The reveal of Baldur’s Gate III inspired a couple of popular reactions. To some, it represented the long-awaited comeback of a franchise that is synonymous with the idea of what a role-playing game should be. To others, it forced them to ask aloud with some trepidation “What is Baldur’s Gate?”
Cameron Tofer is a game developer familiar with the long, and sometimes complicated, legacy of the seminal computer RPG Baldur’s Gate. He not only co-founded Beamdog, the studio working to preserve and enhance the Baldur’s Gate series and other vital RPGs, but he worked as a programmer at BioWare when one of the most legendary studios in gaming was little more than a group of passionate Dungeons & Dragons fans.
“The team, at the time, this was their first game,” Tofer says in a recent interview with Den Of Geek US. “It was just a lot of pure passion and soda pop and just shag carpets and basements. It was just a passion that just went straight from around the table into making a game.”
That passion Tofer speaks of dates all the way back to when members of the original Baldur’s Gate team played Dungeons & Dragons in high school.
“So James Ohlen [lead designer/creative director of Baldur’s Gate] he was our Dungeon Master in high school and all those characters were from the years-long D&D campaign that he ran before Bioware,” Tofer says of how the initial ideas for Baldur’s Gate‘s characters and world took shape during sessions of D&D. In fact, the character Minsc is based on Tofer’s own character from his D&D days. “I’m pretty sure what happened was it was time to add some characters [to Baldur’s Gate] and we’re like, ‘Great, can we use Drizzt? Can we use this and that?’…We’d been working on them for years. When you play characters like Zen or whatever, I see Ben and I see all the folks that ran those characters.”
Like many who grew up during the golden age of tabletop role-playing, Tofer sings the praises of Dungeons & Dragons as an experience in which there are few hard rules and that captures the timeless fun of sitting around telling stories with your friends. The young team at BioWare had a desire to translate the D&D experience to gaming, but, as Tofer himself points out, D&D was a game that emphasized the possibilities. Trying to translate those possibilities to a digital experience created quite a few hurdles.
“One of the big ones was the introduction of real-time with pause…The team knew straight away that they wanted to do real-time with pause. And then after that, it was just kind of, how do we map these different things?… Because you can’t do a direct translation, exactly, and I’m not sure if you’d want to.”
The struggles of translating D&D to the video game medium while preserving the aspects that made the original experience special were challenging enough, but BioWare faced yet another problem: a growing apathy towards the PC RPG market in the late ’90s. Following the golden age of PC RPGs in the ‘80s (which included games like Might And Magic and the Ultima series, one of Baldur’s Gate‘s inspirations, according to Tofer), a combination of factors led to a slight decline in the PC RPG genre. Those factors included increased competition from other genres, the escalating costs of development, and, perhaps most importantly, dramatic technological improvements that had come in a short amount of time.
“I’m going to say 3D acceleration was the problem,” Tofer explains “That’s when we were all switching. BG came out just as 3D graphics cards were hitting, and just took a dip there, as people were retooling, and figuring out, ‘We got this 3D stuff, but it’s not looking as good as the 2D stuff yet.'”
Diablo proved to be a PC RPG hit, but it emphasized a faster form of gameplay that appealed to fans of action games. Fallout showed that pure role-playing experiences could still do well, but its developers had to sacrifice some of the more hardcore tabletop-inspired mechanics for things like a combat system inspired by UFO: Enemy Unknown to work. Baldur’s Gate was trying to achieve something different.
“Baldur’s Gate was one of the first truly open-world fantasy RPGs in which player agency was part of the core narrative design,” Tofer says of what made Baldur’s Gate different from much of what came before. “The game encourages exploration and discovery, building out an entire world populated by unique characters, treasures, stories, and quests. Players got to choose their path and their decisions in one moment affected other parts of the game and story. At the time this choice was pretty revolutionary.”
Indeed it was. Baldur’s Gate emphasizes player choice from the moment you start the game and are asked to build your character from an almost overwhelming number of options. From there, you are thrust into a large fantasy world on a grand adventure which sees you assume the role of a mage’s ward whose world is turned upside down after their master is killed by a mysterious figure in armour. Though your character survives the attack, you’re left with nowhere to turn and no place to call home. In lieu of such comforts, the hero decides to investigate the mysterious Iron Crisis which has brought trouble and ruin to so much of the land.
The game’s carefully woven plot delivers compelling story beats across the dozens of hours it will take you to complete your journey. The fact that the game’s story is complemented by frequent moments of player agency is still impressive after all these years. The nature and delivery of Baldur’s Gate‘s story truly make you feel like you’re playing alongside a dungeon master. It’s that approach to storytelling which Tofer feels defines the Baldur’s Gate name.
“I’d argue that Baldur’s Gate is best known for its narrative design. It has scores of branching dialogue, interesting NPCs, and side quests all woven into the overarching epic storyline. Any Baldur’s Gate game brings with it the expectation that there will be a rich narrative with player choices that matter to the overall story.”
Baldur’s Gate’s enticing combination of choices that matter, incredible storytelling, and classic D&D mechanics made it a surprise hit when it was released in 1998. It was difficult to even find a copy of the game during its first two months of availability due to the sheer demand for the experience. While the game’s immediate sales success convinced analysts and publisher Interplay that Baldur’s Gate was on its way to becoming a phenomenon, Tofer remembers a different moment that made him first suspect that Baldur’s Gate was going to be something special.
“For me, that moment came shortly after we teased the site BaldursGate.com. There was an outpouring of love from people around the world telling us how much Baldur’s Gate had touched their lives,” Tofer says. “It’s especially strange to me, since the story of Baldur’s Gate is based on a tabletop D&D game we played back in high school, DM’d by James Ohlen…Back then I never thought [my character] Minsc would travel farther than my home on the Canadian Prairies – so it’s surreal to know he’s now beloved around the world.”
The impact of the love fans had for Baldur’s Gate stayed with Tofer when he and BioWare co-founder Trent Oster founded Beamdog in 2009. Their studio has remastered Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2, as well as classic PC RPGs like Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment, releasing Enhanced Editions of each. The process of remastering these games was based less on nostalgia and more on the desire to explain why people were so nostalgic for these titles.
“For us, enhancing Baldur’s Gate meant trying to recreate the game everyone remembers — not necessarily the game as it was,” Tofer explains of the remastering process. “Baldur’s Gate was a fantastic game for its time, but it was limited by the hardware of the day. We had to rewrite something like 300,000 lines of code to get it running on modern systems. We modernized the user interface, removed all the loading screens, and polished out tens of thousands of bugs, though not all of them — over the years some glitches become canon, so we decided to leave in a few of the fan favorites.”
While most of Beamdog’s projects have been enhanced editions of classic games, Beamdog did release a new Baldur’s Gate expansion in 2016 called Siege of the Dragonspear. While the reception to the game was largely positive, there were some mixed reactions toward some of the choices the studio made. Cameron Tofer says the team walked away from that game having learned some important lessons.
“What did we learn? Expectations. People want more of kind of the same. It’s hard to describe. It’s like I want more and I want different. Yeah. So it’s just like, don’t give me the same stuff, don’t give me different stuff…The familiarity is so important. You play Baldur’s Gate, you loved it, and then you think about coming back, it’s like what was there?”
As Tofer notes, though, the long-lasting appeal of the Baldur’s Gate franchise and the excitement surrounding Baldur’s Gate III is at least partially tied into the series’ legacy for compelling narratives and player agency. So far as that goes, Tofer recognizes the struggles of creating a modern take on Baldur’s Gate‘s greatest ideas in an age where most dialogue is expected to be voice acted and not just written.
“I think that’s been the struggle for quite a while. I think that’s what’s going to change. It’s been a massive struggle for, I don’t know, the last 10 years. Like not just voicing all the texts but localizing all the texts into different languages. It’s a crazy, huge burden. But I think in the future there’s going to be some sort of breakthrough that’s just gonna make that incredibly easy.”
Tofer also has mixed feelings regarding the move towards more curated game experiences over projects that allow the player to control the direction of the game to a greater degree.
“It’s a constant kind of back and forth between freedom of choice and a curated experience. I mean if it’s a great curated experience, great, take me along the ride and then tell me your story, and if it’s not, then give me the freedom to choose and use my brain to make my way through this world. So I think both are great. I think the danger zone is when you want to believe that you have freedom of choice, but you’re actually kind of on this simple path.”
We know that the future of the Baldur’s Gate franchise will be determined by Baldur’s Gate III developer Larian Studios, but Tofer and the Beamdog team certainly deserve some credit for helping Baldur’s Gate enter a new era when the preservation and enhancement of classic games and the ideas they represent are far from a given.
“There are definitely captured moments of my gaming life that I would love to re-experience again, and I look for those moments,” Tofer says. “But honestly I feel the industry is hard-pressed to go that way. It’s actually turning the opposite. It’s actually more profitable to have the games go away and then make new ones, to be honest. It’s like planned obsolescence, if you will, and just games as a service and whatnot. I mean, you’ve seen when the services don’t become profitable, the games go down and the games are lost. It’s tough because it really makes economic sense to preserve everything. So it’s gonna be a real challenge I think. And it’s actually only accelerating.”
If you’re looking for some further reading, you can check out our US chums’ Baldur’s Gate 3 interview at this link.