Dragon Age: Inquisition producer Aaryn Flynn isn’t afraid to talk about how beautiful his new game is.
Late last week, the official Twitter account for Dragon Age: Inquisition explained that the developer maximized the visuals on both Microsoft’s and Sony’s new systems. The fantasy role-playing game, the third in the series, has 900 lines of horizontal resolution on Xbox One and 1,080 on PlayStation 4. But we wanted to know more, and so we reached out to BioWare to talk to Flynn about his team’s first big release on the new round of consoles.
GamesBeat: Could you go over how Dragon Age: Inquisition runs on the new consoles, in general terms?
Aaryn Flynn: For sure. The game runs really amazingly on the new generation of consoles. It’s remarkable, just how much we can push them and how much they do with everything from the density of the vegetation in the world to the subtle movements in things to draw distances. It’s a mix of both technical improvements and then translating those technical improvements into valuable artistic improvements. The number of characters on the screen — all of that kind of stuff.
GamesBeat: The game is running on Frostbite. The whole company must now have some experience working with that, but this BioWare’s first time working with Frostbite, correct?
Flynn: Yeah, it’s [BioWare’s] first game on Frostbite. We’ve committed to doing the next Mass Effect game and our new IP on Frostbite as well. It’s exciting. A lot of what we did with Dragon Age: Inquisition we did not just to make the best Dragon Age game we could make but [to] also set the future games up. The people are on it learning. All the effort of going to places like Stockholm to meet the DICE team and the Frostbite team and spend the time there and having their guys come over here — it was a coordinated effort between our studio here in Edmonton, a bunch of people at the Montreal team, and then folks from all over the rest of EA.
GamesBeat: What was that experience like — working with a new engine — for a team that tends to make such huge, expansive games?
Flynn: It was fantastic. It’s funny, because we didn’t know what to expect. We did a bunch of research into the engine four years ago now, even before Dragon Age II shipped, as we were deciding what our technology strategy was going to be for the next five to ten years. We did that work and then we went in with both feet and said, “Well, the best way to make use of this is not only commit all of our titles to it, but then also to work with the teams directly to offer our suggestions and focus on the things that we need to do to make our games good.”
With the Frostbite team handling a lot of the heavy lifting around core rendering loops and specific stuff around the platform, we focused on the RPG elements and the things we need to do to extend Frostbite to make our first RPG, Dragon Age: Inquisition. That was everything from updating the animation system to support quadrupeds — everything from horses to dragons — to putting pauses in the game. Frostbite had no notion of a pause before that, so we had to put pause in. There were all sorts of things that an RPG needs and we focused on getting those into the game. As we went on we learned the core internals of the engine as well, so we could do the best optimizations possible. We did most of those on this game as well.
GamesBeat: Did the technology enable BioWare to do things that it’s always wanted to do, especially in terms of enabling new kinds of gameplay?
Flynn: For sure. The two big things that are in some ways very simple, but which our games haven’t had for a very long time, are jumping — believe it or not, we have a real knack for taking engines that support jumping and taking it out of there. We never have jumps in our games.
And then things like mounts, for example. We’d never had mounted locomotion in our games before. As we watched people play other RPGs, other games that have it, we’d always thought, “Wow, we’d love to have that.” I’m very happy that those two very simple examples are in there.
And there’s a host of other things as well. All that translates into open world gameplay on this, using the Frostbite renderer and supporting the scale that engine can have—That really let us open up the exploration areas and put in systems there to make it open world. That was very fun.
GamesBeat: You touched on it a bit, but what was the optimization experience like for the new consoles?
Flynn: Pretty good. We’re lucky in that obviously we’re not the first title to ship with Frostbite. We’re learning not just from the first party themselves, but especially from the teams within EA who’ve taken titles through. If you look at some of the sports guys, while they’re not using Frostbite, they’ve had two iterations on the new consoles, so they were a big help. We worked with a team in Vancouver to help us do some of that, and also a team in Madrid. They have a lot of expertise. So it wasn’t as hectic as I thought it would be. But it’s still very busy as far as time and work. Still very smooth in the grand scheme of things. We’re enjoying the experience of being on both consoles and finishing the game.
GamesBeat: What was the decision process behind coming out and saying, we’re 1080p on PS4, and we’ve done our best to get the most out of Xbox One? Who made the decision to openly announce that?
Flynn: It started because we’d seen what we thought was interpreted as misinformation from viewers of the live stream we did. Based on that, we said, “Well, it’s important to get the information out there so players can understand reality when they’re considering a pre-order, or if they’ve already preordered Dragon Age.” We wanted to be very clear.
We hear from our fans all the time that it’s important to be clear in these messages. That’s one of the curses and benefits of a thing like Twitter. You can be brutally clear, but you only have 140 characters, and unfortunately that can just inspire a lot more questions. In this case we were able to be very clear, though, because at the end of the day it’s just numbers.
Confirmed: #DAI resolution is 1080p on PS4, and 900p on Xbox One. We maximized the current potential of each platform.
— Dragon Age (@dragonage) October 10, 2014
GamesBeat: What’s the response been like since announcing that? Have your fans seemed to be pretty happy with it?
Flynn: I found that people appreciated the clarity of the statement, whatever platform they’re playing on. The important thing to remember is that Dragon Age looks stunning on all the platforms it’s on. We’re not even close to the maximized potential of either system yet. It’s just around what we can do now. Once you get Dragon Age, you’re in for an amazing experience regardless.
GamesBeat: If you’re not tapping out the systems because it’s so early on, do you feel like there is a reality where, given enough time, the Xbox One version could be 1080p as well?
Flynn: It’s tough to speculate.
I’m not close to the hardware, close to the technical challenges on either platform. What I can say is that delivering the best experience possible is our top priority. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting a compromised experience, no matter how they’re choosing to play the game.
Obviously there’s going to be a difference between things like Xbox 360 and Xbox One or PS3 to PS4. But our job is to match or beat people’s expectations. As long as we’re doing that, we’re okay.
What I do hear loud and clear from people who are responding was that people were less concerned about resolution and more about getting an amazing game. We’ll keep finding optimizations and finding ways to improve. We’ll keep putting those in the games that we make as much as possible.
GamesBeat: One more number, and then I’d like you to elaborate on how Inquisition looks beyond numbers: What’s the framerate locked at on each system?
Flynn checks with PR, who confirmed BioWare and EA are not talking about framerate yet.
Flynn: We’re in cert right now, so we’ll have to just see right now as far as what we come out as with the final fixes and changes. I wouldn’t want to say anything yet. Again, what I can say is that framerate is as much or more a part of the experience as resolution. We have to get a solid framerate in there for fans to be happy.
GamesBeat: There’s been some recent — other developers have said that they have a sort of philosophical belief that 30 frames per second can be better in some situations than 60 frames per second. Do you guys hold with that, or ideally would the game be 60 in all situations?
Flynn: No, I agree with the first statement. For me, to move to 60 fps, very crudely, you’re halving the amount of time you have to render anything. Something has to be given up to achieve 60. For the right game that may be the thing you have to do.
A competitive, PvP-based shooter, for example, you want that smoothness to optimize the experience. You can live with lower-quality textures and simpler animations, especially because you’re not rendering the player character in that case. But you might find that in a different kind of game, you want something more lush, something richer in texture detail and character detail. Maybe you need to drop down to 30 to deliver that.
Again, as long as you’re getting a steady framerate, as long as you’re getting something that is smooth and unhindered, it falls to the kind of game and the experience you’re trying to give to players.
GamesBeat: But some developers were saying they were going for a cinematic effect. Do you think 30 frames per second works for that?
Flynn: I don’t know about cinematic effects. For me it’s more about what you can do because you’re at 30 frames per second. Can you increase texture quality, increase the complexity of the models and the animations because you have that extra time to render? That’s the question. Maybe you can group all that under the theme of cinematics. I don’t know about you, but did you ever get one of those TVs that automatically —
GamesBeat: I can’t stand them. I walk past them at Sam’s Club, and it hurts my eyes.
Flynn: Yeah, I’m the same way. I don’t know if I’m just old now or what it is. Whenever I see that — I go to my mom’s place and the first thing I do, when she turns the TV on — “Nope, turn that off.” If you call that a cinematic — if you get too high a framerate and you lose that classic 24 frames-per-second cinema feel, maybe that’s a part of it. But for me, it’s more about how you have to make tradeoffs. The kind of game you’re making and what the players want to do with the game is much more the driver behind how you should build things than what I want or what I think we can do.
GamesBeat: One more question. What’s your general feeling about how the game looks, throwing numbers out the window? When you look at the game, what do you feel? What do you expect gamers to feel?
Flynn: I think it’s beautiful, and I hope people feel that, too.
For us, it’s a chance to get back to some of the things we did with Baldur’s Gate: bigger environments, more opportunities to explore, more little things you can do in interesting places.
One of the things that’s really exciting is just the variety of environments we have in there. We don’t just have one kind of environment. We have high mountain forests. We have vast desert plains. We have beautiful coast areas. We have thick, overgrown old forests. We have all these different kinds of areas. That variety is one of the most interesting things about the game, to go to these places and not just experience that, just immerse yourself in that new place, but then have the story wrap you up in that place as well. It’s nice how our storytellers were able to get in that mode and see the beauty of the world and be inspired by that. And vice versa as well.
The inspiration of the stories they wrote early on, our environment artists and character artists were able to pretty faithfully create what they wanted. That’s really exciting.
GamesBeat: Going forward, you guys are excited about building on what you’re doing here in your upcoming games?
Flynn: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The stuff we’re going to do with storytelling in an open world will evolve. We’re going to get a lot of feedback from fans, good and bad. Hopefully mostly good. But we’ll use all that and put it into the next Mass Effect game and our new IP.