Dragon Age: Origins is the quintessential BioWare game. Serving as the bridge from classics like Baldur’s Gate and NeverWinter Nights to flashier efforts like Mass Effect and Anthem, it took the sense and sensibilities of the widely lauded ‘old BioWare’ and reappropriated them for a modern iteration of an iconic studio. Whether you personally prefer Shattered Steel, Jade Empire, or Star Wars: The Old Republic is largely irrelevant – Dragon Age: Origins represents the most pivotal moment in BioWare’s storied history.
Even outside of BioWare’s wheelhouse, Origins changed the entertainment industry. It was in development before CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher, it launched two years prior to Game of Thrones airing on HBO, and it proved that not all fantasy had to be derivative of readily palatable “high fantasy” tropes. Without Denerim and darkspawn – seemingly ordinary now, but only because of how successful their subversion was then – video game fantasy would look quite different. Elves would eat leaves and dwarves would eat rocks. Kings would be paragons and evil would be absolute. Things would be boring and predictable and homogeneous to the point of purposelessness.
That’s why now, 12 years later, we’re telling the story of how Dragon Age: Origins was made from the perspective of the developers who made it. This brings us back almost two decades, given how long Origins was in development. Still, those long years were indicative of the studio’s modus operandi back then: nothing was done until it was done, and a development in flux was a development where ideas and innovation could truly shine.
BioWare: A Family
BioWare in the early 2000s was a very different place. You were part of a family and were expected to uphold the family business. People who joined the studio didn’t learn how to write, code, or animate – they learned how to BioWare.
Daniel Erickson, lead designer on Dragon Age: Origins:
One did not simply walk into BioWare as a lead designer. BioWare was at the top of its game – this was before the outside investors came in and long before EA would come do the EA thing to them. Located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada – I’d often explain it to people as “just north of where Santa lives” – BioWare nevertheless could be, and was, extremely picky about its talent, and talent was beating down their walls to get in.
Ian Stubbington, lead environmental artist on Dragon Age: Origins:
BioWare at the time I joined was growing from a small company into what was a relatively huge one. In many ways it still retained that small company mindset. This can be good and bad. On the good side, there was a family atmosphere and it was not uncommon for [BioWare co-founders] Ray [Muzyka] or Greg [Zeschuk] to just randomly pop into your office to see how things were going. On the other side, communication has to be worked at harder as companies get bigger – gone are the days when you can assume everyone knows what’s going on because they were all in the same meetings.
Kevin Loh, assistant producer on Dragon Age: Origins:
I recall times when [Ray and Greg] would know every staff member – and sometimes [their] family – by name, and chat about matters and details pertaining to that individual. We called them ‘the good doctors.’ Perhaps being medical practitioners, that healing and holistic nature carried through into their game production practices too.
Daniel Fedor, lead technical artist on Dragon Age: Origins
The vibe at the studio when I joined was still pretty plucky. It felt like a small studio. Homebrew. Almost everyone knew each other. It had a sense of unity and fun. I think the DA team, and BioWare in general, experienced some growing pains as we shifted into a large studio. Some tribalism and resentment crept in, and my role as a departmental diplomat got a workout. Interproject relations also seemed to decline. Eventually, I recall the DA team’s morale being one of dogged exhaustion. We had been on this thing for years, and we just had to get it done. Did I enjoy my time there? Absolutely. It was, and still is, my dream job. I ate up every moment of it. It had hard times, for sure, but I consider myself blessed for having had the experience.
BioWare, at the time, didn’t have a generic design track. They had writers, who were more powerful there than I’ve ever seen at a company since, and they had technical designers, who did basically everything else. The first thing BioWare had you do when applying as a writer was ask you to craft a module in their previous RPG, NeverWinter Nights. So I made the module. Then, because it was a senior position, I had to do another one in 48 hours. Then I had to do another impromptu writing test in the building on interview day when I flew into Edmonton and was interviewed by approximately half the population of Alberta.
Okay, so there were a ton of hurdles to get over to get a job at BioWare. Once there, though, it was… more hurdles! BioWare had the most comprehensive and elite training program I’ve seen in game development. Basically, the first three months you were there you didn’t work on a game at all. Instead, you learned how to BioWare.
Many of the more senior employees had been with the company since its start and had never worked anywhere else, so they had never seen alternate ways of doing things. There was “the BioWare way” or nothing.
The people working at BioWare live and breathe RPGs and I think it really showed. Dragon Age: Origins combined a wonderfully crafted world, populated it with terrifying creatures, added a unique magic system, breathed life into individual characters and races, then made it all come to life while still handing control to the player. In the two to three years before ship, this all came together – not without lots of friction, problems, and difficulty – to bring the audience a title that we all know and love: Dragon Age Origins.
How Dragon Age: Origins, with just 18 months left until launch, rallied six years of chaotic development into a clear, cohesive vision.
Dan Tudge, creative director on Dragon Age: Origins:
In 2006, I began talking to Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk about coming onboard at BioWare. While started, Dragon Age had never really got off the ground, it was stalled in engine and tools development. I was asked to take over Dragon Age – we hadn’t added “Origins” to the title yet.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the state of Dragon Age when I arrived. First of all, it’s not called Dragon Age. And there are definitely no dragons in it. Secondly, nobody can really tell me exactly what it is. It’s been in production more than a year and has a ton of story content, but nobody has ever written a one page brief or an IP summary.
We had a lot of writing – David Gaider and his team had done a lot of…
Read More:The Oral History Of Dragon Age: Origins