How Baldur's Gate Saved Computer RPGs

Original author: Ben Lindbergh
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Art can be a matter of taste, but the following conclusion is not in doubt: 1998 was the best year for video games to create an unrivaled lineup of revolutionary games that left an indelible legacy and gave rise to series and subcultures that still exist today. Throughout this year, The Ringer pays tribute to the legendary games that turned 20 years old in 2018 , playing them again or for the first time, talking to their authors and analyzing why they became great and how they helped to become better in subsequent games. We continue this series with BioWare's first outstanding game, which expanded the boundaries of role-playing games of the epic Baldur's Gate , which turned out two decades ago last week.

At the end of 1995, a small group of beginner game developers from Alberta, which created a company called BioWare, needed a new project. Their first project, a game about combat furs, Shattered Steel , was nearing the end of development, and the tiny studio wanted to try something new. The founders of BioWare grew up on board role-playing games and their digital counterparts like Wasteland , so they decided that the second game should be a computer RPG.

Given the industry trends of the time, this solution was unusual for a Western developer. The GameRankings video game review site has registered at least one review for 27 RPGs released in 1995. Of the 27 games, 21, including the top 13 by average, were created in Japan. The top of the list was occupied by legendary Japanese developers: SquareSoft, Sega, Nintendo, Namco, Capcom. Getting into this close company was difficult.

“Everyone was sure that the Western RPGs were dead,” says BioWare co-founder Trent Oster . “All that remains is a Japanese RPG. No one in the Western world knew how to make an RPG, there was no hope. ” And if the Western RPGs were dead, then the Western computerThe RPGs were doubly dead: all the 13 best RPGs of 1995 came out on consoles.

Three years later, all these famous Japanese studios were still on the 1998 best list . But in second place after the little-known game Sega Panzer Dragoon Saga, they were joined by a new name: BioWare, the creators of Baldur's Gate .

Baldur's gatewas the result of an exhausting and laborious three-year work of a team of 15 people who had too little experience to realize the greatness of the task undertaken. The game expanded the scope of the genre, created a new narrative, technical and gameplay foundation, and also laid the foundation for the uniqueness of one of the most famous studios over the past two decades. “This project has redefined the players' expectations of what should be the role-playing game. I think he completely “restarted” the whole concept of the Western RPGs, ”says Oster.

Baldur's Gate was born in the basement.

Scott Greig, who became the first official employee of BioWare, recalls how he found out about the company: one intern who was involved in databases, told about his father's friends, doctors, who decided to move into the game-making industry. “I thought, yes, just a couple of guys working in the basement,” says Greig. And in this, as it turned out after Scott’s meeting with the team at the end of 1995, he was right: Rei Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, two of the three newly graduated doctors who (together with three other like-minded people) founded BioWare in February 1995, reallyworked in the basement of Zeschuka in Edmonton. But their desire to create games was serious, and they were already working on one project. “It actually turned out to be two guys from the basement creating video games,” says Greig. “But they were two guys from the basement who had a serious contract with a real publisher.”

The company was looking for a lead programmer. “I was the only employee of the studio with real game development experience,” says Oster, who, upon completion of Shattered Steel, became the head of the 3D graphics department in the Baldur's Gate development team . "And because I created only one game ... I can not say that I knew exactly how everything should be done correctly."

Greig did not create games other than his own amateur projects at school, but he had the skill of a programmer, so BioWare hired him. When he began work in January 1996, the company had already rented a small office space above the restaurant. BioWare no longer lived underground, but its scope did not increase much. “I especially remember the fact that in the toilet I had to hold the door with my foot, because she did not want to close,” says Greig.

Although Shattered Steel has not yet come out, BioWare wanted to create a sample that could convince the publisher to invest in its Battleground: Infinity RPG project .which the company saw as an online game based on ancient myths. The first month of work, Greig spent on collecting technical demo. At that time, due to the limitations of computer memory, most of the game worlds consisted of tiles . “If you look at the games of the Ultima series , or almost any other role-playing game of that time, then the artists painted tiles:“ this is the corner of the room, here is a part of the wall ”- and they all fit into a uniform grid. And the background was going to repeat all these pieces many times, ”says Greig.

Inexperienced artists at BioWare have poorly studied tile-making techniques, so Greig experimented with the recently released Microsoft SDK called DirectX.and found a way to import any full-screen background with scrolling drawn in Photoshop. He contacted Muzyka, with whom he discussed teaching artists how to work with tiles, and showed him his alternative approach. Greig told Muzyka that instead of connecting the tiles, "" We can just draw anything, while the background can scroll and characters will move on it. "He looked at me and asked:" How much CD will you need for this? ""

Greig pulled out a calculator and figured the required amount. “I said,“ Oh, well, probably not more than four or five. ” And Rei answered: “Well, okay. Let's do it. " And this ten-minute conversation actually laid the technical foundation for what would turn into a Baldur's Gate as a result . ”

The combination of new technology and lack of experience and skills led BioWare to move in a different direction, breaking down the limitations that were holding up previous games. And this did not happen the last time. “We were open to ideas that everyone else didn’t even consider,” says Greig. “And this demonstrates the power of really fresh ideas and lack of experience, because we didn’t know what could be done. Therefore, they just took it and did it. ”

The demo collected on the knee did not attract much attention, but attracted the interest of Fergus Urquhart , who had just created a team inside Interplay Productions to develop an RPG called Black Isle Studios . This company was the publisher of Shattered Steel . Interplay, which developed Wasteland , was one of the few western studios that published the RPG in 1995 and recently licensed from TSR, Inc. rights to use Dungeons & Dragons. When Urquhart heard about BioWare presenting the Battleground: Infinity , I realized that the studio's RPG roots and Interplay Lore would be a marriage made on Celestia Mountain. “The description for the demo said that“ this is something like D & D, ”says leading screenwriter for Baldur’s Gate, Lukas Kristjanson. “And Interplay just acquired the rights and said:“ So why don't you do D & D? ”And all of our geeks were just stunned.”

Ancient myths are a thing of the past. Forgotten Realms , a popular fantasy entourage of Dungeons & Dragons, took the stage . Baldur's Gate Now it became a game on D & D. BioWare had only to create it.

The BioWare team in the summer of 1997.

“We ended up in uncharted territory,” says Greig. The technical demo he created was only grain that was supposed to grow into the Infinity Engine , an engine with an isometric perspective and pre-rendered backgrounds. Later he will form the basis of Baldur's Gate , its extensions and sequels, as well as Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale . “For the game engine, it was necessary to create such a huge infrastructure, because everything had to be done from scratch,” says Greig, adding, “If we made an analogy with the movie, then we had to make the camera first, and then shoot the movie.”

BioWare planned that Baldur's Gatewill be a mixture of old and new. “It was a kind of study of the old Gold Box games in terms of their depth and compliance with the D & D rules,” said Oster, referring to the D & D RPG series created by Strategic Simulations, Inc. in the late 80s and early 90s. "But we had to develop it by creating an interface that was almost similar to the style of real-time strategies."

In the early RPGs, including the Ultima series , there was a difficult control that made it difficult for the characters to choose and give orders at the same time. But in 1994 and 1995, Blizzard Entertainment released Warcraft and Warcraft II ; these two games, along with the Command & Conquer seriesWestwood Studios, initiated the boom of the RTS mid-90s. In these games, control was mainly carried out by the mouse, and not from the keyboard. BioWare borrowed this concept by transplanting a new interface into a genre that desperately needed it. “In essence, we took the interface from the real-time strategy and inserted it into the role-playing game. This solved the problem of the party mechanic, ”says Greig.

But it is notsolved the second problem: mixing the control of five characters in real time with the complexity of the rules of D & D made the gameplay chaotic. “It quickly became obvious that there was no way to use the full depth of D & D in real time, without being able to even pause the game,” says Oster. “And then we came to the system„ games during a pause “. This addition allowed the players to stop in the middle of the game, give the party members a queue of teams, and run the game again in real time. Though Baldur's Gate , and did not invent this approach with "active pause", he helped in promoting it. “When we play Fallout with VATS todayto slow down aiming, it seems to me that its foundations were laid by the idea of ​​“playing during a pause,” Greig said.

Such mechanics made Baldur's Gate technically more advanced than previous RPGs, but BioWare needed to fill this skeleton with a plot and characters. Lead designer James Olin remembered the story of his board games to create some player ’s computer companions at Baldur's Gate , but the main part of the story was the task of Christianson - another newcomer to the industry who became BioWare’s first full-time screenwriter. He was hired in October 1996 after a chance meeting with producer BioWare, who was a friend of his friend. “I had an English degree and had no idea how to use it,” says Kristjanson.

Soon he created much more than was expected of him, writing approximately 70 percent of the 800 thousand words of the game, including dialogues, manuscripts and magazines. “The volume was huge,” says Kristjanson. The concepts of Olin’s characters gave him a foundation, but they have not yet fully formed. For example, Kristyanson recalls that in the case of his beloved by the fans of the Minsk ranger , the description was only “This guy has a head wound and a hamster. Well, okay, so what am I going to do about it? ”

For the BioWare team, which had a long board game experience, the enormous amount of creative work was heightened by the fear of creating a world in which thousands of people would play. Kristjanson recalls a conversation with Baldur's Gate programmer Mark Darra (now he is the executive producer of the BioWare seriesDragon Age and the future online action-RPG Anthem ) about the difficulties faced by their friendly team. “We asked the question: how will it work at all? And then they answered: well, in the Nastolka business happens like this, in D & D - like this, and in my last played game it was like this. We looked at each other and asked: my God, how do we figure it all out? This is madness. We are fans of this topic, but now we have to create it. ”

According to Christianson, the most important thing for the plot was to convey the feeling that the players were sitting at the kitchen table with a group of friends, and to transfer it to a computer game that they were playing alone. “The most important thing is the character. We understood it right away. The most fascinating thing about D & D is the controlled chaos of the party, differences in personalities. Not just a bunch of skills with which you fight monsters, but individuals who conflict or move with the plot, depending on what you choose to do and who you will entrust it to. ” Baldur's Gate

Dialog Qualityand the unique individuality of each of the 24 companions and hundreds of secondary characters set the game apart from the background of patterned projects that mostly attracted not conversations, but fights. The composition of non-game companions, many of whom were well voiced, which was rare for that time, was very diverse. Three of the five basic party members were women ( one voiced by Jennifer Hale ), and some storylines touch sensitive topics; for example, when the main character meets Viconya Devir , she is persecuted because she is a dark-skinned elf drow .

Although the newly formed BioWare was not particularly diverse in composition, Kristianson, whose experience was based on desktop D & D, rather than previous computer adaptations, sought to make companions a reflection of his companions in real life, which always contrasted with each other and both individuals and races and sexes. “Each of them brought a note of strangeness and splendor to the desktop, and this required a wide range of characters. Not all of them resembled me ... This is exactly what I wanted to reflect in the game, because role-playing games are becoming so wonderful also because of this. "

Oster believes that the huge scale of Baldur's Gateemerged due to the experience of Greig with databases. “Most other game developers first looked at them in terms of gameplay, and did not think about how to most effectively present the data and access it. Therefore, we were able to work with huge amounts of resources. " As predicted by Greig, Baldur's Gate took five drives. According to player statistics on the How Long to Beat website , the standard passage of the main story lasts 44.5 hours, and the “full” passage takes an average of 106 hours. As in the RPG-ideal Music WastelandMany story moves can be developed in different ways, giving the opportunity to go through the game again. Comparing BG with typical games of that era, Oster says: “Its scale was simply amazing.”

Since Baldur's Gate was so big, and the BioWare team had a size that was usual for that time, but small by today's standards, the development was carried out in very close cooperation. “We did not say: so, this is my work, only I will be engaged in it. In essence, everyone did what they needed to complete the work, and we received a lot of feedback from everyone ... Even the junior tester from the quality department had more influence on Baldur's Gate than the lead producer in any modern AAA game. ” Even though Greig was a leading programmer and was not responsible for the plot, he still read all the books of the Forgotten Realms to immerse themselves in their entourage.

Such an ethic of teamwork is partly connected with the enthusiasm of the team, and partly became a reflection of the fact that they were new to the industry and had not yet had time to burn out. But it was also due to the fact that BioWare bit off much more than it could chew. “We used to say: we want to do this, will it be difficult? But it turns out, making video games is pretty damn difficult, ”says Greig. It is so difficult that a more experienced team would probably have slightly lowered the bar of expectations. “I think that the greatest advantage of our inexperience was that we did not know how difficult and voluminous the work would be,” says Oster. "We underestimated everything so deeply that it seemed possible to us, although at that time and in that place it was almost impossible."

The content volume of the heavy burden fell on the developers, who spent most of the last year of development spent in the crunch mode, and for the last six months they worked seven days a week for 10-12 hours, and sometimes they fell asleep right on the tables. “We worked, ate pizza, then worked again. I swear, after the release of Baldur's Gate, I couldn’t even look at pizza for about a year and a half, ”says Greig. Although Oster said, the whole team decided to work on such a schedule on their own , because they believed in Baldur's Gate and out of solidarity with their colleagues, such crunches were pretty standardfor the outstanding games of 1998. They can be counterproductive and harm development. Nevertheless, despite the fact that in many ways the development of games has taken a step forward, the crunches still remain the reality of many modern great games .

Having worked a lot of time (and having gone through several three-month postponement of the project), BioWare believed that it created a hit. However, Interplay did not consider Baldur's Gate to sell well. The previous D & D games of this publisher have not become blockbusters, and Baldur's Gate and BioWare have not yet become a brand, so they did not plan to fully use the press. "They carried out standard marketing operations - they bought a bunch of ads a couple of months before the game was released in various magazines like PC Gamer... and that’s where it all ended, ”says Greig. "We put heart and soul into the project, and they told us: well, we have more interesting things to do."

More out of enthusiasm than within a co-ordinated marketing strategy, BioWare team members themselves began to talk about the game, share news and answer questions on Usenet and on D & D bulletin boards. By the time the game was released, BioWare's contagious, patient, and outspoken posts had aroused anticipation in the target market. Greig recalls that one of the industry magazines predicted sales of Baldur's Gatewithin 100 thousand copies. Even the members of BioWare themselves hoped for only 200 thousand, which would be enough to develop a sequel. Then the game came out. “It began to sell fairly well, then it sold even better, and then sales soared to the skies,” says Oster. “And mainly due to organic marketing - the players talked about playing with each other.”

A press release published on the day of the game's release reports “almost insanity” in “several shopping centers” and quotes many sources reporting fanatical presale activity. Baldur's Gate remained a bestseller for two weeks after its release, stepping over the time limit of 175 thousand copies.and confirming BioWare's pre-release expectations. By the end of February, it reached 500 thousand sales , and by May 2001, the circulation had reached one and a half million . “Today it is a completely standard procedure for any game. The key part of marketing is communication with the main audience, creating development diaries, and this work is carried out by entire teams, ”says Greig. BioWare has unintentionally taught developers not only how to develop, but also how to sell games.

Baldur's Gate won many Game of the Year and RPG of the Year titles, and its sequel from 2000, which used the improved Infinity Engine, was perceived by the critics even warmer . " Baldur's Gate IIwas proof that we actually learned how to make games, "says Oster.

The Baldur's Gate development team continued its work." When I got into the company, my wife's friend said, "Ha, the gaming company. It will not last even six months “” Says Christianson. “Because gaming companies are constantly burning through.” Twenty-two years later, he still works at BioWare, where some of his younger colleagues, such as screenwriter for Dragon Age and Mass Effect Cheryl Che, are called Baldur's Gate source of inspiration. "She is constantly rit that a child six times passed BG I and BG IIand for her it was an outlet. I answer that this is very strange, ”says Kristyanson.

Although many of the pioneers of BioWare, including Greig and all the co-founders, left the company , its success over the past 20 years lies with that first, fundamental RPG. " Baldur's Gate literally became the foundation for all subsequent BioWare games," says Oster. “That is, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic , Mass Effect , Jade Empire , Dragon Age seems to have one common DNA. If we discard all tinsel and high-quality graphics with cinematic dialogues, then we can find a lot in common. "

Oster is still not completely rid of the influence of the original game. In 2009, he and another colleague from Baldur's Gate, Cameron Topher, founded the new studio Beamdog , which now occupies the same office floor as BioWare during the creation of Baldur's Gate . In 2012, Beamdog developed Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition , a remake published by Atari (it now owns the Baldur's Gate license ), which includes improvements, additions and enhanced support for mobile platforms. But the remake began with the same code in order to preserve familiar sensations. “We rather acted as restorers, not as remakers,” says Oster. “We didn’t want to change the concept of Baldur's Gate, and sought to create the best possible version of Baldur's Gate . " For the Enhanced Edition , patches are still being released . “I still see places that can be improved,” says Oster. In 2016, his company released a new Siege of Dragonspear expansion , which takes place between the events of Baldur's Gate I and II . It became the first original game on Baldur's Gate over the past 15 years, with the exception of console spin-offs . There are rumors about Baldur's Gate III , but Oster claims that Beamdog does not.

In a sense, this sequel seems alien, because the fire of the original source continues to carry many sequels "in spirit": a series of Pillars of Eternity , a series of Divinity: Original Sin , Torment: Tides of Numenera 2017, Pathfinder: Kingmaker 2018. Money for all these games was collected by crowdfunding on Kickstarter, which faced an isometric boom - the developers use in their favor the infinite love of the players for this type of games.

“Successful projects did not try to do a remake of what we did, because we did not try to make Baldur’s Gate ourselves ,” says Kristjanson. “You can too reduce everything to“ oh, it must be an authentic D & D with numbers ”. Even D & D itself is not authentic D & D. Each group of players has their own invented rules, and these rules are invented because it is so interesting to play this particular group of eccentrics. ”

When writing the script for Baldur's Gate, Kristjanson realized that in order to build peace, you need to ask questions and not answer them. “Every time you answer a question. you need to put a couple more new ones, because otherwise the world is getting smaller, and not expanding. ” Twenty years later built at Baldur's Gatethe world is still expanding. “If you’re lucky, you’ll take part of what inspired you, everything that you thought was remarkable, and build on this basis what seems valuable to people who build something on that basis,” says Greig. "In essence, this is the best that any artist can do."

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