A significant number of Baldurs Gate fans have been waiting a very long time to see an official development with the series. Enter: Overhaul Games and Beamdog!
Ive been a die-hard fan of Baldurs Gate since shortly after the initial release of the game in fact, I was so taken by the game after I first played it that I effectively put my college studies, work, and essentially everything else on hold for a solid week, unable to pull myself away from the experience! I know that I speak for a large number of the fans when I say that we are thrilled to see our beloved series effectively rebooted with the Enhanced Edition project.
The opportunity to pick the brain of Trent Oster, the Creative Director on Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, was naturally simply too good to pass up.
1. SP: What was the primary motivation for launching the Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition project? Was it purely to pave an eventual road to Baldur’s Gate 3, or was there also a desire to see the original games updated for their own sake?
Oster: The primary driver was to breathe new life into an amazing franchise. We specifically saw an opportunity with the gameplay of Baldur's Gate and the emergence of tablets as a gaming platform. From there it just took on a life all its own. We knew we would be improving the game for the PC as we moved forward, but we've far overreached our initial plans.
Oster: I'm most proud of the new content. I was playing through with Neera in the party and had an encounter with an NPC that had me laughing out loud and thinking "that is exactly how I imagined her acting". I also think the Black Pits is brilliant and Mark Meer of Commander Shepard fame did an outstanding job with the voice acting for the antagonist.
3. SP: Conversely, which enhancement in BG:EE are you most worried about? I mean, you're touching the holy grail of CRPGs after all! ;)
Oster: I think the fact we've touched the game at all is what I'm worried about. It will play as Baldur's Gate, but there are some major changes to the front end UI and it will feel quite different to people who have played a lot of vanilla BG. I think the improvements are mostly pretty logical and straightforward, but there is a bit of a curator role we've had to adopt. I think working at Bioware during the development and remembering the rationale behind some key decisions had really helped us walk a line I think most fans will agree with.
Oster: The greatest obstacle was how hard-coded to Windows the original code base was. The entire engine was written around the concept of a mouse and performing actions on mouse-click events that it took forever to isolate all the various bits of code. I also think the UI structure and the game and rules-specific code embedded into the UI code has been a real challenge. We finally came to terms by building a new UI system which can work on top of existing screens and still play nice in the framework.
5. SP: Do you believe there is a large market for games like Baldur’s Gate on mobile platforms?
Oster: Yes, I think there is a large market for great games on the tablets and I think the early success of lighter, more casual games is just a sign of the maturity of the platforms. It takes a while for developers to build skills at a platform and then feel empowered enough to attempt larger titles. I mean, the iPad launched in 2010, under three years ago. It seems like an impossibly recent launch given the widespread impact the Tablet devices have had. In time I expect an increase in the depth of games for the platform.
Oster: We made an agreement very early within our team to go as far as possible to support the modding community. We enlisted a number of prolific modders from the community to help us not only keep modding as similar and as easy as possible, but to add in additional modding support where we can. In a few cases, this advisory group caught us going down a track and helped us re-direct to a better solution. I think the modders who aren't in the beta are going to be quite happy.
7. SP: How much fan created material made it into BG:EE?
Oster: Good question. There is a fair bit of fan content that is included into BG:EE, but I think very little went in untouched. In almost every case we worked closely with the modders involved to improve or revise the content to better fit the game and the average user. In some cases the modders went above and beyond their previous efforts and delivered something awesome with the additional support we were able to offer on the code side.
Oster: I'd like to see a lot of DLC released post-launch. The Sword Coast is a great location for adventure and BG:EE offers a very fun type of tactical gameplay which cannot be had anywhere else. Our plan is to do at least one expansion-pack scale add-on and see how the market responds. If people like what we're doing and buy the DLC, we'll make more.
9. SP: What sort of ideas do you have in mind for the DLC? New missions? New companions? New graphical enhancements? Other?
Oster: Yes, all of the above. I think we can do smaller DLC in the form of new companions, new assets and larger DLC in the form of full blown adventures.
Oster: We're trying for four hours with the companion quests and six to eight hours with the included Black Pits adventure, so we're trying to find a sweet spot. In the end we want to make great content and price it as a good value. Our company is based around the idea that if we make a great game, people will reward us with purchases. If we make great DLC, they will do the same. So, the baseline is we have to make great content.
11. SP: What was the inspiration for The Black Pits?
Oster: The Black pits was first conceptualized as a framework for players to engage in the tactical combat of Baldur's Gate while going light on the story component. We believed the tactical combat in the game was a fun experience and that players would enjoy a leaner way to play. Somewhere along the way we added in a story, a large cast, and a ton of voice acting, but it all works very well together so we are happy.
12. SP: There are some interesting new companions being introduced in BG:EE. Might it be possible to see any of those characters carry on their adventures with the Bhaalspawn in BG2:EE?
Oster: We plan to have all the new party members return for BG2:EE. We tried very hard to create some interesting characters and we want to carry them forward, driving through a development arc for each as the Bhaalspawn legacy plays out.
13. SP: I’m planning my first-ever evil play through of the Baldur’s Gate series with the enhanced edition, and Dorn Il-Khan is top on my list for companions. If my journeys with Dorn will need to end when my journeys bring me to Amn, might I find a suitable new replacement for him in and around Athkatla?
Oster: I'm certain Dorn will be happy to rejoin the Bhaalspawn in cutting a swath of destruction through Amn. My playthrough of BG:EE with Dorn was a great deal of fun, right up to the point where it went sideways. It did not end well. At all. Many people died.
14. SP: Can you share how many new companions are planned for BG2:EE?
Oster: We are still in the planning stage on this as we crunch our butts off to finish BG:EE. Our current plan is to have the former three return and one new character to join in the action. As is, our plans are still very much in flux.
Oster: I'm a betting man. I feel there is a large, under-served market for this kind of game and I think our partners are seeing the opportunity just as we are. I think our recent work on BG:EE has given our team a unique grasp on the challenges and potential in the space. I think we could make something pretty awesome and I'm hopeful our partners will indulge us to do so.
16. SP: Obsidian is currently developing a game engine based off Unity, with what sounds like a large number of customizations to streamline it for the development of a CRPG. Might Beamdog consider using such an engine for the development of Baldur’s Gate 3?
Oster: No. In my experience, an engine is all about optimization. What makes an engine fast is not the work you do, but the work you don't. With a game like Baldur's Gate, there is no other title with the same challenges and as such, no engine is optimized around those criteria. Our approach is going to be from the ground up, making an engine and tool chain which is 100% dedicated to making the best isometric party based role playing game possible. Tools and workflow will be top of the list and a powerful scripting language is the foundation for our plans going forward. I think what we build will be radically different from all current engines on the market.
Oster: I love the crowdfunding model, but we would require the approval of our partners to do a Kickstarter or IndieGogo campaign.
18. SP: I don’t know if you’ve thought this far ahead yet, but if Beamdog ever does have the opportunity to create Baldur’s Gate 3, where might the story pick up from? Would we see the Bhaalspawn’s story continue from where it left off, gaining a glimpse into the life and struggles of a demi-god? Or might you take a route similar to that of Neverwinter Nights --> Neverwinter Nights 2 – telling a largely unrelated story to that of the original, but set in a future where the impacts of that original story are still felt? Or what other approach might you be considering?
Oster: We've had a few heated discussions around this topic and we've agreed to an armistice until we're ready to commit 100% to the title. We just can't afford the time right now to think it all the way through. So, if we did a BG3, we'd have a design war for a few weeks where we sorted out our stance and go from there.
Oster: We are pretty happy with the current PC and Mac builds. We're fighting to speed up the other platforms, and the speed wins are coming in daily, so I feel confident going in to our launch window.
20. SP: Was the time gained from the previous release delay as productive as you had hoped for polishing the game?
Oster: More. We were simply not happy with the state of the game at the time and we knew it needed more effort put in. As a small, self-funded developer, that was a hard call to make as it means three more months without revenue. We felt it was the right call to make and the results have been very worthwhile. We are going to be happy to put this game out to the fans of the series.
Oster: Never underestimate the time required to rework legacy code.
When your first assessment of a system is that a re-write is in order, there are no gains in time or effort to be had by avoiding that re-write. UI coding is a radically under-appreciated line of development. The workflow hell you can create is soul-destroying to those who have to work with the system if it isn't well thought out and maintained.
22. SP: Based on your experiences working on BG:EE, what do you expect to do differently with BG2:EE?
Oster: Our BG2:EE plans have started to come into focus, but the largest change is probably going to be a dedication to doing more frequent builds and locking down game asset data earlier on. We tried a few changes in the codebase which we had to back down on earlier and going forward we have a much better understanding of how to tackle the engine and content challenges.
SP: We greatly appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions. I very much look forward to seeing what the future holds for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition, and of course a possible Baldur’s Gate 3 title in the future. Thank you for giving Baldur’s Gate the hope of a future again!