“Baldur's Gate doesn't hold your hand, it slaps it, then it punches you in the face.” – Trent Oster
Way back in 1996, Black Isle Studios tossed out a team-based role-playing game modeled off the Forgotten Realms’ license owned by Wizards of the Coast. Baldur’s Gate was an incredible undertaking, but it was also a fascinating adventure that consumed hours upon hours of time while immersing players in the realm of the Sword Coast.
Of course there were games that tried to emulate that success, but the games of that era that stood out the most were the two Baldur’s Gate titles, Icewind Dale and NeverWinter Nights. Just when you thought those days might be gone forever, along comes Beamdog.
The announcement some time back that Beamdog was putting out a new version of the game, updated and going under the name of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, should be ambrosia to role-playing fans. It should also be viewed as a tasty morsel for those who never experienced the game back then, and hesitated to buy an old copy to see what the fuss was about.
In a recent interview with Trent Oster, the director of business development for Beamdog, he said that the company will release Baldur’s Gate Enhance Edition, Baldur’s Gate II (also enhanced) and, if they go well, maybe an updated Icewind Dale, too.
We had a chance to chat with Oster about the release of BG:EE at the end of November.
Question: Given that the original Baldur's Gate was released in 1996, what was the reasoning behind resurrecting the game and bringing it back with the Enhanced Edition?
Trent: The reasoning behind the Enhanced Edition was pretty simple, with the emergence of digital distribution and new platforms like the tablet, we felt there was a niche of video games that was completely neglected for the last 10 years, that niche being party-based tactical role-playing games. As well, Baldur's Gate is still referenced daily in conversation, keeping it current and keeping awareness high.
Another reason being because we helped build it the first time around we had insider knowledge of the technology. We also looked into the modding community and were amazed how active they were more than a decade after release. We saw the hoops they had to jump through and we thought we could make a better version of the game for them to use as a base to mod from. We continue to look at how we can empower the modders to create great new content.
Q: Aside from updating the graphics, which must have been a big job in itself, have there been any other modifications to the gameplay mechanics or storyline of the game?
Trent: Hands down, the addition of the new content is better. On the tablets with Rasaad and The Black Pits you get over 10 hours of new content. If you buy the Dorn and Neera DLC, that brings it up to around 20 hours. On the PC and Mac, Dorn and Neera are both bundled in (thus the higher price point).
The other major addition is probably the bug fixes. We've gone through the game and, working closely with the community, we've fixed a ton of bugs in the original game and improved a lot of the base systems. We've left the gameplay and the mechanics mostly untouched, with some effort going into making the higher difficulty settings more challenging.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome in embarking on this project?
Trent: The first major challenge was getting a deal in place. We had to convince Atari, Wizards, Hasbro, EA and Bioware that this should be done. We had to get all parties to agree on terms to let us make the Enhanced Edition. The second major challenge was the technology. Baldur's Gate was multi-threading before multi-threading was cool. Unfortunately, they didn't anticipate the direction the hardware would go. When we started, we found the game was spending 70% of the execution time on most cores sitting idle, waiting for another core to release some memory. So, we did some machete surgery and re-worked the entire threading system. Once the work was done, the game was much happier on modern operating systems.
The final challenge has been controlling ourselves. There are so many ways we could re-work systems to make the game better, but we need to draw a line and commit to a feature set so we can get the game into the hands of the fans. Our ongoing plans are to continue to iterate on the code and improve the game as we go, so knowing that we are making an ongoing commitment to improving the game has made it easier to back off on some pet features.
Q: This game harkens back to an old-school style of RPG gaming. What makes you think it will have appeal now to a new generation of players?
Trent: Super Meat Boy. Hard games are making a comeback and people want a challenge. Baldur's Gate doesn't hold your hand, it slaps it, then it punches you in the face. As a new player to Baldur's Gate, there is a steep learning curve, which we've tried to mitigate by making it easier to choose a pre-generated character and get into the game. Baldur's Gate demands respect. It demands patience, and the pay off is some of the greatest characters and story ever done in an RPG.
This is a chance for newer gamers to experience the legend and see what all those greybeards have been posting about for the last decade. As a greybeard myself, I welcome the new gamers to experience the legend that is Baldur's Gate.
Q: Is there an online (such as player-to-player co-op) element with the new version of the game?
Trent: One of the key strengths of Baldur's Gate was the co-op multiplayer. We've re-worked the multiplayer engine to make it much more stable and able to work cross-platform, so a Mac player could join a game running on an iPad with an Android gamer and another fellow on a PC. Playing Baldur's Gate with a friend on an iPad and a Nexus 7 while sitting on a couch is a pretty awesome experience.
Q: Finally, resurrecting a game like this seems a labor of love from developers that are also fans of the genre and the game itself. What are your fondest memories (specific or general) of playing this game or this style of game?
Trent: We're big fans of BG and we're fans of the community of people who have continued to mod this game over the years. My fondest memories are countless. When I think of Baldur's Gate, I first think of the original development team, guys like James Ohlen, Scott Grieg, Dean Anderson, Russ Rice, Ben Smedstead, Andrew Nobbs, John Winksi, Kevin Craig, Don Yakielshek, all these enthusiastic people banging away at something that felt like an iceburg, a massive undertaking of which you could only see a small part at any given time.
I think the key to the success of Baldur's Gate was the team never considered the insanity of what they were attempting. I think any veteran team would have looked at the plans and walked away shaking their head, saying it was impossible. BG was handling hundreds of thousands of chunks of data when most games were chugging under a few thousand.
The first time I played the game back in 1995 and it was mostly working, I remember saying to my office mate, "Holy S**t, this is actually pretty awesome." I had played an earlier build and was a little worried about it and, working on the title as an art manager, I mostly saw the problem areas and not the positive potential. I recall the first time I killed Samej (James backwards) I went down to James Ohlen's office and told him how my twinked Fighter/Thief killed his precious character in one epic backstab. I remember the first time I picked up an iPad, within five minutes I commented "Baldur's Gate would be awesome on this." I also remember the first time I played BG:EE on an iPad and the affirmation that I was right, Baldur's Gate is indeed awesome on the iPad.