Enhancing Baldur's Gate: the BioWare veterans who dared
The problems, the future promises and a trip down memory lane.
Remaking a game as beloved as Baldur's Gate is a road fraught with peril. It's 14 years old, it's got old mechanics, heck it's even got old Dungeons & Dragons rules. Time stands still in memories, but exhume a legend like that and in the harsh light of 2012 you risk it looking a bit rotten, whatever the spirit lingering within. So why do it? I mean, you can buy Baldur's Gate on Good Old Games for half the price and it'll work on all current Windows builds - it isn't dead and buried along with some obscure, archaic system.
The why can be partly explained by the who. The team at Overhaul Games is made up of old BioWare staff. Their leader Trent Oster co-founded BioWare along with his brother Brent Oster, Marcel Zeschuk and the doctors Greg Zeschuk, Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip. Marcel Zeschuk fell away because of farming duties, and there was a fallout and eventually a split between the Osters and the doctors.
The doctors carried on, hiring the team that would go on to make Baldur's Gate. This included bringing in Cameron Tofer who Oster co-founded Overhaul Games with. Anyway, Oster and his brother parted ways months later and then Trent Oster took Shattered Steel back to BioWare to finish. He re-joined BioWare as a contractor and there he stayed right up until 2009.
Another person hired at the beginning of BioWare was Russell Rice, to take control of art. All three now work at Overhaul Games and all three joined me (along with Keith Soleski who joined BioWare in 1999 and stayed for eight years but didn't make any stand-out contributions to our chat) to talk about enhancing Baldur's Gate and making it in the first place.
Trent Oster tells me the original reason Overhaul took on Baldur's Gate was to make Baldur's Gate HD. But there was an unforeseen hitch.
"We were going to take Baldur's Gate, we were going to take the original area artwork and we were going to re-render it out with new settings and render it to a much higher resolution and then rebuild the engine around displaying that new higher resolution," Oster says.
"We went through contract details, we spent a bunch of time, money, effort on lawyers getting the agreement part-way, got to a pretty happy place, got a dump of all the assets that BioWare had, and we looked through and we couldn't find any of the art source."
Oh. So Trent Oster phones BioWare and arranges to go "spelunking" in their servers himself, to search for the assets he needs.
"Greg would run around the office and he would make up songs about everybody..."Trent Oster
"I spent a couple of days over their with their system admin guys who I'm good friends with and we dug through everywhere. But we couldn't find a single source asset for the area art," he goes on.
"At that point we came back to Atari [D&D licence holder] and said look, the deal we proposed can't happen: we can't make a Baldur's Gate HD. So right there we actually shut down and the deal wasn't going to happen. For about three weeks, Atari and us never spoke."
Time ticked on, pressure mounted, and eventually Oster and Tofer "decided to take a kick at it". Only it couldn't be truthfully be called Baldur's Gate HD any more, so Enhanced Edition was born.
The other answer to 'why do it?' involves tablets. Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is available on iPad (iPad 1 support is coming) and Android tablet support is coming. (Our sister site Modojo reviewed BG:EE on iPad.)
Making the definitive version of Baldur's Gate
Do you think that when a bunch of young guys who didn't really know what they were doing set about making Baldur's Gate over 15 years ago they gave any thought to how accessible their code would be in The Future? Nope. It's a massive plate of spaghetti, and it's caused all sorts of problems.
"So I came across some code and I was wondering, 'Who did this?!'" programmer-at-the-time Cameron Tofer recalls. "And it was actually my comment, there, in '96, and I'm like, 'Oh god.'
"That's pretty much exactly the feeling I got when I looked at any of the source art that I had," then-artist Russell Rice says. "It was like, 'Holy crap! We did this?'"
They're all giggling so I ask them to point a finger and blame someone for the bad code. I think I hear a "Greg" and the Rice says, "I could stab a guess," and then Tofer says, "Let's not go there yet, Russ!" and then they both fall about. [Trent Oster emailed me today to tell me it was Scott Grieg the guys were referring to and not Greg Zeschuk, the man of beards.]
"Back then we were just sort of guessing," he adds. "We didn't live in a video game community city: BioWare was it. We couldn't just go to the pub - there wasn't even internet when we started BioWare!"
"The end result was there were a lot of bad approaches to simple problems that made things horribly over complicated," says Trent Oster.
"Well it got done," interjects Tofer, "which was admirable, but there was a lot of people on it. It was just a big project. It's massive."
"For the time it was huge," Russell Rice agrees.
"At a time when other games on the planet were handling a thousand little resources at a time," Oster says, "Baldur's Gate was throwing around a couple of hundred thousand."
The knowledge and the technology that's around today must make what BioWare did back then look almost barbaric. Cameron Tofer reminds us that while it was messy and chaotic, from that was born the "magic" he believes the game is remembered for. Perhaps BioWare could use a sprig of chaos today.
"We used to burp down the intercom!"Cameron Tofer
"We used to burp down the intercom!" Tofer blurts. "Pick up the phone and just burp. Burrrrp."
"We had a running gag with a number of Daves at the studio," Rice adds, "so it was always fun to just page: 'Dave, you're wanted on the phone...'"
"...burp," Tofer laughs.
They played tricks on Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, too - "Oh all the time," Tofer beams.
"Not as much as Greg did on us though," Rice reminds him.
"Greg would run around the office and he would make up songs about everybody and he'd start singing a song about them," Oster chips in. "If you've ever heard Greg sing it's - let's just say he shouldn't quit his day job." Ooh, topical (see box-out).
"Once he latched on to Golden Pantaloons we never heard the end of it," Rice adds.
"Oh god," nods Oster, "the Pantaloons never went away."
It doesn't sound like it ever got too serious at BioWare. Rice quips that all the fights were reserved for MDK2. Tofer jokes that the only time anyone got mildly serious on Baldur's Gate was when people tried to go home. "They [the doctors] had a running a joke that a medical doctor could have anyone committed for observation," he says, "but two doctors with two signatures could have someone committed for up to a month in Canada."
"No one was quite sure how serious it was," Rice notes.
"We dared not leave to find out!" Tofer titters.
Oster remembers another time when Muzyka ordered pizza "every day" because people were working late. "And he ordered pizza for what, about four months? And then people started to get sick: they just couldn't eat it any more."
In summary, says Oster, "Baldur's Gate was all about a bunch of people who were crazy excited to make this awesome game, and they were willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. If that meant spending 36 hours in the office straight and smelling horrible they'd do it. It meant crawling under your desk to sleep which I saw Russ doing at one point. That's totally viable; whatever it took back then."
Is it the definitive version?
Trent Oster thinks his team has managed it, but our Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition reviewer Paul Dean struggled with an answer. "The best way to view the Enhanced Edition is as a particular flavour of this game," he wrote, "one which may or may not appeal to your personal taste. I certainly can't claim that this is the definitive version of Baldur's Gate and I have to judge this game I love with that in mind. It's not better - it's just different."
There are bugs, too. The team is fighting them tirelessly and each time one is squashed it helps all versions of the game (PC, Mac (soon), iPad and Android).
Right now the thorniest issue for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition surrounds integrated Intel graphics. An unforeseen issue means people with that set-up can't play the game - and there are plenty of people with that set-up.
"They're frustrated as hell and they're mad and we totally understand it," acknowledges Oster. "You go out and buy a game, you expect it to work - we just didn't know that the Intel drivers for OpenGL were that non-functional and in so many cases affecting computers that badly. From that perspective we feel like crap. We're trying to scramble and come up with a solution."
Cameron Tofer meekly tells me he's making headway but Oster says he's "underselling" what has to be done. "What Cam's doing is rewriting the engine," he says, "optimising around the fact that pushing textures up to cards is really slow. It's a pretty major reworking. Luckily Cam had started it a short while ago, so hopefully we'll be able to roll it fairly soon." Keep pace with the progress on the Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition forum.
Incidentally, the pathfinding in BG:EE is set to maximum which is why there is no slider. The actual problems with pathfinding run deep. "It's something we're really aware of," Oster says. "We've done some experiments with it. The problem was that when we changed it, it fundamentally broke big parts of what Baldur's Gate was. It would break cut-scenes, it would break the ability to get through certain areas.
"This was one of those curator decisions: we could fundamentally change what the game is and potentially make it better but we risk breaking a tonne of things, so we made the call to keep the pathfinding where it is."
Baldur's Gate 2 and Baldur's Gate 3
Baldur's Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is still on the cards. "We're committed to it," confirms Oster. "When we cut the original deal with Atari we included both products."
It was actually Baldur's Gate 1 that was ported into Baldur's Gate 2 code for the Enhanced Edition, so all the tinkering done on this first game means BG2:EE will quickly find its stride. "We want to ship it next year," Oster replies when I ask him if next Christmas is the target. Is that a hint of it arriving even sooner?
Sadly Baldur's Gate 2 suffers from the same art sourcing problem as Baldur's Gate 1, so there will be no Baldur's Gate 2 HD. "It's all lost," says Oster of the art. "We have no new art for the background areas."
The new content will continue, though. "The plan is to carry those new characters through and actually add another character or two to the game," Oster outlines. "We've got some interesting ideas around these characters and where we want to take them. Some of the BG2 content for them is going to be pretty awesome."
The eventual and ambitious end-goal of all this enhancing is to make, from scratch, Baldur's Gate 3.
"We kind of call it Baldur's Gate Next," Oster tells me. "Baldur's Gate 3 would be a tough concept: the Throne of Bhaal expansion really ties up the Baldur's Gate storyline quite well and, barring a God of War 2 where you basically lose your godhood and get smacked down to nothingness and have to start over, it would be really hard to follow up.
"With Baldur's Gate Next the idea is a top-down, party-based, isometric RPG set in Dungeons & Dragons, keeping the core values of the Baldur's Gate franchise - and see where we go with it. It could be a Waterdeep, it could be another city in the Forgotten Realms."
He doesn't want Overhaul Games to balloon in size because he really really hates the prospect of having to fire people, so think of Project Eternity rather than Skyrim when you read the words Baldur's Gate 3.
"We've just got to talk to the Wizards of the Coast people and figure out where they want us to go and what makes sense and see if we can get a deal done around it," he adds.
"It's pretty far off; we just had a really casual discussion about it and they were, 'You know what? Let's wait and see how the Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition does, and if that does well that will prove that there's a good market for this and it's something we can definitely talk further about.'"
Interestingly, Wizards of the Coast isn't keen on the idea of Kickstarter to fund a Baldur's Gate 3, if it ever happens.
"We've talked to the Wizards guys a bit about it and they weren't really that cool with Kickstarter," he reveals. "They didn't really care for it. I didn't really dig too deep into their reasoning for it."
Maybe that's why Colin McComb had trouble trying to get the green light from Wizards of the Coast to resurrect Planescape: Torment via Kickstarter.
So here we are at the beginning of another adventure. Does Baldur's Gate have enough spirit to succeed all over again? Only time and sales will tell. We've seen other vaunted old games walk this road before and flounder amongst the deluge of games designed for the here and now by the people of the here and now. Enhancing Baldur's Gate may end up as no more than a memorable restoration project, but what a service bringing a great work of art back to life can be.