Interview: EA2D discusses bringing Dragon Age to Facebook with Dragon Age Legends

With Dragon Age Legends, the team at EA2D had a somewhat unenviable task: taking an incredibly popular, very violent console role playing series and translating it to Facebook. Thankfully they succeeded, and Dragon Age Legends turned out to be one of the best RPGs on the platform to date. Gamezebo had the chance to speak with producer Ethan Levy about the development of Legends and why it’s been described as the first “real” game on Facebook.

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With Dragon Age Legends, the team at EA2D had a somewhat unenviable task: taking an incredibly popular, very violent console role playing series and translating it to Facebook. Thankfully they succeeded, and Dragon Age Legends turned out to be one of the best RPGs on the platform to date. Gamezebo had the chance to speak with producer Ethan Levy about the development of Legends and why it’s been described as the first “real” game on Facebook.

Why did you decide to bring the Dragon Age franchise to Facebook in the first place?

We thoroughly enjoyed our experience collaborating with BioWare on the Flash game Dragon Age Journeys, and after it shipped wanted to continue the relationship and create something even bigger. We knew that Dragon Age II was in development, and we wanted to create a new game that was not only a promotional piece, but stood on its own as a full game that players would enjoy for weeks and weeks, not play once or twice then put down forever. Given our success in making flash-based RPGs and our aspirations for the scope of the game, Facebook felt like the perfect launching point for Dragon Age Legends.

The game is described as the first “real” game for Facebook. Why did you decide on that label?

Legends‘ Lead Designer, Soren Johnson (Civ 4, Spore), puts it very elegantly. The typical Facebook is fairly light on actual gameplay, meaning that decisions rarely have consequences. For the most part, a typical Facebook game rewards players just for showing up. Legends, on the other hand, is build like a traditional game which presents the player with a series of interesting choices with long term consequences.

Who is the game aimed at? Existing fans of the series or new players?

Both actually. Our aim is to serve as a bridge game that existing fans play in between releases of the core series, as well as the tip of the spear that introduces new players to BioWare’s incredible world of Dragon Age.

The goal of EA2D is to build social games for gamers. We wanted to put a game on Facebook that any BioWare fan would recognize as worthy of being a part of the Dragon Age universe.

What were some of the difficulties you encountered while trying to translate the Dragon Age experience to Facebook? Were there any features that needed to be changed along the way?

I think the challenges we encountered during the development of Dragon Age Legends resulted more from the innovative nature of the game and the technology challenges of supporting our vision then from translating the Dragon Age experience to Facebook. Innovation wise, it is often difficult for people to understand a new type of game until there is s solid example of it in the world. We started showing off builds of Legends by the end of the first week of development, and as it always is in game development, it was difficult to communicate the vision of what Legends would become when showing off early software that is constantly being iterated on. The game that went open beta in March stays true to our original vision, but when you are iterating on the game on a weekly basis every feature changes significantly from the feedback we get from our peers within the studio and the company.

Now that the game is in open beta, we still operate in this fashion. We try our best to respond rapidly to community feedback and telemetry, and release improvements and updates to the game constantly.

Technology wise, EA2D built a very impressive platform from scratch to support our current and future vision for the game and for the studio. The game the player sees is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is a formidable stack of technology that looks a lot more like an MMO back end then you might expect from playing the game. The further we got into the development of Legends, the more we learned about the Herculean nature of the task we signed up for to deliver Legends to players.

The Dragon Age series is much darker than what you typically find on Facebook. Did you have any issues with tailoring the theme of Legends to a social audience?

We started the development of Legends with an art style already established by the illustrious Adam Phillips, and thanks to the success of Journeys, we were confident that we had a broadly appealing art style that hit the sweet spot in terms of accessible appeal and mature tone.

With that art style established, tailoring the Dragon Age universe to a social space was a fun challenge. Finding where that edge is and adapting quickly when we step over the line has produced some interesting changes.

A good example of this is the changes we recently made to the way bears look in the game. In Legends, like in Dragon Age, you fight a type of monster called Bereskarn that look like brown bears. Our initial design for the Bereskarn was actually too cute, and we received feedback from several significant others of the male members of the studio that they didn’t like fighting the Bereskarn because they were too cute to be monsters. We changed the design of the bears to be more fierce, adding glowing red eyes and spikes, and our significant others no longer felt bad when facing them in battle. We actually delivered a better player experience because we pushed the game to be truer to Dragon Age‘s darker theme, not less.

Do you foresee a day when it would be possible to bring something approaching the console games’ live action battles to Facebook? If so, would you even want to?

In terms of “is it possible” I think that we could, if we wanted to, bring live action battle to Facebook in all but the level of 3D graphics fidelity that today’s HD consoles deliver. But, part of the challenge of game design is adapting your game to how your players are going to use it given the platform and input device.

We designed Legends to be short session gaming, something players could enjoy in small time slices during coffee breaks, before heading off to work, in the school library, while watching TV, etc. Our telemetry shows us we succeeded in that goal, as the typical player enjoys multiple 10 minute sessions of Dragon Age Legends throughout the day. Before bringing a live action combat mode to Legends, we would need to consider if it is something that matches how our players play our game and enhances their experience.

Some players have expressed concern that Legends is far too difficult to play without several other friends playing with them. How do you feel about this?

We designed Legends with three types of players in mind, time-rich, money-rich and friend-rich. The game is weighted towards friend-rich players, but it is our intent that each player is able to find for themselves where they fit within the triangle those three play styles create.

That being said, we do take a careful look at our telemetry and use it to improve the game’s difficulty curve with each build. We update the game each week, and are constantly tweaking the variables to find the right balance of challenge in Legends.

Are there any updates or changes you have in the works?

We are operating Dragon Age Legends in the “software as a service” model, and update the game with new features, quests, and content each week. For instance, we recently added big features like Gifting and Guilds to Legends, and new quest regions like The Green Dales.

We will continue to improve Legends each week in numerous ways big and small. We tend not to talk about features until they are close to release, however we have started teasing that a Guild vs Guild Arena is coming to Legends.

Recently we’ve seen some great work with real-time multiplayer gameplay in Facebook games. Do you think this could ever work with Dragon Age?

The roadmap for new features we want to add to Legends is very extensive, as we plan on supporting Legends for a long time. Several forms of multiplayer, both asynchronous and real-time, are included in the backlog of features we think have great potential on Legends.

How did the development of Dragon Age Journeys effect how you went about creating Legends?

More than anything, our experience developing Journeys gave us the confidence that player would show up for a deep, high-quality, Play4Free extension of a major franchise like Dragon Age. It also taught us a lot about what it takes to tie into the backend systems at EA to enable cross platform unlocks like the five promo items you can earn in DA2 by playing Legends.

Most social games don’t put a heavy emphasis on narrative. Did you find it difficult to integrate story into Legends?

Integrating the rich world of Dragon Age into Legends was an exciting challenge. Just like every element of the game, we worked very diligently to find the line between staying true to world, and making a highly accessible game. In the case of the story, this meant working with BioWare to develop a narrative outline for Legends, then designing ways to present the story to the player so that it was rewarding for the those who enjoyed it, but did not create a lot of friction for more casual players who are less invested in the storyline.

Any final words for your fans?

Listening to our fans is at the core of everything the Dragon Age Legends team does. Being active in the community is the best way to get your voice heard on the Legends team. If you love the game, then join the conversation on the BioWare Social Network or by joining the Dragon Age Legends group on Facebook.