“We move from custodian to creator.”
That was how Trent Oster described it. Beamdog’s co-founder who, twenty years ago, was also there when Bioware began, is once again returning to one of roleplaying’s most beloved and most influential series. This time, he won’t just be adding a new lick of paint here or a subtle embellishment there, as he has with the company’s Enhanced Editions of the Baldur’s Gate games. No, Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear [official site] is something wholly new. While Beamdog are calling it an expansion pack, its scope and scale mean that it outsizes both Tales of the Sword Coast and Throne of Bhaal. For all intents and purposes, it’s Baldur’s Gate 3.
Okay, fine, it’s more like Baldur’s Gate 1.5, since its plot is designed to slot neatly between those of the other two games, bridging a narrative gap that has long remained murky and ambiguous. Whatever its numeral, it is a third game in the Baldur’s Gate series, set in the same world, during the same time, and featuring many of the same characters. While it may not boast the same enormous size as the tremendous siblings that bracket it, it’s not looking slight. Beamdog are estimating that it will give players at least twenty-five hours of adventuring and Oster says it’s actually larger than both previous expansions combined. This, they say, will be some very substantial adventuring.
I don’t doubt it, not just because of the claim of seventy new maps to explore, but because I’ve also seen a few of those maps up close and some of them are enormous. One twisting dungeon is far larger than anything ever featured in the Baldur’s Gate series and, if my judgment is correct, also any of the maps in Pillars of Eternity. During a reveal delivered live on Twitch, lead designer Phil Daigle also promised “Battles larger than anything you've seen in the Infinity Engine before,” fought out across some of these.
“There's even more new items in Siege than there were in either of the original expansions,” Cameron Tofer, Beamdog’s other co-founder, tells me afterwards. He then checks with Oster the current estimate of the game’s word count and his partner casually estimates that conversations, item descriptions and flavour text bring to about the half-million mark. “We said we’d do about two hundred thousand words of dialogue,” Oster says. “It’s about three hundred thousand now.”
Beamdog are not holding back. Nor are they compromising - not now that they're free from the pressures of a publisher, but more on that later.
There was always a strange disconnect between the Baldur’s Gate games. The first ended with the player a hero, yet its sequel began with them as an outcast for reasons that were never explained. Patching this plothole, Siege of Dragonspear continues two weeks after the climax of Baldur’s Gate, with the player celebrated for their efforts but, at the same time, suspected (correctly) of carrying the same dangerously divine heritage as the first game’s antagonist. Leaving town for a little while isn’t a bad idea and investigating strange happenings further up the Sword Coast is as good an excuse as any.
Trouble is sweeping across the High Moor in the form of a strange crusade, lead by a mysterious and charismatic commander known only as the Shining Lady. She sallies forth from the ruins of Castle Dragonspear (careful, that Forgotten Realms wiki is a timesink), seizing supplies from the locals to feed her ever-expanding army. But to what end?
Perhaps your companions can help answer that question. Many of Baldur’s Gate’s most famous characters are back, including several who didn’t make it to the sequel. Khalid returns, Dynaheir joins him and Minsc is the same omnicidal extrovert as ever. It’s been a long, long time since these characters went on new adventures, travelled to new lands or spoke new lines. In an interview after the event, Daigle said that the biggest challenge wasn’t creating new adventures or designing new dungeons, but “Getting all our voice acting in a row. Getting all those people together was a big deal.”
“For the Enhanced Editions, it was just us directing it locally, handling the casting and all that,” he explains. “For Dragonspear, we really wanted to do a better job, so we reached out and we outsourced it to the pros. Once everything came together it was awesome, but the process of getting there was a long, long, arduous trek. It took us about a year to arrange.” The problem, he says, was tracking down all those wayward adventures of old.
“Some of those actors are out of the industry now. To get those people together and to have them jump back into their characters was hard,” he says. “Some of them could pick it up right away, it was like they'd never left the booth, but for some of them it was a case of 'I don't quite remember that voice.' Luckily, we had Ginny McSwain, the voice director for the original Baldur's Gate, and she ended up pulling these incredible performances out of them.”
Daigle’s words echo something that runs through the whole Beamdog team, that being an awareness of both how loved the Baldur’s Gate games are, but also how aged. Returning to such an old series after so long is not something they’ve found easy. There are organisational challenges, there are technical challenges, there are writing challenges and there’s a legacy that, they say, absolutely has to be respected. Writer Amber Scott, who is teaming up with Enhanced Edition veteran Andrew Foley, describes her job a “fiction/non-fiction” crossover, because there’s so much established plot and history that has to be carefully researched and then written around.
“Obviously, none of it really happened. There was no Faerûn, no Elminster, they're not real,” she says. “But there is still that canon that has to be respected. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that the plot of Siege of Dragonspear matches the canon of Second Edition.” Scott and Foley’s job is further complicated by the fact that the Forgotten Realms of today, of Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, is a very different place to that of the Second Edition, its heyday two decades past. The timeline has leapt forward an age, cataclysms have reshaped the world and Scott‘s job is comparable to carefully, surgically inserting new details into Roman history, making sure they don’t conflict with other concurrent events, nor anything that happened since. “We had to be careful that the stories and the characters that we created slotted in to all this,” she says. “We actually had to work extremely hard to make sure.”
It was often painstaking work, undertaken with the help of Dungeons & Dragon’s owners and curators, Wizards of the Coast, but Scott knows and loves her D&D, having written for its Eberron setting, as well as many supplements for the Pathfinder RPG. As significant a challenge was writing new material for old characters, characters adored by millions, and Scott, Oster and just about everyone else at Beamdog feels the weight of expectation upon them. Many writers and designers contributed to the dialogue and the feel of the first two games. Very few of them are present in the current team.
“That writing was also complicated,” Scott says. “We had to take into consideration how the characters would change, even how they would look, to create an experience where, if you played through Baldur's Gate, Siege of Dragonspear and then Baldur's Gate II, it was totally seamless. It's a difficult job in that they're beloved characters, that people love them, but it's easy in a sense that we also love them. Having the opportunity to bring some ideas into an entirely new chapter of Baldur's Gate? I can't imagine anything that's more amazing than that, than someone saying 'You get to write dialogue for Imoen, for Minsc, for Dynaheir.' I loved Baldur's Gate and I loved those characters.”
Of course, many of those hundreds of thousands of words of dialogue also come from the mouths of new characters, including four NPCs that include a ranger who works with the Flaming Fist and goblin shaman, representing the new character class introduced. Like a sort of psychopathic Pokémon master, a shaman can summon a constant stream of creatures to aid them in combat, but has to remain firmly rooted to the spot, vulnerable and inviting.
On page two, how Baldur's Gate 2 is changing, modding plans, and the problem with publishers.
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.