Why Dragon Age Multi-Player Is Good for BioWare (And Us)

If you haven’t yet seen the multi-player trailer for Dragon Age: Inquisition, give it a watch.

I admit that, after the great fun that the Mass Effect multi-player format turned out to be, I’m excited to see how BioWare does the sword and sorcery version. Devs have assured people repeatedly that the single player campaign will not be affected in any way by what’s known by the unfortunate acronym DAMP and that’s good enough for me, at least for the moment.

Then I got to thinking about why they would add a multi-player element to a story so dedicated to role playing. For me, the answer lies not in BioWare’s history (though they’ve shown enough interest in social play over the years) but in the wild success of Bungie’s Halo series on-line.

Other game series have had on-line multi-player, certainly, but it was Halo that actually brought me into that world. After a decade my family and I still hop on to Bungie’s servers from time to time and go nuts fighting total strangers. Even I, a terrible shot and someone who never remembers to look at her radar, can have fun blasting away in various game modes. Who doesn’t love blowing half a dozen skulls out of someone in Headhunter?

That on-line team mode drew people to the games that otherwise might not have bothered had it only been the campaign—well, that and RvB. (That’s Red vs. Blue, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure. Seriously, go watch it.) The Halo series grew and still grows around drawing new fans by telling a little story and then creating fun ways for them to interact with one another.

In the end, the whole point of a business is to make money by selling things, in this case video games. When a game sells well the people that paid for its creation want to keep that revenue stream going. Voila! Sequel. Once you get a few games downstream, however, you’re more likely to end up with a shrinking fan base. Who wants to leap into a long, complicated story over a decade after it started, as they would with Inquisition? Who wants to go back and buy the previous games just to catch up with the backstory?

People who get sucked into a side mode that has a great reputation, that’s who, people who hear how much fun the on-going multi-player content is. Co-op play that’s tangential to the main story can draw new fans to the Dragon Age universe. It can tantalize them with the larger picture and then draw them into the series. With the inter-player banter the DAMP team (heh heh) has promised people new to DA can get an idea of the writers’ talents, as well.

BioWare can bring something new—or rather old—to the table. There’s a distinct lack of enjoyable modern sword and sorcery multi-player on consoles. Giant MMOs are designed to take months or years to complete. If the DAMP team pulls this off they can lure both fans of classic dungeon crawls and of MMOs into dipping their toes into Thedosian waters without requiring an hours-long commitment to a raiding session.

While many people bemoan the addition of multi-player to Dragon Age, while rabid solo play fans are skeptical both about the potential impact on the main campaign and the claim that the funding for multi-player would not have come to the single player game in any case, Thedas needs new blood. Those of us who already love the Wardens and Templars and the mages and the Chantry, regardless of our individual opinions on their various actions, can’t keep the franchise afloat on our own.

If we ever want to kick out the Qunari or take down Tevinter we’re going to need reinforcements—in particular their money to convince EA that BioWare needs to keep telling the story of the Dragon Age. On-line multi-player content gives us one more temptation for our reluctant friends and neighbors (and family). “There’s this amazing story, the companions are well-acted and deep, the graphics look gorgeous, and there are dragons! Oh, and we can go kick butt together even though you moved to Idaho.”

Keep in mind that I’m coming at this from a console point of view, as my family owns enough of them that split screen co-op lets all of us play together. I don’t intend to dismiss the concerns of PC players who fear the loss of flexibility in their UI but what they’ve been accustomed to using has never really been an option for console players. Instead of blaming DAMP for the reduction in the number of abilities readily available and the lack of sustained abilities I’d blame us X-Box and Playstation users for making it not worth investing in separate interfaces for different platforms.

That’s assuming that the reduction in skills and the rumored removal of sustained talents didn’t arise from game mechanics we can’t yet see. BioWare devs have stated they’ve revamped game balance to require players to manage their resources. It makes more sense that these changes would have arisen in the rebalance than that they decided to limit an unrelated function in the solo campaign because of multi-player design.

My optimism rests on DAMP being fun, of course. That’s the one piece that cannot be assured until the game is released and we have a chance to test it. Having read about the characters available for multi-player, however, I’m at least excited to hear the banter between them. NPC by-play has long been one of my favorite parts of the Dragon Age universe (and BioWare’s games in general). I hope it serves as a great introduction to the quality of the writing the DA team has consistently brought to us.

I’d like to make one last point about the people who bemoan the erosion of single-player RPGs with multi-player facets. If you played Dungeons and Dragons or any other tabletop game or MUDD, in the infancy of RPGs decades ago, I’ll bet you a used copy of Baldur’s Gate you didn’t play alone. The role of the dungeon master has been supplanted by the devs but there’s no storied history of solo RPGs that’s being besmirched by adding multi-player.

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