A little birdy reveals Dragon Age III. Anyone surprised?

As is the norm for modern day reveal, BioWare have chosen Twitter as a good place to coyly announce the development of Dragon Age III. Yep, a third is on the way, hot on the heels of the second which released just a few months ago. Senior director of creative development, Alistair McNally, tweeted the studio’s need for “exceptional environment artists,” purposely using the tag #DragonAge3 to cause all kinds of “OMG”s on the social site.

It’s no surprise that game number three is in the works for a franchise as popular as Dragon Age but it amused me to read the want for more environment artists after the criticisms of DA2. One of its sticking points was how you seemingly visited the same location over and over again, heavily relying on recycled backgrounds. Are BioWare looking to right the wrongs of repetition? It would appear that way.

Lets hope the team get a little longer to work on Dragon Age III than they did with the second though. A famously short development timescale soured more than an ignorable number of gamers but EA boss John Riccitiello has gone on record (via That Video Game Blog) with his desire for annualising the publisher’s top properties. That could very well mean Dragon Age, Dead Space and Medal of Honor (to name a few) would have yearly iterations instead of the 18 month – 2 year breathing space that is good for certain IPs. This may not be a such a bad thing as it clearly works for Call of Duty and sport games so why not for all types? Well we’ve seen the crushing effect of milking a franchise for all its worth with the demise of Guitar Hero and subsequently Rock Band too. Given the breadth and scope of fantasy RPGs like Dragon Age, the more time they have, they better then experience and less likely they are to have you running around a dungeon wondering whether you’ve been there before.

Still, a third Dragon Age huh? Cool. I’d best get cracking on the second one just in case it does appear around March 2012.

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Will Shepard stay on the straight and narrow?

BioWare’s poster boy for Mass Effect has always been the male Commander Shepard and up until now he’s always been straight. If you chose to play as a lass, the opportunity to fornicate grew in size because for whatever reason, a female Shepard is a bi-sexual Shepard. For the third release, everyone’s fair game with both male and female leads having the chance to knock boots with the same sex. Casey Hudson tweeted (via Videogamer) the news over the weekend saying: “Happy to confirm #ME3 supports wider options for love interests incl. same-sex for m&f chars, reactive to how you interact w/them in-game=.”

A little bit of internet searching later and I found that Hudson revealed more to PC Gamer adding the choice of partners will only be those you’ve already met on your travels not anyone new the series. Liara was one of the popular companions from Mass Effect 1 but wasn’t an ‘option’ in the second game but did make a come back as part of the brilliant Shadow Broker DLC. Hudson said that Mass Effect 3 will know if you stayed true to her or indeed whoever you partnered up with in the first game and has the characters react to you accordingly. If you knows that then presumably it’ll know whether you chose the promiscuous route and poor old Shepard will be in for a grilling in ME3.

A neat idea and one that makes sense for the fiction but a bit harsh when considering you are rewarded an achievement for completing the ‘romance quest’ in Mass Effect 2. Anyone hunting for those 25 points could get boned in the third game – and not like that either. I would imagine this will have a greater impact on Xbox 360 and PC players since the first game never came to the PS3 other than in a digital comic form.

BioWare have previously said that the male Shepard was written to be straight because that’s just his character type but it makes you wonder if they’ll be exploring the idea of abused minority groups in ME3 like they did in the second Dragon Age. Within Hawke’s adventure, the mages were seen as the abnormal and should be converted rather than allowed to live with their magic. See the link? Problem is, you can’t please everyone and both straight gamers and gay gamers were angry at DA2‘s concept of sexuality. One forum poster claimed BioWare were ignoring the straight gamer while another suggested gay characters were being stereotyped as being sex-mad. So where does that leave Mass Effect 3? Probably right were BioWare intends it to be as the voice of a handful of upset people won’t effect the bigger picture. Kind of ironic huh? Regardless of that, I’m just fearful of how I’ll be treated when my male Shepard has to explain to Liara and Tali what he’s been up to over the two games…

Valve’s single-player plus ideas

When game journalist Geoff Keighley released his iPad app dissecting one of Valve’s latest and greatest games, Portal 2, fans of the publisher couldn’t be more pleased at the hidden details within. That is until they happened upon one particular quote from Keighley: Portal 2 will probably be Valve’s last game with an isolated single-player experience. What this all means is something Newell is still trying to figure out.” He was given this impression after speaking with Valve top dog Gabe Newell and project manager Erik Johnson. Naturally, it caused upset and great concern among gamers as Valve are one of the few publishers who truly understands the importance of good narrative in games and the necessity for both off and online play.

But fear not, the comment doesn’t mean what everyone thought it did. It was misinterpreted as the end of the single-player game from Valve but in a recent interview with a high schooler, Newell felt the situation needed clarifying (via Kotaku). He said that Valve is still fully behind solo games and Portal 2 is a good example of just how far they’ve come over the years. However, this is the age of web 2.0 where everyone and everything is connected to one another and the inclusion of this in games can only increase their value to consumers. At the moment, Valve is a market leader in the various experiences they offer but Newell feels they’re missing the social aspect like Facebook and Twitter. He said “Every gamer has instant messaging, every gamer has a Facebook account. If you pretend that that doesn’t exist, you’re ignoring the problems that you’re taking on. It’s single-player plus, not ‘no more single-player.”

Plus what exactly is the big question now. If it is just a better connection to social network sites, those who enjoy detailing their days on micro-blogging sites are probably already well versed in the practice. More and more games have some link to Twitter especially and Facebook is increasingly being treated as a viable way to deliver news. Capy Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP allows players to tweet almost everything they do or see, potentially spamming said users timeline. It is however a neat marketing initiative as it places a hash-tag referencing the game at the end of tweets. Clever yes put it could be viewed as annoying too. Just last week, BioWare announced the delay of Mass Effect 3 on its Facebook page rather than the usual avenues for such an statement. That does of course then reach a lot more than the hardcore audience who actively visit game websites.

It would be interesting to see if Valve could take the idea of social connectivity in a new direction and not just let people tell their friends what Valve game they’re playing or where they are in it. With such ingenious writing in both Portal games there’s lots of ways these sites could provide a continuation of story lines or even a little more background to them. When the voice over from Cave Johnson in Portal 2 said (SPOILER) “Black Mesa can kiss my ass,” there were gasps-a-plenty. Imagine then if more stuff like that appeared on random Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Speaking of the inter-twining of Half-Life and Portal, Newell was also asked about whether a direct crossover would ever happen: “When you’re thinking about games, you sort of want to think about how characters collide,” he said. “In their current forms, Chell and Gordon are very similar characters. In terms of the phenomenology of their experiences. … In terms of having these people coexist at same time and same place, that’s … part of the reason Portal and Half-Life are in the same universe.” So it was definitely deliberate. Who knows what we’ll see in Half-Life 3

Randy’s solo campaign

Publishers are forcing developers to waste time on multiplayer modes just to plump up a game’s feature set believes Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford, who criticised the practise to Edge yesterday. He states how there’s an obsession within the industry to keep up with the blockbuster releases like Call of Duty instead of treating each game differently depending on their content.

“Let’s forget about what the actual promise of a game is and whether it’s suited to a narrative or competitive experience,” he said. “Take that off the table for a minute and just think about the concept-free feature list: campaign, co-op, how many players? How many guns? How long is the campaign? When you boil it down to that, you take the ability to make good decisions out of the picture. And the reason they do it is because they notice that the biggest blockbusters offer a little bit for every kind of consumer. You have people that want co-op and competitive, and players who want to immerse themselves in deep fiction. But the concept has to speak to that automatically; it can’t be forced. That’s the problem.”

Call of Duty, particularly Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, may well be the driving force behind a lot of eager publishers nowadays but a forced multiplayer mode is something that’s affected game’s throughout this generation. In the early days of the Xbox 360, The Darkness was an FPS that featured a beloved single player campaign and awkward multiplayer due to this need for online action. Some critics even verbally shook their fists at BioShock because it neglected multiplayer functionality which no doubt brought about the inclusion of one to the second game.

But Pitchford does understand why publishers decide to learn on developers for multiplayer content, casting aside the artistic integrity. It’s because games are a business. Research data suggests adding more features to your game will boost sales and unfortunately review scores. I say unfortunately because to me, if you have a great single player campaign then anything in addition to that is a bonus not a necessity to get say a nine instead of an eight out of ten. A good example that Pitchford uses is the Dead Space series whose first game was purely a solo affair yet the sequel was not: ”It’s ceiling-limited; it’ll never do 20 million units. The best imaginable is a peak of four or five million units if everything works perfectly in your favour. So the bean counters go: ‘How do I get a higher ceiling?’ And they look at games that have multiplayer. They’re wrong, of course. What they should do instead is say that they’re comfortable with the ceiling, and get as close to the ceiling as possible. Put in whatever investment’s required to focus it on what the promise is all about.”

It’s interesting that Pitchford used EA’s Dead Space as it was the same title website Develop used when speaking to EA Games label president Frank Gibeau. He said the company are working towards making their game ‘better connected’ with things like co-op or multiplayer modes. Develop proposed that Dead Space had neither and worked fine with Gibeau and the PR manager clarifying how their studios won’t be forced to include these features but instead educated on how to do so. Like the possibility of Facebook or Twitter interactivity. However even those seemingly harmless additions would take up developers’ time and resources. It’s a debate which will continue for a while yet I’d imagine.