HEAT VISION

'Baldur's Gate' at 21: How a Small Team Made a "Smoking Pile" Into a Gaming Classic

The iconic role-playing game's original programmers detail the long, bug-ridden road to the screen.
Courtesy of Beamdog
The iconic role-playing game's original programmers detail the long, bug-ridden road to the screen.

On Dec. 21, 1998, BioWare and Black Isle Studios released their fantasy role-playing game Baldur's Gate on PC and Mac devices. The game debuted amid the Western fantasy game drought of the 1990s, as fans were looking for something deliciously meaty to sink their teeth into. Fallout had just captured players' imaginations a year prior and offered a view of the post-apocalyptic playground they'd soon be exploring for years to come, but despite its high quality and exciting storyline, the game simply wasn't for everyone. 

That's when a small Canadian development team by the name of BioWare stepped in to take a shot at creating the type of Western fantasy title the gaming industry seemed so bereft of at the time, an ambitious new IP titled Baldur's Gate. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with a number of the original game's creators for a journey through what made this seminal fantasy adventure an enduring (and endearing) classic, from the idea that Western RPGs were “dead” to the team importing their own custom Dungeons and Dragons characters into the adventure for a set of “ready-made” protagonists. 

This is the story of Baldur’s Gate, a game that began as “a smoking pile” ... until it started to work.

NEW TECH, NEW ADVENTURES

With enhanced technology allowing designers and programmers access to a more robust palette of colors and impressive visuals, the BioWare team begins work on the demo for the new fantasy title.

Cameron Tofer, lead programmer: Probably the computers [were the catalyst.]

Trent Oster, former BioWare programmer and current Beamdog CEO (which published enhanced editions of the Baldur's Gate series in recent years): It was the kind of game that everybody at the studio wanted to make. We had kind of stumbled into this timeline, like where Cameron mentioned, the computers and their abilities to render graphics that were noticeably better than what previously had come. So, Baldur's Gate was one of the first games to go beyond the original 256 colors that, up to that era, almost all video games had been based in. You were able to do a lot more vibrant screens, a lot better-looking artwork, and it was really kind of this opportunity of DirectX with Microsoft and their DirectDraw API launching it. Showing off what you could do and then [having an] early BioWare basically build a demo of what was possible with that and kind of turning that demo into an entire game.

Tofer: Yeah. I think Windows 95 had just released then, right? So before that it was like DOS games [Disk Operating System, an outdated form of game development]. What the heck, right? No virtual memory, just, "Here's 640k." Right then, it was a huge difference.

Oster: And I think just the fact that everybody was saying that Western RPGs were dead and there was no market for them, that was almost a, "Hey, we should probably do this," kind of signal. "Everybody else is walking away from this, it may be a good time to actually take a look at it." It worked out to the positive, we'll say that. I think the goal from the start was to do a very loyal implementation of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and the complexity of that rule system, and just the interaction with some of their "This is true, unless this happens, in which case this is true." We got this really complicated rule system that we're trying to imagine how it works, and every time you wrap it in logic, there's always an exceptional case that breaks that logic. We wound up implementing it in stages and eventually wound up with something that is mostly a pretty solid implementation of the rules as they're expressed.

Tofer: I think that was everyone's goal, to implement the rules as faithfully as possible. It was never really too much of a question. I think that was quite the difference between some of the prior D&D games. Because it doesn't translate exactly, you have to have some creative decisions in there. So it's how far you take it.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

With an idea in mind, the developers got to work. But since the team was relatively small and inexperienced, Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) was initially reluctant to give the team the freedom to use established characters. 

Tofer: The thing that sticks out in my mind was when James and the writing team wanted to obviously include some big-name D&D characters, and TSR just not having any trust. Just saying no, you guys can't use those awesome D&D characters like Drizzt [Do'Urden, the protagonist of R.A. Salvatore's Dark Elf trilogy, a series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms campaign], et cetera. "Can we do this?" "No, you can't do that." We're like, aww. But then, over time, I mean, they opened up once they kind of saw the potential of everything. We were able to demonstrate it was a solid game, and we kind of knew what we were doing. Initially, I wouldn't have put a lot of stake in us either.

When [designer] James [Ohlen] found out he couldn't use any of the fancy new characters, he pulled out his D&D campaign and added all those characters in. I think that was pretty smart move on his part. It’s stuff that we did in high school prior to BioWare. James was the Dungeon Master, and he kept all the character sheets and all that stuff. So when it was time, he said, "There you go, here's all the characters." [Baldur’s Gate’s cast is] basically faithful to his campaign. All their attitudes, and how they were written, it was basically how they were. The funny thing is, we're terrible role players, so they're just our attitudes anyway. 

Oster: It's one of the things that makes those characters feel real and interesting and gives them depth; the fact that they were played for years, pen and paper, by James and Cameron and all the original gang there.

FINDING VOICES

The custom D&D characters come to life thanks to some exceptional voice talent.

Oster: The biggest boost to the game from working with Interplay was the quality of voice talent they brought in. When we went for original casting they brought just A-list talent in on the game. We were kind of blown away by it.

Mark Meer, actor and writer, Baldur's GateYeah, actually that was my first gig for BioWare and it was also my very first video game. My very first voice work was a single line in the final cut scene of Baldur's Gate 2. So, you have to play the entire game to see my character. It was a Bhaal Cleric, I believe, evil hooded figure. On the strength of that one line, BioWare just kept hiring me back for various other games. But I do think that in the early days, the fact that I was a Dungeons and Dragons player worked to my advantage, because they could just bring me into the booth and tell me that I was playing a kobold shaman and I wouldn't say, "What's a kobold? What's a shaman?" I would just go, "Ah, yes. They are lawful evil.”

Oster: Yeah, I remember Mark came in to read for one of our parts for the enhanced editions. So we had Mark read for a part, and he's like "Hey, you guys got anything else?" We were like, "Well, how's your goblin?" I think we had 13 roles that we were casting that day and Mark got 12 of them by the end of the day. It was hilarious, because we'd throw him another role, he'd take a kick at it and we'd be like "That's actually really good. Can you change it a little bit?" Then he would do it, and boom, we had it and it was pretty amazing.

Meer: Yeah, this was, as I say, my first work in video games. With the Beamdog editions, of course, I got to do much more expanded work on these games. 

BUMPS IN THE ROAD

While the team had a vision for what they wanted to create, technical issues also kept them from realizing it. 

Tofer: Everything was crazy. Unexpected. At the time, the team was dealing with stuff they had never dealt with before, obviously.

Oster: And this was the era before the internet. I mean, you just couldn't just Google search it. We'd say, "Well, let's go buy a textbook and we'll look at the textbook." "Oh, what's this? That sounds horribly complicated.” A lot of stuff with Microsoft in DirectX [a programming interface] they had just launched it, and it turned out that we were probably the only studio using DirectDraw [a rendering program in DirectX]. As a result, we just had all of these huge bugs that we ran into and we hit Microsoft up. They were like, "Oh, somebody's actually using this." 

Luckily, the technological issues the team encountered actually colored some of the game’s aspects. 

Oster: Initially, [Baldur's Gate] was projected as a top-down isometric game using big pieces of custom art. It's funny, because early on, the art team actually wasn't very technical and the plan was to build all these pieces that would fit together and build this background out of all these tile pieces. When we did the tech test on it, we just couldn't consistently produce tile-able art that looked good. And the custom art, just making big areas that were all custom images, looked so much better. We just kind of parked our technology plan and moved over and said, let's just embrace this fact. If our tech artists can't make tile-able stuff, let's just make awesome looking random stuff that's just kind of spread out all over. It looks way more organic. And it was one of those early limitations that turned into a mass strength.

Tofer: Do you remember Cass [Cassidy Scott] putting together the first female prototypes? They were trying to differentiate between the girls and the boys, but at so few pixels, we just wanted one pixel to show the difference and he had to make these completely unrealistic body proportions. He was like, this isn't right.

Oster: Yeah, because the camera was up at about a 45-degree angle shooting down. So, even to make the male characters look normal, we had to extend their legs. So everybody probably had about 4-foot-long legs and their torso was about two feet tall, with their head included. Everything was just so distorted when you saw the actual render of the image from head-on. In order to sell it from that top-down perspective, you really had to change a lot of things. It's just one of those things we kept fighting with and fighting with and fighting with until eventually you kind of arrived at a solution that looked passable.

Tofer: That's why we do it. That's why we make games: the mystery and the fun to see how it's going to turn out. At least at that time, we had no clue what was going to come out. It was all fun and mystery.

Oster: I think in some cases we had an idea in mind and then we implemented something and it came out looking way better than we thought. It still happens today, where you think it's a really great idea, so you implement it, then you're like, "Well, that sucks." With video game development in general, it's like this ongoing trudge up a hill and there's these occasional little payoff moments where something renders to the screen and you celebrate. 

IMPERFECT CHARM

Despite all the hardships that went into bringing the game to life, the team didn't want to change much at all for 2012's remake, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. 

Tofer: That was the question we asked ourselves when we started the Enhanced Editions because we did have that chance. Ultimately, the answer was we didn't really want to change anything. We wanted it to be better and a smoother experience, just working with the new machines. The whole reason we went back was because we really felt it deserved to be shown again. At that point you couldn't buy it. Code was lost.

Oster: Yeah, and the game was actually crashing on a lot of machines because it just wouldn't run properly. And performance was horrible because of how it was threaded. And then when we went back to it, we kind of took that approach of almost a museum curation as opposed to going in and trying to reimagine it. To go in and work on the Mona Lisa, you're going to work on the frame, you're going to replace the glass, but you're not going to alter the painting itself. So, we did the same thing. We kind of went through and updated the technology that surrounded what that game experience was and improved it, but as far as the way things actually play out and how things function, they're basically identical.

R.A. Salvatore, author of the Forgotten Realms novels, a major influence on Baldur's GateLike so many others, I was just having a blast playing Baldur’s Gate. It was a wonderful game on so many levels, including exploring a world I had come to love: the Forgotten Realms. I was rolling along, building my team, when I happened down to the south, heading for a forest. I noted a dark elf, two scimitars whirling as he fought off a pack of gnolls. I remember thinking, “Well, this guy looks familiar.” Sure enough, it was my creation, my main protagonist, Drizzt Do’Urden. He asked me to help him kill the gnolls, and so I did. I was more interested in him, after all. I had created him. I had outfitted him. I knew he had some pretty good gear. So I began to ask him various requests along the lines of “give me your scimitars.” Nothing. No response at all. With a sigh, I realized I had to kill him to get that gear. That didn’t work out so well for me, since he killed me repeatedly (and easily). Freaking munchkin! I let it go at that, happy to see Drizzt in a computer game and wondering if there was some certain alignment of words to get his gear. Then, one day weeks later, I got an email from a guy I had met at a convention in Canada. He was all apologies to me, professing his sorrow, for he had killed Drizzt in Baldur’s Gate! He asked if I could ever forgive him. “Of course!” I replied. “If you’ll tell me how you did it.” My team became very well outfitted soon after.

Meer: Just getting to participate in a Dungeons and Dragons-based game was a huge thrill for me. And knowing that Dungeons and Dragons was in some ways my very first acting experience, my first improv experience, and actually getting to be part of a Dungeons and Dragons game was a huge honor and a thrill. And then getting to revisit it years later, getting to revisit some of the very first games that I've worked on and add to the world and do new characters. It was just thrilling. So, the entire process for me was just a roller-coaster ride.

Tofer: I remember us taking the photos for the portraits and getting to watch over the shoulder and seeing them come together. Because at that point, I didn't know what the style was. I'm a programmer, I'm just watching the art come through, and I just remember seeing that, the first portraits, and it's like, "This is pretty cool." Seeing us getting all done up. It was a lot of fun. Those portraits were just one of the many things that gave it that flavor of what it is, and just one of the moments of seeing it come alive. That was pretty fun.

Oster: I think for me it was the moment where everything actually worked. Where it actually all came together, and at one point the voices were playing, the characters were moving, the combat was happening and all of that. It just suddenly became real and it was just kind of shocking to me. When it all functioned as one piece. It was probably about two months before it shipped. Previous to that, everything was reasonably broken.

I think this kind of became the early BioWare way things happened. We'd start piling everything together and then it just wouldn't be working, it wouldn't be working, then it would work and then suddenly the skies cleared and the sun was shining down. And then it was just a mad, mad race to the finish. It kind of really created this concept of, it's going to be a smoking pile and it's going to be horrible, until it actually starts to work. And when it starts to work, it'll actually be pretty good.

  • Brittany Vincent
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