Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Where are all the modules for Dragon Age?
Looking at the Projects Page on the Bioware Social Network, two things seem perfectly clear: 1) players need a better way to find Dragon Age modules, and 2) the current crop of standalone adventures is sorely lacking. The most popular mod is apparently something called Sappho's Daughters, which I hesitate to even try to categorize. After that, it's a lot of utility mods, some Sappho's Daughters spinoffs, and a remake of the Irenicus dungeon from Baldur's Gate 2. Then, finally, you get to something that could truly be called an original standalone adventure (Alley of Murders).
So what gives? Many people, myself included, assumed Neverwinter Nights 2 builders would migrate to Dragon Age en masse and start producing high-quality mods. But judging from the number of standalone adventures, that doesn't seem to have happened. With Dragon Age 2 looming, it seems like an appropriate time to take stock of the situation and ask why we haven't seen more finished projects by now.
The typical answer is that the Dragon Age toolset is simply too difficult. That's fine as far as two-word explanations go, but a more comprehensive answer might include the following:
Dragon Age development favors specialized roles.
Creating a standalone adventure has always required an all-rounder, someone who could pound out dialogue, hack through code, tinker with 2DAs, and work with art resources - and do it all pretty well. By increasing complexity at each step of the way, the Dragon Age toolset makes life a lot harder for those Jacks and Jills of all trades. On top of that, the game itself sets a high bar for production values, one that's hard for individuals or small groups to approximate.
Just look at conversations. Using stages and integrated cutscenes, builders can create highly cinematic scenes in Dragon Age - just like the ones in the game, and far better than anything you could produce in Neverwinter Nights 2. The problem? It takes three different editors, and a lot more time. And unless you want your characters flapping their lips in silence, you'll have to recruit some voice actors to give a voice to your characters. Unlike Neverwinter Nights 2, Dragon Age doesn't provide an old-school dialogue box for those who don't want to conduct a casting call.
The toolset palette is shallow.
Demons or darkspawn? When choosing monsters in Dragon Age, it's just about that simple. The Neverwinter Nights games included a large selection from the Monster Manual - being Dungeons & Dragons games, they pretty much had to. In contrast, Dragon Age's bestiary seems to be based solely on the requirements of its storyline. Does anybody really want to make another game about darkspawn? Does anyone want to play one?
Unfortunately, with Dragon Age 2 on the way, the current palette is all builders are going to get. While the complexity of the toolset could delay the release of great standalone modules, the lack of resources will permanently limit them.
Players aren't that into it.
It's possible - nay, likely - that fans of Dungeons & Dragons are open to playing mods in a way that other players are not. Certainly not everyone who played Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2 was a fan of Dungeons & Dragons or The Forgotten Realms. However, my hypothesis is that those who were fans were more likely to play mods. Why? Because they were eager to continue their characters in their chosen setting rather than move on to other content, even if it meant playing through less polished, amateur-made adventures.
Not so with Dragon Age, whose most loyal fans seem more devoted to the game's characters than its ruleset or setting. Of course, the fact that some players follow the characters with the zeal of a twihard doesn't mean there aren't also plenty of people out there who are willing to play standalone mods. What it does mean is that the Project pages are currently swamped with mods that add extra dialogue, romances, and nudity to the official campaign, making it that much harder for standalone mods to gain a toehold.
Bioware isn't that into it.
Early on, Bioware did nothing to discourage the notion that it was the heir apparent to the Neverwinter Nights legacy. In fact, it urged builders to transition to Dragon Age, and was generally very supportive early on.
Somewhere along the way, priorities seem to have shifted. Promised fixes for the toolset and Social Network have not come, and Bioware has been ominously silent about whether they ever will. I won't speculate on why this is so. No doubt it boils down to limited resources. The point is, from a builder's perspective, it's another hurdle.
Sound bleak? Oh, it's not that bad. I still expect builders to produce some great standalone adventures for Dragon Age. Maybe the release of Dragon Age 2 will spur returning players to give mods another look. It could also generate interest in modding, especially if the sequel does a good job of fleshing out the setting.
More importantly, I think projects currently in the works simply need more time. Making a full-fledged adventure with all its component parts takes many, many development hours - hours that for many builders have to come in small increments after work and on weekends. As was the case with Neverwinter Nights 2, many of the best mods will probably appear long after the game's release.