While the focus of Beamdog’s reveal was the news of Siege of Dragonspear, perhaps almost as remarkable are their plans to also introduce substantial, sweeping changes to all of their games. A great deal is being tinkered with, updated or rebalanced. For a start, the levelling across the Baldur’s Gate series now has to be adjusted to account for the new addition. “You’ll come out [of Siege of Dragonspear] about three levels higher,” is Oster’s estimate. “So we’re going to go in and tweak some stuff in Baldur’s Gate II. Though [the original version of the game] already power-levels you pretty quick after the initial Irenicus dungeon, just so you won’t get murdered as you start to wander around Athkatla.”
The journal, interface and character sheets are being reworked, optional hit-point indicators will hover over characters and inventory highlighting will make it easier to understand what does what, and for whom. “Now, you can pick up an item and the game tells you who can use that item,” Tofer explains. “You click on a guy and it tells you their stat changes if you equip that item.” That’ll be a welcome clarification of the archaic and often obtuse Second Edition rules set, which is now like a dead language to many players.
While Beamdog have now sold millions of copies of their Extended Editions across both PC and tablets, receiving a generally warm reception from critics, there’s no doubt that they had rough and imperfect launches. Both at the reveal and after, Oster spoke about Beamdog’s ”direct” relationship with fans and customers. If there’s one thing people on the internet can be relied upon to do, it’s volunteering their opinions when they’re unhappy with something. Beamdog have not been given an easy ride and many Baldur’s Gate fans have insisted that the original versions of the game, supplemented by mods, are still the way to play. Oster does not agree and he has a lot of confidence in the work that his team has performed over the years.
“What’s hilarious is how much of the [Infinity] Engine is really left. When we started, we deleted about three hundred thousand lines of code and replaced them,” he says. “A lot of it was written around Windows 95, a lot of hacks and workarounds that would allow it to work well on Windows 95. Computing has changed a lot since Windows 95! Baldur’s Gate was built around the idea of having a lot of hard drive space that was huge and slow, as well as very limited real-time memory.” Part of the Beamdog’s re-write was performed in order to get the game functioning on devices like the iPad, but Oster says it has also mades for a slimmer, more efficient game, even if it took a little while to get there (and Oster is no stranger to radically rebuilding things to try and get them to run better, as his racing blog testifies).
“When we have a fan saying they’re never going to buy the Enhanced Edition, they’re going to mod their version, I think, well… Okay, I’m going to read through their feedback.” he continues. “And I’m going to get the old version of Baldur’s Gate. I’ll put all those mods on and I’ll play it and then I’ll still be like ‘You can’t be serious!’ It’s so clunky. It’s so clunky compared to what we have now, which is really slick. We’ve learned our lesson, we’ve made updates and fixes, and with Siege of Dragonspear we’ll have a whole new user interface. We’ve torn it down to the ground and rebuilt it.”
What may not be so apparent to many of those Baldur’s Gate purists is that half of the team now working for Beamdog are modders themselves, people who have known the ins and outs (and imperfections) of the Infinity Engine for many years and who initially took it upon themselves to make what they did out of their love for the games. Furthermore, Beamdog are hoping that, after Siege of Dragonspear is released, some players might try modding it themselves. Their plan is to make some of the development tools they’ve been using available for everyone else to tinker with.
Perhaps most important is the time that Beamdog have invested, because Siege of Dragonspear is certainly not a new idea. It’s been gestating, in one form or another, for nearly four years. “We started talking about it as we were working on the first Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and we actually started working on it before [the Enhanced Edition of] Baldur’s Gate II shipped,” says Oster. “Then we were going to try and ship it before we shipped Baldur’s Gate II, but Atari really started ratcheting up the pressure on us they and were exceptionally firm on the release date, so we just had to put it aside.”
And here we return to that idea of compromise, or at least of obligation. One of the things Oster and his team are happiest about now is being free and independent, not being compelled to hit a release date by an inflexible publisher nor, he adds, having to argue the value of a property with them. Their sales figures, he says, tell that story, and he’s clearly endured frustrations with pushy publishers in the past. While Oster hopes that Siege of Dragonspear will see release some time this year, he says there’s no need to rush and is adamant that “A game that ships on time and is not great is not remembered. A great game that ships late is still a great game.”
Time has given Beamdog the chance to thoroughly digest their ideas and, Oster says, “really get to grips with the story we want to tell. It’s great to come back to something and say, ‘Yes, I still really like these aspects of this,’ but also see what you thought was a really good idea at the time and be able to say ‘In retrospect, I don’t think so.’” Speaking just after the reveal, Tofer described the team as having a particular sense of confidence. “We’ve established ourselves now,” he says. “We’re free to plan our own schedules. The company is financially stable. We’re independent. Now, we can choose our own destiny.”
After a visit to the Beamdog offices, seeing artists painstakingly retouching maps that have slowly evolved from pencil-and-paper prototypes that any GM will recognise through iteration after iteration, or speaking to writers who feel that the legacy they’re handing is as precious as a fabergé egg, there is a strong sense that this is a game that should be crafted carefully. Rushing things would only be counter-productive. Oster wants to be proud of what Beamdog create, but also to create it the way they want to and at a pace they’re happy with, insisting the team don’t crunch and take plenty of holiday time to recuperate.
“I don’t want a whale who pays a thousand dollars,” he adds. “I just want fans who get value out of the game they buy, a premium entertainment experience. We charge twenty dollars, we keep updating and fixing bugs, and we’re getting continually rewarded because people are continuing to buy the game.” That, he says, is the way it should work. The way he’s determined to make it work.