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Not Forgotten: Bioware On Baldur's Gate

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Hello! I’m currently out at GDC Europe, skipping around businessy talks to cover for my day job, but I ended up sat in on BIoware’s laidback and fascinating retrospective on the making of their breakthrough game, Baldur’s Gate. It’s a landmark title, and fascinatingly critical to what modern RPGs and MMOs are, but one we’ve surprisingly not talked about much on RPS. Thanks to my magic (and now rather broken) hands of transcripting +1, let’s change that…

It’s a bit mega-text this, but stick with it. Fun stuff.

Speaking are Dr Ray Muzyka and Dr Greg Zeschuk, the unspellable but still whip-smart and immensely likeable co-founders of the Canadian RPG giant.

Ray: Greg and I were having lunch last century. We had been fans of videogames for 20 years for that point, all through medical school we’d been talking about them. So we said why don’t we form a studio. And that was pretty much it. Medicine became more of a hobby.

Greg: it’s really funny to go back and find some of the ancient documentation. We always had that passion to make games, that’s been the driving force for us the whole time. We formed the company in 1995, we’ve been going a long time. It was pretty much five years of operating Bioware before people who knew who we are.

Ray: BG was one of the first games that was a Windows direct application. DirectX 3 was like crazy advanced at the time.
Greg: Medicine was quite literally our safety net. We could have quit and become doctors.

Ray: I formally retired in 2000. We both basically practiced for a number of years, we never had the intention of leaving medicine per se. Both of us really liked medicine, we finished it and it was interesting, it was good to return something back to society but videogames was always our passion.

Greg: The other thing to remember is no-one really likes a creative doctor.

Ray: We ended up sending out our first game Shattered Steel to ten publishers. Of those publishers, only one is still in business- EA. We originally called Baldur’s game Battleground Infinity; it was going to be an MMO [about a pantheon of different mythologies]

Greg – there really hadn’t been any kind of MMO then. Even then we were too ambitious. Looking back at the documentation, the cover art was done by the lead programmer. It would have been interesting because Bioware’s first game would have been an MMO.

Ray: Interplay had the Dungeons and Dragons license through TSR so what they provided was converting the engine to Dungeons and Dragons instead. We thought that would be a good license to develop in.

Greg: what we always wanted to make was the experience of that top-down experience. That top-down world exploration of Ultima was a really big inspiration for us. One thing that’s important to realise was we started it back in the mid-90s, and that was when RPGs were dead in North America. People would kind of scoff when you said you were making one.

Ray: A lot of publishers were saying RPGs were not the place to be and there was not a future for them. We disagreed, we wanted to go back to our favourite games of the 80s and early 90s. All these amazing games that provide these rich experiences. We wanted to create something to capture that magic.

Greg: We have a way of describing it now, historically we didn’t have the language to explain it. What we moved to was the concept of Bioware’s 4 pillars. The idea of exploration, incredible territory to explore. Combat, you had to think you had to plan, by changing tactics you could be successful. Characters…

Ray – We looked at RTSes, C&C and WoW, you’d click on characters and they’d say something back to you, and it was a surprise. Jagged Alliance, one character would take out a gun and start shooting another because they’d had an argument. We wanted to make them feel like real people, not NPCs who were AI controlled, they really felt they had personalities and came to life.

Greg – Progression. Wasteland, Tales of Arkania, those concepts of progressing your character and making them cool over time.

Ray – You could say on one hand we just made it up. No-one on the team had ever made a videogame before. It was 60 people at the time, that was absolutely enormous at the time, teams were about a dozen. Not a single person had made a game, but they had passion and the love. We always approached it with humility and recognition that we could improve.

Greg – that original team had a core group. Ray was the producer, James Olin was lead designer, John Gallagher conceptual artist. He literally drew every object in the game. That core team was very multi-disciplinary, not too program driven or design driven. That was the principle that drove that. Core teams are larger now, probably bigger than most developers nowadays.

Ray – There’s a meritocracy of ideas, where the best idea will rule. It doesn’t matter where that idea comes from. It’s about making the best idea come forward. We’re willing to change the design and iterate until we get it right. Put aside your ego and try and advance the best idea for the cause.

Greg – it worked really well as a small team. The reality where that concept that really no-one’s idea was better than anyone else’s, and the final decision would be that core group.

Ray – We really viewed the fan as the final arbiter. That was really important to us in the early games, we wanted all our games to be seen as high quality. We wanted Bioware to be associated with quality. We wanted to make each game better than the last.

Greg – Back then there was no concept of usability testing or focus testing, you literally went with your gut. It’s funny now because you look at the amount of focus testing, there’s a certain fear to it. IN those days there was that wonderful creativity and randomness. We were very measured in how we did it, but it was actually kind of refreshing.

[On publisher expectations]

Ray – BG grew in the telling, as it were. I remember seeing all the ads that we saw on the way in, and they were launch ads, they were not promotional. [Release dates got pushed back] Fortunately Interplay and Black Isle were very supportive, ensured we had the budget we needed to be successful.

Greg – it’s interesting when you think back to Interplay of old, and their slogan was by gamers for gamers which was actually kind of true. Brian Fargo who ran Interplay was a developer. It was a publishing and distribution company run by a developer. When we would explain why something had to be a certain way we had a nice rapport on the other side of the phone. We were all learning the craft at the same time. It was so early in the history of the games business that they had a little more experience than us but not a whole lot more.

[On scope]
Ray – It was huge. There was like a 100 screens by 100 screens, so like 10,000 screens of art at 640×480.

Greg – The biggest mistake we ever made was not making Throne of Bhaal BG3, because it kind of was.

[Interplay wanted to split BG2 into two parts, they resisted for technical reasons… ]

There’s times when game series don’t come to conclusion, but BG2 actually finished at the end of that second expansion pack.

Ray – Part of that was what we didn’t know what we were doing. Designing an engine from scratch without anyone having ever made an engine before, we were learning all those things on the fly. We emerged from it with a lot of knowledge and a lot of people who were very passionate.

Greg – Apparently Dragon Age was quite big as well. It’s funny, you think you learn the lessons, but one of the things you can’t predict is how long you think you’re games going to be in real-time. We actually trimmed a bunch of stuff from it. You can actually see that lineage, and that was one of the points behind Dragon Age was to try and draw upon Baldur’s Gate.

Ray – Spiritual successor to it.

Ray – We ended up redoing the art three times from scratch. We continually refined our processes and our artists were getting better and better, and because it’s such a huge game we had to go back and redo all that art. Two years later we did it again.

Greg – The blades of grass was as big as the characters. I think that was the first one. Beautiful, but the characters don’t fit.

Ray – All the audio, streaming music, multiple characters interacting, all those crazy things we were trying to do and were very ambitious, when you put it all together the whole thing slowed to a crawl. So we had to learn to be iterative.

Greg – In those days if you were an artist and you could draw a robot on a napkin literally you could get hired. One of the senior art guys, that was his application. Early on we found that passion and fit were very very important. They were largely people who were making games themselves, but they had no formal experience. A lot of those people are still in the business and are very very successful. It’s ironic, because the company we are now, someone showing up with a robot on a napkin probably wouldn’t get past reception.

Ray – One of the technical artists we had on the project later, amazingly talented artist, and he had never turned on a computer before that. He carved hunting ducks, decoys you put in the water. We thought he must have really good 3d spatial skills, so we gave him a shot and he ended up being an amazing artist. James Olin was a D&D dungeon master in his home town, people spoke in glowing terms what a great GM he was.

Greg – Even better, he traded his box of magic cards for a station wagon so he drive to Edmonton and work for us.

Greg – In the mid-90s, the concept of middleware didn’t exist. Secondly the development tools were really archaic. IT was 3DS revision 2 we used. So we had to develop software engines from scratch. As Ray said, we developed a Windows native application, that was a big deal. We literally sat there with a bunch of people who hadn’t made games with a blank piece of paper and no technology. What we actually did was take the [direct x 3.1 asteroids demo] and convert it into what looks like a very archaic version of Baldur’s Gate but was actually an asteroids game.

Ray – one of the things after we launched BG and saw the sales reports and it was going to be one of the top five games of the year, I remember just waking up in a cold sweat, just scared. What if this is the best thing we ever do, what if this was all Bioware was ever known for? It was paralysing to me. We wanted to evolve our craft, we see videogames as an art. Every game we release we try and add something new, take some creative risk in the hope that it’ll be a better game for our fans.

Greg – [On whether they might create special editions of their old games] We don’t actually control that [rerelease of old games] but the business of the game is really intertwined between a whole bunch of different companies. Somehow you have to get agreements from an enormous number of groups. That’d be incredibly challenging. Obviously that’d be something we’d love to support that, make it higher definition, ressed up, but there’s all these independent needs. It’s tricky.

Ray – [on whether they’ll continue to support user-made content] Well we released the toolkit for Dragon Age and that’s been very successful. We’re big believers in user-generated content. We may have something like that in the works which we haven’t announced, we haven’t said what it will be yet.

Greg – If you teach people how to fish they can fish forever, and NWN was a great example of that. Our tools are tied up with the dev process in the company so you actually learn how we make games.
It’s a little trickier in the console space, but I think it’s safe to say we’re not done with the fan-created content concept yet.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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