Dragon Age Legends producer Ethan Levy: This game 'was a gamble' [Interview]

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Dragon Age Legends
Deemed the first real game on Facebook when it was released, Dragon Age Legends launched in advance of its console counterpart, Dragon Age 2, in March. It's been over a month since EA2D threw you into the world of Thedas through Facebook, and now it's time to see whether the team feels that it lived up to its lofty expectations. To do just that, we had the chance recently to chat with Ethan Levy, producer of Dragon Age Legends, and get his reflections on the game. Of course, we also learned quite a lot about what's in store for the game, and how Levy and his team plan to keep your adventures going for a very, very long time.

Now that Dragon Age Legends (DAL) has been out in the wild for a month, how do you feel about it? What do you like most about the finished product? What, in your opinion, still needs work?

It was a gamble whether a hardcore gamer audience would show up for a Facebook game and enjoy it. And I think we did a very good job of staying true to the vision of Dragon Age and the world that Bioware has created, and players responded. One of the best moments is whenever people comment on the game on Facebook or review it, they refer to us as Bioware. On one hand, I've spent the past two and a half years at this point helping to build EA2D, and I wish we stood on our own right. But on the other hand, Bioware is one of the most acclaimed game developers in the world. So, if people look at what we've done and say, 'Hey Bioware. Great job, but you really need to improve this and this,' it's kind of a badge of honor that they hold it to the same level of quality.

As for what needs improvement, the team is working in a software-as-service model, and we update the game every week with new quests, new features and bug fixes. Just yesterday we released a major new feature called 'Guilds,' and we plan on operating this game for a long time. So, I have a really deep road map of different features and improvements that the team is excited about. We have a year-long narrative outline that we worked with Bioware on. We just started teasing that, now that we have Guilds, we're going to do a Guild versus Guild arena system. So, there are really hundreds of ways that we want to improve to the game.

Why did you decide to go with not only a decidedly more hardcore play style, but such graphic animation?

That was the gamble, I guess: That gamers would-and not to disparage my fellow EA employees at Playfish or any other company-show up for a real game. And not an activity where there's no real meaningful choices; games that just reward you for showing up. So, we wanted to do a game that any hardcore gamer or Bioware fan would show up for.

By tapping into a mature theme and audience like that, we would never hit the 25 million daily players of a FarmVille, for instance. But the players that we did cater to would stay around longer and would pay more on average for micro-transactions, because when you buy a really cool sword or armor it's more meaningful and long lasting in its effects.

Dragon Age Legends Concept
During the development process, what was most difficult and why did it give you so much trouble?

The most difficult obstacle for us was the technology base. DAL might look like a Flash game, but it's actually built a lot more like an MMO, and we built all that tech from scratch. So, the game that you see is just the tip of the iceberg of a really impressive piece of technology that our systems and platform team here has built. And that platform was built with long-term investment for EA2D. I think there are a lot of hard lessons learned along the way as we built our team and technology. Now that it's in place, we're able to create some pretty incredible things like the mobile extension of DAL, which we're really proud of.

So, you mentioned a year-long road map--

(Laughs.) At least! That's the features we can think of now.

And that's impressive. You seem to want this game to stand on its own, so how do you plan to differentiate DAL from companion game to just Facebook game?

Part of our theory is that this will serve as a bridge game, or a game that bridges gamers from the release of the console product to downloadable packages. People can be playing this for weeks and weeks or potentially years and years in between releases of the core game from Bioware. It'll differentiate itself over time.

Better yet, is there any desire to link the two games in more meaningful ways like crossing plot lines or introducing characters from one game to the other?

We have hopes to do some deeper integration points than we have so far. I was very privileged to work with Dragon Age's lead designer when I crafted the story for DAL. And the two games were in development at the same time, so something that was important to me was to avoid any dependency.

There are two things I really wouldn't want to happen while we were both in development. One would be that [Bioware] changed something at the last minute story wise and all of a sudden a piece of our game doesn't make sense. What a harder case would be is that I never want to get a call from the Dragon Age team saying, 'Why would you invent this city?' (Laughs.) No Dragon Age product is non-canon, so making DAL parallel to Dragon Age 2 was very intentional and we hope to intersect those paths more meaningfully in the future.

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Dragon Age Legends on Facebook
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More importantly, where do you see the future of companion games going on Facebook? How do you see the links between console games and their Facebook counterparts growing?

I imagine we'll see two different flavors of games. It's very clear when there's a Facebook game launch that really is a marketing ploy and not really a deep and meaningful game in any sense. I could point out examples of, but that would be kind of rude. Facebook advergames-I think those will continue to exist. I hope DAL paves the way for more meaningful companion games that live on their own, because there are other games I'd love to get little bite-sized pieces of everyday. I'm hopeful that the idea of a quick advergame will be marginalized.

You and me both, honestly. Now, some developers, like Naughty Dog, are integrating Facebook and YouTube right into their games like Uncharted 3. Is this the next point of collision for the two genres?

If it's built in a way that enhances the experience for players, that will be phenomenal. But if it's just functionality to post to your Facebook wall from within the game, that really only applies to a certain type of gamer who has a lot of gamer friends, frankly. I know how difficult it would be to do that level of deep integration between a console product and Facebook or anywhere on the web. A team really has to step up and not just pay lip service.

Dragon Age Legends Cinematic
Now, EA2D has created original social games before like, most recently, AWOL. Does DAL mark a move away from that or will we see more original games from the studio?

I would say it's not EA2D's mission to create companion games. It's our mission to make social games for gamers. There's equal passion around here to do both. We're not a marketing arm; we're a game developer in our own right, and I hope both more original games and companion games are in store for us in the future.

Now, I can't help myself but ask, 'Will EA2D ever make a 3D game on Facebook?'

(Laughs.) I was actually part of the conversation when we chose to call ourselves EA2D, and I was the one who put the name forward. Calling ourselves EA2D is not about the dimensions of the art in the games we're making. It's really about the frame of mind. [EA2D is] trying to hearken back to a golden era of EA when there was some really classic games we made, when it wasn't possible to amaze people with visuals and gameplay came first.

What do you think of Dragon Age Legends and its development process on Facebook? Do you see a future for more games like this on the platform? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
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