbite Engine. Flynn describes working within the constraints of an engine originally created to support DICE’s Battlefield series as a “herculean effort.”
“To bend it to make RPG elements was certainly a challenge,” Flynn says. “It resulted in compromises and things that we certainly didn’t want to do if it weren’t for the technology limitations. But the team found incredibly clever and reasonable ways around that whenever they could. I haven’t touched it in five years, so I can’t tell you where it’s at now, but I still see the bugs being recorded by players and other games and go, ‘Ah, that’s too bad.'”
Frostbite has been something of a sore point for EA over the years. FIFA and Madden both struggled to adapt to the engine, and NHL refused to use the technology until the release of NHL 22. Whenever development struggles have arisen at EA, the Frostbite Engine has tended to be at the center of it.
But BioWare has struggled more than most. Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Anthem all had issues as BioWare dealt with poor internal support and built new tools from scratch. Its most successful project since Dragon Age: Inquisition — Mass Effect Legendary Edition — stuck with the older Unreal Engine 3.
“Being a programmer, I underestimated the difficulty that Frostbite was presenting to our dev teams, and I wish I’d have done a better job of communicating that to the top brass at EA,” Flynn says. “I wish I’d been understanding of the friction the engine created for us building a very different kind of game. I see it now in the news reports and in the press, so I kind of get it, but I think I could have done a better job. I could have used the fact that I had a history of engineering to better communicate things rather than believing and trusting the way engineers are smart, we’ll figure it out as we sometimes have in the past.”
These days Flynn is the CEO of Inflexion Games, a new studio that is working on Nightingale, a survival game that will allow players to explore a “seemingly endless” number of Fae-inhabited realms.
As for BioWare, it’s still working on Dragon Age 4, which has reportedly been rebooted multiple times over the course of its development process. BioWare says that it is currently “right in the middle of production,” and that the new game will focus on a single-player experience. There is no word on a release date for the project.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.
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Author: Kat Bailey