Some fine folks from BioWare held a Dragon Age panel at PAX East this weekend in which they emphatically did not talk about still-unannounced Dragon Age 3.

Creative Director Mike Laidlaw, Executive Producer Mike Darrah, Lead Writer David Gaider, and Assistant Art Director Shane Hawco presented an array of slides, displaying and responding to fan feedback they'd received from previous Dragon Age games, most particularly Dragon Age II.

"We're going to talk about some stuff today," Laidlaw explained, "And this stuff is not tied to a specific product. Now, I think you can all do some mental math, maybe a bit of gymnastics, and figure out what we're really saying — but let's be clear, we're not making graven promises this year, but we're talking about some ideas and some feedback we got from you guys."

Having established that the presentation was just as much totally not about Dragon Age 3 as Law and Order has totally never been about Michael Jackson (at least three times), what did they then promise to do in their not-upcoming non-game?

A great deal of fan feedback themes flashed on the screen, but ultimately three remained as major points:

  • Stop reusing levels
  • Decisions that matter
  • Equipment for followers
  • Laidlaw then broke down in some depth how the Dragon Age dev team plans to address each of those concerns going forward in the franchise.

    Flashing "WILL DO!" on the screen under "stop reusing levels," Laidlaw acknowledged that gamers were tired of "cheese wheels in caves," and spoke about space and scope while displaying some gorgeous, sweeping concept art. He also promised that should they "need to go somewhere more urban," it would not be DA2's Kirkwall, but rather "somewhere more... French," hinting strongly at at least one city or town in Orlais.

    Laidlaw then moved on to "decisions that matter" (on screen: YES!), breaking that down into the areas of both character agency and player agency. Character agency was taken to mean, "My character has an active effect on his or her world, determined by my choices," where player agency encompasses, "I have control over my gameplay experience." Laidlaw promised more of the former but cautioned that the latter is always strongly limited, simply by the nature of game design. He also promised that players could carry forward choices made in Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II, presumably through save imports, and find that they have repercussions down the line.

    Finally, discussing gear customization for companion characters (also "YES!," on screen), Laidlaw paused a moment to point to the large number of DA2 cosplayers in the front of the room, all of whom were dressed in instantly recognizable ways. He explained that creating a signature look was important to the development team, saying, "This is what a signature look can provide. A good chance for people to really identify with them, from a tactical sense you can look at them on the battlefield and they have their own silhouette, their own shape."

    He then demonstrated, with concept art for both a Grey Warden companion and for a Seeker companion, how the team hopes to include interchangeable gear and armor customization — up to and including materials and dyes — while still maintaining a unique and distinct look for each character in the party. A chestplate may change shapes, depending on which character the player equips it, but it can still provide the same bonuses and stats.

    For all that I completely adored playing Dragon Age II and inadvertently became one of its loudest defenders for a time, I agree with the majority opinion that some of the core mechanics were lacking. I personally didn't care about the map recycling, because I've never particularly loved dungeon-delving, but the varied, hugely expansive locations in Dragon Age: Origins were a hallmark of the game and I don't blame any fan who was disappointed over their absence in the sequel. Bringing back a greater variety of locations can only help the next game.

    But what I hope more than anything that they keep for the next Dragon Age game is the depth of character that developed so richly among companions in DA2. Having a dialogue wheel that indicated tone, along with a voiced protagonist, let DA2 avoid the dissonance I constantly felt in Origins, where what I thought was an innocent question would immediately offend the companion of whom I asked it. The interplay of companions outside of Hawke's sphere, and the richness of their banter as the game went on, brought Kirkwall to life for me with a sense of place and life that I've felt in very few other games.

    If BioWare can keep the richness of characters and relationships that set Dragon Age II apart, while bringing back the hallmark exploratory attitude and piles of RPG inventory that made Dragon Age: Origins a hit, then Dragon Age 3 — should, of course, anyone ever acknowledge it exists — could be a phenomenal game indeed.

    BioWare and Dragon Age at PAX East [BioWare Blog]