Baldur’s Gate: EE took one year, six companies, and one monstrous resolution to come to life
Trent Oster is the president and director of business development at Beamdog, the developer of the upcoming Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. You may know him from a series of tweets about the problems he faced with the Wii version of the company’s last game, the updated MDK2. His comments about how much he disliked the business model and platform itself made him briefly Internet famous, and it was all due to a cranky child. “I was mostly sleep-deprived. My daughter woke me up at 2 a.m. and I was reading an article and I was pissed off about something, and someone tweeted to me about the Wii U and I just said you know what? Screw Wii U. That thing sucks. We’re not going there,” he said, laughing. He doesn't even consider the Wii to be a true game console; he considers it a toy. “A toy is something you buy once, and you’re done. I know a lot of core gamers, and I know average people, and the average people who buy the Wii just bought one game.” MS and Sony aren't spared; he shakes his head at the number of buttons on a modern console controller. Oster is someone who came up in the world of PC games, and that’s where he’s most comfortable. Which makes him the perfect person to work on an updated version of a beloved PC game, even if that update is aimed at an Apple tablet.
Personal history with the game
Oster worked at Bioware for 13 years, and was the 3D art department head for the original team that created Baldur’s Gate. He left the company in 2009. “They have a lot less hassle with resources for projects with one fewer in the pipe and I have a lot less push back when I want to do something,” he said about his departure on his blog. When Oster's new company, Beamdog, began to think about re-working classic games for newer systems and wider audiences, the company created a list of games they wanted a tackle. The list was short, and Baldur’s Gate was included. It took over a year to make the deal happen. “It was going through business hell,” Oster said. “We had to sort out ownership rights and royalty shares and all the basics. I’m lucky that I have really good relationships with the people at Bioware, and Electronics Arts was very reasonable to deal with.” Let’s break down Baldur’s Gate, for those of us who might be unaware of how tricky the issues around older games can become: Bioware owns the rights to the Infinity Engine, which is the tech that runs the game. Wizards of the Coast owns the intellectual property, and Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast. Atari owns the electronic publishing rights. EA owns Bioware. “There was a lot of detangling,” Oster said. Everyone had to be happy with what they were getting in return for the use of the game, including Beamdog itself. “We feel pretty good [about the deal.] I think in terms of being able to work on Baldur’s Gate, it’s a good deal. If it hits anywhere near where we hope, we’ll do well. Or else we wouldn’t have gone to war for a year to make it happen.” After the financial and legal wrangling, the game had to be rebuilt for modern systems and sensibilities. “The biggest problem we had was the nature of how Baldur’s Gate was built,” Oster said. He claimed the team was made primarily of early Windows developers, and the original code base was structured in a very “Windows 3.1, Windows 95” manner. The Beamdog team “went in with a machete” and hacked up the code to get it to work and make it more efficient. “By essentially porting the engine we were forced to go through: clean everything up, and make it a better engine,” he explained. All this work was done on the Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal engine, the latest code that Bioware had. “For the user interface, it’s hardcoded for 640 by 480. For Baldur’s Gate 2 all they did was add in another resolution: 800 by 600, and then they slapped these borders all the way around it. It’s just unacceptable. If I pay for a big monitor I want to use that big monitor! I want that resolution.” Making sure everything worked at much higher resolutions required a complete rebuild of the user interface. This is where you’re going to be able to see the most impressive results of all that hard work. The artwork and interface are designed for a target resolution of 2048 by 1536—the native resolution of the iPad 3—so the game will look stunning on even the largest displays. Aspect ratios ranging from 16 by 8 to 16 by 11 will be supported. “On the iPad 3, it’s going to be awesome,” Oster said. He's right, but it won't look too shabby on an HDTV or a large monitor either. A project this extensive doesn't come cheap, and the app store is a hard place to launch games priced higher than 99 cents. Oster is confident they can buck the trend. “Baldur’s Gate on iPad? We’re going at $10. That’s premium pricing in App Store land, but go anywhere on the planet and try to find 80 hours of gameplay for $10. I think it’s a pretty awesome deal. Then our plan for iOS is to build more content and allow people to purchase that as well,” he said. The original game took up five CDs, and the full install was around 2.7GB. By taking advantage of the iPad's ability to decompress sound and art assets on the fly they should be able to get the install to around 1.1GB.
On user interfaces, and a hatred of clicking
Oster hates user interfaces that get in the way of gameplay. Hates them. And he has good reason. “The lead artist on Neverwinter Nights and myself, at the end of Baldur’s Gate, we got this mission from Ray [Muzyka, co-founder of Bioware]. He comes into the office and says he needs people they can trust to test multiplayer in this game.” All day, for months, they had to run through a testing checklist: three copies of the game were launched, they started a server, joined that server, started a game… the two men had to work through the whole UI hundreds and hundreds of times to make sure everything ran well. “We clicked on that user interface so many times that I have a mandate on UI: when I click, I hate. Don’t make me hate. Just don’t. I’m looking forward to going in and shaving off all the Windows-isms: ‘Are you sure?’ ‘OK’ ‘Continue’ ‘Okay, cancel.’” The interface and the way the player uses it will be cleaned up and made slightly more elegant, and Oster promises the core experience of Baldur’s Gate won’t be affected. You’ll simply spend more time on the fun parts, and less time convincing the game you really meant to click on something. And that's Oster's entire point in overhauling games: he wants to improve the experience by shaving off the rough edges while keeping everything that made the original fun. “I took a build and went on holiday, and sat on the beach and played Baldur’s Gate on the iPad,” he said. “Three hours passed and I felt like I had been playing for 15 minutes. There will be a lot of badly sunburned people when the game comes out.” Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition will be out on the PC, Mac, and iPad this summer. Don't hold your breath for a console version.