clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How ‘Baldur’s Gate’ Saved the Computer RPG

The genre-stretching game broke new narrative, technical, and gameplay ground and established the identity of one of the past two decades’ most storied video game studios

Interplay Entertainment/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Art may largely be a matter of taste, but one conclusion is close to inarguable: 1998 was the best year ever for video games, producing an unparalleled lineup of revolutionary releases that left indelible legacies and spawned series and subcultures that persist today. Throughout the year, The Ringer’s gaming enthusiasts will be paying tribute to the legendary titles turning 20 in 2018 by replaying them for the umpteenth time or playing them for the first time, talking to the people who made them, and analyzing both what made them great and how they made later games greater. Our series rolls another 20 with the first great game by BioWare, the boundary-breaking role-playing epic Baldur’s Gate, which debuted two decades ago Friday.

In late 1995, a small group of beginner game developers in Alberta who’d created a company called BioWare needed a new project. Their first title, a mech game called Shattered Steel, was nearing the end of development, and the tiny studio wanted to do something different. BioWare’s founders were weaned on tabletop role-playing games and digital equivalents like Wasteland, so they decided that their second game should be a computer RPG.

Considering industry trends at the time, this was an uncommon course for a Western developer. The video-game review site GameRankings has indexed at least one review for 27 RPGs released in 1995. Of those 27, 21—including the top 13 by average review score—were made in Japan. The top of the list is littered with legendary Japanese developers: SquareSoft, Sega, Nintendo, Namco, Capcom. That was difficult company to crack.

“Everybody and their dog was convinced that Western RPGs were dead,” says BioWare cofounder Trent Oster. “It was all gonna be Japanese RPGs. Nobody in the Western world knew how to make [RPGs] … there was just no hope.” If the Western RPG was dead, the Western computer RPG was doubly dead: Every one of those top 13 RPGs from ’95 had come out on a console.

Three years later, all of those illustrious Japanese studios also appeared on the 1998 list. But close to the top, second only to Sega’s little-played Panzer Dragoon Saga, a new name joined them: BioWare, the makers of Baldur’s Gate.

The product of three exhausting and exhilarating years of labor by a team of roughly 15 people who didn’t know enough to be daunted by the task they undertook, Baldur’s Gate was a genre-stretching, disc-space-testing hybrid that broke new narrative, technical, and gameplay ground and established the identity of one of the past two decades’ most storied studios. “It just redefined expectations of what a role-playing game could be,” Oster says. “I think it really relaunched the whole concept of what a Western RPG is.”

Baldur’s Gate began in a basement.

Scott Greig, who became the first official BioWare employee, remembers how he heard about the company: An intern at the business where he was doing database work told him about some friends of his father’s, medical doctors who were getting into game-making. “I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, just a couple of guys in their basement,’” Greig says. That part, Greig discovered when he eventually met them in late 1995, turned out to be true: Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, two of the three newly graduated doctors who (along with three other associates) founded BioWare in February ’95, were working out of Zeschuk’s basement in Edmonton. But their desire to make games was serious, and they were already working on one. “It really was two guys in the basement making video games,” Greig says, “but they were two guys in the basement with a national contract with a real publisher.”

The company was looking for a lead programmer. “I was actually the only experienced game developer in the house,” says Oster, who would eventually join the Baldur’s Gate team as the head of the 3D art department after finishing Shattered Steel. “And I mean, I had made one game. … It’s not like I knew the right way to do anything.”

Greig hadn’t made games except for his own enjoyment in high school, but he had programming chops, so BioWare brought him on. By the time he started in January ’96, the company had rented a small office space above a restaurant. BioWare was no longer subterranean, although it wasn’t exactly upscale. “I particularly remember having to hold the bathroom door closed with your foot when you were going in, because it didn’t actually latch,” Greig says.

Although Shattered Steel wasn’t out yet, BioWare wanted to create a showcase that would entice a publisher to invest in its RPG project, Battleground: Infinity, which the company envisioned as an online game that would be based on ancient mythologies. Greig spent his first month cobbling together a tech demo. At that time, most game worlds were tile-based because of contemporary computers’ memory limitations. “If you look back to the Ultima games, or pretty much any other role-playing game at this point,” Greig says, “the artists would make [tiles], ‘OK, here’s the corner of a room, here’s a part of a wall,’ and these were all laid out on a regular grid. And they would assemble the background by just reusing all these pieces.”

BioWare’s inexperienced artists weren’t well-versed in the tile technique, so Greig experimented with Microsoft’s newly released DirectX software development kit and came up with a way to import a custom, full-screen, scrollable background that he’d painted in Photoshop. He called over Muzyka, with whom he’d been discussing training the artists in the tile-based method, and showed him his alternative method. Instead of piecing together tiles, Greig told Muzyka, “‘We [could] just paint whatever we want on here, and then we could just smoothly scroll around and have the characters walk on it.’ He looks at me and goes, ‘How many CDs will that be?’”

Greig pulled out a calculator and did some math to estimate the storage requirements. “[I] said, ‘Oh, it probably won’t be more than four or five,’” he recalls. “And [Ray] goes, ‘All right. Hey, let’s do it.’ And that 10-minute conversation was basically the genesis of what ended up being Baldur’s Gate on the technical side.”

A combination of new technology and a lack of skill and know-how had prompted BioWare to wander in a different direction, breaking a constraint that had hemmed in earlier games. It wouldn’t be the last time. “We were open to ideas that other people hadn’t actually tackled,” Greig says. “And it goes to show some of the power of actually having fresh ideas and inexperience in there, because we didn’t know that it couldn’t be done. So we just went ahead and did it.”

The hacked-together demo didn’t turn many heads, but it did pique the interest of Feargus Urquhart, who had just formed Black Isle Studios, an internal RPG development team at Interplay Productions, BioWare’s publisher for Shattered Steel. Interplay, which had developed Wasteland and was one of the few Western studios to publish an RPG in 1995, had recently licensed the Dungeons & Dragons IP from TSR, Inc. When Urquhart heard about BioWare’s pitch for Battleground: Infinity, he realized that the studio’s RPG roots and Interplay’s lore were a match made in Mount Celestia. “Part of [the demo’s] description was, ‘Oh, it’s kind of like D&D,’” says Baldur’s Gate’s head writer, Lukas Kristjanson. “And Interplay had just acquired the rights and said, ‘Well, why don’t you make it D&D?’ And a whole bunch of geeks went, ‘Whaaaat?’”

Out went ancient mythologies. In came the Forgotten Realms, a popular Dungeons & Dragons fantasy setting. Baldur’s Gate was now a D&D game. BioWare just had to build it.

The BioWare team in the summer of 1997.
Trent Oster

“We were in unknown territory,” Greig says. The tech demo he’d designed was just the seed of what would grow into the Infinity Engine, a platform featuring an isometric perspective and prerendered backgrounds that formed the backbone of Baldur’s Gate and its expansion and sequel, as well as Interplay’s Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. “There was so much infrastructure that had to be built for the game engine, because everything had to be done from scratch,” Greig says, adding, “The movie equivalent is we had to build the camera before we could film our film.”

BioWare planned for Baldur’s Gate to be a blend of old and new. “It was kind of this examination of the old Gold Box games in terms of their depth and their adherence to the [D&D] rules,” Oster says, referring to a series of D&D RPGs produced by Strategic Simulations, Inc. in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “But then bringing that forward into an almost real-time-strategy-style interface.”

Earlier RPGs, including the Ultima games, had been difficult to control, making it complicated for players to select multiple members of their parties and tell them what to do. But Blizzard Entertainment had released Warcraft and Warcraft II in 1994 and 1995, respectively, and those two titles, along with Westwood Studios’ Command & Conquer series, headlined a mid-’90s RTS boom based on mouse-first management rather than keyboard commands. BioWare borrowed that mouse-aided design, transplanting a new interface into an old genre where it was sorely needed. “Basically, you swipe the interface from a real-time-strategy game and plug it into a role-playing game,” Greig says. “That solved the party mechanics.”

It didn’t address a second problem: Mixing real-time management of up to five party members with the complexity of the D&D rule set made the action chaotic. “It became pretty obvious pretty quick that there was no way you were gonna be able to play the depths of D&D in real time without ever pausing the game,” Oster says. “That’s when we came up with the ‘pause and play’ plan.” That addition enabled players to stop in the middle of the game, queue up commands to their party, and then restart the real-time action. Although Baldur’s Gate didn’t invent this “active pause” approach, it did help popularize it. “When you play Fallout to this day with the V.A.T.S. system for the slow-motion targeting, I think you can trace the origins of all that back to the ‘pause and play’ idea,” Greig says.

Those mechanics made Baldur’s Gate a technical improvement upon previous RPGs, but BioWare had to fill in that framework with story and character. Lead designer James Ohlen drew on his tabletop history to create some of Baldur’s Gate’s computer companions, but the bulk of the writing fell to Kristjanson, another novice in the industry who became BioWare’s first full-time narrative crafter when he was hired in October ’96 after a chance encounter with a BioWare producer who was a friend of a friend. “I had an English degree and not much idea where to put it to use,” Kristjanson says.

He soon put it to use more than he’d bargained for, producing an estimated 70 percent of the game’s 800,000 words, including dialogue, codex entries, and journals. “It was a beast,” Kristjanson says. Ohlen’s character concepts gave him somewhere to start, but they weren’t fully fleshed out. For example, Kristjanson recalls that in the case of Minsc, a fan-favorite human ranger whom the player can recruit as a companion, “It was, ‘This guy has a head wound and a hamster.’ OK, what do we do with that?”

For BioWare’s band of longtime tabletop players, the enormity of the creative workload was leavened by the thrill of constructing a world in which thousands of other people would play. Kristjanson remembers talking to Baldur’s Gate programmer Mark Darrah—who now serves as the executive producer of BioWare’s Dragon Age series and its upcoming online action-RPG Anthem—about the challenges the tight-knit team was confronting. “We were like, ‘How’s this gonna work?’” Kristjanson says. “And then, ‘Well, on tabletop it’s like this, on D&D it’s like this, and the last game I played it’s like this.’ We kind of looked at each other and went, ‘Holy shit. We get to figure this out?’ It’s crazy. We’re fans of this stuff, and we’re getting to build it.”

For Kristjanson, the key to making the story sing was capturing the feeling of sitting around a kitchen table with a group of friends and bringing it to a computer game that was playable solo. “It’s all in character,” he says. “That was what we really realized early on. The fun of D&D is the controlled chaos of the party, the different personalities. Not just a pile of skills you throw at monsters, but the personalities that clash or flow with the story based on what you choose to do and who you choose to do it with.”

The quality of Baldur’s Gate’s dialogue, and the distinct identities of its 24 companions and hundreds of minor characters, set it apart from many of the trope-ridden titles that preceded it, whose appeal flowed much more from combat than from conversation. The game’s cast of non-player companions—many of whom, in a relative rarity for the era, were convincingly voiced—was a diverse group. Three of the five core party members were women (one of whom was voiced by the prolific Jennifer Hale), and some story lines touch on sensitive subjects; when the protagonist encounters Viconia DeVir, for instance, she’s being persecuted because she’s a drow, or dark-skinned elf.

Although the fledgling BioWare wasn’t particularly diverse, Kristjanson—whose background lay in tabletop D&D, not the previous computer adaptations—sought to make the companions mirror his real-life companions, who had always been contrasting both in personality (including “the friend across the table who’s slightly gooned on Mountain Dew”) and in terms of race and gender. “You have this broad mix of everybody bringing their particular flavor of weird and great to the table, and that requires a huge spread of characters,” he says, adding, “They weren’t all just dudes like me. … That’s what I wanted to see in the game, because that’s part of what made it great.”

Oster credits Greig’s database background for Baldur’s Gate’s massive size. “Most of the other game developers looked first and foremost at it from a gaming/game-experience side, not ‘How do I represent data and access data in an effective manner,’” he says. “So we were just able to huck around huge volumes of assets.” As Greig had foretold, Baldur’s Gate filled five discs. According to user-submitted playthrough lengths at the website How Long to Beat, a typical playthrough of the main story lasts 44.5 hours, while a “completionist” playthrough averages 106 hours. As in Wasteland, Muzyka’s RPG touchstone, many scenarios could play out in more than one way, offering extra replay value. Compared with the typical game of the era, Oster says, “It’s just ridiculous when you analyze the scale of it.”

Because Baldur’s Gate was so big and the BioWare team, while sizable for the era, was small by modern standards, development was highly collaborative. “It wasn’t like, ‘OK, this was my job,’ and you just stuck to it,” Greig says. “You basically did whatever needed to get done, and there was lots of input from everybody around. … Even the junior quality-assurance tester guy had probably more influence on Baldur’s Gate than a senior producer does on some of the Triple-A game titles that are out right now.” Even though Greig was the lead programmer and wasn’t directly responsible for the story, he still read all of the Forgotten Realms sourcebooks to immerse himself in the setting.

That all-hands-on-deck ethos was partly attributable to the team’s enthusiasm for what they were making, and partly a reflection of the fact they were too new to the industry to be burned out. But it was also a by-product of BioWare biting off more than it could comfortably chew. “The general attitude was, ‘We’d like to do this, how hard could it be?’” Greig says. “But it turns out it’s really freaking hard to make video games.” So hard, in fact, that a more experienced staff likely would have set its sights a little lower. “I think the biggest asset of our inexperience was the fact we didn’t know how hard the work was gonna be and how much there was going to be,” Oster says. “We underestimated everything so profoundly that it sounded reasonable, when in that time and place it was actually quite an unreasonable thing to attempt to do.”

That breadth of content came at a cost to the developers, who spent roughly the last year of production in crunch mode and the last six months or so working seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day, and sometimes sleeping at their desks. “We’d work, we’d eat pizza, we’d work some more, and I swear after Baldur’s Gate came out, I wasn’t able to eat a slice of pizza for a year and a half,” Greig says. Although Oster notes that he and the rest of the team took it upon themselves to work those hours, out of belief in Baldur’s Gate and a sense of solidarity with their colleagues, that kind of crunch—not uncommon among 1998’s standout titles—can be counterproductive and harmful and, despite the many other ways in which game-making has moved forward, remains a blight on the backstories of many great titles today.

After logging all of those hours (and enduring multiple three-month delays), BioWare believed it might have a hit on its hands. For Interplay, though, Baldur’s Gate didn’t project to be a massive seller. The publisher’s previous D&D titles hadn’t been blockbusters, and neither Baldur’s Gate nor BioWare had a built-in brand, so Interplay wasn’t planning a full-court press. “They were doing their standard marketing thing, which at that point was, you take out a bunch of ads a couple months before the game comes out in some various magazines like PC Gamer … and, that’s pretty much it,” Greig says. “We had been putting our heart and soul into this thing, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do something better than that.’”

More out of unbridled enthusiasm than any coordinated marketing strategy, BioWare members began to talk up the game themselves, providing updates and answering questions on Usenet and message boards devoted to D&D. By the time the game came out, BioWare’s infectious, patient, and transparent posts had built up anticipation in the target market. Greig remembers one of the major trade magazines projecting Baldur’s Gate for 100,000 copies sold. Even internally, BioWare hoped for only 200,000, which would be enough to justify a sequel. Then the game came out. “It started to sell fairly well, and then it sold even better, and [then] the sales just took off,” Oster says. “And it was mostly from organic-style marketing—word of mouth.”

A press release on ship day reported “a near frenzy” at “several mall-based stores” and quoted multiple sources testifying to frantic presale activity. Baldur’s Gate became the best-selling game in the two weeks following its release, moving 175,000 copies in that time and vindicating BioWare’s pre-release outreach. It topped 500,000 by the end of February and hit the 1.5 million mark by May 2001. “This is a 100 percent standard procedure now for any game,” Greig says. “A key part of the marketing is engaging with the core audience and doing developer diaries, and they’ve got teams of people whose job is just to do this.” Inadvertently, BioWare had helped guide developers in how to sell games as well as how to make them.

Baldur’s Gate garnered Game of the Year and RPG of the Year honors from a multitude of outlets, and its 2000 sequel—which benefited from a more polished Infinity Engine that didn’t have to be built from scratch—was even more highly acclaimed. “Baldur’s Gate II was about us actually, finally knowing how to make a game,” Oster says.

The team behind Baldur’s Gate went on to make many more. “When I got the job, a friend of my now-wife said, ‘Ha, gaming company. Well, that won’t last six months,’” Kristjanson says. “Because game companies were flaming out left and right.” Twenty-two years later, he’s still at BioWare, where some of his younger colleagues, like Dragon Age and Mass Effect writer Sheryl Chee, cite Baldur’s Gate as influences. “Every now and then she brings it up that she played BG I and BG II six times as a kid, and that was escape,” Kristjanson says. “I’m like, ‘This is weird.’”

Although many of BioWare’s other early pioneers, including Greig and all of the cofounders, have since moved on, the company’s output over the past 20 years owes a debt to that first, formative RPG. “Baldur’s Gate literally set up every game that BioWare ever made,” Oster says. “So, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Jade Empire, Dragon Age—they’re all kind of from that original DNA. If you pull back from all the flashy bits and all the high-end graphics and all the cinematic conversation, there’s a lot of similarities there.”

Oster still hasn’t quite quit the original. In 2009, he and another Baldur’s Gate alum, Cameron Tofer, founded a new studio, Beamdog, which now occupies the same office floor that BioWare did during the Baldur’s Gate days. In 2012, Beamdog developed Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, a remake published by Atari (which now owns the Baldur’s Gate license) that incorporated enhancements and additions and extended support to mobile platforms but started with the same code to preserve the familiar feel. “We approached it more as curators than reimagining it,” he says. “We didn’t want to rethink what Baldur’s Gate was. We wanted to make the best version of Baldur’s Gate that we could.” The Enhanced Edition continues to be patched. “I still see areas where I think we can make things better,” Oster says. In 2016, his company produced an original expansion, Siege of Dragonspear, which was set between the events of Baldur’s Gate I and II and represented the first original Baldur’s Gate game in more than 15 years, not counting the console spinoffs. Rumors are swirling about a Baldur’s Gate III, although Oster says it’s not being made by Beamdog.

In a sense, an actual sequel seems extraneous, because so many spiritual sequels keep carrying the torch, from the Pillars of Eternity series to the Divinity: Original Sin series to 2017’s Torment: Tides of Numenera to 2018’s Pathfinder: Kingmaker. All of those games were crowdfunded through Kickstarter, which has seen a sort of isometric boom as developers capitalize on players’ continued affection for the form.

“The ones that have been successful haven’t tried to remake what we did, because when we made it we weren’t trying to make Baldur’s Gate,” Kristjanson says, adding, “You can reduce that too much to, ‘Oh, this should be authentic D&D with the numbers.’ Well, even D&D isn’t authentic D&D. It’s every group has their house rule, and that house rule is because of the way that your particular collection of awesome weirdos wants to play it.”

While writing for Baldur’s Gate, Kristjanson learned that world-building is about asking questions more than it is about answering them. “For every time you answer a question, you should pose a couple more, because otherwise the world is just getting smaller instead of broadening out,” he says. Twenty years later, the world Baldur’s Gate built is still expanding. “If you’re lucky, you get to take some of all this stuff that inspired you, all the stuff you thought was great, and you build something that’s worthy for someone else to build on whenever they come after you,” Greig says. “That is basically the best you can do as any type of artist.”

The Ringer-Verse

‘The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’ Discussion and Analysis

Video Games

‘Zelda,’ Not ‘Mario,’ Is the Real Star of Nintendo

Sound Only

Reviewing ‘The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’

View all stories in Video Games