BioWare on Jaws of Hakkon and their approach to DLC

Jaws of Hakkon

The first new singleplayer content for Dragon Age: Inquisition, Jaws of Hakkon, was announced on Monday and released yesterday. I spoke to BioWare's Chris Pickford, producer on Inquisition and its singleplayer DLC, about Jaws of Hakkon and the plan for the future.

What were your goals when planning out this first DLC? Presumably it's been in the works for a while.

We started this during the certification period of Inquisition. What we really wanted to do was marry the size of our exploration areas with the complexity of our plot areas—to try and get a 'critical path' plot style, which has 2000+ of dialogue, and marry that with our exploration areas which offer a huge amount of space.

With Jaws of Hakkon, what we've tried to do is thread the critical path narrative, the cutscenes and ambient storytelling through a large vertical space. Somewhere where you can climb up trees and go into the depths as well—but when you go through the plotline it's got cinematics and high-quality character moments as well.

Given that you started this project before the game was released, how much were you able to respond to feedback in this DLC and how much of it has to go into whatever comes next?

That's a fair question. In actual fact, the game was released in November and one of the things we heard loud and clear from the fans was that they really enjoyed the depth of the story—that's what they were paying for. They wanted to see more lore, more interesting characters, more people to interact with. That's one of the focuses for this DLC was to push how that kind of content can exist in a large space. Something that is interesting to maneuvre over and that, when you get to the key plot points, has the high-end parts of Dragon Age: Inquisition as well.

What you'll find here is that the Avvar—the barbarian characters—we've gone deep on them. You're gonna see them doing things as well as you're told about them doing things. You'll see characters that are interacting a lot more with the world and the environment in response to your presence. Instead of putting things in a cutscene, we want to put you as the player character into the events that are happening.

It's something that we've wanted to do a lot more in the past, but for this DLC it was something that we've been able to build from the ground up.

One thing people want from DLC is new stuff, but—having a fair amount of experience with BioWare fandom—what people want is to see their specific favourite characters back again. Is that a challenge, when you're scoping this kind of thing out—which actors are available, and so on?

Oh yeah. It's a fantastic problem to have, I'll tell you that. Having people say 'I really want to see more of X or Y' is a great problem from a design perspective.

One of the characters who was most well-received was Scout Harding. She had kind of a B-roll in Inquisition but for Jaws of Hakkon, because she was so well-received in the main game, we pushed her more to the forefront. She's in the world, you can interact with her and talk to her, and she's going to give you her opinion about what's going on.

Particularly, given that Scout Harding is incredibly good at finding things, having her along for the ride to find out where the last Inquisitor got to is a bonus for the Inquisition.

Is this template, an expansion that costs this much and includes this much stuff—is that the pattern going forward for singleplayer Inquisition DLC?

This is our first look at it. In this day and age in the games industry there's no such thing as a template—at least in terms of a BioWare experience. We've seen that with Mass Effect. There are different types of content and, honestly, it's a very long complicated and difficult process to figure that out.

At this point we've tried to merge the critical path, the exploration experience and the dungeon experience into one coherent, long quest. We're hoping that fans enjoy that, but obviously what we're looking for now is feedback.

So each project is a case of bringing together certain parts of the base game and reconfiguring them?

Each DLC will achieve the goal it needs to achieve. We don't go out and say "we need to build it to this template". We say "what is the experience we now want to provide."

So with Black Emporium—which is now in beta, and which players have been asking for—we ask, "what do people actually get out of the Black Emporium?" Things like the face-changing, the mirror of transformation. We take it on a goal by goal basis. It's the only way to do it, because if we just stick to the template the players see through that. They see through that very quickly.

There's precedent in Dragon Age—which there wasn't in Mass Effect—for DLC that went in completely different directions to the main campaign. 'What if' scenarios, different lead characters and so on. Is that a direction you would consider?

The only answer I can give you on that is that we've been watching the forums, even reddit, and we have a long list of things that we understand that people want out of Dragon Age. We evaluate each on a case-by-case basis. Some of these things fit together and they can form part of the DLC like they did with Jaws of Hakkon, where people were saying 'I wish our exploration areas had more big narrative beats like you get on the critical path'. So that's what we tried to do—that's the way we work.

Other than that I can't go into very much detail, but that's the thinking behind it. We have to react to what people want, otherwise we're not doing our fans the service they require.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.